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Tacoma's Founding Mothers: Janet Elder Steele Fuller

Written in Spring 2020 by Karen Haas, Museum Volunteer

Edited for blog publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the first in a three-part series about Tacoma's founding mothers from the 2020 living history presentation Breaking Molds & Building Community, by Karen Haas.

The second post about Sarah Wolff is available here.

As a living history performer, I feel especially rewarded telling the tales of those whose voices are usually silent in history -- women. In February 2020, I wrote and presented “Breaking Molds & Building Community: Tacoma's Founding Mothers” for Job Carr Cabin Museum at Old St. Peter’s Church in Old Town. This series of three blog posts are taken from my scripts of this program. I’ve kept most of the storytelling “feel”, so pour yourself a cup of tea, settle in, and “meet” three women who had an impact on early Tacoma. ~Karen Haas

Janet Elder Forrest Steele Fuller

1842 - 1894

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Janet Elder Forrest Steele Fuller

First off, Janet Elder Forrest Steele Fuller, a woman who lived a life following her dreams, even though she faced more than a few raised eyebrows when she did just that.

Janet was born in Manchester, England - a town bustling with the uncontrolled growth of the Industrial Revolution. While she was still quite young, she immigrated with her parents and 4 siblings to Flint, Michigan, where her father worked as a blacksmith. Within 10 years, they were living in Forrest Hill, in Placer County, California - a place described as being in the “heart of the Mother Lode Country”.

In 1862, she married Hugh Nathaniel Steele; Steele seems to me to be a particularly appropriate name for the daughter of a blacksmith. Born in Indiana, Hugh had traveled west when just 19 years of age. Becoming quite successful in the gold fields up in the Cariboo on Williams Creek at Barkerville, Canada, he encouraged his family to move west over the Oregon Trail during the Civil War. Sometimes he was in funds, and sometimes, he wasn’t. When he was, Janet made it a point to invest in a small diamond or two as a hedge against possible bad times to come. This habit proved fortuitous when they arrived in the fledgling town of Tacoma in 1869. For it was here she bought her first lots on 2nd Street - later known as 30th Street after "old" Tacoma merged with "new" Tacoma.

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The Steele Hotel, Source: Tacoma Public Library

On that land, she opened the Steele Hotel, the first major frame building in Tacoma. Mind you, this was before Tacoma had a lumber mill or a wharf, so Janet had to catch a boat in Steilacoom to go to Seattle for her milled wood. These were more than busy times for her as she built a business with two toddlers clinging to her skirts.

Speaking of children, Hugh and Janet had 4 children - Willie died at just 3 years of age; Annie and Addie were born in Seattle; and in 1871 Floyd was celebrated as the first white boy born in Tacoma. Though, perhaps more credit should be given to the woman who bore him! She must have been grateful to have her parents move into the neighborhood as she juggled the responsibility of both family and the hotel. Working mothers, of course, are nothing new.

She could be rightfully proud of her establishment. It became known for clean sheets - quite the challenge, especially at the beginning when surrounded by wilderness of trees, stumps and mud. Its good food received rave reviews. The Steele Hotel was hailed as the finest establishment between Olympia and Victoria.

Prominent people from singers and lecturers, to railroad executives and congressmen stayed at Janet's hotel. Starting with a grand ball at its opening, there was often entertainment and dancing at the hotel. It became quite the popular place to wait for a sailing vessel bound for San Francisco, setting sail from Tacoma's new wharf, which was finally built in 1873.

When she first bought the land, Janet had made an agreement with Morton Matthew McCarver that she would pay him $300 for the property if the railroad came to Tacoma, $100 if it did not. Luck was on her side. McCarver tried his hardest to convince the Northern Pacific to make Tacoma the terminus of their railroad, but they opted to end it just a few miles short - where downtown Tacoma is now. With the dream of the railroad gone, timber and ships grew Old Town Tacoma, and it grew by leaps and bounds.

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Janet's hotel is labeled as "HOTEL" on this 1892 Sanford Map, showing the buildings lining 2nd Street between McCarver and Starr.

In 1873, town leaders decided that a church was needed - perhaps to be a bastion of morals against the rowdiness of the loggers and sailors. At this point, Tacoma had 13 saloons, two jails, four hotels, a lumber mill, and a school house. And so, St Peter’s Church was constructed in just a week out of green lumber. If you visit that charming building on Starr Street, you’ll find there’s not much in the way of straight lines.

About a year or so later, the children of St Peter's church in Philadelphia - the church attended by Charles Wright, President of the Northern Pacific Railroad, perhaps a coincidence? - gathered their pennies and earned enough for a bell for Tacoma's new church. When it arrived by ship, it was clear the roof would not support 900 pounds of bell. Then one clever soul decided that with so many tall trees all around, there was no need to build a belfry. Janet's husband, Nathaniel, and a Mr. Babcock topped a tree 48 feet from the ground, and a ship's crew used their ship's tackle to hoist the bell. When the rings of the tree were counted, it was declared to be "the oldest bell tower in America!"

Fearing that pranksters might ring the bell at all hours, a long rope was not attached to the bell. For years, the bell ringer was a logger in hobnail boots who climbed a ladder, then climbed to the peak of the steep church roof, navigated what photos show to be a rather shaky ladder, and while stretched out almost flat, rocked the bell to make it ring. A rope was not added for another decade.

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Tacoma's Old St Peter's Church with the bell atop its tree stump tower.

Among Janet’s memories of those times was her beautiful, beloved pearl handled pistol that Sheriff Davisson quite coveted. He tried numerous times to buy it, but she always refused. She finally relented - to lend him, ONLY lend, mind you! - that exquisite piece. For months Janet hounded him to return the gun, to no avail. He finally had to admit to losing it - and proposed to giving her a deed for two acres of land at the corner of Sprague and 12th Street. Years later, she sold the parcel for $2000 - and that, as they say, was when $2000 was worth something!

There came a time that Janet found it necessary to sue Hugh for divorce. Doubtless, this raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. The divorce was made final in 1877.

In January 1885, she married a fellow Englishman, and the man who had been her bartender, John Nash Fuller. Their daughter, Winona, was born in November of that year. John was later elected Chief of Police in Tacoma.

John and Janet invested in real estate. While the Steele Hotel, originally located just east of today’s Spar Restaurant, is no longer in existence, some of their cottages are. Climb the stairs in Old Town Park up from Job Carr Cabin, look across the street, and you’ll see two of their original 500 square foot rental homes for local workers.

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The two Steele Cottages, built in 1882, are the oldest existing homes in the Old Town Tacoma neighborhood.

They are the 3rd oldest remaining structures built within the City of Tacoma.

The grey residence at 2312 N 29th St was added to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places in 2017.

Janet Steele Fuller died in 1894, and was laid to rest in Old Tacoma Cemetery. Perhaps she heard more than a few people express surprise that a “mere woman” was able to run a successful hotel. A quick look around Tacoma, and one will find many such "mere women" who accomplished quite a lot during her time: women such as Fanny Paddock, Thea Foss, and Birgitte Funnemark. But those are stories for another time. In the meantime, do follow Janet's lead and follow your dreams - no matter where they may lead you, no matter how many may raise their eyebrows at you.

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Janet is celebrated with this sidewalk plaque along N 30th St in Old Town Tacoma.

This is one of 10 markers honoring the significant contributions of women in Tacoma history.