“This sign is a reminder to residents and visitors alike that Steilacoom is proud of its historic past. Our town is the oldest ‘official’ town in the State of Washington, having been incorporated by the Territorial Legislature in 1854. At the time we were a brawling seaport with high hopes of eventually becoming the State capitol. Ships called at our docks from San Francisco, an abundance of saloons served the demands of settlers and sailors; the townspeople witnessed vigilante hangings. … By 1858 Steilacoom had a brick kiln, brewery, newspaper, school, hotels, more than 70 dwellings, and the first jail and first public library in Washington Territory. Formal debates and formal balls were part of Steilacoom’s social scene long before most other Washington towns existed.”
Indeed. Steilacoom had six stores, two blacksmiths, a tailor, three hotels, three sawmills, a grist mill, a newspaper, schools and churches. It was the largest town in Washington Territory until the 1870s when Tacoma was chosen for the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and after that took Steilacoom’s status as county seat and people moved north to Tacoma, then Seattle, leaving the town behind.
From part of a presentation given in 1974 by the town in order to receive approval as a historical district:
“What is the significance of Steilacoom? … What is the significance of Plymouth and Jamestown? The answer to that question is self-evident. At Plymouth all that remains of its earliest days is a rock of dubious authenticity. At Jamestown a few crumbled bricks and a recent reconstruction. But in Steilacoom there still live the descendants of the first settlers. Tales of the first days are still told by those who heard them from the lips of actual witnesses. … On a quiet winter night, while the snow sifts gently over the town, a careful listener can still hear the sounds of an early New Year’s Eve celebration when officers of Fort Steilacoom and their ladies joined the townspeople in a dance that lasted until dawn. Or hear the shouts of revelry as the troopers, loggers and sailors caroused in the numerous taverns of the town. And the ghost of the great chief of the Nisquallies, Leschi, may still haunt the site of the courthouse where he was sentenced to hang for fighting for his people’s lands and rights. … But nowhere in this state is there a site which combines the natural unspoiled beauty of the past, early buildings, descendants of pioneers and a historical heritage.”
My family moved to Steilacoom in the late seventies and for a time we lived in a rented house on Rainier Street across from the Nathanial Orr place until the house my father was building in the woods off Steilacoom Boulevard was finished. It was fun living in town. I was in second grade at Cherrydale Elementary and my teacher looked just like Marlo Thomas in the TV show That Girl. She had dark hair in a flip with bangs and wore tights and flats. The Vietnam War was escalating and her officer boyfriend secretly visited her on the playground during recess because he was being shipped off soon and wanted to spend as much time as possible with her. I don’t know if he ever came back.
October was my favorite month in Steilacoom. The yellows and oranges and browns of the enormous maple leaves that we traced outlines of on colored construction paper and taped to the school’s windows, pears and apples and nuts from the remains of 19th century orchards free for the picking all around town. I remember Halloween that year (costumed, as always, as a witch) and trick-or-treating with my brother (who went, quite fittingly, as a devil). It snowed that winter and I walked downtown all by myself because it was so beautiful, a perfect small town in a snow globe.
I haven’t been back for years and I’d rather remember the town as it used to be, the way it is in old pictures. Especially on Halloween with a full harvest moon. It’s a town full of ghost stories. At least they brought back the Ghost Walk this year, a guide telling the stories of Steilacoom’s haunted places. I wish I could go. There are stories I don’t know.
After we moved from town I had to walk home from school alone through the canopy of dark trees down Steilacoom Boulevard. People dumped things in the woods, including dead pets, and cars full of drunk soldiers returning to Fort Lewis honked and yelled. I was Ichabod Crane, singing to myself to keep from being scared as I hurried home in the lengthening afternoon shadows:
The Steilacoom was First sign is here. Half a block down Puyallup St. was an old blue house that often had a For Sale sign out front. Supposedly a little girl drowned in the well on the property, and it was said that crying or screaming echoed from the well sometimes and that was why nobody cared to live there for long. On the property where my father built a house there was an old stone well he uncovered while landscaping the stream. It was mostly filled up with mud, but I avoided it except to pick huckleberries from the big bushes growing around it. The remains of an orchard grew among the firs and maples and ferns of the woods, sour cherry and apples trees.
Later I wondered if that might have been part of the Chambers claim, who built the sawmill and then a flour mill over on Chambers Creek. A short walk through the woods brought you to Sunnyside Beach.
