The Ruston Way waterfront in Old Town Tacoma experienced significant changes during the past 150 years, evolving from a forested shoreline to a busy industrial hub to a leisurely recreational space. Although there have been many changes to the landscape in that time, seafood has remained a constant theme.
Before industrial development, the low bank waterfront was a popular place for the Puyallup people to harvest shellfish. In the 1890s and early 1900s, fishermen were attracted to the area by the plentiful sea life. The many seafood restaurants that continue to thrive along the waterfront are a testament to this legacy.
Tacoma's Fishing Fleet
Morton Matthew McCarver arrived in the area in 1868 and built the first dock on the waterfront in 1873. McCarver Street leads directly uphill from the dock to where the McCarver family home was conveniently located at the corner of N 28th Street. This was the first public wharf in Tacoma. The dock was 260 feet long and was a mosquito fleet stop until well into the 20th century. In its early days, the dock also housed several shops and a jail.
With an abundance of salmon in Northwest waters, it is no surprise that a maritime people from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia found a home and a livelihood here. Through the mid-20th century, Old Town Dock was the home of Tacoma's main fishing fleet.
The statue “A Fish Story” in front of Slavonian Hall testifies to the proud Old Town fishing fleet. The sculpture was created in 2002 by artist Larry Anderson through a commission by the Slavonian American Benevolent Society. "Ribarski Pripovijest" commemorates the lives of Croatian immigrants in Tacoma.
In the 1930s, John Karabaich established Ocean Fish Mart"adjacent to the dock. Fishing boats tied up to the wharf and off-loaded their cargo through the back door of the store.
In the 1970s, John Cologerou Sr. and John Gerontis purchased the business and changed the name to Johnny’s Ocean Fish Company. After Johnny’s was purchased by Pacific Seafood in 2007, they sold the fish shop to Northern Fish Company. Northern Fish has been in business since 1912 and is the oldest seafood business operating in the Pacific Northwest. It originally operated as a horse-drawn fish distribution wagon owned by Norwegian immigrant Johannes Swanes, and has now been in the Swanes family for five generations.
The location of the dock, however, leaves it vulnerable to damage from high tides, wind, and waves. The saltwater and rain also take a toll on the timber pilings. As a result, Old Town Dock has been rebuilt multiple times: 1916, 1929, 1953, 2000, and 2013. The most recent renovation included the addition of steel pilings, as well as launch platforms for kayaks and paddle boards.
Great seafood restaurants were a natural by-product of the community of fishermen who lived in Old Town in the 20th century.
Matchbooks from the Top of the Ocean and Barcott's Famous Seafoods.
Collection of Job Carr Cabin Museum.
Top of the Ocean
The Top of the Ocean opened in 1946. Although it resembled an ocean liner, the structure was firmly built on top of piers over the water and never floated on the water. Its menu reflected the Scandinavian side of Old Town, with a seafood-rich smorgasbord that was the talk of the town. Its three decks could seat up to 700 guests.
The “Top” had a dance floor and lounge, where an orchestra performed Tuesday – Saturday each week. On Sundays, a seaplane taxi could take you right to the restaurant’s dock; 20 yachts could fit at the dock.
John Barcott, Sr. Senior owned the California Oyster House in Downtown Tacoma starting in 1919. His son, Anton learned the culinary trade in seafood from his father. In 1946, John handed over management of the restaurant to Anton.
When he felt ready to open his own restaurant, his father was very proud – until he learned that “Harbor Lights” would be located between Dickman Mill and Cummings Boat Works! He believed that a restaurant on the mainly industrial waterfront was doomed to failure. Little did John know that his son wasn’t just an excellent seafood cook – he was a visionary!
Harbor Lights began operating on the Old Town waterfront in 1959. It was a trend-setter as the area slowly transitioned into a publicly accessible space with multiple restaurants, parks, and a leisurely pedestrian path.
Harbor Lights on the Old Town Tacoma waterfront.