On April 22, 2004, the Town of Steilacoom will commemorate the 150th anniversary of our incorporation as the first Town in Washington Territory, initiating a year of activies to observe, enjoy and learn from our history.
In the 1850s, Steilacoom was one of a few waterfront settlements along Puget Sound in the Northwest, the last American frontier between the Civil War and the Klondike Gold Rush many decades later. The area attracted men and women who dreamed of a better life among the hardships of pioneer ways and the shadow of the Oregon Trail.
Steilacoom’s boosters hoped very much that their town would become the next San Francisco. They wanted Steilacoom to bustle with business and trade. And Steilacoom did bustle early in that decade, back when Tacoma did not exist and Seattle was a gleam in its founders’ eyes.
The center of the economy lay in loading ships with Northwest timber for San Francisco, which had a voracious hunger for building materials. Timber moving from the hills to the water seemed to constantly thunder on wooden “rollways,” recalled pioneer Ezra Meeker of his visit in 1853. He described Steilacoom as by far the most impressive community in the territory then.
For a while there, it sure looked like Steilacoom would have a fighting chance to make its dreams come true. Steilacoom was the site of many firsts:
- The first incorporated community in Washington Territory
- The first brick building north of the Columbia River (which was also the first jail in Pierce County)
- The first Protestant church building
- The first school in Pierce County
- The first official U.S. presence in Washington Territory (Fort Steilacoom, now located within the boundaries of Lakewood)
- The first public lending library in Washington Territory
Before all that, the area had long been the home of the Steilacoom Tribe, roughly 600 people before settlers arrived. Members of the tribe were there to see Peter Puget arrive in 1792 for the first recorded tour by Europeans of southern Puget Sound. More than 30 years later, English businessmen opened their trading post, Fort Nisqually, in the Steilacoom Tribe’s territory. The town of Steilacoom grew slowly about six miles away, first settled by former British sailors.
The U.S. Army arrived in 1849 ostensibly for the protection of a small but growing number of U.S. settlers — but also to ensure U.S. claims to the land. The British at Fort Nisqually wanted the U.S. Army close, but not too close, so it suggested the Army rent an abandoned farm just outside Steilacoom for $50 a month. In 1851, there were two separate Steilacooms chartered: sea Captain Lafayette Balch’s Port Steilacoom, and the Chapman family’s Steilacoom City. Balch built a store and built a wharf to establish the lumber trade between San Francisco and his town.
In 1854, the Territorial Legislature merged the two Steilacooms to form the Town of Steilacoom, becoming the first incorporated community in Washington Territory. Because of its history — just as with Tacoma and Seattle to the north — some streets do not meet at right angles because their competing founders saw things in different directions.
A few years later, during a time of tension and battle with surrounding tribes, many families from outlying communities sought refuge in Steilacoom and the fort; the community seemed central then to the territory’s present and future. Three of the territory’s five major roads passed through Steilacoom. There were high hopes of a future as grand as that of San Francisco when gold was discovered in 1858 along the Fraser River in what is now British Columbia, but there are better ways of getting to the Fraser besides through Steilacoom. The boom went to what is now Whatcom County.
During the Civil War, Washington’s economy went into suspended animation. Steilacoom’s dreams of material glory went elsewhere. The truth was that Tacoma and Seattle had better natural ports.
Steilacoom was hoping to be the selected site for the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway, but in 1873, the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma for that advantage. In 1880, the Pierce County seat was transferred to Tacoma. Business in Steilacoom was stunted, so the town gradually evolved into a beach resort, complete with aquarium, and then to its present state of a residential community with charm in all corners.
In 1975, the Steilacoom historic district was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Steilacoom is an amazing place, modern and yet locked into its roots. Steilacoom has retained a strong sense of history and pride. Steilacoom’s historic streets have the quiet dignity of a family’s eldest and most respected relative. Sure, you can say their liveliest days are past, but the family’s pride in the early accomplishments will — and should — never end.
by Walter Neary