Tumwater -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 7/19/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22514
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The City of Tumwater in Thurston County is located at the falls of the Deschutes River where it cascades into Budd Inlet at the southern end of Puget Sound. Olympia, the state capital, adjoins Tumwater on the north. Originally known as New Market, the community that became Tumwater was the first American settlement north of the Columbia River, founded in the fall of 1845 by Michael Troutman Simmons (1814-1867) and George Bush (1790?-1863). With mills driven by the water power of the Deschutes River falls, the settlement entered into a period of industrial and economic development from the 1850s through the 1870s. The post office opened in 1863, taking the name Tumwater, and the City of Tumwater was incorporated on November 25, 1869. Over the years, other sources of power replaced water power and Tumwater was overtaken by other industrial areas and by the growing state capital next door. But it retained significant industry, in particular the Olympia Brewing Company, through most of the twentieth century. By the 2020s, Tumwater's population had topped 26,000.

American Settlers Reach Puget Sound

Tumwater Falls, where the Deschutes River enters Budd Inlet, was a ceremonial and sacred site of the Steh-chass people, ancestors of today's Squaxin Island Tribe, who lived in the area for thousands of years. Their village on Budd Inlet below the falls and the river itself were both named Steh-chass. The Steh-chass fished and gathered seafood on Budd Inlet and nearby waterways and the area was a gathering place for the Steh-chass and nearby related tribes, including the Squaxin, Nisqually, Chehalis, Duwamish, and Suquamish.

Starting in early May 1844, non-Native settlers George Bush and his trusted young friend Michael Simmons led a party of 31 men, women, and children in six Conestoga wagon trains from St. Joseph, Missouri, west on the Oregon Trail. Bush provided and supplied the six wagons. The members of the party, a combination of friends and family members, included Isabella James Bush (ca. 1809-1866), Elizabeth Kindred Simmons (1820-1891), James Benton McAllister Jr. (1812-1855), Charlotte Martha McAllister (1818-1865), David Kindred (1788-1873), Talitha Kindred (1791-1872), Gabriel Jones (1799-1885), Keziah Bishop Jones (1798-1868), Samuel B. Crockett (1819-1903), Reuben Crowder (1829-1900), and Jesse Ferguson (1824-1900).

Bush, already a successful and prosperous rancher and businessman in Missouri, was prepared financially and equipped with enough supplies, wagons, and oxen to take care of his entire family for several years after he reached his destination. Others in the party were not as well-equipped for the journey west. He generously shared his well-planned supplies with those who needed assistance.

The Bush-Simmons party arrived at The Dalles on the Columbia River in December 1844. While traveling west, the party learned that Oregon Territory had passed racial exclusion laws that June, forbidding African Americans from settling in the territory. Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895), a former slave owner who came west from Missouri, promoted this law requiring all African Americans, whether considered free or enslaved, to leave Oregon, and if they refused, to be whipped in public every six months until they left. The discriminatory law became known as "Peter Burnett's Lash Law" (Atisu).

Simmons, not wanting to separate from his friend Bush, an African American, or the other members of the wagon-train party, supported Bush in his decision on how to handle this new law. Bush's choices were to go south into California (then still part of Mexico) or north of Columbia River. He decided to head north, out of reach of the lash law. The party spent the winter of 1844-1845 in what is now Clark County at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver. From there, they made their way to Puget Sound, arriving in the fall of 1845. Writing in 1916, John Edwin Ayer (1855-1932) said:

"[T]he little party ... proceeded to take possession of such tracts of land as took their fancy covering what is now the town of Tumwater and back along the west side of the little DesChutes River and out on the prairie which begins about a mile south of the landing and extends down about three miles to a rise of ground not far from the river. Upon this commanding site George Bush pitched his last camp and there his family have lived to the present time and the prairie of some five square miles extent has always been known as Bush Prairie" (Ayer, 42).

