A History of Ruston Way

It’s no secret that we at Katie Downs genuinely love our location on Tacoma’s Ruston Way waterfront. As the second oldest Ruston Way restaurant, we feel incredibly connected to this place. To give you an idea of how far Ruston has come (and where Katie Downs fits in!) we’d like to share a bit about the history of our beloved home. 

Today, Ruston Way is known primarily for its lively boardwalk and restaurants that dot the waterfront. With a sweeping view of Mt. Rainier and instant access to Commencement Bay, it is one of the most visually stunning places in all of Tacoma. But back in the 1880s, the area was less picturesque. In those days, Ruston Way was defined by its smelter, owned and operated by William Rust, from whom the area gets its name (pictured at right). A bustling industrial strip, the waterfront was also home to boatyards, warehouses, and lumber mills – of which there were, at one point, a total of 38. What is now Ruston Way was then called Front Street, and the town of Ruston was separate from Tacoma proper.

Needless to say, the area has undergone immense change since then. The smelter remained a fixture on Ruston Way until its closure in 1985 – three years after the opening of Katie Downs. But in the meantime, restaurants began to spring up, and the Ruston Way we know today began to take shape. Most notable is the historic Top of the Ocean restaurant – a restaurant resembling a docked luxury liner, which opened in 1946 (at right). With a capacity of over 700 people and a total of three separate decks, “The Top” had an enormous presence on Ruston Way and was a favorite to many locals. Besides a classy dining experience, The Top served as a venue for receptions and various events.  But in 1977, disaster struck when The Top was burned down by an arsonist connected to a local crime gang.

Undoubtedly, the burning of Top of the Ocean has left a tragic mark on Ruston Way’s history. But its legacy has also inspired new generations of restaurateurs, by demonstrating that Ruston Way is the perfect place to eat, drink, and enjoy great company. With the destruction of the Top, the only remaining Ruston Way restaurant was Harbor Lights (established 1959). 

While Ruston was still dotted with mills amidst Katie Downs’ 1982 opening, traces of its industrial past have since been largely removed. But the history of our waterfront home is far from forgotten. Next time you join us for lunch or dinner, we hope you appreciate the history of community that Ruston embodies: from the rise of the restaurant strip, back to the industrial period, and back further to the native populations before them. In all periods of time, Ruston Way has been well loved – and will continue to be for as long as Katie Downs remains.


Ruston Way Waterfront Smelterr

The American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO) smokestack ca. 1925. (Image courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library)

Top of the Ocean Restaurant Ruston Way

The Top of the Ocean Restaurant during its heyday of the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library)

Katie Downs ca. 1980s

Katie Downs in its early days ca. 1982.


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