Steilacoom was one of the earliest non-Native settlements in the future state of Washington. Established just six years after Oregon Trail emigrants first arrived on Puget Sound, it quickly became a hub of social and economic activity. It was the first town incorporated by the territorial legislature and the first seat of government for Pierce County, but after the railroad bypassed Steilacoom in 1873, its early prominence faded. Steilacoom survived mainly as a vacation destination for visitors from larger cities and later as a bedroom community for nearby urban areas. In recent decades residents have embraced the town's history through preservation projects and community events highlighting its importance in Washington's history.
Steilacoom People and Early Contact
The town of Steilacoom and the adjoining prairies are the ancestral homeland of the Steilacoom Tribe. The Steilacoom lived in five principal villages. The largest, at nearby Chambers Creek, was known as č'tilqwəbš (pronounced CH'tilQWubSH). Others were Sastuck, Tlithlow, Segwallitchu, and Spanueh. Anglicized versions of four continue as place names: Steilacoom, Titlow Beach, Sequalitchew Creek, and the city of Spanaway.
By the 1820s outsiders were entering the area seeking furs and trade with Native peoples. In 1833 the Hudson's Bay Company founded Fort Nisqually at Sequalitchew Creek, the first non-Native settlement on Puget Sound. After American settlers began arriving in 1845, Natives grew concerned that the newcomers would soon outnumber them. Chew-see-a-kit, leader of the Steilacoom people, attended a council of Puget Sound tribes in 1848 where they discussed ousting the newcomers, but the Steilacoom maintained good relations with settlers and opposed the plan.
On May 1, 1849, Snoqualmie warriors attacked Fort Nisqually, killing one American and wounding two Hudson's Bay Company employees. Oregon Territorial Governor Joseph D. Lane (1801-1881) requested a new military outpost on Puget Sound to discourage further attacks. By August the United States Army established Fort Steilacoom near Chambers Bay. In October, Oregon Territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice William P. Bryant (1806-1860) convened the first court in what is now Washington at the new fort to prosecute Natives implicated in the Fort Nisqually incident. The court convicted two Snoqualmie, Kussass and Quallahwowt, and they were executed by hanging.
Two Become One
After the 1846 Treaty of Oregon set the U.S.-British boundary at the 49th parallel, American settlers quickly encroached on Hudson's Bay Company holdings south of that line. Thomas Chambers (1795-1876) took up a claim near the future site of Steilacoom in 1850. When company officials tried to reassert ownership, Chambers met them shotgun in hand, and negotiations ended with the company's retreat. Chambers built a grist mill and sawmill at Chambers Creek, among the earliest in the area.
The present town of Steilacoom began in 1851 with the arrival of Captain Lafayette Balch (1825-1862). Balch came to Puget Sound with two vessels, intending to establish a store and a mill to supply lumber to San Francisco. Balch's first choice was Olympia at the head of Puget Sound. However, that town's founder, Edmund Sylvester (1821-1887), refused to sell lots at a reasonable price, apparently to protect the store owned by his friend Michael Simmons (1814-1867) from competition.
Undaunted, Balch began his own settlement. He found a suitable anchorage just south of Chambers Bay and staked a claim. He erected a store with lumber brought from Maine, and built a hotel and wharf, the first in what is now Pierce County. Balch named his new town Port Steilacoom.
Others soon joined Balch, and a business district developed along Commercial Street. In August 1851 Balch attended a convention at Cowlitz Landing to agitate for a separate territory north of the Columbia River. John B. Chapman (1797-1877), the first lawyer admitted to the bar in northern Oregon, penned the memorial to Congress. Chapman was pursuing opportunities and government appointments throughout the region. Meeting Balch at the Cowlitz convention may have sparked his interest in Steilacoom. To Balch's annoyance, Chapman staked an adjoining claim in October and planned a rival town he called Steilacoom City.
By 1852 Balch had established a sawmill with partner Levent F. Thompson (1827-1894) and began lumber shipments to San Francisco. In June a post office was established, and the contract to transport mail went to Chapman. The Oregon Territorial Legislature also created Pierce County, naming Port Steilacoom the county seat, and created the county's first school district. In 1853 Chapman donated lots for a new courthouse, built later that year. In 1854 the Masons established a lodge.
Balch persuaded Reverend John F. DeVore (1817-1889) and his wife Jane Devore (d. 1860) to relocate to Steilacoom in 1853. DeVore built a two-story Methodist Episcopal church that also served as a school and meeting hall. When the church bell, ordered from the East, arrived with a balance due, residents took up a collection. Afterward the bell became town property, used to signal emergencies and public meetings along with the call to worship.
