A History of South Tacoma
The name of Nicholas DeLin, the first non-Indian settler in what would be the city of Tacoma, and the names of James Rigney and John Neison have all but disappeared from our history. Like DeLin, Rigney and Neison were early settlers, the first two in the area now known as South Tacoma. James Rigney was the first to file claim. He chose an area that was later surveyed by Ezra Meeker to include 641.34 acres. Almost all of it was in South Tacoma. Neison, who walked the entire Oregon Trail in 1852, with the future wife of DeLin, filed a much smaller claim. Neison's homestead, near the present day South 56th and Washington, totaled only 159.32 acres.
The Rigneys stayed on the homestead for many years, until it became part of the present Flett Dairy. A smaller part of the original grant is now the Calvary Cemetery. All that is left is in the memory of long-time South Tacoma residents who know of Rigney Hill.
The origin of the name "South Tacoma" is given to considerable discussion. A Captain John E. Burns, anticipating a railroad boom that was sure to follow the building of the Union Pacific, platted a new area on the prairie that he called "Excelsior". The boom fizzled out but the coming of the Northern Pacific rekindled Burns' dreams. Excelsior seems to have stuck through the late 1800's. By the time 1890 rolled around, the name Edison had been suggested. It seems that the name Edison was to have been a trade. Some Northern Pacific employees had suggested to the inventor Thomas Edison that they could name the area Edison if he would equip an experimental laboratory for apprentices. The name was changed on the Northern Pacific Depot but the post office retained "Excelsior". The lab never materialized as Edison forgot or had second thoughts. The post office could not change to Edison because of a town named Edison in Skagit County. As the town grew, problems developed. The major problems were providing water, light and transportation to the residents. Some favored annexation to Tacoma. Since Excelsior could not afford the improvements, why not let Tacoma pay for them. In April 1896, a vote was taken and a shrewd majority voted to join Tacoma. Lost was their autonomy and their name, but not their independence. South Tacoma it was!
South Tacoma was not always an industrial area. Before the turn of the century, it seems to have been the entertainment center. Many Tacomans spent an enjoyable summer Sunday on South Tacoma Way. A specially built bicycle path was the best way to get there since the streetcars did not come out this far. A small part of that trail still exists near South Park. A common destination for most of the bicyclers was either "Rigney Hill" or the zoo. In the 1890's, this was a sunrise to sunset excursion. The zoo was nothing fancy, a bear or two, deer, raccoon, bobcat, a cougar and other animals. The neighboring picnic grounds were the most popular, however. Naturally, on an all day excursion, a lunch was a necessity. Entertainment on the grounds ran a wide spectrum. Among the more common events were bicycle races, horse races, rodeos, chimney sweeps and balloon ascensions. It is said that the primary sponsors of the balloon ascensions were the saloon keepers who felt that looking heavenward caused one's throat to dry. Many remember the carnival-like atmosphere of South Tacoma. Among the other recreational pursuits were a horse race track near the present Boys Club and the Tacoma Golf and Country Club between Gray and Arlington.
Amid land claims, name changes and a Sunday picnic, South Tacoma took time to become a residential/business community. With the residential area, of course, came a demand for neighborhood schools.
Edison, named for the area in which it is located, is the oldest of the Gray's "feeder" schools. The original building was completed at a cost of $11,262 and included all of four rooms. Land for the school was purchased in August 1891. During the construction of the new school in 1891, classes were conducted at a feed store on the corner of South 58th Street and South Tacoma Way. Various annexes were added in the early days due to overcrowding. One such annex was a room at the E. E. Chamberlain residence at a cost of $10.00 per month. The Barlow annex was built in 1910 to relieve the overcrowding and is now used by both Gray and Edison. The original Edison building was torn down after the Earthquake of 1949. The 540 Edison students were forced to double-shift in Edison's Barlow Annex. About half of the students attended school in the morning and half in the afternoon in nine classrooms. It seems that the damage was not that severe, but Whitman Elementary of identical construction was unrepairable and so the district decided to rebuild both schools. The present building was thus completed in 1952, and a resource area was added in 1967.
