FORT STEILACOOM RESTORATION PROJECT
To preserve a link with the past, a joint project is underway to continue the restoration of the four remaining buildings of historic Fort Steilacoom, located on the grounds of Western Washington State Hospital. The restoration project was begun by State agencies in 1981, as a result of local interest, and is being expanded to include participation by Pierce County and community groups. The restoration project could be Pierce County's major contribution to the 1984 Tacoma Centennial Celebration and to the Washington Statehood Centennial of 1989.
The site is significant in terms of the history of both British and American settlement in this area. In 1845, Joseph Thomas Heath became the first British settler on the property when he obtained a farm from the Puget Sound Agricultural Company and cleared 30 acres. Heath's death in 1849 coincided with the desire of the United States to bolster its presence in the newly acquired Oregon Territory and protect its settlers.
Prompted by an Indian attack on Fort Nisqually in August, 1849, Captain Bennett Hill inhabited the Heath homestead and began construction of the fort. By 1857, the Army decided to establish a permanent post at Fort Steilacoom and, within a year, completed construction of 25 buildings, under the direction of Lt. A. V. Kautz, a quartermaster officer. The fort became a central location for legal, social and economic development in Western Washington.
In 1870, the Washington Territorial Legislature purchased the grounds and buildings for $850 and four years later, the Fort began a new life as the Territorial Hospital for the Insane. As the institution grew, the military period buildings were replaced, with the exception of the four cottages which were originally Officer's Quarters.
In 1978, when plans were underway to build a new section for the hospital, architects originally considered removing the remaining four buildings. Community pressure, from the Heritage Council of Pierce County, which had been instrumental in placing the site on the National Register of Historic Places, caused the decision to be reviewed and altered to retain the buildings and begin their restoration.
The rehabilitation project was jointly funded by the Department of Social and Health Services and by the State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The funds were used to restore the exteriors of Cottage One, the Officer's quarters closest to the hospital and Cottage Two, the Commanding Officer's residence.
The decision was made to restore the structures to their condition during the military period, rather than the hospital era, and extensive research was necessary to determine the details of their original construction.
Various documents from the National Archives in Washington, D. C. and from military record depositories gave a surprisingly clear picture of the building process and of Army life during the period. Annual inspection reports, often accompanied by sketches, gave details of building construction. A volume of Army Standards from 1860 included detailed plans, specifications, and building materials. The sources were augmented by historic photographs of the fort and the journal of Lt. Kautz in which he detailed the events and difficulties of the construction, as it took place.
Every effort was made to repair or match the details of 1857 construction. New siding was milled to dimensions and texture of that which was in place. New porches and roofs were built with same pitch and design as the original. Lattice work and railing were reconstructed, according to historic photographs. Shutters from a nearby Steilacoom home of the same period were used for a pattern and painted green in accordance with Army specifications.
The restoration project began in July 1980 and the completed work represents about a quarter of the necessary repairs and restoration needed on all four cottages, inside and out. Currently, the Department of Social and Health services, which has state jurisdiction over the property, is maintaining the four cottages while planning for the continued restoration and use of the buildings.
Contingent upon approval of pending state funding DSHS will restore the exteriors of the two cottages not yet completed. This will make them ready for future interior restoration work.
The group concerned with continuing the restoration, the Ad Hoc Committee for Preservation in Pierce County, has held four meetings this year. Caroline Gallacci, Pierce County Preservation planner and Lou Dunkin, Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, are organizing this new effort. The purpose is to form a non profit corporation which will manage the project. The organization is to be called "Historic Fort Steilacoom"; by-laws have been adopted and officers elected.
The goal of the organization is to restore the interiors of the two officer's quarters (Cottage #1 and #2) as Pierce County's contribution to the Tacoma 1984 Centennial celebration. By the time of Washington's Statehood Centennial in 1989, the committee hopes to have all of the cottages restored and in use.
Warnings of impending danger caused wide scale panic, and many left all their belongings as they hurried to the safety of Steilacoom and Fort Steilacoom over the road they had so often traveled leisurely with their oxen on the way to the mill. Cooler heads carefully packed their possessions and, driving their livestock before them, made it to the fort unharmed. The same road that brought the refugees also carried the first American soldiers into battle against the Indian people. Volunteer militia and regulars headed across the pass to Yakima country where the greatest action was expected to develop. Gold prospectors used the same route heading for the mines in eastern Washington.
Following the war in 1857, Congress appropriated $35,000 for a "Military Road" from Steilacoom to Bellingham at $93 a mile. Bids on the project were called, with Philip Keach, a Steilacoom merchant, winning the contract. Most of the work nearby involved improvement of the old road. As the need for military protection diminished, the roads came under the purview of the counties.
The Russian-American Telegraph line was established, and extended from California through Washington in 1864, running from Olympia across North Fort Lewis and down into Steilacoom where an office had been set up. From Steilacoom the line followed the Military Road across the Puyallup River, over the hill via Five Mile Lake, and down the White River to Seattle where service began on October 26, 1864.
As the communities of Puyallup and Sumner developed, there was no need to travel to the mill near Steilacoom. The road fell into disrepair, especially the part extending over Fern Hill and down into the Puyallup Valley. A Fern Hill Improvement Club was formed, and by 1939 a pioneers' petition was sent to the State of Washington requesting the preservation of the old road's history by making it a state road, built and paved and kept up in a shape worthy of the memories of the days when it was one of the state's most important roads and the backbone of the roads of the Puget Sound area.
By legislative action, Washington State Historical Road No. 1 was created in 1941, becoming part of the state highway system. Formal dedications took place on October 8, at Steilacoom and Puyallup, with Governor Arthur B. Langlie presiding. Markers at each town were unveiled and small signs placed about a mile apart the length of the highway. The stone marker at Western State Hospital is one of the signs.
Forty seven years later on November 12, 1988, a new marker was dedicated in Steilacoom commemorating the historic road and its value to the early settlers. It is a fitting tribute in celebration of Washington's centennial.