Gravel to golf: The Chambers Bay story
In June, Chambers Bay Golf Course in Pierce County will join the ranks of such prestigious courses as Pebble Beach, Bethpage, Marian, and Pinehurst, among others. At these courses, some of the greatest players ever to walk the links made U.S. Open History.
Chambers Bay is poised to become the next great field of champions. But unlike the other courses, whose golf history goes back generations, Chambers Bay is a newcomer to the sport…and there’s a lot more to it than just breathtaking views and unbeatable recreational opportunities. In fact, what will soon become the site of the 2015 U.S. Open has a long and storied history that begins well before the arrival of the first European settlers.
Danny Marshall is the Chair of the Steilacoom Indian Tribal Council—an elected, nine-member body charged with governing their people and preserving their heritage. He says the traditional story for the Steilacoom Tribe is there was once a mountain where Chambers Bay Golf Course is now. Legend has it that the tribe survived Earth’s great flood by tying a canoe to the mountain’s peak.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Steilacoom Tribe has been made up of five related bands of Native Americans – the Steilacooms, the Sastuck, the Spanaway, the Tlithlow, and Segwallitchu. Around 600 people who spoke a subdialect of the Puget Sound Salish language lived around Chambers Creek – or as they knew it, Steilacoom Creek.
Marshall says the two biggest aspects of life for his ancestors were gathering food for survival and protecting themselves from raids by other Native Peoples from outside of the area. The tribes around Steilacoom were peaceful and interacted well with each other because they believed that building relationships was the way to gain strength.
When the first European ship sailed through what would become Puget Sound in 1792, most resident tribes expected to build relationships with those newcomers as well. Soon after, the Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts along the sound, which lead to the inevitable surge in the non-Indian population.
Among those early settlers was a prominent judge and businessman named Thomas Chambers. In fact, Thomas Chambers built the first mills in Pierce County around the same area where the Steilacoom Indians had existed for over 400 years. But a lot of different people were moving to the area during that period in history, and few were concerned about uprooting the indigenous population.
To protect early settlers the U.S. Army built Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood. It had a cyclical effect on the population because once the fort was built, more settlers began relocating to the area because they now felt they would be safe. The number of clashes between settlers and frustrated Native Americans, who were beginning to see their homeland overrun, was growing.
From 1855 through 1858, many of Washington’s native tribes banded together to resist the encroaching American presence, and Army forts like Steilacoom, Nisqually and others soon become refuges for hundreds of pioneer families.
It wasn’t until the 1880’s when settlers started acquiring property in University Place. And it was prime real estate, with sweeping views of Puget Sound. But although Chambers Creek, Chambers Elementary School and the Chambers Bay Golf Course are all named for him, early Steilacoom settler Thomas Chambers never actually set foot in the area that now bears his name.
Instead, Chambers built his sawmill, grist mill and flour mill on the southern bank of the creek very near where the Chambers Bay Marina resides today. It would be another thirty years before the mills got their first neighbor…the United States government, which hired the Pacific Bridge Company in the 1890’s to mine gravel for use at Army forts all along the Puget Sound.
When those forts were completed, the property was sold to a host of gravel companies that evolved through mergers and acquisitions to eventually become Lone Star Sand and Gravel. Lone Star took over operations in 1959 and lasted more than three decades – spanning more than a hundred years of digging for what was known worldwide as some of the purest gravel available.
The sand and gravel that came out of the mine was known as Steilacoom-grade gravel, and was one of the highest-known quality gravel in the world. It was clean, it was pure and it didn’t take a lot of processing. That high-quality gravel was a fifteen thousand year old gift from the Vashon glacier, which began retreating north into present-day Canada in the waning days of the last ice age.
It left rich sedimentary deposits scattered all around Puget Sound, and early American industrialists wasted no time in taking advantage of the abundant natural resources. They even used Steilacoom gravel to lay the road bed for Interstate 5, which stretches across the United States from Canada to Mexico.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Lone-Star’s mining lease ran out and Pierce County officials revealed they had something else in mind for the property. After one hundred years of industrial use, Pierce County finally reclaimed the spectacular Chambers Creek properties for the public, featuring a three-mile trail, two-miles of beach access, a large meadow area, a beloved playground, and Chambers Bay Golf Course.