It's Twisty's Turn

Jun. 4, 2008 at 6:30am

The Story of Tacoma's Spanish Steps

A parable of our city -- Part 1

A Bygone Era 

Imagine living in 1916.  There is no Internet.  There is no television.  Radio is an expensive, newfangled gizmo that is only enjoyed by it's earliest adopters.  There are movies in theaters (vaudeville acts were much more common), but they have no sound, save for a pipe organ or an orchestra.  The Ford Model T is available, but not yet ubiquitous.  In Seattle, William Boeing is forming the Pacific Aero Products Company.  The United States appears to have finally reached its manifest destiny, Arizona having been admitted as the 48th state four years previously.

Obviously, a person's options for entertainment and social interaction were very different in those days.  In the part of the city still known to the old timers of that era as New Tacoma, pretty much everything was anchored by the Northern Pacific Railway's headquarters building, which stood watch on the bluff overlooking Half Moon Yard and most of the city's docks.  This was the center of town at that time.  Historians Caroline Gallacci (co-founder of the Tacoma Historical Society) and Patricia Sias (the City of Tacoma's first Historic Preservation Officer), in the City's 'Inventory and Nomination Form' for the National Registry of Historic Places (1977)[1], had this to say about the area around South 7th Street and Pacific Avenue:

"It is interesting to note that the upper stories in many cases were meeting halls for fraternal, social and religious organizations.  At one time or another, the Odd Fellows, Tacoma Athletic Club, Ladies Gymnasium Association, Theatrical Mechanical Association, Woodmen of the World, Sons of Veterans, Knights of Pythias, Salvation Army, Longshoremen, Elks and the Y.W.C.A. all had meeting rooms and offices in this two block area."

In a world without electronic entertainment of any kind, or even direct-dial telephones, fraternal organizations and social clubs were a Big Deal, and everybody who was anybody belonged to at least one.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was
formed in New York City, just before Christmas, in 1867.  The Elks in their earliest form were a private, after-hours-and-Sunday drinking club that called themselves the 'Jolly Corks'.  Originally, membership was entirely composed of actors and musicians, most of whom had employment obligations that interfered with their bar time.  The "benevolent and protective" part would come the following year, after the untimely death of a member left the man's family destitute. (All of the members were men, of course.  The Elks would not admit women as members until 1970.)  By 1922, the original 16 members of the Jolly Corks had become over 800,000 Elks nationwide.[2]

It should be no surprise then that Tacoma Elks Lodge #174 experienced a surge in membership during the years before the Great War.  Tacoma was growing rapidly.[3]  Prohibition would arrive early in the State of Washington (January 1, 1916), slightly more than four years before the "Noble Experiment" went coast-to-coast.  Anybody who hoped to continue imbibing after that date would need to be plugged-in to a social network of one sort or another.

Next: Tacoma's Elks Build a New Home

[1]Washington State Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,, pp. 20
[2]From Jolly Corks to Elks, New York Times, published Jan. 22, 1922
[3]U.S. Census Bureau figures: 1900 - 37,714 ; 1910 - 83,743

comments [5]  |  posted under Elks Lodge, Spanish Steps, Tacoma, Tacoma History


by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2008 @ 9:37am
nice history work. though I question your motives... seem like if people start learning the history you're going to make it harder for people to feel good about tearing them up.

by Heather on 6/4/2008 @ 10:03am
looking forward to the next installment.

"seem like if people start learning the history, you're going to make it harder for people to feel good about " letting them sit and decompose.

by Twisty on 6/4/2008 @ 4:57pm
Ah geez, you guys see right through me!

Give me a couple-few days to get the next chunk posted... maybe Saturday. As you might imagine, it's a little time consuming (but lots of fun) to dig all of this stuff up.

by Dave L. on 6/4/2008 @ 5:24pm
I love digging up that stuff like that, too.
Not to digress, but are you or anyone else (Spencer?) going to the NP convention in Tacoma?

by Twisty on 6/4/2008 @ 5:53pm
Thanks for the tip, Dave! It's been a while since they held that in Tacoma. I'm not planning on it at the moment, but maybe. If there were more presentations relating to NP passenger service, I probably would -- that's where my interest lies. (Almost all of my NP memories from childhood come from riding the NCL.)