Carol Neufeld, "John Rigney," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly XXII (Summer, 1993) p. 1, 6-9
John Rigney, an early Washington Territory settler, exemplifies the pioneer success story. Arriving in 1849 as a soldier assigned to Fort Steilacoom, he finished out his enlistment and settled in the county. According to the Pierce County census in 1854, he began as a shoemaker, in 1860 was a farmer, and by 1889 was listed as a capitalist."
Rigney arrived in New York from Thomastown, Kings County, Ireland, in the spring of 1847, looking for a better life. Because jobs were scarce, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, joining Company "M," 1st Regiment of the U.S. Artillery, and was sent on assignment to Vera Cruz and the Mexican War. Returning to New York, he married Elizabeth Lowry on September 30, 1848. Elizabeth, also an Irish immigrant, was soon hired as one of the laundresses of Company "M."
In 1848 John and Elizabeth sailed, with other Irish Catholic soldiers and their wives, on the steamship Massachusetts bound for Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory. They arrived in April, 1849, after a six month trip by way of Cape Horn.
The next summer Companies "M" and "L" were ordered to Puget Sound to protect the settlers from the Indians. The two companies sailed north on the sloop Harpooner, arriving at the mouth of Chambers Creek in August. The men were quartered in buildings at the Thomas Heath farm, a Hudson's Bay property. Seven more structures were added to accommodate the new troops, and the place was named Fort Steilacoom.
An important Rigney family event that took place at Fort Steilacoom was the birth on January 25, 1850, of John, Jr. and Ann, the first twins born in Pierce County. When Rigney's enlistment was up in 1852, he took his family to live in a log cabin on the 641.34 acre donation land claim near present-day 64th and Orchard streets in Tacoma.
The family increased as more children were born to John and Elizabeth during the years they lived there. The birth order of the family was George, 1855; James, 1856; Eliza Jane, 1861; the twins Lucia Rose and Marcella, 1862; and Edward, 1867. The John Rigneys were joined by his brother, James, in 1857 when he moved West with his wife, Anne, and children Mary, John, and James.
The James Rigneys settled on a farm on the prairie which is now part of McChord Air Force Base. The two families, who often visited together, provided friendship for each other in the then sparsely populated Pierce County.
The John Rigneys lived and worked on their first claim until 1873 when John, believing the railroad from Portland to Tacoma would increase the land value, took up a 160 acre claim east of the original one.
The property extended from the present day B & I store to the Manitou area near 74th and South Tacoma Way. The family residence was built ninety feet from the railroad line at what is now McClain's Soil Supply on 74th Street. The place where the house once stood was called Rigney Hill. It was from here that, a few months after they moved, the Rigney children were able to stand on their porch and wave at the engineer of the first train that ran from Portland to Tacoma.
School was a family affair. John was a school board member when Rose, Marcella, and Edward attended Byrd School. The children walked each day from 74th to the school, which was on the Flett Dairy pasture near the corner of Steilacoom Boulevard and Lakewood Drive.
In 1880 the Rigneys moved to Steilacoom where John purchased the Albert Balch home on Rainier Street and all the land in block 42. Of the ten children, two had died and three were married before the move to Steilacoom. Anne was now Mrs. Eustace, and Eliza Jane married Thomas Kanavan while John L., Jr., took Elizabeth Madden as his bride.
The Rigneys quickly became prominent members of the Steilacoom community. They were staunch supporters of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Both John and James Rigney gave donations when the sanctuary was first built at Fort Steilacoom in 1856. The church, which was moved to Steilacoom in 1864, served Catholics in town and the surrounding area.
During the time the Rigneys lived in Steilacoom, there were three family weddings. Marcella was married to Neil Henly on December 31, 1885; Rose to William O'Donnell on May 15, 1905; and Mary Ellen to Raymond Cormier on January 22, 1889. John, Sr., had houses built for three of the children in the town. Marcella and her husband were given, as a wedding gift, the house at 1307 Starling, which is standing today.
Rose lived nearby on Lafayette Street in a home that her father had given her before her marriage. John, Jr., and his wife raised their family at 1510 Lafayette in a two story frame residence which is also still lived in today.
Descendants of John Rigney have played an important part in the history of the town. The twins, Rose and Marcella, were Steilacoom teachers and telegraph operators. Marcella's daughter, Greta Henly Herr, was a teacher in the Steilacoom School District, and her grandson, George Henly, was Superintendent of Utilities in Steilacoom. John L., Jr., was a well known businessman, and his granddaughter, Sally Teller Woodruff, was born in Steilacoom where she has lived all her life.
Ann Adele Mallon, the great granddaughter of James Rigney, vividly remembers the clan summer picnics with all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins who gathered in Steilacoom for the event, blended together so that the children had difficulty distinguishing one family branch from another.
Judy Adams, granddaughter of Neil and Marcella Henly, recalls her grandparent's home at 1307 Starling-the tapioca pudding her grandmother made and helping her grandfather turn the grindstone to sharpen knives. She has always considered Steilacoom her home town because it "gives her a sense of continuity and belonging."
John Rigney's journey to his final destination in 1849 began a family name and heritage which still exists today. Not only does a street bear the family name, but, more importantly, some 144 years later the fifth generation still maintains the family presence in Steilacoom.
Carol Neufeld, "John Rigney," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly. XXII (Summer, 1993) p. 1, 6-9.