South Tacoma’s ‘Ole 99’
In Tacoma's early, early days, when the town consisted of a strip of settlement along the water, the wild lands of South Tacoma were dotted here and there with dairy farms. In the 1890s, however, “progress” arrived to those precincts in the form of the Northern Pacific Railroad's shops: sprawling buildings where the railroad built and maintained its train cars. The shops brought workers and the workers brought housing and businesses and the strip of road called South Tacoma Way began to buzz with human activity.
The South Tacoma Business District is still proud of its genesis as a center of the Northern Pacific's operations. A steam locomotive and a modern diesel locomotive are featured on the district's logo. Most of the public art in the district has some connection to the railroading past.
The metal sculptor Fritz Church, for example, built his 2001 “Gateway” monument (near S. 47th St. and South Tacoma Way) in the form of a spoked train wheel supported by a pair of giant railroad spikes. Larry Anderson's “Coming Home” is a bronze statue of one of the railroad mechanics coming home to his young daughter after a hard days work. Ilan Averbuch's “Landmark,” at the future South Tacoma Sounder station, is a pair of behemoth horseshoes that plays upon the name “iron horse” as an epithet of a train locomotive.
The district's newest work of public art was created this year by the fore mentioned Fritz Church, a resident of the district. His work also plays upon the iron horse theme. The artist has created a life sized horse of metal - literally an iron horse.
The sculpture was put in place this spring at the corner of S. 47th St. and South Tacoma Way. The district held a contest in which members of the public were invited to submit ideas for names for the horse. The winner of the 223 names submitted was Dianne Dunaway who dubbed the horse “Ole 99.” The name was announced in June on opening day of the South Tacoma Farmer's market.
The name neatly ties in another facet of the district's history by hearkening to a period when South Tacoma Way was a segment of U.S. Route 99, the grand Highway of the west coast that ran between Canada and Mexico. The route is still referred to as Old Highway 99 or “Old 99.”
On the outside, Church's metal horse is composed of roughly hammered shapes that are done in a dull, almost rusty patina. Hollow inside, the horse is open to view from below revealing a collection of ornate gears and springs as if this is a clockwork pony. There is an upside down valentine heart thrown into the works as well. By contrast to the dull exterior, the innards of the horse are coated in orange and yellow paint.
“Ole 99” has a big, brawny head and bony legs and is frozen in the act of grazing. A brand on the horse's rump is presumably the artist's cartouche. The likeness of a horse is rendered in a basic, lumpy way reminiscent of the surface of a potato brought up from the ground. It is the contrast between the rustic, no-nonsense exterior and the complex, colorful clockwork of the interior that makes the piece intriguing.
The artist also managed to find a location that allowed the monument to tie in yet another facet of South Tacoma history. A rope around the horse's neck is tied to a metal ring that is attached to the curb by a metal spike. This is one of the few remaining rings that once upon a time were a common feature of urban streets. They were used to tether the work horses that pulled wagons from place to place in the city. In the age of steam, it was still horse-drawn wagons that hauled commercial goods throughout the town streets.
An artist in Portland, Ore. has been bringing civic attention to the charming iron tethering rings of that city by using them to anchor toy horses. His intent is to bring public attention to these fascinating vestiges of a time before internal combustion was the main source of power used to facilitate the flow of goods through the city.
“Ole 99” thus manages to harness several colorful aspects of South Tacoma's past: as a railroad center, as a route for horse drawn wagons and as a major thoroughfare in the time before Interstate 5 became the main traffic artery of the west coast of the United States.
“Ole 99” was funded entirely by the South Tacoma Business District, which has also taken responsibility for insuring the work. City of Tacoma's commitment to the project was in permitting a right of way for the sculpture to occupy a place along the sidewalk.
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