No history of South Tacoma would be complete without mention of the most dominant factor in its development. Credit for the growth of this area was due more to the Northern Pacific Railway than any other institution. South Tacoma seemed to progress as the employment at the Northern Pacific shops increased. As noted elsewhere, it is by no means a coincidence that overcrowding at the area's elementary schools and the employment at the shops rode at the same crests. The shops were built in 1890 and 1891, but were not officially opened until January 1892. In the beginning, a special shop train had to bring the workers out to the shop, since most of them lived in Tacoma. The workers soon began to take up residence closer to their job as homes and small businesses soon replaced roaming livestock on the flat grasslands. Northern Pacific's starting employment was about 250 compared to a high of about 1200 when the railroads were "King".
As South Tacoma Way became a part of Highway 99, a business district grew at its curbs. Many drivers began to use Washington Street to avoid traffic jams caused by shoppers and those passing through the business area.
In addition to Northern Pacific, some of the big industries included Griffin Wheel Company, specialists in railcar wheels; Kenworthy Grain and Milling Company, Saxton Lumber and A. Holroyd Company, Inc. In the last thirty years, however, South Tacoma has become known as the auto row of Pierce County. The dealers, new and used, are too numerous to mention individually. Landmark establishments in South Tacoma include, B & I, Ludwigs Drug Store, assorted banks, furniture stores and restaurants. As the memories of the "Good Old Days" fade, new ideas take their place to become tomorrow's dreams. The Tacoma Mall, built in 1965 and enlarged in 1973, has become the new landmark of South Tacoma. Like the industries and people of the past, the covered mall and its 115 stores exemplifies the changing times. Within the confines of South Tacoma, always a city in itself is found the fortunes of an ever-changing society.
Captain Robert Gray
The name given to South Tacoma's Junior High, Captain Robert Gray, was chosen from many submitted to the Tacoma News Tribune contest, sponsored by that paper in choosing names for the six new junior highs to be constructed during the years 1924-1926. Interestingly enough, almost all Tacoma schools were named for historical personages, and somewhere along the line it was decided that the junior highs would each be named for a person important to the Northwest or early Tacoma history, i.e., Jason Lee for an early missionary to the Northwest; McCarver, one of Tacoma's early founders; J.P. Stewart, an early Tacoma teacher, etc.
Captain Robert Gray, one of the most interesting of the six men, was born in Tiverton Four Corners, R. I., May 10, 1755, a descendant of early Plymouth settlers. Much of his story is lost in the mists of time. The death of his father in 1765, when he was ten, may have been a factor in his choice of the sea as a means of livelihood. Idleness was not countenanced in colonial times, and he would have been expected to begin taking care of himself and aiding the family as soon as he was physically able. He is believed to have signed on as a cabin boy to begin learning his trade at about age 12. The first eight years of his life were lived in the area of, and during the French and Indian Wars. At age 20 he served in the Revolutionary War in the Continental Navy as a captain, according to his family, but may have been a privateer, or as one of the state sponsored captains aboard a ship, which represented the state in which he lived.
After the Revolutionary War, he became an employee of the firm of Brown and Hatch, a captain of one of their coastal trading vessels, the Pacific, a rather prophetic choice. Just after the war, England closed all its ports to Americans who became rather desperate for trade. As a result of this, Americans decided to sponsor a ship or two to go into the Northwest to compete in the fur trade then being established with China. Captain John Kendrick was chosen to head the expedition to the Northwest as captain of the Columbia Rediviva, an 83-foot long, 212-ton ship. Robert Gray was chosen to captain the sloop, Lady Washington, only 45-feet long and 90 tons in weight. Both vessels Here armed merchantsmen, since piracy on the high seas was common, and they set out from Boston, October 1, 1787 at day break.
