Steilacoom History

The name Steilacoom is derived from a Native American word meaning Pink Flowers. The Town on lower Puget Sound called Steilacoom today is known as a Place of Firsts in recognition of all the Firsts that were established here in the mid-19th Century. Some of those Firsts include the First Public Library, the First Jail, the First Courthouse and the First Brewery.

In 1854, Steilacoom became the first incorporated community in Pierce County and is the State of Washington's Oldest Incorporated Town. Long before its incorporation, its founders dreamed about the potential of this water-facing community. They dreamed it might become the state capital, perhaps a major port, railroad terminus or even a destination resort. Steilacoom became none of those things. Instead, much to the delight of its current residents, it is a Bedroom Community that retains a quaint, small-town charm, making it an attractive place to live.

Steilacoom, founded by Lafayette Balch, a sea captain from Maine, began as a bustling frontier seaport on Puget Sound. It was once the Pierce County seat and a leading candidate for the site of the territorial capitol. Steilacoom has 32 buildings and sites listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and was established as a National Historic District in 1974. A collection of historical photographs is on display inside Town Hall, 1717 Lafayette Street.

These photos (including scenes of the town's first business district: its port, livery stables, and early transportation such as the Interurban Trolley which operated between Tacoma and Olympia) can usually be viewed before Town Council meetings on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of each month, before 6:30 p.m.

After viewing the photos you may want to attend one of the meetings to find out whats happening in local government. Located at Wilkes and Lafayette, the Steilacoom Center was built in the early 1960s on the site of one of the towns most distinctive homes: a two storied white pillared structure owned by Dr. Charles Taylor. Long time resident Carol Brookhyser Wetherholt remembers living in the smaller of the two houses on the property between 1931-39.

The upstairs library, with access to a balcony was a favorite place for her. Located at the lower end of the towns onetime thriving business district, what is now the Soundview Apartments is reputed to have once been a Railroad Hotel and later the Bradley Mattress factory. Although passenger trains no longer stop there, the historical 1914 Steilacoom Railroad Station, now closed, is nearby on the waterfront on Commercial Street.

While the Steilacoom ferry terminal shares access with a barge and pedestrian-only ferry to McNeil Island, this island is off limits to the public because it is operated by the Washington State Department of Corrections. Since Territorial Days, McNeil Island has been operated as penal institution; first as a territorial facility, then as a federal penitentiary, and now as a state penitentiary.

The school district operates one of its remote and necessary schools there. Enrollment at this time is 10 students.

To learn more about the Town of Steilacoom history: Visit the Steilacoom Historical Museum, 1816 Rainier Street, next to the Nathaniel Orr Home on Rainier Street (near Steilacoom Center).

Phone: 253-584-9410 to purchase a copy of the history book Town on The Sound, available at the Bair Store or the Museum gift shop, explore related links at this site and consider joining one or more of the local associations.

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Phone: (253) 582-RENT(7368)
Steilacoom Center Building • 1615 Rainier Street #13 Steilacoom, WA 98388