Fort Steilacoom Park

What started as a search for ancient ruins ended with a peaceful stroll by a wooded lake.

In between was a John Doe cemetery, a historic stone fence, a somewhat strenuous hike, a former farm and apple orchard, and stunning views of Mount Rainier.

Ever since we moved to University Place in 2014, I’ve heard about Western State Hospital – not just the one that has come under fire for poor staffing and escaping inmates – but an abandoned version with the creative name of Old Western State Hospital.

Part of the Hill Ward Dormitory ruins on the grounds of the old Western State Hospital. There is lots of graffiti covering the ruins.
Part of the Hill Ward Dormitory ruins on the grounds of the old Western State Hospital. There is lots of graffiti covering the ruins.

Some Googling uncovered the potential for a fenced, abandoned structure in the woods at Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood.

So on a recent gorgeous Sunday afternoon we decided to see if we could find the old structure, maybe scare up some ghosts from the ruins and get some neat photos.

Heading southwest from the parking lot near the dog park, we found a cool stone staircase heading up a hill … rather than look at any  maps, we decided to just wander toward a thicket of trees that might contain the ruins where lobotomies were allegedly conducted.

Tori, left, Catarina, back, and Veronica on the hunt for some ancient ruins ... and enjoying a nice sunny stroll.
Tori, left, Catarina, back, and Veronica on the hunt for some ancient ruins … and enjoying a nice sunny stroll.

After winding through a forest of fir trees, poplars and brambles, we popped out into a clearing with a large foundation covered in grass and graffiti.

Welp, so much for the ancient ruins. What used to stand in this spot was a falling down dormitory from the old Western State Hospital. After years of disrepair and damage from area youth, the Hill Ward Dormitory was torn down in 2008 and a historical monument was created in 2009.

After years of decay, the city, county and state paid to demolish the falling down structure and build this monument out of the Hill Ward Dormitory.
After years of decay, the city, county and state paid to demolish the falling down structure and build this monument out of the Hill Ward Dormitory.

While it wasn’t as spooky as we hoped, it was still a cool spot to visit. Plus, we learned that the area was more than just the old grounds of the state hospital, but also used to be a working farm used for occupational therapy for hospital patients, was once a military fort built in 1849 and a road through the area was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1840s.

After soaking in the view of Waughop Lake down below, we continued up the hill toward two water towers – at the time thinking perhaps there were some other ruins we could check out on top of the hill.

Parts of the park offer big views of Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound.
Parts of the park offer big views of Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound.

Catarina loved this portion of the hike as it featured fields full of grass, an old orchard belonging to the farm, and lots of rocks to pick up and throw. The top of the hill by the water towers features stunning views of not only Mount Rainier to the southeast, but also the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound to the west. It’s not often you can get views of both mountain ranges in this part of the city.

We then headed down the hill toward the lake stopping only to watch Catarina scale a four-foot high stone fence, which was apparently built by former patients of the hospital and uncovered in 2009 during construction of the paved trails.

At this point, it was pretty obvious that any ruins in the area were truly a thing of the past, so we ventured on the trail around part of the lake. We didn’t venture far, but this area is beautiful and deserves a second visit. Lots of interesting trees make up this part of the park as the Eliza Waughop, the wife of the first superintendent at the hospital, brought in plants from all over the world to decorate the grounds.

The cemetery contained more than 3,200 graves of patients of Western State Hospital, many were just numbered with no names attached.
The cemetery contained more than 3,200 graves of patients of Western State Hospital, many were just numbered with no names attached.

Before heading home we decided to swing by the hospital’s cemetery, which is surrounded by an old-fashioned split rail fence.

More than 3,200 psychiatric patients were buried in the cemetery from 1876 to 1953. The graves are marked with numbers for privacy reasons and the stigma of mental illness.

Many of the graves were of the John Doe variety.
Many of the graves were of the John Doe variety.

A historical marker inside the gate of the cemetery reads in part, “These people worked on the award winning hospital farm and in other hospital areas and called the hospital “home.” They were mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, children and many were veterans. May they rest in peace, with dignity and respect.”

Part of that respect, I suppose, is given by the old ruins of the hospital being torn down and turned into a peaceful place to soak up some sun and enjoy a pretty view.

– Craig Craker

One Comment Add yours

  1. Randy says:

    Thanks son for allowing me to journey with you. What a fascinating history. I like the final words of dignity and respect offered these people.

    Like

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