Jacob Halstead: Oregon trail pioneer and true founding father

Some of old Tacoma as it looked during the Washington territory days.

Tacoma Public Library/courtesy photo


Jacob Halstead: a True Founding Father

Oregon Trail Pioneer Jacob Halstead, his second wife Jane (his first wife died) and their children Jeannette, Etta, George, and Frank moved to New Tacoma in 1873 when the city consisted of two houses. Tacoma didn’t have a newspaper for several years. The first tidbit about Mr. Halstead appeared in the Tacoma Herald’s “Weekly Intelligence” column on June 2, 1877. He was in the paper because he had created hotel on wheels for Northern Pacific Railroad employees working on the tracks.

The concept of a railroad hotel on wheels was very avant garde. Mr. Halstead’s hotel consisted of five, wheeled wagons (possibly railroad cars) located at a spot ten miles from town where it was assumed a future railroad station would be located. One car was the kitchen and the remaining four were dining room/bedroom combinations. Every day, two “beeves” were slaughtered, cooked and served with coffee or tea, and whatever the cooks could make with sugar, flour and butter, probably biscuits and, at that particular time, wild strawberries. The newspaper article was a bit casual about how many men were housed. One paragraph said 300 men and another, eighty-three. Both Mr. Halstead and the men were lucky, though, because that summer a tree fell across one of the vehicles just before the workers were due to come in for dinner. The tree ruined the car, the tables inside, a lot of the dishes and cooking utensils but no men were hurt.

Mr. Halstead also owned and ran the Tacoma Hotel at 707 Pacific Avenue. During February 1878, he worked work for the Tacoma Land Company, clearing the property around their headquarters building. The following month he was back at the Tacoma Hotel having the office repainted and papered, and the whole hotel generally spruced up. The newly-refurnished hotel reopened in April with accommodations for temporary guests and boarders.

At that time, all New Tacoma’s buildings were wood, and fire was a constant danger. An organization of businessmen, which included Mr. Halstead, calling themselves The Citizens of New Tacoma, held a meeting in Smith’s Hall for the purpose of finding ways to prevent and fight fires. Less than a week later Mr. Halstead was standing in front of the Tacoma Hotel talking with a friend when they saw smoke coming from a second floor window of the American Hotel across the street. The two rushed into the building and up to the room. A pile of clothing was burning and smoking, and the floor matting was just catching fire. Their best guess was a spark had fallen into the clothing from a cigar or pipe. A brisk north wind blew that day and their quick action in putting out the fire probably saved a number of wooden buildings on the west side of Pacific from also catching fire. Not long after, Mr. Halstead’s Tacoma Hotel caught fire and burned down.

Fire insurance was little-known and Mr. Halstead had none, but he did have a good reputation. He rented two buildings on the west side of Pacific Avenue, furnished them as best he could, and rented rooms. On March 26, 1880, the Weekly Ledger announced Mr. Halstead had hired Portland architect T.B. Spring to build, a new hotel called Halstead House on the site of the old one. Plans called for a 60 x 44 ft., three-story building with a mansard roof. The first floor had an office, reading room, kitchen and bathroom. The second had a parlor in front and suites of rooms for families. The third floor was bedrooms. Altogether, the hotel had 34 bedrooms and a bathhouse next door. On September 2nd, Mr. Halstead held a grand opening ball. In early evening, people began arriving from Old Tacoma, Puyallup, Steilacoom, and the plains. At 10:00 a large delegation from Olympia showed up. They had chartered the steamer Daisy, and brought along the Olympia Coronet Band. At midnight, the majority of the dancers and musicians crossed Pacific Avenue to Smith Hall for dinner. Others stayed behind and played poker upstairs. In a game that went on for more than forty-eight hours some $30,000 changed hands. The Olympia visitors left at 4:00 am. But locals danced another hour.

Taking advantage of the new hotel, businessman M.J. Cogswell built a barbershop slightly north of the hotel and hired “a tonsorial artist from  Portland” to run it.

Eighteen eighty-one was the year businessmen realized no one was doing anything topromote New Tacoma. On July 16th twenty of the town’s leading citizens met in the hall above the store of Bostwick & Davis and organized the New Tacoma Board of Trade. Mr. Halstead was elected second vice president.

Until he passed away, Mr. Halstead advertised his hotel as serving the best beer, (genuine Budweiser) the finest wines, and offering top-quality cigars.

Some of Tacoma as it looked during the Washington territory days. (Tacoma Public LIbrary/courtesy photo)
Some of Tacoma as it looked during the Washington territory days. (Tacoma Public LIbrary/courtesy photo)

Jacob Halstead had heart trouble and died on August 21, 1882 at the age of 54. He was buried at Tacoma’s Oakwood Hill Cemetery. Initially his wife, Jane, and son, Charles thought they’d run the hotel but by September the bar was released to George Bott, and Mr. Rebard of the firm Rebard and Campbell was negotiating to buy the hotel. On October 6th the paper said blacksmith John Muntz leased the business for a year. The venerable old building was torn down in 1907.