Chambers Bay Before There was Golf

Timber operations at Chambers Bay circa 1940
Timber operations circa 1940. Photo courtesy of Pierce County.


By Steve Dunkelberger

tags logoGolfers and US Open spectators are set to soon descend on Chambers Bay, a patch of earth along Puget Sound that has seen more than its share of swings and drivers — but of the historical sort.

Here is its story, from the beginning to now:

Thomas McCutcheon Chambers
The honorable Thomas Chambers was always noted as being an honest man, who was always well dressed. Photo courtesy of Pierce County.

Where the Water Came From
There was no Puget Sound until 13,000 years ago, some 5,000 years after the first Native Americans called the area home. Bluntly put, Native American have been along the waters of Puget Sound longer than the water has. So, it only seems fitting that there are native folk stories about how the hillside of Chambers Bay was the place they gathered when a great flood came. In any event, during the last ice age, Native Americans lived in the area when a massive ice dam that spanned what is now the Strait of Juan de Fuca suddenly broke loose, allowing the millions and millions of gallons of sea water to rush into what is now Puget Sound. The valley between the Olympics and the Cascades flooded, which explains why backyard gardens have bowling-ball sized rocks just below the topsoil. When the ice finally retreated to the north, it left behind deeply gouged channels, north- and south-oriented passages and bays. Puget Sound was born.

Native American tribes, namely the Puyallup and Steilacoom, established villages on what is now the Chambers Bay Golf Course because it was centrally located along trade routes as well as close to the salmon-bearing Chambers Creek.

What’s in a Name?
The area got its name from Thomas McCutcheon Chambers. He was an Irish-born Presbyterian minister who married a cousin of Andrew Jackson and traveled to America in 1816 to serve as the overseer of Jackson’s tobacco and cotton plantation. Chambers then sought his fortune by “going West” in 1845, first stopping in the Willamette Valley. He then went to Olympia, where his sons set up land donation claims. In the fall of 1847, Chambers and his family arrived in Steilacoom, taking possession of the property surrounding Heath’s Creek, also known as Steilacoom Creek, through a donation land claim. Joseph Heath had been a Hudson’s Bay Company farmer, which had an outpost in what is now DuPont. The land, after all, was part of the English empire. That fact clashed with the growing flood of American settlers coming to the area. Chambers was one of them. And he settled his land dispute with the British authorities in a very American way — with a gun.

Timber operations at Chambers Bay circa 1940
Timber operations circa 1940. Photo courtesy of Pierce County.

Hudson Bay Company officials had sent a letter to Chambers warning him of the dire consequences if he did not vacate the land. After Chambers ignored their threats, officials of the company paid a visit to his Chambers Bay home. Chambers “argued his point” by resting the barrel of his rifle on his fence while the Brits stated their case from the other side of his property. That made it quite clear he was going to stay. The Hudson’s Bay Company never bothered him again.

Life and Death
In 1848, Chambers was appointed justice of the Peace and County Commissioner of Lewis County, an office he held until the division of the Oregon Territory into the Oregon and Washington Territories. Then in 1850, Chambers began to build his business empire by opening the first three-story grist mill at Chambers Creek. A saw mill followed two years later. Besides Chambers’ business ambitions, his political career also expanded. In l854, when Pierce County was formed, he was appointed commissioner. Chambers became Judge Chambers by his election as Probate Judge.

A news article that appeared in The Puget Sound Courier on Friday, September 21, 1855, described a new flouring mill as “a highly necessary and important work, not only to the people of Pierce County but to those living in every county north of us and one that the wants of the community imperatively demanded has just been completed and is now in successful operation.”

Everything Chambers did was seen as being of the best quality, including his attire. He was always well dressed. One story has it that a Steilacoom resident was greeting his brother as he arrived at the docks. The brother was wearing a top hat. The Steilacoom brother quickly knocked it off his head and kicked it on the ground saying that no one wore a top hat other than “honorable Judge Chambers.”

But his Chamber’s would end. On December 28,1876, Judge Thomas M. Chambers died of old age and general debility. He was 81. He was buried with full fraternal honors at the nearby Masonic Cemetery. His obituary, which appeared in the Daily Pacific Tribune stated: “In every sense of the word, Judge Chambers was a pioneer, an old settler, and a useful citizen, and of his kind it would be well for the country were there more.”

Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant
Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of Pierce County.

Modern Day Chambers Bay
The Chambers Bay land was put to use to build military forts along the West Coast when the federal government selected Pacific Bridge Co. in the 1890s to construct Fort Casey, Fort Warden and Fort Flagler. Pacific Bridge operated a gravel mine at Chambers Bay for the projects. Gravel mining continued there for more than a century, even as owners changed. Lone Star Northwest operated the site until 2003.

Pierce County, which had a wastewater treatment plant nearby, took over the 650-acre property. It bought the site in the early 1990s, but allowed mining for another decade. Pierce County’s total holdings top 950 acres that are home to the Irish-inspired 18-hole links golf course, a wastewater treatment facility, sports fields, a labyrinth and an environmental services building.

And, now land will soon be home to the US Open, just another footnote to the land’s already storied history.


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