Every so often, I get an inquiry about the strange looking “ferry” in postcards parked on the Tacoma waterfront. Where did it sail, people ask, and what was it doing in Tacoma?
The answer is, it never sailed anywhere. The Top of the Ocean wasn’t even a vessel, but it was a Tacoma landmark three decades.Construction
Built on pilings at 2211 Ruston Way in Tacoma, the “Top” as locals came to call it was was designed by architect Charles Alonzo Kenworthy constructed by Tacoma Boat Mart at a cost of $262,000. It was meant to look like a luxury ocean liner, was a restaurant and banquet facility for clubs, formal parties and other galas. With rooms spread over three decks, the Top of the Ocean could accommodate about 700 people at any given time. On the water side of the establishment, the Top had a floating dock for about 20 visting yachts, and sea plane taxi service was available on weekends.
The establishment opened on 15 December, 1946 and was an immediate hit, but the original owners sold it in 1948 to the Tacoma Athletic Commission. The top deck was converted into their headquarters. Still open to the public, an orchestra provided dance music for patrons Tuesday through Saturday.
The “Top” was sold again in 1951 to University of Puget Sound Athletic Coach Roger W Peck. Over the years there were a number of different owners.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, April 3rd, 1977, the Tacoma fire depart responded to a fire at Herringbone Tucker’s Top of the Ocean Restaurant. By the time the first fire truck arrived, the Top was fully engulfed in flames and a second alarm was raised. Over the next two hours, more than 60 firefighters and a fireboat battled the conflagration before getting it knocked back and under control.
That was arson was not in dispute. Left behind by the arsonist were eight one gallon containers of paint thinner that had been used as an accelerant. Proving that he was no criminal mastermind, the arsonist had thoughtfully left his fingerprints behind for arson investigators.
A thorough examination of the Top of the Ocean revealed the gutted structure had suffered more than a million dollars in damages. The iconic restaurant was deemed unsalvageable, and was scheduled for demolition.
Meanwhile, taxicab driver Richard Black contacted arson investigators about a fare he had taken to the Top of the Ocean parking lot early that Sunday morning. Black had helped him load and unload several gallon cans of paint thinner. The next day, David Willard Levage, 27 was arrested for the crime. Employees at the Top of the Ocean identified him as a patron who had been repeatedly thrown out of the establishment on the Saturday night before the fire for being drunk. Cab drive Black also picked him out of the lineup as the man he’d helped with the paint thinner. Not surprisingly, Levage was also identified by workers at a local hardware store where he purchased—surprise—eight gallons of paint thinner. Charged with first-degree arson, he was released on $10,000.00 bail.
Not surprisingly, Levage was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. What was far more interesting was the real story behind the arson.
Not a Simple Case of Arson
On 8 December, 1978 a federal grand jury in Seattle sent down indictments on local crime boss, John J. Carbone, Pierce County Sheriff George Janovich and David Levage, along with twelve other people for racketeering. Among the indictments was that Levage was Carbone’s hired arsonist. Carbone had been involved in a series of tavern arsons in an attempt to control Pierce County nightlife. The Top of the Ocean had become a victim of that scheme.
The trial was held in US District Court in San Francisco over three months. The defendants were all found guilty on racketeering (except Levage) on 19 June 1979. Carbone actually had his own home torched to throw any suspicion off him—but he ended up convicted of that crime as well. All the men involved were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Today, the spot once occupied by the Top of the Ocean is marked with a replica sculpture and a historical marker, giving the colorful history of the unique “ship” that was Tacoma’s top night club and restaurant for over 30 years.