To say that the town of Steilacoom has historical value to the state of Washington and beyond would be an understatement. This seaside village has been there from the beginning, witnessing European discovery, the settlement of an American military outpost on the brink of war, French-Canadian fur trappers trading and hunting throughout the vast prairies and forests and the controversial execution of a local Native American chief trying to protect them.
But to say that history is all Steilacoom offers would also be an understatement. With waterfront parks, brew pubs, restaurants, coffee shops and walking trails on the same streets that were dug into the sloping hillside over 150 years ago, there’s plenty of 21st century exploring to be had.
Discovery of Steilacoom
In the spring of 1792 two ships from the British Royal Navy, the HMS Discovery and the HMS Chatham, with Captain George Vancouver in command, discovered a narrow entrance to an extensive body of water pushing inland amongst the low rolling hills covered in a dark green canopy.
Favorable winds pushed the mighty ships south past small islands with high sandy cliffs, the “color of marrow,” according to Vancouver’s journals. While anchored off the rocky shore of an island later named Bainbridge, Vancouver sent two small boats to explore the ins and outs of this inland sea. Each in command of one boat, Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey took crews south sailing past landmarks we now know as Vashon Island, Commencement Bay, Fox Island, Carr Inlet and Harstine Island. They were the first Europeans to make contact with the Steilacoom people, along with the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes who lived along the grassy tributaries that still bear their name.
Captain Vancouver was so impressed by the discoveries and contacts made by his subordinates that he named an island for Joseph Whidbey, and for his friend Peter, he charted the newly discovered inland sea as Puget’s Sound.
As the 1800s started in the Pacific Northwest, French-Canadians, Scots, Irish and the English began to venture out of the northern mountains in search of the highly sought-after beaver pelt. By the start of the 1830s the Hudson Bay Company had established a farm where Fort Steilacoom Park now sits to support the local trading post and the nearby outpost on the Nisqually River Delta.
For the next decade or so, the newcomers from the north known to the Native Americans as the “King George Men” lived in relative harmony with the locals. Friendships blossomed from necessity, and when wartime came to the sound, the Hudson Bay men were some of the Native Americans’ greatest allies in the early days, as the British had hoped to expel the Americans from the rich fur trade.
Establishment of Fort Steilacoom
When U.S. Commander Charles Wilkes and his expedition arrived to the Puget Sound in 1841 looking to establish new trade routes, America officially took notice of the Pacific Northwest and all its potential. The winds of change slowly started blowing in from the east.
The Americans or “Bostons,” as the Native Americans referred to them, eventually leased land from the Hudson Bay Company and established Fort Steilacoom, legitimizing the United States’ claim to the land. As the Americans’ presence grew in the Puget Sound region, tensions tightened with the Native American tribes. What started as a trickle of farmers and their families living cohesively with the land and the people, grew into one-sided government treaties, stolen land and a lost way of life. With war in the air, American families abandoned their farms and land claims to live near the protection of Fort Steilacoom’s reinforced timber blockhouse and mustering soldiers. It was this migration of families and farmers looking for safety in numbers that eventually spurred the development and commerce of the Steilacoom we know today.
Three mills in the area processed timber from a plateau sitting to the northeast full of small lakes. This “lake wood” as it was called was brought down Chambers Creek and loaded onto waiting cargo ships at the Port of Steilacoom. An 1855 article in the Puget Sound Courier inventoried the town at 70 homes, six stores, two blacksmiths, one cabinetmaker, one tailor shop, three hotels, one church, one billiards saloon and two bowling alleys.
Steilacoom, A Town of Firsts
As the population climbed with nervous settlers, a town took hold on the shores of the Puget Sound. Steilacoom became the first county seat of the newly formed Pierce County in 1852, the same year Steilacoom got Washington Territory’s first post office. In 1853 the Reverend John F. DeVore founded the first Protestant church north of the Columbia River, and in 1854 Steilacoom became the first incorporated town recognized by the legislature in Washington Territory. The town of Steilacoom continued to grow thanks to Canadian gold rushes, and in 1858 built Washington’s first jail and first public library.
Visiting Steilacoom Today
Today’s town sits just as it always has for the most part. Graded streets cut like grids into the green hillside step down toward Pioneer Orchard Park overlooking the Puget Sound. The town feels a bit secluded with a one way in, one way out kind of feeling, a bit like a small New England village with the masonry chimneys and cedar shake roofs to match.
Groups like the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association have been working for decades to preserve some of the town’s earliest landmarks. Businesses and private dwellings occupy many of the historic homes and shops, helping with their maintenance. Walking through town today is proof that historical preservation and town modernization doesn’t have to be an either-or decision.
