Lakewood is old and new, familiar and exotic

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Lakewood is one of Pierce County’s newest cities – and one of its oldest. It was established as a city in 1996, but was established long before that. For a variety of reasons, Lakewood was – and still is – a crossroads. 

Once known as the Lakes District of Tacoma, it has taken on its own identity.

What is now named Steilacoom Blvd (across from Western State Hospital) was once Military Road which connected the very first incorporated town in Washington (Steilacoom, 1854) with the more distant and early military outposts of Walla Walla to the east and Bellingham to the north.

More on Steilacoom here-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steilacoom,_Washington and here- http://www.townofsteilacoom.com/.

Lakewood is a fascinating place in many ways – it is largely defined, geographically and culturally, by Ft. Lewis and McChord AFB (currently JBLM). Some of the newest developments – both residential and commercial – are alongside some of the oldest buildings in the state.

Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library's  Northwest Room

Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library’s
Northwest Room

Some of the wealthiest people in the state live here – not far from many of the poorest. Some families have been here for generations – others are stationed here for only a few years.

Largely because of this constant cycle of military personnel and their families, Lakewood holds a remarkable international District along South Tacoma Way. It’s mostly Asian, but you can also find glimmers of Hispanic culture and food, and fabulous German bakeries (in my humble opinion, the best pretzels in the country can be found here- http://hessbakery.com/), delis and restaurants – and even one memorable French restaurant (https://locu.com/places/french-hen-the-bistro-lakewood-us/).

You can visit some of the grand estates in and around Lakewood like Lakewold Gardens (http://www.lakewoldgardens.org/index.html) or Thornewood Castle (http://www.thornewoodcastle.com/).

Ft Nisqually’s original location, in what is now Dupont, was the first official U.S. presence north of the Columbia River.

History lies beyond (and sometimes under) the streets, strip malls and housing developments of Lakewood. The monument to the hanging of Chief Leschi, for example, is barely noticeable in front of a string of stores including Lakewood’s Dollar Tree on Steilacoom Boulevard.

The first public school in Pierce County was in Lakewood (near the northwestern corner of Clover Park Technical College).

One of the odd facts of Lakewood is that it once held a naval supply depot connected by railroad tracks to the Port of Tacoma. It was phased out in 1951 and used by Clover Park Technical College, until it was torn down in 2014-2015. Harrison Preparatory School was built on its site.

Among other things, Clover Park Technical College was the site of the Tacoma Motor Speedway, which from 1914 to 1921 was rivalled only by the Indy 500.

Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library's  Northwest Room

Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library’s
Northwest Room

For details on the history of Clover Park Technical College (including a raceway and an airport on its site) check out this website - http://cptc.edu/sites/default/files/old-files/full-history.pdf.

Fort Steilacoom as a military post was abandoned in 1868, it is the current site of Pierce College, Western State Hospital and Fort Steilacoom Park (with 340 acres, including seven miles of trails - http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/fort-steilacoom-park), https://www.cityoflakewood.us/parks-and-recreation/parks/fort-steilacoom-park

Prior to the Civil War several soldiers and officers who later became prominent – even on the Confederate side – were stationed at Fort Steilacoom, including General George Pickett (http://www.historylink.org/File/7098).

If you are interested in what Lakewood used to be, and the pulse of history behind the ever-expanding suburban sprawl, check out the Lakewood Historical Society in person or here- http://www.lakewoodhistorical.org/.

Like every city perhaps, Lakewood straddles multiple identities. Lakewood has stunningly beautiful lakes and miles of leafy and wooded streets. But it has also been featured in at least 50 episodes of COPS and gained international notoriety with the murder of four police officers on November 29, 2009.

Lakewood is stable and in motion, some elements the same and some forever changing.

Lakewood is full of surprises and has something for everyone.

Lakewood is crass and elegant, urban and woodsy, established and mobile, full of opportunities and challenges like no other corner of Pierce County.