After passing through many months of bad weather, mountainous seas, and the terrible dangers of rounding Cape Horn off South American, Gray made his way to Nootka Sound where he arrived September 17, 1788. Kendrick made the rendezvous at Nootka Sound about a week later, and on October 1, both celebrated their safe arrival on the anniversary of their departure from Boston, one year earlier. They spent the winter in Nootka Sound getting acquainted with the natives, and at least on Gray's part, getting his ship ready for spring tradi'1g. On March 1, 1789, Gray set forth on his first effort in trade by Gray started his return to the United States by sailing through the famous Sunda Straits, where pirates prowled in wait for merchantmen, then around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa, across the Atlantic, arriving home in Boston on August 9, 1790. The wharves were filled with people waiting to greet tile first American ship to sail around the world carrying the American Flag. In a hurry to continue the profitable trade for America, the Columbia was refitted and this time with Gray as a partner in the enterprise. By October 1, 1790, he was on his Hay again toward the Northwest, just three years after beginning his first expedition. He made the second trip to the Northwest in re cord time, arriving June 6,1791, managing to cut almost three months off the original time in passage. Some trading Has done during the summer of '91, but they wintered in Nootka Sound where they built a small sloop to be used for trade in shallow harbors where the larger ships could not go. They called it the "Adventure." The following spring, in April, as Gray was on a trading expedition, he met George Vancouver's ship near Cape Flattery on the Washington Coast. Vancouver, who was heading into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, sent a small boat with Peter Puget and Archibald Menzies, to talk to Capt. Gray. Vancouver particularly wanted to know about Gray's trip into the Strait, as he understood Gray had found an inside passage between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. Gray denied this but told them he had lain off the mouth of a large river at 46% 10' for nine days trying to enter but was unable to do so because of weather and tides.
Vancouver's men told him he was mistaken since Meares had been in the area and found nothing but Cape Disappointment, and that Vancouver's ship had just been surveying along that coast and found nothing either. This was sufficient evidence they though, to say that no river existed there. Whether Vancouver's attitude irritated Gray, or whether he simply wanted to find the entrance to an as yet undiscovered source of furs, remains a provoking sort of question. Although Gray had planned to go north, he immediately turned south after Vancouver left. On this venture Gray apparently hugged the coast examining it closely for possible harbors. On May 6, 1972, he saw what appeared to be a good harbor and sent a man up the mast to discover how they might enter. By sounding, (sending a small boat ahead and casting a line to measure depth) he worked his way in and discovered Gray's Harbor and the Chehalis River.
Gray originally named the Bullfinch Harbor after one of the owners of the ship but the name didn't stick and Gray's own name was attached to it by his own crew. The ship left Gray's Harbor the evening of May 10, and in the morning, on May 11,1792, Gray found the Columbia. Again, sounding his way in, he entered the river which he named for his ship. He sailed approximately 10 or 15 miles up the Columbia anchoring at the point that is now Fort Columbia on the Washington side. With his first mate, he went ashore where he buried some coins and identifying articles claiming the discovery of the river for the United States.In the time in which he lived, any discovery of a river or land could be claimed for the country of the finder. As it was a river he'd found, the claim extended to all land surrounding and drained by said river, which included the present states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, part of the Montana on the western side of the Rockies, and some part of Utah.
On May 20th, Gray left the Columbia, moving back north to meet the Adventure. Gray started his second voyage with furs for China, in October 1792, reaching home by July 25, 1793. There is very little information about him after his return from his second trip. He is known to have married Martha Atkins, Feb. 3, 1794, and was the father of five children, one boy who died in infancy, and four girls. He is reported to have sailed the Lucy as a privateer during the troubles with France in 1799. He is said to have sailed the Alert out of Salem although he knew French privateers were outside the harbor waiting. He was captured and held for a time, but from 1801 until his death in 1806, there is a certain amount of mystery.
