Happy birthday, Steilacoom!

The historic Town of Steilacoom had a birthday Thursday and even Mother Nature brought a gift: good weather.

A warm, sunny spring day was the perfect setting for residents and visitors to celebrate the state’s oldest town. Steilacoom, a residential community of just over 6,000 located 10 miles south of Tacoma, was incorporated on April 22, 1854.

A full day of activities commemorated the town’s sesquicentennial.

During an hour-and-half span in the morning at the town’s original post office, the Bair Drug Store, people lined up to get their mail hand-cancelled with a stamp marking the occasion.

At 5 p.m., Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts rang a historic church bell 150 times. The bell was built in the Washington Territory’s first Protestant church in 1858 and has called people to worship, sounded the alarm on fires and heralded major events ever since.

Steilacoom is a town that boasts many other firsts in the state, including the first post office (1852); first Pierce County Courthouse (1858); first jail (1858); first incorporated library association (1858); and the first brewery to produce lager beer in the Northwest (1858).

People gathered on Pioneer Orchard Park’s grassy hills in anticipation of the day’s main event, a 7 p.m. gathering attended by residents, town leaders past and present and other dignitaries, including several mayors of other cities. Children played, pets frolicked and commemorative t-shirts were sold as the sun began to set on a beautiful day. Speakers had to occasionally talk over the sound of trains passing on nearby railroad tracks and aircraft flying overhead.

Mayor Ron Lucas read from the original Territorial Act that declared Steilacoom a city.

Students from Saltar’s Point Elementary School performed a play reenacting the birth of the town, including pioneer and carpenter Nathaniel Orr’s first foray into the area and Capt. Lafayette Balch’s attempt to found and populate a port that he hoped would become the commercial hub of the Pacific Northwest.

Though Steailacoom did not become the large city its founders envisioned and much has changed in a century-and-a-half, some things have not changed.

“We have the same government today,” Lucas said. “As they did in 1854, we still hold elections the same way.”

State archivist Jerry Handfield, who brought a copy of the Territorial Act, stressed the importance of a democratic form of government.

“I have four words to share with all of you,” he said, focusing on the many young students in attendance. “Keep a fair record.”

That’s the difference, he said, between a government that is a democracy and one that is not, urging future records to be kept and made accessible to the public.

“We are so proud of our place on the (Puget) Sound and in history,” said Danny Marshall, acting chair of the Steilacoom Tribe. “I’m honored to be representing our people.”

The name Steilacoom comes from the Indian word for a little pink flower, which grew abundantly on the hills.

Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri presented Lucas with a proclamation by County Executive John Ladenburg declaring Thursday Steailacoom Sesquicentennial Day.

A spectacular fireworks display ended the celebration, at least for the day.
The party will continue throughout the year, with Aug. 21 being the highlight of the celebration. On that day the historic Nathaniel Orr Home will be the site of 19th century demonstrations such as spinning and weaving. Lafayette Street and Pioneer Orchard Park will become a community playground of sorts, with vendors offering historic memorabilia, games and an old -fashioned picnic meal.