Congress created Washington Territory in 1853 and the first territorial legislature incorporated the town of Steilacoom in early 1854, combining Steilacoom City and Port Steilacoom. Union Street, once the dividing line between the competing communities, became the town's central avenue.
To promote Steilacoom, Balch purchased a printing press in 1855. The first edition of the Puget Sound Courier described the growing town:
"[S]eventy dwellings, six stores, two blacksmith shops, one cabinet maker, one tailor and three hotels. Within a short distance of town are three sawmills, a grist mill, of first class, in process of erection. We have a church, a daily school, a public press and a billiard saloon, two bowling alleys and a wharf has just been completed that affords berths for large vessels at all stages of the tide" (Courier, May 19, 1855, 2.)
Medicine Creek Treaty
Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) began negotiations with regional tribes in late 1854 to secure American claims. Although the first treaty council included representatives of the Steilacoom Tribe, the resulting Medicine Creek Treaty did not grant them a reservation, and many continued living at Chambers Bay.
In 1855 tensions between Natives and settlers in neighboring areas turned violent. Territorial officials declared war, organized militias, and ordered all Natives to move to internment camps. Many Steilacoom people relocated to nearby Fox Island for the duration of the conflict. Steilacoom became a refuge for settlers fleeing the Puyallup Valley. A blockhouse at the foot of Main Street housed several families during the conflict.
A Power Struggle
During the war Steilacoom was the stage for a power struggle between territorial and federal officials. Governor Stevens suspected Hudson's Bay men married to Native women were aiding forces led by Leschi (d. 1858), and arrested them in May 1856. Territorial Supreme Court Justice Francis A. Chenoweth (1819-1899) issued writs of habeas corpus for the prisoners. Edward Lander (1816-1907), recently appointed to the Washington Territorial Supreme Court, attempted to hold court in Steilacoom but was halted by the territorial militia, arrested, and taken to Olympia. Stevens placed Pierce County under martial law and released Lander. Lander reopened court, ordered the Hudson's Bay men released, and cited Stevens for contempt.
Federal marshals attempted to arrest Stevens but were blocked by the militia, who arrested Lander. Lander refused a demand that he convene court only with Stevens's permission. Stevens had Lander jailed with the Hudson's Bay men. When the news reached Justice Chenoweth, he convened court at Steilacoom and ordered the sheriff to arrest Stevens. The militia met the posse but withdrew after a confrontation. When Stevens ordered a court martial against the Hudson's Bay Company men, officers at Fort Steilacoom refused. Finally Stevens released the prisoners and Lander fined Stevens $50 to close the matter. Ultimately the territorial senate and U.S. Congress censured Stevens for his actions.
Later in the war Stevens held council with Natives at the Fox Island internment camp. Chew-see-a-kit told territorial officials he intended to remain at Chambers Bay: "My home is at Shilacum Creek and there is where I want to live and die. I wish to tell the Governor that every Indian loves his Native land best. Every Indian loves his own people best" (Morgan, 36). Afterward many tribal members returned to Steilacoom, and although diminished in numbers, they remained a part of community life.
Many settlers sought retribution against the treaty wars' most visible leader, Leschi. A trial held in Steilacoom in late 1856 illustrated the divided opinions among settlers. Leschi's defenders argued he was a combatant in war and not subject to murder charges, while prosecutors wanted him executed as warning to Natives. Two jurors refused to convict Leschi, resulting in a mistrial. Outrage among settlers prompted a second trial at Olympia, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Leschi was hanged near Fort Steilacoom on February 19, 1858.
In the years following the war Steilacoom grew as a social and economic center. Nathaniel Orr (1827-1896), who arrived in 1852, built his first wagon shop in 1857. After he married Emma Thompson (1848-1908) in 1868 he converted the shop into their family home. In 1858 Lafayette Balch convinced Thomas Prosch (1820-1913) to run the town's newspaper. Prosch arrived in February 1858 and began printing the Puget Sound Herald.
To further cultural development, residents founded the Steilacoom Library Association, the first in the territory. Its mission was "The diffusion of useful knowledge and sound morality: first, by establishing a Library; second, a Reading Room; third, by procuring public lectures, essays, and establishing debates" ("History of Steilacoom Pierce County Library"). Monthly dues were 25 cents for borrowing privileges. Balancing the moral influence of the new library, Martin Schmieg (d. 1884) established a brewery.