There are two stories about his death in the summer of 1806; the first, claims that he died of yellow fever and was buried at sea while on his way to So. Carolina; the second, claims that he died in Charleston, So. Carolina, but no grave has ever been found. His death left his wife and four small children with an estate of about $200.
Although he received no recognition during his lifetime, it is now becoming more evident, how much he truly contributed to his county, to which he was fiercely loyal. His discovery of the Columbia and Chehalis Rivers with their river harbors helped the United States lay claim to this section of the country. His discovery is the only one by which the United States gained land by discovery. In all other cases, the U.S. either went to war, purchased, or made treaties to acquire territory.
Gray Middle School History
In 1920, faced with a fast expanding school population, the Tacoma Public School Board had to adopt a policy to cover anticipated growth. It was estimated at this time that 114 new rooms would have to be constructed at a cost of over one million dollars. Three prospective plans were discussed; first through eighth grades in elementary schools and ninth to twelfth grade in high school (then the current system), or a six-six plan, or a six-three-three plan with the middle schools being called intermediates. The third alternative was adopted and the day of intermediate schools was a few years away. On November 10, the Board began to purchase sites and consider new plans.
The overcrowding had become so serious by 1922, that information regarding the intermediate plan was brought to the public and submitted at the next election. The bond issue amounting to $2,400,000 passed and plans continued.
In 1924, six intermediate schools were contracted. Captain Robert Gray Junior High School, built in South Tacoma, was the name chosen from a naming contest conducted by the Tacoma Daily Ledger, predecessor to the Tacoma News Tribune. The contest reflected the policy to name the intermediate schools after important figures in Northwest history. The name honored the American naval officer and explorer who, in May 1792, was the first to sail a ship into the Columbia River, as well as Gray's Harbor. The school was the sixth one chosen to be built in the area.
The site chosen for Gray was an area adjoining Barlow Annex on the Edison grounds. The South Tacoma Businessmen's Association voted to oppose the site and stated its opposition with a petition at the January 3, 1924, School Board meeting. The board, however, stayed with the selection of its Edison site. The lot was finally purchased in September 1924 and the architect, E. J. Breseman, and general contractors, Jarl and Lasker, were chosen in December of that same year. In January 1925, the design plans were accepted. When construction costs exceeded bid estimates, floor plans were revised.
It was reported in the Tacoma News Tribune on May 15, 1925, that "the pouring of the concrete foundation was almost complete and the raising of structural steel will be started in a few days". The anticipated cost at this time was $225,000. The building, as it was originally planned, was to include the following features: brick exterior trimmed with ornamental stone, ample classrooms, science rooms, and shops to accommodate 650 students. In addition, the building would have an auditorium that seats 1,000, two adjoining gymnasiums that can be made into one, a lunchroom, two locker rooms and offices. The stage in the auditorium was to be completely equipped and the building was said to be of the most fire-resistant type. As the opening of the building approached, it became apparent that the building would be more expensive than was budgeted. The architect was allowed to make changes that would leave the 2nd floor unfinished. The shops were also located in the basement of the Barlow Annex.
The building was occupied on February 1, 1926, with C. A. Payne, principal, 19 teachers and 450 students. The first day of Gray happened to be the same day that Gault and Mason opened their doors. Dedication ceremonies took place on December 16, 1926, amidst a program of addresses and musical numbers. The Tacoma Ledger stated that more than 1,000 people attended.
Subsequent changes and additions to Gray Junior High have given it its present appearance. The first change was the completion of the 2nd floor in 1949. This included a new library, band room, and several new classrooms. A new three-story complex of eleven rooms connecting the top floor of Edison and the Gray building was dedicated on November 24, 1964.
The classrooms on the 3rd floor of Barlow Annex were remodeled in 1966. The school grounds were enlarged in 1973, to allow room for a football field, baseball field, and a running track. The field was sodded and is now well established. In 1975, a new gym/shop complex, located to the east of the main building, was added to the school campus. After the completion of the new Edison building in 1997, Gray took possession of all three floors in the Barlow Annex.