Getting To Steilacoom
The town is a bit tucked away, sitting about seven miles off to the west of Interstate 5 as it passes through Lakewood. Steilacoom Boulevard is the old military road that brings you past Fort Steilacoom Park and down the hill into Steilacoom on the north side. There’s plenty of parking available streetside, but most is limited to two-hour increments. The town can fill up pretty quickly with events and sunny weekend days. Pierce County operates two small ferries out of the old port, one to Anderson Island and one to McNeil Island, which can cause quick surges in traffic, but not enough to keep you from visiting.
Topside Coffee Cabin
Follow Wilkes Street up from the water until you get to the top of old town. There you’ll find Topside Coffee Cabin serving locally roasted coffee and homemade treats with a smile. A couple of big windows fill the seating area with warm sunlight and views of the salty blue sound sparkling in the sunshine. The snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains break intermittently from the distant cloud cover before vanishing again on the horizon.
There was a really good vibe in the shop while I sat and sipped my coffee. Baristas mingled with locals and non-locals, laughing and talking small talk. The first sunny day in a while seemed to bring out everyone’s good cheer.
Pioneer Orchard Park
Back down the hillside sits Pioneer Orchard Park and its sweeping views. The park hosts weddings and photo shoots on its bandstand and stage for a fee, along with a free summer concert series put on by the town of Steilacoom. A wooden bench swing overlooks the sea from a grassy cliff edge. Views of Chamber’s Bay Golf Course and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge stand out to the north with a collection of smaller islands to the west and south. The town of Steilacoom manages Pioneer Orchard Park and 11 other parks within the city limits.
The Bair Bistro at the corner of Lafayette Street and Wilkes Street is located inside the 1895 Bair Drug and Hardware building. It feels and looks more like a museum than a café and has an eclectic collection of mementoes recounting the store’s presence in Steilacoom history.
The store once sat on the electric streetcar line coming from the city of New Tacoma. A framed picture on the wall explains how the store would flash its lights to alert townspeople of incoming rail cars.
The food was really good for a good price, and they offer an authentic soda fountain machine for a sweet treat after lunch.
Things to Check Out in Steilacoom
Readerboards along sidewalks and on street corners throughout town offer the casual visitor a glimpse into the lives and events that shaped its infancy.
For a more detailed storyline visit the Steilacoom Historical Museum located on Rainier Street in the 1857 homestead of Nathaniel Orr and his family. Fruit trees line the Orr family garden, which is wrapped in a natural wood colored picket fence. The fence runs down the hill toward Nathaniel’s Wagon Shop where he tended to the needs and repairs of his tiny village.
Located next to the wooden staircase of Charlie’s Park is the Steilacoom Tribal Cultural Center and Museum. A converted church holds a museum, which tells the story of the Steilacoom people and their past in Puget Sound lowlands.
Grab a drink at the Steilacoom Pub and Grill or the Steilacoom Tap Room after a day of sightseeing, or grab some refreshing ice cream at the Berry Dock Ice Cream Shop and watch the ferries come and go.
Fort Steilacoom Park
Fort Steilacoom Park sits quietly about a mile up the hill off of Steilacoom Boulevard. Featuring 340 acres of walking trail, sports fields, an open-air theatre, children’s play area and a large off-leash dog park, there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs.
Further back on the property, by a group of old wooden barns you can catch the paved Discovery Trail, a walking path around Waughop Lake with sitting areas and signs describing the native flora and fauna of the soggy prairie lands.
Oak Savannah and Chief Leschi
Muddy trails lead to the Oak Savannah, a section of native prairie left untouched by time. Water dripped from the moss and lichen-covered branches of the Oregon oaks a full day after the last rain. There was a cold dampness in the air as I cruised the paths looking for a readerboard labeled Leschi’s Story.
Chief Leschi, chief of the Nisqually tribe, protector of the Nisqually River grasslands was put to death for charges of murder that most felt were false or at best, justified during wartime conflicts. The 1850s brought big changes to the Puget Sound, and for years small skirmishes popped off around the area, claiming lives on both sides.
When the fighting finally halted and the dust had settled the U.S. had won the day and seized the land. Leschi was branded a criminal by Governor Isaacs Stevens, and was sentenced to death. Most believed that Stevens simply had it out for Leschi. Leschi’s refusal to sign away his people’s land at the Medicine Creek Treaty and unverified accounts of Leschi leading war parties put him front and center of Stevens’ long list of enemies.
On Feb. 19, 1858, Leschi was loaded into a wagon in the town of Steilacoom, and was taken a mile up the military road to where Fort Steilacoom Park sits now. Down in a low lying depression a large wooden gallows was built within sight of Waughop Lake, and with a small crowd of American soldiers in attendance and the Nisqually watching from a small bluff, Leschi was hanged.
Across the street from the park is the Fort Steilacoom Historical Museum. As the museum was operating under winter hours, I missed it both trips I took researching Steilacoom, and I will have to file it away for another trip.
I learned quite a bit about Steilacoom writing this story and met some friendly faces along the way. The history of this place is palpable, but with a fun and modern twist. I enjoyed my time exploring, and I hope you get a chance to visit this charming seaside town.