New Settlement, New Market, New Industry

This was the first American settlement established on Puget Sound, population thirty-one. Simmons named the settlement New Market.

In a radius of six miles at the head of Budd's Inlet, most of the new settlers established land claims. Due to discriminatory laws, George Bush could not claim the land at Bush Prairie that his family settled on. Bush was able to keep his land by virtue of a special exemption that was granted to him, but did not apply to other African Americans. Michael Simmons took a land claim at the falls of the Deschutes River. James McAllister and his family did not stay in Tumwater long. Leschi, a leader of the nearby Nisqually Tribe, befriended McAllister and helped him find a homestead in the Nisqually Valley some ten miles east.

At the time, most of the New Market area was heavily forested. Since it was late in the year that autumn of 1845 to plant anything, the settlers depended upon the Hudson's Bay Company's nearby Fort Nisqually to provide much of what they needed. They also learned to utilize the Deschutes River and the natural resources in the area.

In the winter of 1846-1847, Bush, Simmons, Kindred and others built a grist mill at the falls on the Deschutes River to grind flour for the settlement. The building was made of logs and the mill stones shaped from granite. The settlers were able to enjoy bread from their wheat. With this mill and those that soon followed, Tumwater, then still known as New Market, became the first industrial site in what is now the state of Washington.

On August 20, 1847, Ferguson, Simmons, and Jones met with Edmund Sylvester -- who had recently settled on a claim on Budd Inlet then known as Smithfield where he would soon establish the town of Olympia -- and others including B. Frank Shaw, A. D. Carnefix, and Antonio Rabbeson, to discuss building a sawmill. In the winter of 1847, construction began at the falls of the Deschutes River. The mill was completed in March 1848 and named Puget Sound Milling Company.

The birth of the grist and saw mills was the beginning of New Market's economic foundation and promising future. Communication between New Market and Smithfield (Olympia) was initially by canoe on the water. In August 1847, a trail between the two settlements was cut out of the forest.

In June 1848, the Catholic mission of St. Joseph was established by Reverend Pascal Ricard on Budd Inlet beyond Smithfield. That same year, Michael Simmons opened a store at the mission site. The Steh-chass were among the regular customers. The stock consisted of sugar, coffee, flour, beans, fabric, clothing, and trinkets. In the spring of 1848, the Puget Sound Lumber Company was formed by Simmons, Bush, and others. The company mill was built in the fall and winter of 1848 at the lower falls in New Market.

More Development, Treaties, and War

Clanrick Crosby (1814-1879), born in Massachusetts, was a seaman and commander of the brig Grecian. The ship was family-owned and sailed around Cape Horn to California in 1849. Crosby did not come to New Market as others did along the Oregon Trail -- from California he sailed on to Puget Sound.

Michael Simmons, who could not read or write, sold his New Market land claim to Crosby. The 640-land claim included the Steh-chass village site, a two-story house, the grist mill and sawmill, and an upright saw. Crosby took another 640-land claim that encompassed both sides of the falls. This move allowed him to become a major part of the industrial and economic development of New Market (soon to be Tumwater).

Simmons moved to nearby fast-growing Olympia, invested in shipping, and was appointed Olympia postmaster in 1850. That same year, Crosby sailed home to New England and returned in April on the Grecian with 24 family members.

As the early New Market settlers established themselves over the next two decades they engaged in an increasing variety of economic activity, including timber, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. Bush Prairie also flourished, producing large crops of wheat, rye, oats, potatoes, hops, wool, and butter. The Bush family and their neighbors planted trees, fruit, flowers, and a variety of vegetables, and raised livestock.

Sometime during 1851, Simmons filed a complaint against Clanrick Crosby over the purchase of his land claim, asserting Crosby would not pay off the balance due for the purchase. Elizabeth Simmons published notices in the local newspaper warning readers not to buy or do business with Crosby regarding the disputed land. In April 1853, Crosby was ordered to pay Simmons the remainder of the balance, with interest.

