On April 22, 1854, Steilacoom becomes the first town in Washington to be incorporated by the new Washington Territorial Legislature. Originally two separate and competing towns founded in 1851 by Lafayette Balch (1825-1862) and John B. Chapman (1797-1877), they are combined into one by the incorporating legislation. Initially Steilacoom grows rapidly as an industrial and economic center. Despite its promising start, railroad construction in the 1870s will bypass the town, and its growth will slow as Tacoma becomes Pierce County's main industrial and economic center. Steilacoom will eventually evolve into a commuter town surrounded by encroaching suburban development. Local efforts to preserve historic buildings and sites in Steilacoom beginning in the 1960s will lead to the town being named one of the state's first designated historic districts.
Early Growth and Incorporation
For centuries the Steilacoom People lived along Puget Sound and on the upland prairies between their Nisqually and Puyallup neighbors. The Steilacoom resided in five principal villages, the largest located at what is now Chambers Bay. They welcomed their first non-Native neighbors in 1833 when the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Nisqually, a trading post on nearby Sequalitchew Creek. By 1849 tensions between other tribes and newly arriving American settlers had prompted establishment of Fort Steilacoom on the prairie above Chambers Bay, the first United States military garrison on Puget Sound.
In 1851 Lafayette Balch, a sea captain from Maine, voyaged to Puget Sound with plans to establish a store and a mill and begin shipping lumber to San Francisco. After some searching, Balch found a good anchorage just south of Chambers Bay, staked a claim, and platted Port Steilacoom. Later that year John B. Chapman took a claim adjoining Balch's and planned a rival town he called Steilacoom City.
By 1852 the population was sufficient to warrant the establishment of a post office. The following year Balch convinced Reverend John Devore (1817-1889) to establish a Methodist Episcopal Church in Steilacoom, the first church west of the Cascade Mountains. After Congress created Washington Territory in 1853, the first territorial legislature convened in early 1854. During this inaugural session it combined the two Steilacooms into one incorporated town and designated it the seat of Pierce County.
After the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 failed to recognize the Steilacoom as a separate tribe, many continued to live in and around their traditional village sites. However, tensions over treaty provisions turned violent in October 1855, when Indians under Nisqually leader Leschi (d. 1857) attacked settlers in eastern King County. Under orders from territorial officials, the Steilacoom, who had maintained good relations with their non-Indian neighbors, relocated to an internment camp on Fox Island. Meanwhile, settlers living in eastern Pierce County came to Steilacoom for refuge for the duration of the war.
In early 1856 a confrontation between territorial Supreme Court Justice Edward Lander (1816-1907) and Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) over the arrest of Hudson's Bay Company men suspected of aiding the enemy led Stevens to declare martial law and detain Lander. After tense confrontations between territorial militia and a Pierce County sheriff's posse, Stevens relented, freeing the prisoners. By mid-1856 the Indian Wars were over. In the aftermath, Leschi was captured and put on trial in Steilacoom. Two jurors refused to convict, leading to a second trial in Olympia in which jurors convicted Leschi of murder. Civil authorities hanged Leschi near Fort Steilacoom in February 1857.
By the 1860s Steilacoom's future as an economic and industrial center seemed assured. The town boasted a newspaper, the first public lending library in the territory, multiple sawmills, a gristmill, blacksmiths, a brewery, and a wagon shop. As the American Civil War got underway, soldiers stationed at Fort Steilacoom were reassigned to the east. A Catholic mission built on the fort's grounds in 1857 was moved to Steilacoom, where it continued serving as the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Construction of the Northern Pacific Railway in Western Washington began in 1870, and Steilacoom residents were confident their town would become the terminus on Puget Sound. However, in 1873 the railroad chose nearby Commencement Bay and founded New Tacoma (later renamed Tacoma) as its terminus. Immediately people and businesses began migrating to New Tacoma from Steilacoom, ending the town's boom years. In 1880 Pierce County voters made Tacoma the county seat. The former county courthouse in Steilacoom, built in the 1850s, became the town's school and housed the library.
In 1890 land speculators, hoping to develop the prairies east and south of Tacoma, founded the Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Company, and completed a 12-mile line to Steilacoom in 1891. Steilacoom quickly became a popular destination for weekend excursions and summer vacations, and many older homes found new life as inns and vacation rentals. At the Steilacoom end of the line a new business district developed near the streetcar turnaround on Lafayette Street. A drug store opened at the streetcar stop by Warren Bair (1852-1930) and his wife, Hattie (1860-1948), became Steilacoom's unofficial town meeting place and its post office, and later expanded its offerings to include food and sundries and, in 1906, a soda fountain.
By the 1920s automobiles had supplanted trains and ferries as the preferred method of travel, and Steilacoom's appeal as a resort town waned. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a difficult time for the community. Many surviving early buildings were lost to neglect and the effects of time and weather. Although World War II revived some local industry, Steilacoom would transition into a bedroom community for commuters to Tacoma and Fort Lewis.
By the 1950s suburban development and new construction threatened the historic character of the town. In response, Steilacoom residents began to embrace their community history. A series of celebrations from 1951 to 1954 marked the centennial of the town's founding, its first post office, the establishment of DeVore's church, and the town's incorporation. In the 1960s the Pierce County Pioneer and Historical Association installed a series of markers at key historic sites in and around town, and volunteers created a display of historic photos in the city hall.
The Steilacoom Historical Museum Association was founded in 1970 to manage the city hall collection and its growing number of documents and artifacts. Among its first projects was inventorying and documenting Steilacoom's surviving historic homes, and applying for the town's designation as an official historic district. In 1974 the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation recognized Steilacoom as a state historic district, and it became a national historic district in 1975. The association also acquired the 1857 home of early settlers Nathaniel and Emma Orr and the 1895 Bair Drug building, restoring them in time for the nation's 1976 bicentennial.
After the 1974 Boldt Decision reaffirmed Native treaty rights, descendants of the Steilacoom Tribe renewed efforts to gain federal recognition, but as of 2018 had been unsuccessful. In the 1980s the tribe acquired the former Oberlin Congregational Church in Steilacoom, creating a museum and cultural center.
In 2003 the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association built a stand-alone museum, adjacent to the Orr home and Orr Wagon Shop. Its mission included management of the Bair Drug building (opened to the public as a restaurant), as well as developing interpretive materials for the Orr home and the restored wagon shop. Steilacoom's annual Salmon Bake and Apple Squeeze festivals celebrate the community's significant historical legacy as Washington's first incorporated town.