Historic buildings now dot a region that was once open grassland

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, February 13, 2009 11:55pm
  • Life

A historic home rescued by a pear tree, the oldest historic group of buildings west of the Cascades and the hospital where actress Frances Farmer was confined are on what was once called The Prairie, southwest of Tacoma.

Grasslands and shorelines supported tribes’ hunting and fishing, but that ended with the arrival of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Co., white settlers and the U.S. Army.

Settlers transformed the prairie with farms, fences and cattle, taking away tribal resources. The U.S. Army arrived in 1849 as much to ensure national claims to the area as to protect settlers.

An 1855-56 war with the tribes ended the dispute, with the newcomers on top.


The rival towns of Port Steilacoom and Steilacoom City were merged into Steilacoom in 1854.

The small waterfront community claims several firsts, including the first incorporated community in Washington Territory (1854), first brick building north of the Columbia River, and the first public library, brewery and jail in the territory.

Steilacoom was a Puget Sound beach resort in the 1890s, but that ended when railroad tracks were built along the shoreline.

Residents were left with history: 32 buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places and the town as an official historic district (1974). A map from the museum guides visitors to buildings and monuments.

A tour of the Steilacoom Historical Society’s wagon shop and the 1853 Nathaniel Orr home is the highlight, although the latter almost slid into oblivion.

“They jacked up the house 12 years ago to build a basement. It fell off its supports. The tree that saved the house was a pear tree that it rested against,” curator Lenore Rogers said.

“We raised money to repair and restore it and enough to build a new museum.”

Orr was a carpenter who built and repaired farm wagons, coffins, spinning wheels and other wood-related challenges, including his home’s banister.

“Everything’s original to the Orrs with minor exceptions. He made tables, bookshelves, the stairs; planted the orchard. He was a pillar of the community,” Rogers said.

The museum next door showcases the town’s history starting in the 1850s; history in action can be found at the nearby wagon house.

Call the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, 253-584-4133, for guided and self-guided walks.

Fort Steilacoom

Docents, cannons, a diorama of the fort in 1858, video, historic re-enactments in period clothing and the oldest historic group of buildings west of the Cascades are found on the grounds of Western State Hospital.

The last four historic buildings from about 30 originals at Fort Steilacoom have been preserved. When plans were made to demolish the barracks, history-minded residents stepped forward to save and restore four buildings.

The buildings’ furnishings have been kept to the mid-19th-century styles. The home used by married officers is clearly different from rooms for enlisted men.

The only original furniture is in one room and includes a pool table made in 1860.

In 1871 the property was deeded to Washington Territory for use as an insane asylum (now Western State Hospital) in what is now Lakewood. Barracks were converted into a permanent institution.

For information, call 253-582-5838.

Western State Hospital

Perhaps the most famous resident of Western State Hospital was Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, who was institutionalized from 1945 to 1950 with about 2,700 other patients.

The hospital has a small museum with artifacts and photographs covering more than 130 years.

“It has wicker furniture made by the men and samples of sewing made by the women. There was a big sewing factory where women created garments for every hospital patient and some other institutions,” library associate Kathleen Benoun said.

Since the museum is midcampus in an abandoned ward, ask for a docent-guided appointment by e-mailing benoukg@dshs.wa.gov or calling 253-756-2593. You’ll also see some rooms, including one dedicated to Farmer.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

Talk to us

More in Life

Kotor's zigzagging town wall rewards climbers with a spectacular view. (Cameron Hewitt / Rick Steves' Europe)
Rick Steves: Just south of Dubrovnik lies unpolished Montenegro

One of Europe’s youngest nations offers dramatic scenery, locals eager to show off their unique land, and a refreshing rough-around-the-edges appeal.

Dark gray wheels and black exterior accents provide extra visual appeal for the 2024 Subaru Impreza’s RS trim. (Subaru)
2024 Subaru Impreza loses a little, gains a lot

The brand’s compact car is fully redesigned. A couple of things are gone, but many more have arrived.

TSR image for calendar
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

This weekend in Snohomish: The Snohomish Blues Invasion and the Snohomish Studio Tour 2023.

Made by Bruce Hutchison, the poster for “A Momentary Diversion on the Road to the Grave” is an homage to 1985 classic “The Goonies.” (Photo provided)
Indie film premiering on Whidbey Island

Filmed almost entirely on Whidbey Island, “A Momentary Diversion on the Road to the Grave” is set to premiere in Langley.

TSR image only
Does your elementary school child have ADHD?

It’s important to identify children with this condition so we can help them succeed in school.

This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. In a race against the clock on the high seas, an expanding international armada of ships and airplanes searched Tuesday, June 20, 2023, for the submersible that vanished in the North Atlantic while taking five people down to the wreck of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)
A new movie based on OceanGate’s Titan submersible tragedy is in the works: ‘Salvaged’

MindRiot announced the film, a fictional project titled “Salvaged,” on Friday.

A clump of flowering ornamental grass or pennisetum alopecuroides in an autumn garden.
My garden runneth over with fountain grasses, and for good reason

These late-blooming perennials come in many varieties. They work well as accents, groundcovers, edgings or in containers.

This Vacasa rental is disgusting. Can I get my money back?

The vacation rental Carol Wilson books for her group through Vacasa is infested with rats and insects. Vacasa offers to refund one night, but can they get all of their money back?

A woman diverts from her walk on Colby Avenue to take a closer look at a pickup truck that was partly crushed by a fallen tree during an overnight wind storm Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in north Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)
Storm season is coming. Here’s how to prepare for power outages.

The most important action you can take is to make an emergency preparedness kit.

Most Read