Just up the hill from the Steilacoom was First sign is a stone marker where the first jail was built in 1858 on Starling Street. I didn’t find out about the ghost story about the jail until many years later when I read it in a newspaper article on Steilacoom hauntings. In 1863 a man named J.M. Bates lost his prize cow that he depended on to make a living by selling milk. Somebody told him they thought they’d seen the owner of the slaughterhouse (who owned a wood mill and grist mill), a well-respected early settler, Andrew Byrd, with the cow. Bates waited until Byrd came into town and shot him. Before he died the next day, Byrd allegedly begged people not to punish either Bates because he was simple-minded, or the man who lied to Bates. It’s not clear which. A mob went to the jail and hung Bates and the story goes that on moonlit nights Bates’ ghost wanders around Starling and Puyallup streets looking for his cow, noose still hung around his neck. I wish I would’ve known about that story because the house we rented was on the same block. In the most frequently told version of the story, Bates’ cow was found wandering around the railroad tracks a few days later. Since the railroad tracks weren’t built until the next century, this can hardly be true.
I remember the town before it became The Steilaccom Historic District, before the a lot of the old buildings were repaired and open to the public and tourists came. Someone must have remembered how successful the town was as a summer resort when the electric trolley connected Tacoma and Steilacoom from 1890 to 1914 (when the train replaced it and Steilacoom once again slipped back into obscurity). There were hotels and beach cottages and restaurants and it was quite a popular destination. When I was a little kid it was a quiet town of old people in old houses surrounded by old fruit trees. The train station was boarded up, the train didn’t stop.
The Bair museum and restaurant opened for business during the 1976 Pioneer Street Fair. We kids used to peer into the windows at the dusty junk that looked like it had sat undisturbed for decades, a time machine.
Pharmacist W.L. Bair and his wife Hattie came to Steilacoom in 1890 and opened a drug store on Commercial Street. When the Tacoma Trolley Company decided to locate the terminus a block away on Lafayette St., Bair built a new drug store there, the first commercial building, and the first building to get electric lights. A soda fountain was installed in 1906, then a post office and hardware stock bought from E.R. Rodgers’ estate when the Rodgers and McCaw store closed. The trolley used so much energy getting up Lafayette St. Hill that the store lights would dim, letting customers know the trolley was coming. Hattie Bair was famous for her cooking, first at her own restaurant and bakery near the drugstore, then at the Iron Springs hotel where the brewery used to be, then at the boardinghouse Waverley House (E.R. Rodgers). Chicken dinners (with biscuits, potatoes and gravy, vegetables and pie), clam pie and oyster stew.
From Ghost Stories from the Pacific Northwest:
“The old Bair Drugstore, built in 1895, has been restored by the Steilacoom Historical Museum Society and turned into a museum and restaurant. Rosa Kreger, who runs the place, has constant problems with some resident spirit. Appliances just won’t function properly here. Cinnamon buns are put into the oven at 350 degrees. Twenty minutes later the smoke alarm goes off and the buns are burnt to a crisp. Somehow the thermostat has been turned up to 500. The new dishwasher breaks down in bizarre ways, with insulation wire frayed from the inside out and other problems puzzling to repairmen.
“Most peculiar is the behavior of a new product Kreger hopes to sell, a ‘Secret Salmon Sauce.’ At $3 a bottle they weren’t flying off the shelves into customers’ hands — but they were flying off the shelf. One patron swears she saw a bottle of this sauce leap from the top rear shelf of a display, fly five feet sideways through the air, and crash to the plank flooring.
“Kreger and her partner Michael Mason call the bothersome spirit Cub Bair, the nickname of the store’s founder, W.L. Bair. ‘He worked here the longest, and is very finicky about changes,’ says Kreger. ‘He doesn’t like all the changes we are making.'”
“Cub” was actually the nickname of W.L. Bair’s son according to other sources. Why can’t they keep their stories straight? Godfrey “Cub” Bair remembers helping put shingles on the roof when the building was constructed when he was five, and his father letting him run the candy counter the next year. Cub went to look for gold in Alaska, fought in WWI, then worked in the automobile business in Tacoma until returning to run the store when his father died in 1930. As a child, Cub’s sister Eudocia helped her father by folding the papers containing medicines and then ran the soda fountain. After the first world war she married a soldier stationed at Fort Lewis and they ran the Bair post office for thirty-seven years. Apparently the Bair store closed in the late fifties and remained untouched until 1973 when Cub and Eudocia donated the property to the town.
The restaurant closed, is now open again under new management.
The best thing I ever ate in Steilacoom was at the Tribal Museum in their little cafe, a smoked salmon croissant sandwich and clam chowder. The Oberlin Congregational Church was built in 1903. When I lived in Steilacoom an artist lived there, the museum opened in 1988.
