Still life in Steilacoom

September 6, 2005 

The Bair Drug & Hardware building in downtown Steilacoom dates to 1895. Steilacoom, the state's oldest city, has a sleepy business district, which is just fine with residents of the bedroom community south of Tacoma on Puget Sound.


On the Steilacoom town bulletin board, there between the barber shop and bank, you’ll find the Town Council agenda and the Town Council minutes alongside notices concerning a found cat, a missing cockatiel, an upcoming garage sale and other matters of importance to the citizens of Washington’s oldest incorporated municipality.

Steilacoom was founded in 1854.

On the menu at Bair Drug & Hardware – where owners Ed and Martha Lintott sell neither drugs nor hardware – you’ll find fresh peach cobbler.

On the tables you’ll find a notice, like the one at the front door, telling patrons that cell phones are not allowed.

Too noisy. Too much of a distraction stealing from the more important things – such as conversation, a classic Reuben sandwich or handmade milkshakes.

Just down the street, there’s a dinner house, E.R. Rogers, known for its prime rib and a shy ghost who lives upstairs.

There’s a pocket-size park nearby, nicely fit for an intimate wedding. Puget Sound stretches beyond as Fox, McNeil, Anderson and Ketron islands rise tree-green from the blue water.

McNeil hosts a prison, and workers use a dock near the boat moorage and fishing pier. Down the beach and down the tracks, beyond Chambers Creek, there’s a naked spread of sand and scrub soon to become, maybe, a golf course.

Mostly forest thereabouts, Fort Lewis hugs the town’s border south and east.

This is a place of butterflies, hummingbirds, happy children and retired military brass. But for islanders and people headed to or from the prison, it’s not a place where people typically go.

“We are truly a bedroom community. We understand that,” said Ron Lucas, Steilacoom’s mayor.

He’s running unopposed for a second term in the upcoming election.

Things seem to be working just fine.

After the town lost its major employer – Abitibi, a newsprint plant, in 2000 – doomsayers rose like chicken pox.

Lucas has a framed article hanging on his wall. It’s the one where County Executive John Ladenburg warned that the loss of Abitibi combined with losses associated with tax-cutting initiatives could cause the town to dissolve itself.

Abitibi, after all, had an assessed property value of $95 million, while the town itself now counts $450 million.

The council made cuts and established a set of core functions.

Steilacoom survives.

“People want to live here. We’re historic. We have a great school system,” Lucas said.

Townspeople do have concerns, he said:

 • Historic preservation. Should the town preserve its heritage? What of the property owners who want to develop their land by building new homes or apartments?

 • The golf course. This could mean an increase in traffic – for a town where the word “jam” more likely connotes something made with blackberries.

 • Progress House. There’s a plan to move a work-release facility for released prisoners from its current location in Tacoma to a site at Western State Hospital, near Steilacoom.

“We’re not really tricky here,” Lucas said. “The economy of scale is smaller. You can address things better. There’s a small-town atmosphere. I know all the school board members.”

Town leaders meet one another on the street. A member of Kiwanis might also be on the Fourth of July fireworks committee. Folks gather at Bair Drug & Hardware.

“We’re the 411 of Steilacoom,” said Ed Lintott. “In the 1900s, this was the post office. It was the hub and heart of town.”

And there’s sarsaparilla on the menu.


Population: 6,106

Government: Strong mayor, council

Annual number of new homes built: Approximately 25

Assessed value of typical quarter-acre lot: $220,000-$350,000

Property taxes: Account for 35-40 percent of town’s revenue

Annual budget: Approximately $4 million

Number of “historically significant” homes in town: 70

Approximate percentage of homes that are rentals: 35

Major gatherings: Apple Squeeze, Steilacoom Salmon Bake and the Christmastime Elves & Bells Around Town

Latest rumor: Look for a French bistro and bakery on Lafayette Street

Major resident celebrity: Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, retired Gen. John Shalikashvili

Retired and active duty military members in town: Approximately 500

Future of the 80-acre Abitibi mill site, currently for sale: Mayor Ron Lucas believes it eventually will become a residential area.

C.R. Roberts: The News Tribune

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