Optimism about the town's future prompted construction of some of the earliest brick buildings in Washington Territory. In 1858 a new brick jailhouse went up, used to house local, county, and territorial prisoners. In 1859 a brick building erected by Samuel McCaw (d. 1881) and Edwin R. Rogers (d. 1906) housed a store and gave the town's business district a more substantial feel.
In 1858 the courthouse that was the scene of the martial-law conflict and Leschi's first trial burned and many early records were lost. The following year a new courthouse was constructed. It housed county offices and hosted town meetings and social events.
The 1861 outbreak of the Civil War reduced troop presence at Fort Steilacoom, with soldiers reassigned east. As the fort's importance waned, its buildings were razed or sold. The fort's Catholic chapel, built in 1857, was relocated to Steilacoom in 1864 to continue serving Catholic congregants as the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Ups and Downs
Town founder Lafayette Balch fell ill and died in 1862 while in San Francisco. By then, however, the town's future prospects seemed assured. It was a busy port, with regular service from the numerous ferries and freighters, commonly known as the Mosquito Fleet, that plied Puget Sound. In 1864 the Sisters of Charity established the Providence School for Young Ladies, and the telegraph line reached Steilacoom. Other new developments included a soap factory and another brewery.
By 1868 the U.S. military had closed Fort Steilacoom and it was turned over to the territory. In 1871 it was repurposed with the opening of the Fort Steilacoom Asylum, later known as Western Washington State Hospital.
Despite Steilacoom's early promise, its fortunes took a dramatic turn in the 1870s. As the Northern Pacific Railway began construction in Western Washington, Steilacoom remained optimistic it would be the terminus. But in 1873 track construction veered toward Commencement Bay, leaving Steilacoom a wagon ride away from the nearest station. Almost immediately people and businesses migrated toward Tacoma, the Northern Pacific's chosen terminus.
By the mid-1870s both the church founded by the DeVores and the Catholic school had closed. The rapid rise of Tacoma prompted voters to name it the county seat in 1880. Steilacoom's courthouse became the new home for a combined Congregationalist Church Normal Academy, public school, and the Steilacoom Library. It eventually became a private residence and in later years was briefly a movie house.
Washington achieved statehood in 1889 and land speculators were optimistic. One of the earliest interurban streetcars, the Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Company, built in 1891, connected Steilacoom to Tacoma via Chambers Creek Canyon. Steilacoom became a popular weekend destination. The new streetcar displaced the shoreline home of Chief John, grandson of Chew-see-a-kit, and his wife, Steilacoom Annie. To compensate them, townspeople constructed a new home to replace the one they lost.
Afterward much of Steilacoom's economy shifted toward tourism. The streetcar turnaround at Lafayette and Wilkes streets caused businesses to migrate from Commercial Street. Among the first were Warren L. Bair (1852-1930) and Harriett "Hattie" (Godfrey) Bair (1860-1948). The Bairs arrived in 1890 and opened a drug store in 1891. By 1895 they had built a combination pharmacy and general store adjacent to the streetcar turnaround.
Many homes in Steilacoom in this period became guest houses. A large home built for the Rogers family in 1891 became an inn known as Waverly by the Sea after the financial Panic of 1893 forced the family to downsize. Other tourist accommodations included Cottage by the Sea, Overlook, Ravine, Rolling Hill, Saltaire Lodge, The Castle, and Alta Sitka.
The former Northern Pacific Brewery operated by Wolf Schaffer (1816-1889) was refurbished by Warren Bair and his brother Edward (1856-1936) as Iron Springs Sanitarium, offering saltwater baths and other restorative treatments. Later renamed the Iron Springs Hotel, it became renowned for Hattie Bair's chicken dinners.
The 1890s also witnessed the loss of more historic buildings in Steilacoom. In 1894 DeVore's church was razed, its bell installed in a wooden tower to continue serving as the local alarm signal. A hotel known as the Lighthouse Inn, one of the earliest on Puget Sound, burned in 1895.
Along with the loss of historic buildings, people long connected with the town's past were passing on, prompting interest in their stories. In 1906 citizens of Steilacoom lamented the passing of Chief John and again mourned when Steilacoom Annie died in 1907. By the early 1900s the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) was marking significant historic sites with monuments. In Steilacoom it erected a stone marker at the site of DeVore's church in 1908 and the original bell was moved to from its wooden tower to the monument. In 1918 WSHS returned to Steilacoom to place a marker at the 1857 Catholic church.