Christmas Memory by Carol Weatherholt;
“Early Steilacoom celebrations of Christmas centered around the Oberlin Church’s nativity programs. We all played parts though the years, or we were in singing groups. The evening would end with a stocking full of hard candy and nuts for the children. Always there was a Japanese orange in the stocking toe.”
The site of the two story log house on Commercial Street.where settlers hid out sometimes during the Indian War of 1855-56. Laura Belle Bowney Bartlett tells about it in Island on the Sound, Stories of Steilacoom:
“While living in Steilacoom, though but a little girl, I distinctly remember once going to the block house. We were notified … that the report had come in that the Indians were going to attack the town that night and it was not safe to remain in our home. We went away, and I shall never forget how frightened I was, as was everyone, when a shot was fired by our guard, which all thought was the beginning of the attack, but proved by daylight to be a large fat hog. However, the Indians never made an attack on Steilacoom … .”
Saltar’s Point, named after Captain John Saltar who bought the property in 1864. Myrtle Misner Claussen described (in 1953) what it was like:
“Saltar’s Point was vastly different in 1889, when my parents came from Illinois to locate in Steilacoom. … The Point used to be a favorite camping spot for Indians, on their way to visit other tribes, going as far as Bellingham and British Columbia. Long before they were in sight, we could hear their monotonous sing-song rhythm as they plied their paddles in big native canoes. Finding this a good camping spot and a cool spring near-by, their small shoddy tents were soon erected, fires made, and much activity, which included hordes of youngsters and dogs.”
Sunnyside Beach. A little to the north was where the main village of the Steilacoom Indians, on Chambers Creek. It’s believed the name “Steilacoom” came from the pink flower that grew on the bluffs near the bay. Those bluffs were empty except for scotch broom, foxgloves, wild flowers and grasses when I was young. Today it’s a housing development. My brother would go over to Chambers Creek to fish, but I didn’t like the deep stillness of the forest, it made me nervous. I didn’t know that was were the village had been. Across the creek on the north side were strange mounds. I realize now they were old shellfish middens, most likely. I think they’re called middens. There used to be a paper mill there, now there’s a salmon hatchery. Apparently the Indians dried and smoked salmon along Sunnyside Beach. It’s not clear when the Chambers Creek village was abandoned, if the population was reduced by disease or removed. T.M. Chambers settled there in the late 1840s.
Later, in the 1930s, the south side of the beach was known as Higuchi’s Beach. 10 cents admission. Yazuboru Higuchi worked for the Steilacoom Sand and Gravel Company and raised strawberries to be sold in Tacoma. After an accident at the gravel pit, Higuchi leased the beach and named it “Sunny Beach.” I don’t know what happened during the Japanese internment period, but maybe since the property was leased the Higuchi family wasn’t forced to sell, maybe they returned to Steilacoom.
There were five bands of Steilacooms based around several lakes: Spanaway, Snake, Sequalitchew, Gravelly, American, and Steilacoom. When it came time to have to sign a treaty with the government, there was some confusion about who was signing for whom and the treaties were in Chinook Jargon and there might have been misunderstandings. The Indian Creek Treaty was signed in 1854 and the Steilacooms didn’t even get a reservation because reservations couldn’t be too close to towns and Chamber’s Bay was too close. Then came the Indian Wars and the capture of the leader of the Nisqually tribes, Leschi, who was accused of murdering settlers. Below is the site of the court house where Leschi was condemned to death. It’s said his ghost haunts the place, but he was hanged north of Fort Steilacoom, in Thunderbird Shopping Center in Lakewood, so who knows.
The monument for the bell from the 1853 Methodist church, first Protestant church north of the Columbia River.
The E.R. Rodgers house, built in 1891. Rodgers lost all his money in the Panic of 1993 and had to sell. The 17 room mansion became a boarding house called the Waverly House. Hattie Bair took over in 1920 until her death in the late ’40s and it was vacant until the early ’60s when it was renovated and became a museum and boarding house again. I remember visiting the museum with my brother and being frightened of the old man who ran it. There were displays of rocks and minerals, that’s all I recall. Later in the ’70s it reincarnated as the E.R. Rodgers Restaurant. A specialty was Rime Rib and Yorkshire Pudding, Northwest salmon and halibut, steamed clams, cioppino. The weekend buffet was popular: Prime Rib Hash, Kippered Salmon Spread, Specialty Cheeses, Poached Salmon, Fresh oysters & Dungeness Crab.
