What mountains are those on the western horizon? How do you pronounce “Steilacoom”? What’s that green bush with the pretty yellow flowers?
If you’re from out of town, you might have some random questions.
We have some random answers.
Question: OK, what mountains are those on the western horizon?
Answer: They’re called the Olympics, named for the highest peak, Mount Olympus. Sighted by Spanish sailor Juan Perez in 1774, they were first called El Cerro de la Santa Rosalia. It was the British Captain John Meares who sighted the peak in 1788 and called it Olympus.
Q: Chambers Creek, Chambers Bay. So who was Chambers?
A: Located at the mouth of Chambers Creek, which also was known as the Chudley River, Byrd Creek, Steilacoom River and Heath Creek, Chambers Bay isn’t much of a bay after all. The estuary between the creek and Puget Sound was once home to a lumber mill, and there were later dreams, unfulfilled, for a flour milling center that made sense in 1908 as the “Imperial Waterfront.” Also, a planned steel mill, blast furnace and foundry never materialized.
The creek, and later the bay, were named for Thomas Chambers, who built the sawmill.
Q: There seem to be a lot of little towns around Tacoma. Anything interesting to talk about there?
A: Ruston, near Point Defiance Park, was named for W.R. Rust, president of the Tacoma Smelting Co., which operated a waterfront copper smelter near Point Defiance. Fircrest, adjoining University Place, was established in part by Edward “Major” Bowes, he of “Amateur Hour” fame. Steilacoom (pronounced STILL-uh-kum), just south of the course, was the state’s first incorporated town, established in 1854. (Actually Washington was once a part of the Oregon Territory and wouldn’t earn statehood until 1889.)
Q: Thanks for the pronunciation guide. Now what about “Puyallup” and “Nisqually”?
A: Puyallup: PEW (as in church) and allup (rhymes with gallop); Nisqually: nis-QUALL-ee. You’re on your own with Stillaguamish, Quillayute, Dosewallips, Deschutes, Humptulips, Pysht and Bogachiel.
Q: I see a lot of islands. What do you call them?
A: Looking west, and from south to north (or left to right) there’s Ketron, Anderson, McNeil, Fox and Day Islands.
Q: Any stories there?
A: Lots. A developer once touted Ketron as a potential suburban paradise complete with shopping center and high school. Never happened. At the last census, 17 people lived there. Anderson has a lake. McNeil has housed a state or federal prison since 1875, and once hosted the likes of Alvin Karpis, Mickey Cohen, Charles Manson and a fledgling Birdman who ended up in Alcatraz. The island town of Gertrude has long been abandoned.
Then comes Fox Island, named for J.L. Fox, an assistant surgeon with the Wilkes Expedition in 1841. The island was not named for the USGA’s signature network, Fox Sports, which will have a camera position looking across to Chambers Bay. Finally, Day Island, only yards from the University Place mainland, contains several expensive homes that some people believe will one day sink below the water because of global warming.
Q: So the city is called University Place. Where’s the university?
A: Actually, it’s in nearby Tacoma. The University of Puget Sound had intended to build its campus near the water, but circumstances led it elsewhere. The name stayed, the school didn’t.
Q: I’ve seen signs for JBLM. What is it?
A: Joint Base Lewis-McChord is located in Pierce County south of Tacoma. The original Army training center, Camp Lewis, was named for Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. McChord Air Force Base was named for Col. William McChord, who perished in an airplane accident in 1937. The land for Camp Lewis was donated to the U.S. Army in 1917 by the people of Pierce County — with the understanding that it would continue in operation and thereby support the local economy.
Q: The Olympic Mountains are the ones to the west, I get that. But what’s that other big mountain I saw to the southeast?
A: Mount Rainier was named in 1792 by Capt. George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy. Vancouver wanted to recognize the contributions to the reign of King George III and the British Empire that had been made by soon-to-be Admiral Peter Rainier, who later made his name with service in the East Indies. Rainier never saw the mountain for which he was named, and it could be argued that he was part of the fight against America in the Revolutionary War.
The people of Pierce County prefer that the mountain be known as Tahoma, or Tacoma, which are native names used by people long before Vancouver was even a cabin boy.
Q: And Puget, of Puget Sound. Who was he?
A: Rear Admiral Peter Puget sailed with Vancouver as a lieutenant and was one of the first European explorers to visit the waters (by rowboat, as it turned out) for which he is named.
Vancouver, by the way, was looking for the Northwest Passage.
Q: What kinds of fish are out there in Puget Sound?
A: Many kinds. Salmon, cod, herring, squid, rockfish, dogfish, flounder, bullheads and more. And there’s lots of shellfish — clams, oysters, mussels and geoduck (pronounced GOOEY-duck), which look like razor clams that have been working out. Also, you’re looking at the habitat of the world’s largest octopuses. You also might see harbor seals or the occasional orca.
If you’re wondering about animals, University Place has lots of rabbits. Deer are common in all neighborhoods as are opossums and raccoons. Watch out for the bats. And yes, that was a bald eagle you saw soaring high above.
Q: Enough about fauna. What about flora?
A: You’ll see lots of rhododendrons, and the evergreen trees are probably cedar or Douglas fir. If you’ve never tasted huckleberries, make sure to try some.
And then there’s those marvelous little golden blossoms on what the locals call Scotch broom, or Scot’s broom. Please consider these rare ornamental bushes as our gift to the world. If you’d like, please take some with you when you leave. Just pull them out of the ground and put them in your suitcase, then transplant them when you get back home. Take 10, 20 plants. Take as many as you want. Enjoy.
Q: Finally, are there really bigfoots and sasquatches around here?