A Brief History of Pierce County
Carved out in 1852 between King and Thurston counties, Pierce County is the middle child of Washington’s busy Puget Sound region. With its seat in Tacoma, it’s now the state’s second most populous county.
Early settlers imagined Pierce County’s Steilacoom – not Seattle – would someday become the state’s most bustling metropolis. Long before the first pioneer arrived, the county’s nearly 1,700 square miles was home to Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin, Steilacoom and Muckleshoot Indians. English sea Captain George Vancouver met them in 1792 when he sailed inland to Seattle on his Vancouver Expedition. He sent his lieutenant, Peter Puget, farther south on waters later named in his honor.
In 1832, the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived in search of outposts for farming and fur trading and soon established Fort Nisqually. By 1852, Swedish settler Nicholas De Lin had built the region’s first sawmill and launched an industry. That same year Pierce County was chiseled out of Thurston County, which encompassed all of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, and named in honor of President Franklin Pierce.
Tacoma was little more than a lumber mill, a couple stores, a saloon and about 100 people when it was founded in 1872. Less than a year later, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma for its northwest terminus, kicking off a boom time. But the Panic of ’93 ended the prosperity with a depression that upended 17 banks in Tacoma.
The Puyallup Fair first opened in 1900. With annual attendance surpassing 1 million people, it’s now known as the Washington State Fair and one of the largest fairs in the country. During World War II, the U.S. Army commandeered the fairgrounds and set up Camp Harmony, a holding point for Japanese Americans forced into internment camps.
Meanwhile in 1940, the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge was completed, connecting Tacoma to the Olympic Peninsula. Nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge was famous for bouncing and twisting wildly in the wind, until it collapsed four months after opening.
In 1917, The U.S. Army started building Camp Lewis on 140 square miles south of Tacoma. In just 90 days, some 10,000 workers built 1,757 buildings. Named to honor Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the camp stood ready to house 50,000 soldiers. By 1938, the first airfield, which would become McChord Air Force Base, was under construction at the renamed Fort Lewis. It was consolidated in 2005 to form Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Eventually, settlement, growth, and development were spurred on by the arrival of the railroad that brought new settlers and a means for shipping stock and produce. The story of prosperity and growth in Chelan County is that of irrigation. Farmers demonstrated that with irrigation and 300 days of sunshine, the soil was extremely productive. In 1902, there was an 85 percent increase of fresh fruit shipped from the area in one year. The swift-running rivers of the area also led to electricity and the establishment of several power companies, including Puget Sound Power & Light Company.
Pierce County and the Law
The history of the Pierce County Bar, written in 1965, notes that the County came into existence in 1852 and Steilacoom was named the county seat. By 1853, a courthouse had been built at Steilacoom, which stood for over 100 years until it was torn down in 1955.
The area we now call Tacoma was known as Commencement City until 1869, when it was changed to New Tacoma to differentiate it from “old” Tacoma (now called Old Town).
The 1965 history notes that the court did not name attorneys in early opinions, so records of people from that time are nebulous. A noted name from the 1870s was attorney Frank Clark. The history says, “Clark was an eager beaver and made a record of filing fifteen cases between July 1 and July 15, 1878. When one stops to consider that those pleadings were all drawn up in longhand, as typewriters were then unknown, there could well have been some worn out quill pens.”
In 1883, the first meeting of the Pierce County Bar was organized, because lawyers “came to the conclusion that while they were enemies in Court they were friends out of Court.” The group started as the Tacoma Bar Association and later became the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
In 1909, the local bar met on Lincoln’s birthday for a dinner and program. The tradition still continues — in 2015, the TPCBA held the 107th Annual Lincoln Day Banquet! The writer notes that guests at these dinners were members of the WSBA Board of Governors and president of the Integrated Bar, the members of the State Supreme Court, the local Superior Court, and faculty members of the two law schools, the University of Washington and Gonzaga University.
The history also notes that among the TPCBA’s activities is “the manning of an office maintained to furnish counsel for indigents. The office is open two days per week and the wives of local attorneys furnish receptionist services.” A notable Pierce County case involving bar members was a trial involving condemnation of land for the original Camp Lewis. In that action, the original homesteaders who had cleared and built up the land were given only $10 per acre.
A prominent member of the local bar was Albert Joab, who is described as a “brilliant man, a deep student of the English language, and a lover of literature. In giving some of his orations he would unconsciously go into blank verse.”
The record notes that “over the period of years the Pierce County Bar has had its quota of lady attorneys, early members of the fair sex who were lawyers,” which included three husband-and-wife teams.
By 1965 the history boasts that the TPCBA had furnished four WSBA presidents, including Elmer Hayden, who was elected during the second year of its existence. In subsequent years, Fred Metzger, Hilton Gardner, and Scott Henderson were all elected to and served in this office.
See the other counties featured in our Throwback Thursday series: