Once, before shopping malls and supermarkets, Tacoma’s most popular and boosted neighborhood shopping street was K (renamed in 1993 as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). From the turn of the 19th Century, passenger cars pulled by an underground giant steel cable were installed to climb up 11th from the downtown to K street where they turned left to 13th then down past the public food markets to A street then another left to the base at 11th. The low rumbling underground system of wheels and cables was like a massive clockworks and the merchants on Kay Street fixed their hours of operation to the cable car timetable. While the high rent downtown was home to the big department stores, fancy restaurants, public food markets and fashionable dress shops and haberdashers, Kay street sold furniture, ethnic specialties, hardware, appliances (and appliance repairs), haircuts and hairdos. It was the boulevard of shopkeepers, hand makers of candy and breads and merchants of the hard to find. Here’s an illustrated walk down the street, through time, merchandise and bargains.
Big sale at Benson’s Furniture store, 1408 s K. where not only was the inventory lined up on the sidewalk outside but customers were snapping up bargains like 77 cent ironing boards, $12.44 innerspring mattresses, $3.88 table lamps and living room suites from $63 to $247. It was July 20, 1949 and just down the street at Paulson’s you could get a television to go with your cushy chair for about $250. These were good times for the families living on the hilltop. American and its industries were fully recovered from the war and families were buying houses, spending money to furnish them and still being loyal to the local merchants that they knew by name.
On June 26, 1938 the sons and daughters of Norway gathered for a group photo at Normanna Hall where K Street meets 15th. The Pacific Coast grand lodge invited guests from as far away as Alaska for a week long celebration of Scandinavian culture, speeches about the changing politics in Europe and dances and dinners involving very unusual food that might have been fish. The big hall and several nearby Lutheran churches said a lot about the size of the hilltop’s large Norwegian population, even though it was declining by the mid 1930’s. In the lower left corner is the rail of the K street streetcar line, one of Tacoma’s longest, running from above south 23rd all the way to Pine street near where the University of Puget Sound is today.
Ed Taylor opened his barber shop and beauty salon in 1965 at 2151 South K Street complete with the latest electric clippers. The Northern Pacific Railroad hired African American porters and cooks at good wages and Tacoma’s first black families worked for the NP and the grand downtown hotels. They settled here in the 1880’s and built solid homes, churches and cultural organizations at the south end of K Street. During the Second World War, a wave of black families came from Chicago, Kansas City and the Midwest to work in Tacoma’s shipyards and wartime industries. Salishan on the Eastside and the K Street area were centers for Tacoma’s new black population. Ed’s barber shop was operating during the difficult years when Tacoma struggled to create open housing laws and equitable civil rights policies.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, marches were organized from several hilltop churches to the County Courthouse on Mother’s Day. Ed’s shop was closed and he was with his neighbors marching by, along with assistant City Manager Mel Jackson, shown here looking a bit dubious about the clippers.
K Street partied a lot and was continually working the cable car conveyor belt of shoppers lured from the downtown. They boasted about being the “Hub of Activity” with floats in the big Pacific Avenue parades, held street fairs and midnight sales, put up towering neon signs and were big advertisers and sponsors on radio station KMO.
July 3, 1940 Block Party
Gus Formuzis spent 25 years at sea in the Navy and Coast Guard and then opened a fish market on K street in 1927. He didn’t even try to compete with the big mongers at the Public Market. Instead Gus featured lesser known seafood, calamari that sold well to his fellow Greeks, sturgeon, catfish and back door salmon he bought from local anglers or traded for with fish heads for bate. Gus even sold Lutefisk at Christmas. When the war broke out in 1941 Gus closed the market and went to work at the Todd shipyard knot tying bell ropes for the warships.
Johnson’s Candy started in 1925 as a family owned lunch counter and general store at 1109 K Street. They sold hand dipped chocolates on the side and by 1949 they went all in for the confection business. The new chocolate factory and retail shop stayed on the hill moving to 924 K Street where it remains today. Ron Johnson, shown as the featured image above in front of the first family store in 1938, still runs the tasty enterprise.
While K street benefited greatly from Tacoma’s unusual, quirky cable car system, the heavy lifting of the transportation contraption, was done in a Victorian high style power house at the corner of 11th and A.
The medieval looking steam plant powered a spinning complex of whirling steel hemp cables, pulleys and drive wheels that were thrown into gear for the first time in 1889. The Willy Wonkaesque power plant had a mystical, toy-like presence overlooking the waterfront, growling into motion just as the city was waking up and sitting completely silent at night time with the red light of the boiler fireboxes inside flickering behind the front windows. Finally, just after midnight on Thursday April 7, 1938 Tacoma’s last cable car made the loop up 11th, along K then down 13th and into the barn. Charles W. Schrum, disengaged the cable drive wheels and shut down the boilers. The fireboxes went out and the windows stayed dark in the castle, like eyes that stop opening. Up on K Street the underfoot rumble stopped forever.