The Lakewood Heritage

washingtonLakewood was called the Prairie in the beginning - an expanse of land about 20 miles square, dotted with small lakes and occasional stands of Oak and Douglas Fir trees. Steilacoom and Nisqually Indians held pow-wows on the Prairie - before the advent of the White hunters, trappers and settlers.


This abundant Nisqually Prairie, midway between the Columbia River and the city of Vancouver, BC, was chosen by the British as the site of one of its fur trading operations, the Hudson Bay Company, in 1833.


Hunters began to set up farming on the Prairie. One of these farms, at the present site of Western State Hospital, was leased by the US Army in 1849 to serve as a military post following an Indian attack on Fort Nisqually.


The new fort, called Fort Steilacoom, was used to quell Indian uprisings. Settlers from as far away as the Puyallup Valley used the Fort as a protection from danger.


About that time the first grist mill (1850), saw mill (1852) and flour mill (1855) were set up in the area now known as the Chambers Creek Estuary. Immigrants began to arrive in covered wagons over Naches Pass in 1853 after Washington became a Territory.


As the new population increased, so did hostilities with the native tribes. Indian uprising continued over land they considered theirs, but was being rented by the U.S. government to the Hudson Bay company at $50 a month.


Nisqually Chief Leschi became a tragic martyr when he was falsely accused of murder as a result of one such uprising. He was hung on February 18, 1858 in a grove of oak trees near where the Oakbrook Shopping Center now stands.


The era known as The Indian Wars brought to Fort Steilacoom many army lieutenants and captains who would make names for themselves during the Civil War - General George B. McClellan, Confederate General George E. Pickett, Union General Philip H. Sheridan and Union General U.S. Grant who later became President.


McClellan was selected in March 1873 to supervise the survey for the location of the western terminus of the much-anticipated Northwest Pacific Railway. However, the intervention of the Civil War delayed actual construction of the road until the 1870's. Many small communities on Puget Sound vied for the distinction of being the western terminus. The selection of Tacoma was announced on July 14th, 1873 bringing about a thrilling drama centered on the prairie near Gravelly Lake.


As the railroad progressed within a few miles of Tacoma in September 1873, a financial panic caused the railroad's financiers to fail. With the railroad's solvency in question and payrolls in arrears, the construction crew made up largely of tough ex-miners from the Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia, refused to work; they set up barricades at Clover Creek, a station then called Skookumville. In a scenario that matched suspense movies of the Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy era, an engineer named E.S. "Skookum" Smith convinced the crews that the track must reach the western terminus during the time limitation set by the US government. The future of the Puget Sound rested with them! The last spike was driven at 3 p.m. on December 16, 1873. The first train arrived at the prearranged point for the celebration just after 24 hours before the expiration of the charter.


b&w lakewoodDuring the late 1800's, while England and the United States bickered over the 49th Parallel, the Prairie began to vanish. Homes and roads were built, with power lines at their side. The prolific Douglas Fir, no longer burned by the Indians, grew out of control. The land wrested by the British from the Indians, then by the U.S. from the British, became part of the 42nd state of the Union in 1889.


By the late 1800's Indians and settlers were learning to live together, sometimes holding joint celebrations in the summertime on the natural picnic grounds of the Prairie. Contests of horseback riding often accompanied a good old-fashioned salmon bake.


The first school was built just west of the Flett Dairy property. One of the first houses built of frame, rather than logs was the Boatman/Ainsworth residence on 112th Street across from Clover Park High School. At the turn of the 20th century, Steilacoom was being hailed as the "Newport of the Northwest." The Lakewood District was competing for the title.


Many stately homes were built along the shorelines of area lakes, the most impressive being Thornewood, built on American Lake between 1909 and 1911. The Thorne Mansion, renovated into a spectacular bed and breakfast, was once considered one of the most beautiful estates and gardens in the nation, and often attracted illustrious people of the early 1900s. Thornewood was featured in a Steven King mini-series, "Rose Red." Another spectacular home and garden of that era is the lovely Lakewood Gardens and Wagoner Home on Gravelly Lake Drive.


The Tacoma Country and Golf Club was established in 1894 to further attract the rich and famous. The first golf club west of the Mississippi, it featured trolley transportation from Tacoma to the playground on the Prairie.


In the early 1900's, the famed Tacoma Speedway was built around what is now the Lakewood Industrial Park. The mile-long wooden track circled the open prairie and drew racing greats, such as Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet and Eddie Rickenbacker. A grandstand was built along Steilacoom Boulevard, about where Clover Park Technical College is today. During the Roaring 20's, summer residents began to expand their lake cottages into year-round homes.


Airplanes found that the inner grasslands of the racetrack made a fine landing field in the post World War I years. Eventually, the airstrip was improved and hangars were built as part of the Mueller-Harkins Airport. The City of Tacoma used the airstrip as its commercial field for a time, and national air shows were held at the site until World War II.


McChord Air Force Base, then known as McChord Field, was developed from the old County Air Field in 1938.


Lakewood was beginning to take on its own identity during the 1930's and 1940's. As the Great depression lifted, business development took off. In 1937, Norton Clapp built the first part of the Lakewood Colonial shopping Center, one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country. The Lakewood Chamber of Commerce is located in this historic center today. A fire district was formed in 1942 and a water district in 1943. Between 1939 and 1949, population of the Lakes district jumped form 3,000 to 17,000.


A decade later, in 1958, the villa Plaza Shopping Center was built, and in 1960, the thunderbird Center was built on the site of another small airstrip. Villa Plaza has undergone a series of changes and is now Lakewood Towne Center, with a number of anchor stores to serve the needs of the residents and visitors, alike.. Thunderbird is now the Oakbrook Shopping Center chock full of retail and services for area residents to enjoy.


Lakewood General Hospital (now St. Clare) opened in 1961; the Flora B. Tenzler Memorial Library (now part of the Pierce County Library System) was built in 1963. A community project, it is still supported by a private citizen's group.


Clover Park Vocational Technical Institute grew as a war production training adjunct to Clover Park High School during World War II. In 1967, it joined the Community College System and since has been renamed Clover Park Technical College. Fort Steilacoom Community college, established in a grocery storefront off Bridgeport Way in 1967 (known at the time as Albertson's U) moved into portable quarters at its present site on Farwest Drive in 1970. Its doors opened as Fort Steilacoom Community college in 1974, then changed to Pierce College in 1986.


In March, 1995, Lakewood citizens voted to incorporate as a city, passing with a 60% vote. In September, seven City Council Members were elected to form the city's first government. William Harrison was elected by the council as Lakewood's first Mayor; and Claudia Thomas, the Deputy Mayor. Other original Council members were - Ann Kirk Davis, Colleen Henry, Jose Palmas, Douglas Richardson and Sherri Thomas.


Lakewood officially became a city on February 28th, 1996, making it the eighth largest city in the state. But look closely, and listen. You can still find the city's countless lakes, enjoy the shading streets, feel the exuberance of activity as citizens continue to enhance Lakewood. And possibly, just possibly, on a warm summer evening, you might hear echoes of the joyous celebration of Indians and early settlers camping out on The Prairie.


(Written by Val Dumond)