Steilacoom is a city of views. The longest is to its past as Washington’s oldest incorporated city. The shortest is just across the water to Chambers Bay.
The small town will soon find itself in the national spotlight as the U.S. Open gets underway at the golf course in June.
While locals might want to avoid the crowds and traffic during the tournament, a day trip to the picturesque city in its quieter moments rarely disappoints.
From Steilacoom, the islands of the South Sound — Ketron, Anderson, McNeil and Fox — can all be seen in one turn of the head. To the west are the Olympics, to the north are the Tacoma Narrows Bridges and to the east is the growing tournament tent city at Chambers Bay.
I began my visit in the past at the town’s history museum.
“Steilacoom is a city of firsts,” Marianne Bull, president of the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, told me. “We were here before Tacoma, before Seattle.”
Incorporated in 1854, the city saw the state’s first library and school district in 1858. That same year also saw the creation of the first brewery and, probably not coincidentally, first jail. And yes, before the history buffs complain, Washington was a territory in those days.
Port Steilacoom was founded by Maine sea captain Lafayette Balch, who was attracted to the deep waters and protected harbor in 1851. The port served Fort Nisqually and acted as a way station between San Francisco and Victoria, B.C., Bull said.
Another pioneer, John Chapman, established the neighboring and rival Steilacoom City. The two towns soon merged at Union Street where the road angles change, a permanent reminder of the conjoined town.
In its early days, Steilacoom had long wharves that extended into the water and served boats from tall ships to native canoes.
“It was an exciting place to be,” Bull said. “People were stopping here on their way to the gold rush. Everything was coming together and happening.”
The museum association has created a self-guided walking tour that takes visitors to 31 sites in the compact town. Most are historic homes. A brochure with map and descriptions can be picked up at the museum.
Residents of some of these homes are proud of the heritage, with many displaying construction dates and names. The Green Lantern features its namesake front and center. Another home, with four large columns, is named The Columns.
NATHANIEL ORR HOME
Pioneer Nathaniel Orr came to Steilacoom in 1852 after arriving in the West on the Oregon Trail. Like Tacoma’s founder, Job Carr, Orr was an orchardist.
“He brought a bunch of (apple) starts up here,” Bull said of Orr. “A lot of historical apple orchards in Steilacoom he started or initiated.”
Orr built a wagon shop in 1854 and converted the structure to a home in 1857. Modified and added on over the years, it was a residence for the Orr family until 1973, when the museum association acquired it.
“They didn’t change the house or the furniture,” Bull said. Today, practically all of the original furnishings in the house, from a piano to an ornate wood-burning stove, are still in place. “It’s a pretty unique situation,” she said. It’s as if the family just stepped out — about a century ago.
During a 1996 renovation, a storm knocked the house off its wooden foundation. Repaired and placed on a new foundation, the home is open for docent-led tours during museum hours.
A nearby rebuilt wagon shop houses tools and a couple of wagons. The Orr property also contains a modern two-story museum that has permanent and temporary exhibits and a gift shop.
One block away is the circa 1895 Bair Drug and Hardware Store, which recreates the ambiance of 19th-century commerce. It also holds the Bair Bistro, a small cafe.
RIDE THE FERRY
Puget Sounders know that walk-on ferry rides are one of the cheapest ways to enjoy the water without having to own a boat.
The Steilacoom ferries are one of the best deals going. Only visitors on official business can get on the Department of Corrections ferries to McNeil Island, but just next door are the berths for the Pierce County ferries that travel to Anderson and Ketron islands.
I parked my car in a free two-hour space on Commercial Street and bought my $5.30 ticket
I didn’t have any plans on getting off the ferry as it made its run to Anderson and Ketron. But I asked ticket seller Barbara Lucio if it was possible to walk around Ketron. She said no, it’s a private island, with about a dozen residences.
“It’s not some place you can go and look around. I’ve only been there once. It looked kind of scary,” Lucio said. “The only people who go there live there or are related to people who live there. Or are looking at real estate.”
The triangle run, as they call it, visits both islands on the one-hour ride. But most runs go only to Anderson and back. Along the way there are views of Mount Rainier and ever-changing vistas of the South Sound.
I asked ferry deckhand Jeffrey Jackson if many people took the ride just for fun. It turns out he was one of them. Before he started working on the boat, he would take his daughter Lois on the trip.
“We would bring snacks, games, maybe a puzzle for the table. Then we would come out here, smell the air, watch a few porpoises jump around and see some sights,” Jackson said.
After leaving Anderson, we headed to Ketron to drop off a woman and two cars. I asked another deckhand about the mysterious island’s reputation. “They’ll chase you off,” he said.
“They chase me off and I own property there,” the walk-on passenger confirmed just before she departed.
I stayed on the ferry.
FARRELL MARSH PARK
Looking for a secluded getaway that didn’t involve allegedly territorial residents, I headed uphill from the city center to Farrell Marsh Park. The park is a wild and natural wooded area surrounding a marshy lake. It occupies a space on the city’s southern border.
I parked my car in a small gravel lot at Beach Avenue and Chambers Street. A wide, flat trail meandered through a thick jungle of greenery. A swath of stinging nettles kept me corralled until I came to a large fir tree.
Here, two narrow paths diverged. Following Robert Frost’s advice, I took the one less traveled.
After passing through salmon berries and a mature forest I found the lake. Cattails and yellow-flowered water lilies filled marshy areas.
The only other life I saw in the park that day were two Canada geese standing on a floating mat of vegetation. They alternated watching me and their two fluffy yellow goslings. I figured if I got any closer they might chase me off.
SUNNYSIDE BEACH PARK
From the seclusion of Farrell Marsh, I headed to busy Sunnyside Beach, a thin band of land between the railroad tracks and Puget Sound.
Several groups were playing volleyball, and families were grilling and picnicking on a large lawn. Children were building sandcastles as parents watched from beached logs. Other families were throwing a Frisbee.
In the distance, a large tent city was rising at Chambers Bay.
SALTARS POINT PARK
The wait to visit Saltars Point Park is almost over.
In 2012, a passing train snagged an errant cable, accidentally destroying the pedestrian bridge to the beach.
BNSF Railway has built a new bridge, but because ownership is being transferred to the city, it’s still not open to the public. City officials hope that all the legalities will be settled and the bridge opened in June.
Whereas Sunnyside is a sandy beach, Saltars is rocky. But, when it’s opened, expect fewer crowds.
As the sun was sliding behind the Olympics, I met a friend at Topside Bar & Grill. It was too chilly to be on the restaurant’s deck, which has to have one of the best views of any restaurant in the region.
It was Tuesday trivia night at the restaurant, which made the evening a communal experience. Over draft beers and steaks, we answered questions ranging from mountains to movies. Although we lost to a table whose knowledge of Sandra Bullock exceeded ours, we scored the highest points per person.
It was a moral victory.