Meanwhile, tourists fueled much of Steilacoom's economy. Bair Drug installed a soda fountain and Edward Bair, despite a lack of live specimens, opened in the Iron Springs Hotel an exhibit of marine animals he dubbed the Deep Sea Aquarium. Charley H. Green (1863-1935) and Mary Green (1871-1956) opened the Soundview Inn at Saltar's Point, a popular picnicking area.
Improvements in Steilacoom also proceeded steadily, if slowly. The Oberlin Congregational Church built a new house of worship in 1903. In 1910 the Masonic Lodge replaced its aging hall with a new brick building. Warren Bair added a small telephone exchange in 1911, bringing phone service to Steilacoom for the first time. The Pacific Traction Line Company acquired the streetcar, abandoned the Chambers Creek route, and extended its line serving Western State Hospital to as far as Bair Drug. In 1916 the town added a new brick schoolhouse.
The most significant change occurred when the Northern Pacific Railway completed an alternate line through Steilacoom in 1914, obliterating many historic waterfront homes. The line opened to much fanfare, briefly reigniting hopes Steilacoom might regain some of its earlier prominence. The town turned out to meet the first train at the new depot with songs performed by local schoolchildren.
The numerous orchards standing since territorial days around Steilacoom were the basis for a school fundraiser. On November 1, 1915, citizens held their first Cider Bee, turning out fresh apple cider from historic orchards started by the Chambers, Wallace, Orr, and other families. The event raised enough to purchase the first movie projector for Steilacoom students.
America's entry into World War I spurred the national economy and Steilacoom benefitted from new industries and government projects. In 1917 Pierce County business interests acquired land east of Steilacoom and deeded it to the federal government as Camp Lewis. A new pulp mill, Cascade Paper Company, opened on Chambers Bay in 1919. North of Chambers Bay, expansive rock quarries shipped gravel throughout the region by rail and barge.
By the 1920s automobiles had replaced the Mosquito Fleet ferries as the preferred means of regional travel. As private passenger docks fell into disuse, Steilacoom's town council funded construction of a new public dock at the foot of Union Avenue. In 1922 the ferry Elk, built and operated by Skansie Brothers of Gig Harbor, went into service, connecting Steilacoom to nearby Anderson Island, the Key Peninsula, and McNeil Island. In 1924 the Skansies added the ferry City of Steilacoom to support the Elk.
Although Steilacoom's lure as a vacation destination was on the decline, the Bairs purchased Waverly By the Sea, managing it along with the Iron Springs Hotel. The Greens' Soundview Inn burned; they rebuilt on the bluff above, reopening as the Green Lantern. Ed Bair's Deep Sea Aquarium relocated to Saltar's Point and advertised on highway billboards as far away as Wyoming. During Prohibition, "Captain" Bair used his aquarium to promote temperance. At the end of tours, he would reveal the deadliest monster, pulling back a curtain to expose a moonshine still, and hold forth on the ravages of demon rum.
Town improvements of this era included a new wooden water tower, and business owners formed a Chamber of Commerce. By the mid-1920s the town boasted a new service station, and "auto stages" replaced the streetcars to Tacoma.
As the Great Depression took hold industries faltered. After Cascade Paper closed it was acquired by the Everett Pulp and Paper Company and reopened briefly in 1937. Despite the downturn, town leaders managed to complete two important projects. A new iron water tank replaced the temporary wood tower and a new city hall was completed. For the first time city offices, the Chamber of Commerce, the library, and other community organizations were housed in a single building.
Meanwhile, loss of historic buildings continued when the 1859 courthouse was torn down in 1932 due to severe deterioration. Fortunately, the federal Historic American Buildings Survey project, launched in 1933, documented some of the town's notable surviving historic structures. The project produced detailed drawings of the Catholic church as well as the territorial-era Bartlett, Gales, Judson, Keach, and Wallus homes. Other New Deal-era programs also helped Steilacoom pay for needed water and sewer upgrades, as well as a new town tennis court, built across from the city hall. After Edward Bair passed away in 1936, the town acquired Saltar's Point for a park; a picnic shelter built with federal Works Progress Administration funds was completed in 1939.
In 1938 the ferry service conducted by the Skansie Brothers was acquired by Pierce County. The City of Steilacoom was moved to the Titlow Beach-Fox Island run while the ferry Tahoma assumed the run between Steilacoom and Anderson Island.
