The story behind the wall

The history of Western State Hospital

By Margaret Bicker on September 1, 2017

Just north of Steilacoom Blvd., across the street from Fort Steilacoom Park, the stone wall is hard to miss. A decorative remnant of a much earlier time, it stands guard around an assortment of massive brick buildings, now known as Western State Hospital, and the remains of the 19th century Army fort from which the park across the street gets its name.

Originally built in 1849 on land leased from the Hudson Bay Company, Fort Steilacoom was a U.S. Army outpost tasked with securing and defending American interests in the Puget Sound region of what was then the Oregon Territory. Company M of the 1st Artillery Regiment was the first company to be stationed at the fort as the first federal presence in the Puget Sound area. The soldiers were tasked primarily with assisting in the building of infrastructure in the new territory and occasionally defending and assisting pioneers, but a native uprising in 1855 placed the focus squarely on providing defense and safety for the settlers. By 1857, Fort Steilacoom was serving as the center of military operations for the Puget Sound Region of the newly formed Washington Territory, defending the settlers from the natives and the natives from the settlers as the two groups struggled to learn how to live peacefully side-by-side.

The original log buildings were all replaced with stick frame and brick buildings, including the remaining ones that are part of the present day historical site, by 1859. At its peak, 250 to 300 troops were housed in 30 buildings on land that "included the hospital campus, the golf course north of the campus, Fort Steilacoom Park, and the campus of Pierce College," according to Joe Lewis, secretary for the Historical Association of Fort Steilacoom.

During the Civil War, troops were called away from the Washington Territory to support the war effort in the east. They were replaced by volunteers from Washington, Oregon and California, who formed the Army of the Pacific; but by 1871, very few volunteers remained, leading the Army to abandon the fort.

Once the fort had been decommissioned, the Washington Territorial Government took it over, and it became known as the Insane Asylum of Washington Territory. It opened with 15 male patients and six female patients. When Washington became a state in 1889, the name was changed to Western State Hospital. Bit by bit, the hospital replaced the fort buildings with more modern, better equipped medical buildings. The main administrative building that currently dominates the campus of Western State was built in 1934, and the nearby Chapel was completed in 1925. The small cottages that sit in a tidy row on the campus were once used to house staff and their families, but the growth of the surrounding community and the popularization of the automobile made it increasingly feasible for staff to live off campus, and so the cottages eventually fell into disuse.

Currently Western State Hospital serves more than 800 patients in 56 buildings, totaling 1.5 million square feet, spread over 264 acres. The sixth largest employer in Pierce County, Western State Hospital has a staff of more than 2,300 men and women, including many retired military and military spouses.

And that stone fence? The one that catches the attention of motorists along Steilacoom Blvd.? That was built in 1916 by patients of the hospital as part of the construction of Steilacoom Blvd.

Although the hospital buildings are not open to the public, the Historical Association of Fort Steilacoom offers regular tours of the remaining 1857 buildings from the original fort, as well as occasional living history demonstrations.

Fort Steilacoom, 1-4 p.m., every Sunday (Memorial Day through Labor Day); 1-4 p.m., every first Sunday (September through May), 9601 Steilacoom Blvd. SW, Lakewood, free, 253.272.7468