The history of Tacoma cannot be told without the story of William Rust. Born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia, he ventured West with dreams of finding fortune in the gold rush. Using the skills and determination he had learned working with his father in the grain industry, he became a leader in the mining industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After spending time in Colorado, he was lured to Pierce County, Washington, by businessmen who hired him to manage their new smelter on the shores of Commencement Bay near Tacoma. Over the next two decades, he was instrumental in making Tacoma one of the top cities in the West for ore smelting and refining. The town that grew up around the smelter was named Ruston in honor of the quiet but well-respected leader. Rust believed in using his fortunes to better his community. Countless local organizations benefited from donations by the Rust family, including Tacoma General Hospital, Mary Bridge Children's Hospital, the Children's Industrial Home, and the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce.
William Ross Rust was born on August 1, 1850, in Philadelphia, to Luther Rust (1820-1873) and Hetty Niles Rust (1827-1857). Luther, a native of Delaware, co-owned Rust, Wells & Co., a dry-goods store in the heart of Philadelphia. Hetty, a native of Baltimore, was the daughter of Hezekiah Niles (1777-1839) and Sally Warner Niles (1800-1852). Her father established the Weekly Register, one of the nation's first weekly newsmagazines. William was one of six children who also included Henry (1847-1872), Mary (1849-1850), Helen (1854-1936), Cora (1856-1917), and an infant born in 1850 who did not survive.
Tragedy struck William early when his mother died on June 28, 1857. After laying her to rest at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, the family relocated to Bourbon, Illinois. Luther found work in the growing grain industry and several years later married Hetty's sister Emily. The union brought five more children to the family: Victoria (1861-?), Hattie (1862-1936), Alfred (1863-1895), Edward (1868-1935), and John (1872-1930).
The family moved to Arcola, Illinois, where William completed primary and secondary school. In 1866, he enrolled in the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Kentucky University in Lexington. After completing three years, he returned home to Arcola where he became his father's assistant in the grain industry business. This partnership continued until his father's death in early 1873.
On November 30, 1874, William Rust married Kate Finnell, a native of Scott, Kentucky. The young couple's happiness was shattered when Kate died giving birth to their first child on December 1, 1876. Five weeks later, their infant daughter Kate also died. Mother and daughter were buried in the Arcola Township Cemetery.
Steeped in grief and ready for new opportunities, Rust left Arcola to head west, where he hoped to find wealth in the mining boom. With very little money, he settled in Black Hawk, Colorado, where he worked as a machinist in a quartz mill. He then earned advancement in several stamping mines, first becoming an engineer, and then a foreman. In 1883 he relocated to Denver, where he collaborated with several businessmen and established the Denver Public Sampling Works and became the superintendent for the new venture. He invested some of his earnings in interests in mining operations across the West.
Rust found love again. On August 28, 1884, he married Helen "Minnie" Smith of Black Hawk, Colorado. On April 10, 1886, William and Helen welcomed their first son, Howard Lucien.
During his travels in search of investment possibilities in 1887, William Rust visited Tacoma, located on South Puget Sound, with thoughts of investing in smelting and refining property. Dennis Ryan, a local business owner, had already started plans to operate a smelter plant in Tacoma. Rust returned to Colorado without an investment in Tacoma, and soon relocated to Aspen, Colorado, where he secured interests in local mining operations. He kept the Northwest in his mind as a future business opportunity.
Opportunity in Tacoma
That opportunity came in 1889, when Dennis Ryan and associates offered Rust a position as manager of their new smelter, the Tacoma Smelting Company. He was hired at a starting salary of $8,000 per year. In 1892, the smelter employed 62 men and smelted 19,345 tons of ore for a total value of $1 million. By 1899, Rust had been named vice president and treasurer of the expanded Tacoma Smelting and Refining Company while keeping his role as general manager. The smelter thrived under his management.
When the Tacoma Smelting and Refining Company was sold to the American Smelting & Refining Company (later ASARCO) in 1905, Rust was retained and promoted to president of the local company. By 1909, the smelter employed 400 men and processed 438,000 tons of ore for a total value of $12 million. A newspaper profile of Rust that year proclaimed that without his leadership, "some $12,000,000 of uncoined gold, unalloyed silver, undrawn copper, and unfused lead would be probably be shipped from some other port" ("Ledger's Series ..."). Rust continued to invest in mines and ensured the products from these investments were shipped to his Tacoma smelter. These investments were both close to home in Washington and as far south as South America.
William and Helen welcomed their second son, Henry Arthur, on August 21, 1900. The family of four lived in a house at 723 North I Street that William Rust had built in 1895 for $4,000. In 1905, he hired architect Ambrose Russell (1857-1938) to design a grand mansion for his family near the corner of N 10th and I Street. The $122,000 colonial-style residence was modeled after the John A. McCall mansion in New Jersey and had sweeping views of the water and mountains. The exterior featured Wilkeson stone and a prominent circular colonnade in the front of the house. The interior boasted 18 spacious rooms, each designed and decorated with beautiful intricate details. The fireplaces were made from marble imported from Italy, the walls were covered in green tapestry from France, and detailed woodwork was completed by some of the nation's finest craftsmen. The Rusts moved into their mansion in 1906.