I had heard the mansion was haunted. The story was that when it was a boarding house a woman lived there and had a husband or lover who was a sailor (or at least was expected to come back from somewhere by ship). She would go up to the attic to get a good view of the Sound to the north and sit there watching, rocking back and forth, maybe knitting or something. Maybe she ran down to the wharf every time a passenger ship docked. Maybe her loved one owned his own ship and had a business like one of the original founders of the city, Lafayette Balch, Balch was a ship captain from the East who landed at Steilacoom in 1851 and built a wharf and a store and was very successful shipping wood to San Francisco and goods back to sell in his store. He died suddenly in San Francisco at the age of 37.
Maybe something like that happened and the woman never found out. Maybe he went off to war. Maybe she waited for years and years up there in that attic. Maybe she killed herself. A male ghost was supposed to be in the house, too, but I can’t remember his story, only that he was scarier. When I was a student I knew someone who worked there and had a terrible experience. She and another server went down to the wine cellar to put some things away after closing and while they were down there the lights began to go out one by one. She said they flew out of there like bats out of hell. The attic and cellar were not nice places to go late at night. The restaurant closed, replaced by office space for a law firm or something.
The popular opinion is that the mansion is haunted by Rodgers’ wife Catherine who only got to live in the house a short time and was mad about that. Or it’s Hattie Bair or E.R. Rodgers himself who keeps rearranging the rocking chair in the north window.
From Ghost Stories from the Pacific Northwest:
“The nightly hauntings tend to hold off until all of the customers have left and the staff is at work cleaning up, but customers too have had unusual experiences. One visitor from England was drinking with friends in the bar when he suddenly turned pale. He had just seen a woman’s stockinged foot stepping through thin air and disappearing upward into the attic overhead. There have been so many disturbing happenings associated with the attic that staff are forbidden to go up there alone during the day, and no one is allowed up there at all after dark. The most annoying effect of the spirit’s presence is the havoc it plays with the gadgets in the bar. Televisions, blenders, sound systems, lights — all switch on and off my themselves and channels or gears when no one is around.
“On another occasion a rug cleaning company arrived to clean the carpets during the restaurant’s closed hours late at night. When [one of the owners] arrived the next morning he found only one room had been finished. When he called the company they told him there would be no charge for the work done, but that they would not return. They said the place was haunted and they didn’t want to talk about it.
“Another legend tells of a Native American who was hanged in the honey locust on the southwest corner of the yard. A face is seen from time to time hanging in the illuminated tree at night.”
The Albert Balch house, 1857. Lafayette Balch build this for his younger brother who had some sort of mental problem. From Reminiscences of Washington Territory:
“A memorable case was that of Albert Balch, a storekeeper in Steilacoom many years ago. His was a clear case of lunacy: at a certain stage of the moon he always became insane; at other times be betrayed no sign of a disordered mind.”
Balch was put on a ship to the only insane asylum in the region in San Francisco, but on the way there returned to normal. Doctors examined him and found nothing wrong and he went back to Steilacoom.
“One morning he was found dead in the woods near town, after having wandered by the light of the moon for hours through the timber with an axe in his hand. He was in his night shirt, and apparently killed himself by running, as his person contained no wounds.”
Yet no ghost story about Albert Balch! A wasted opportunity. He must be wandering around Steilacoom at night during the full moon — certainly tonight, Halloween and a big full moon.
The Nathaniel Orr Home, 1857. Orr came to Steilacoom in 1852, opened a wagon shop, also made furniture and planted orchards. When we lived across the street Nathaniel’s son Glen was still alive, an old, old man, tall and thin.
Pioneer Middle School, built in 1916. Art class was in the second floor former auditorium.
The William Webster Home, oldest building in Steilcoom. Built in 1854 on Commercial Street. Located next to E.R. Rodgers, and where Rodgers moved when he had to sell his mansion in 1893.
Grocery store on Lafayette street where I used to buy candy, a few sticks of Red Vines and Bazooka bubble gum for a penny each, Jolly Rancher hard candy sticks for five cents. Now it’s a French bistro. There is no grocery store in Steilacoom anymore. No. A town without a grocery store is not a town. It’s a tourist destination.
The little barber shop where Sam got a hair cut. The barber’s wife is Japanese and he called her to let her know he had a Japanese customer. I don’t think she cared.
Phillip Keatch Home, 1858, Commercial Street.
The Town Hall, built in 1930. The library used to be on the right. I went there every Friday afternoon on the way home from Pioneer School to borrow a few books for the weekend. The Town Hall has squeaky wooden floors and old photographs of the town hanging on the walls. In the nineties my mother lived up the street and could easily spy on the wedding parties held there on summer weekends. The bride and groom arrived in a horse-drawn carriage. The library was moved somewhere out of town, I don’t know where. You need a car to buy groceries or go to the library.
The beautiful long sunsets of summer, the deep cold Sound, wooded islands, jagged Olympic mountains: