"I got hooked the first time I visited," says Steilacoom, Washington, resident Robyn Shalikashvili. "I drove around the corner through a tunnel of trees, and saw amazing blue water and every inch of the Olympic Mountains." At each turn in this tiny hamlet of 6,200 people, she found another engaging vista. The town's appeal inspired Robyn to move here in 1998.
Steilacoom (pronounced STILL-a-come), about 45 miles southwest of Seattle, was once a bustling frontier port. The state's oldest incorporated municipality, it celebrated its 150th birthday in 2004. Even so, in one resident's words, "The town's kind of a secret. Some people think you need a passport to get here."
It's more likely you'd need a time machine. Along Lafayette, the town's main street, the small red-swirled pole of a barbershop catches your eye. Nearby, The Bair Restaurant & Catering's old-fashioned soda fountain serves up thick malts. And at the Steilacoom Historical Museum, Brad and Patricia Randall labor to preserve period clothing, photographs, farming implements, woodworking tools, and some stuff you'd be hard-pressed to guess what the heck it did. (Though they can tell you who owned it and where the owner's family currently resides.)
The town wasn't always so serene. "An old newspaper clipping warned of wild and woolly Steilacoom," Patricia says. "Saloons used to outnumber everything else."
Today, the only night crawlers are sold as bait near the ferry landing, and you'll find few speed limits over 30. "We're walkers and talkers," says Mayor Ron Lucas. "No one moves fast, because you're always stopping to talk with someone."
Such community spirit explains how local volunteers logged more than 10,000 hours helping schools last year. "Volunteers mentored students, worked with sports teams, helped in the library," says Town Administrator Paul Loveless.
Steilacoom's stunning location shows why the Fourth of July celebration draws up to 18,000 people every summer. "It always gets written up as one of the best shows on Puget Sound," Paul says. "Imagine fireworks going off over Sunnyside Beach with the water, Narrows Bridge, and the Kitsap Peninsula as the backdrop."
Yet another aspect sweetened Robyn's move to Steilacoom eight years ago. She loved her native, rural, inland Washington town. "But here, there are all types of people, and our community is very diverse," she says. "That means a lot to me for my three boys, now 6, 10, and 12. I wouldn't want to raise them anyplace else."
(published December 2006)