In 1906, William Rust reduced the hours of a regular work shift at the smelter from 12 hours to 8 hours. While he was not the first to reduce the workday for employees, it was not common practice in private industry until after Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1940.
A New Town, Heartache, and a New Home
A majority of the men who worked for Rust lived in the area surrounding the smelter. By 1906, the Smelter District, as it was known, was home to 400 people and featured two churches, several stores, and a schoolhouse. On September 24, 1906, a meeting was held at the schoolhouse to present plans for incorporating the district into a town named Ruston, in honor of Rust. The plans were overwhelming approved by a public vote on October 19, 1906, and then endorsed by the Pierce County Commissioners. The town of Ruston was officially incorporated in November 1906.
In addition to his work at the smelter, Rust held stock and served as an officer in a handful of companies including the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad Company, the Puget Sound Navigation Company, the Bank of California, and the Tacoma Exploration Company. Rust was also an active member of the Tacoma social scene and was a member of the Union Club, the Tacoma Country & Golf Club, the Commercial Club, the Chamber of Commerce, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Tacoma Lodge No. 174, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
The Rusts' oldest son Howard suffered ill health throughout his childhood due to a heart defect. In 1908, Rust purchased a 40-acre orchard for his son in Hanford in Eastern Washington, where the climate was considered more suitable for his health. But on the evening of April 8, 1911, during a conversation with a neighbor, Howard placed his hand to his heart and exclaimed "There" ("Howard Rust Dies ... "). A local doctor was summoned, but Howard had suffered a ruptured artery and he died before the doctor arrived. William, Helen, and Henry Arthur were returning from a European vacation at the time, and the family received the tragic news on arriving in New York on April 20. Howard was laid to rest on April 26 at the Tacoma Mausoleum. To honor their son's memory, the Rusts donated a pipe organ to Trinity Episcopal Church in Tacoma in 1914.
In late 1911, work began on a new home for the Rust family. Accounts from the time provide different reasons for the move. Some point to the heartache the couple felt living in a house filled with memories of their late son Howard, while others highlight the rising cost of maintaining the large mansion. Architects Heath & Gove were hired and designed a beautiful two-story house on the corner of N Sixth and Yakima Avenue for $40,000. As with the previous home, Rust spared no expense. The exterior featured brick veneer and Wilkeson stone. The interior had four bedrooms, six bathrooms, five marble fireplaces, beautiful stained-glass features throughout, and a 1,000-square-foot ballroom. The family moved into the new residence in January 1913.
An Active Retirement
Rust retired as president of the Tacoma Smelting Company on January 1, 1916. However, he continued to serve on the board and remain active in some of his other business ventures. When the United States entered World War I, he provided financial contributions to many local war efforts and served on a committee that was responsible for the location of the U.S. Army's Camp Lewis in Pierce County south of Tacoma. Following the close of the war, the Rust family traveled to Europe, where they visited battlefields and paid tribute to fallen soldiers at cemeteries in both Belgium and France.
In 1920, Rust financed the Rust Building, a commercial structure located in downtown Tacoma at the northwest corner of Pacific Avenue and 11th Street. The 12-story building cost around $350,000 and featured retail space on the first five floors and office space on the upper floors. Lundquist-Lily Clothing Store was the first business to open in the new building on January 15, 1921.
In August 1928, Rust was struck with abdominal pain and soon entered Tacoma General Hospital. Doctors found adhesions on his intestines restricting blood flow that had caused gangrene to develop. Emergency surgery was performed but he failed to recover and died on August 18, 1928, at the age of 78. Funeral services were held at the Buckley-King Funeral Church and he was laid to rest in the Tacoma Mausoleum. Flags across Tacoma were placed at half-staff on the day of his funeral.
Lasting Impact on Tacoma
Rust's estate at the time of his death was worth around $1.5 million. He left half of the estate to be placed in a trust to help establish a ward for children at Tacoma General Hospital. Additionally, $50,000 was given outright to Tacoma General Hospital, $10,000 to the town of Ruston to support a men's social club, and each of his household employees received $1,000. The remainder of the estate went to his wife and surviving son Henry Arthur. Yet more tragedy would visit the Rust family when heart problems resulted in Henry Arthur's death on May 13, 1936, at the age of 35. A year later, on April 25, 1937, Helen Rust died and was buried next to her husband and sons at the Tacoma Mausoleum.
Nearly a century following his death, the impact of William Rust's life and generosity could still be found in Tacoma. The Rust family residences and the commercial Rust Building still stand. The house located at 1001 North I Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 23, 1985. While the smelter was demolished in 1993, the town of Ruston remains a distinct municipality. Money from the trust to establish a children's ward was used in the establishment of Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in 1955.