Fire destroyed several buildings along Lafayette Street, adjacent to Bair Drug, on September 9, 1939. Among those lost were the 1860 Masonic Hall, moved to this site in 1910. Bair Drug survived only through a concerted effort by firefighters and citizens.
War and Peace
When America entered World War II, Steilacoom residents answered the call for civil-defense volunteers, and a quarter of all residents signed up. They became ambulance drivers and air-raid wardens and lookouts, repurposing the abandoned wooden water tower as a spotting tower. News outlets were impressed by Steilacoom's ability to keep it staffed around the clock.
Meanwhile, the town attempted to preserve another endangered historic building. The 1858 brick jail was in danger of collapse and was dismantled. The bricks were stored, intended for building a replica, but the effort was unsuccessful.
After the war, residents renewed efforts to preserve Steilacoom's history through events and interpretive markers. From 1951 to 1954 the town held four centennial celebrations -- in 1951, commemorating Steilacoom's founding; in 1952, the opening of the first post office in Pierce County; in 1953, the founding of DeVore's church; and in 1954, the first town incorporation in Washington. Each celebration encouraged visitors to dress in period clothing and events included parades, dances, walking tours of historic sites, and baseball tournaments. The celebrations also saw the beginnings of Steilacoom's community salmon bakes, which later became an annual event.
By the 1960s Steilacoom had transitioned into a commuter bedroom community as suburban development enveloped the town. New construction infilled the historic townscape, mixing with the territorial-era buildings. In 1962 a modern shopping complex went up across the street from Bair Drug and the school district built Cherrydale Elementary to accommodate the growing families of the postwar baby boom.
These changes inspired installation of new historical monuments. From 1961 to 1965 the Pierce County Pioneer and Historical Association marked the sites in and around Steilacoom of the treaty-war blockhouse, the 1858 courthouse, Thomas Chambers's mill, Leschi's execution site, and Andrew Byrd's (1825-1863) mill. In 1963 interest in local history also led to the creation of Steilacoom's first historical exhibit, housed in city hall and consisting of historic photos and a few artifacts donated by local families.
The preservation movement of the 1960s encouraged communities nationwide to adopt official preservation plans. Steilacoom residents, long attuned to the town's historic significance, were among the first in the state to seek official recognition on state and national historic registers.
In 1970 Clyde Davidson (1894-1987), Clenda Davidson (1900-1989), and Lee Merrill (d. 1987) founded the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association (SHMA), establishing a permanent collection and beginning publication of a journal the following year. The association's efforts sparked renewed interest in the town's history. The SHMA sponsored town celebrations reminiscent of the earlier days, and in 1971 the community salmon bake returned and became an annual event.
By 1973 Steilacoom established a local historic district and two important properties, Bair Drug and the Orr home, were acquired by SHMA. That year the town celebrated with the first annual Apple Squeeze, a homage to the Cider Bees held in decades past. The state recognized Steilacoom's historic district in 1974, and it received national-historic-register status in 1975.
In August 1976 Steilacoom celebrated the nation's bicentennial and its own heritage with parades and related events. Highlights included the rededication of Bair Drug, lovingly restored inside and out by SMHA volunteers, and placement of a new marker commemorating the original wagon route to Olympia.
During this era, the Steilacoom Tribe renewed efforts to receive federal recognition. While the 1974 Boldt Decision reaffirmed treaty fishing rights, the Steilacoom people could only fish as invited guests of recognized tribes. In 1979 a federal court ruled the Steilacoom did not meet the criteria to be recognized as a tribe. Efforts to receive official recognition continued, but as of 2018 remained unsuccessful. However, in 1988 the tribe acquired the 1903 Oberlin Church building as a cultural center.
Old and New
After 2000, rapid change challenged Steilacoom's efforts to protect its historic legacy. While industries including the pulp mill and gravel mines were closed, expansion of Fort Lewis (formerly Camp Lewis, and from 2010 Joint Base Lewis-McChord) and a new industrial park in nearby DuPont increased demand for housing and accelerated development.
Steilacoom's evolution from busy seaport to quaint summer-resort town and finally to historic residential community reflects the larger forces that continually reshape the region. While suburban sprawl encroaches on Steilacoom, residents' efforts to preserve the town's deep links to its past ensure that remaining historic structures and significant sites will continue to inform new generations. A new museum built in 2003 and ongoing preservation efforts, including the restoration of Nathaniel Orr's wagon shop, are tangible symbols of the community's ongoing commitment to protecting its historic legacy.