On January 12, 1852, Thurston County was created. That summer, Ira Ward, Nelson Barnes, and Smith Hays started another sawmill in a small structure at the upper falls in New Market, known as the Ward & Hays Sawmill. The same year Clanrick Crosby established a general merchandise store named C. Crosby & Company. In 1853, James Biles (1812-1888), his wife, and their seven children arrived in Tumwater from Kentucky.

On March 2, 1853, Washington Territory was created. That fall, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), appointed governor of the new territory, named Olympia, which had surpassed New Market in size, as the territorial capital.

As settlement increased, with newcomers occupying more and more land, the government wanted to confine Native Americans to reservations to make more room for new settlers, and worked to get Indian leaders to sign treaties requiring their people to move to reservations. These actions triggered the Indian War of 1855-1856. Some of the first New Market settlers were involved in the treaty-making and subsequent conflicts. Michael Simmons was appointed as an Indian Agent by Governor Stevens. James McAllister volunteered to join the Eaton Rangers, a militia unit intended to fight so-called hostile Indians.

McAllister became one of the first casualties, killed on October 27, 1855. Blockhouses, stockades, and forts were built around the region to provide protection for settlers. The Bushes constructed a fort on their homestead, Jesse Ferguson built a blockhouse on his land claim, and Fort McAllister at South Prairie in Pierce County was named for James McAllister. Fighting west of the Cascades ended in 1856.

On October 14, 1859, James Biles and H. K. Carter opened the Tumwater Tannery, servicing Tumwater and Olympia residents. They sold leather goods of all types. Biles later become the sole owner. He renamed the firm J. B. Biles & Co. in 1862 and continued in business for 15 or 20 years.

In 1860 the Tumwater Long Bridge across the Deschutes River became the first bridge to connect Tumwater and Olympia. That same year Nathaniel Crosby (1835-1885), who had emigrated with his uncle Clanrick Crosby and other family members and had recently married Cordelia Jane Smith (1839-1902), completed building a home for his new bride. The one-and-a-half story, wood-framed classic revival cottage, known as the Crosby House, still stands in Tumwater.

On January 5, 1863, Nathaniel Crosby was appointed postmaster for the town, whose name was changed from New Market to Tumwater. (In the Chinook Jargon trade language, Tumwater or "Tum-wa-ta" meant strong water or waterfall.)

Economic Change and Early Church

Building in Thurston County was increasing dramatically. The mills in Tumwater could barely keep up with the demand. Clanrick Crosby and his wife Phoebe Louise Crosby (1815-1871) platted the town of Tumwater on October 14, 1869. The town was incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature approved on November 25, 1869.

In 1870, William H. Horton and several partners established Washington Water Pipe and Manufacturing (formerly the Horton Water Pipe Factory). The factory produced wooden water pipes. The company was converted to a mill in 1880. George Gelbach established a grist mill known as Red Mill in 1870 along the middle falls on the west bank of the Deschutes. It operated until 1890 when it was sold to the Olympia Light and Power Company.

Most of the small communities in early Washington Territory could not afford a church building or a fulltime pastor. Sharing a circuit-riding preacher with neighboring communities seem to be the answer. The first church building in Tumwater was a union church (used by numerous congregations) built in 1872 on the hill above what was then (long before construction of Interstate 5) downtown Tumwater. James Biles, Nelson Barnes, Clanrick Crosby and other community leaders were involved in the building that first church building, which became known as Tumwater Methodist Church.

The first pastor was Reverend Herbert Patterson, who once served with Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois legislature. Another pastor, W. I. Cooper, reputedly traveled 1,000 miles on horseback. Biles for years was superintendent of the Sunday School. In 1885, Reverend Ebenezer Hopkins arrived and remained at the church for years. By 1896, the Reverend T. B. Ford conducted services at the church.

Over decades, the church has been used by Unitarians, Quakers, and other faiths, as well as a labor union. The original bell in the church was removed in 1968. The building, now home to Saint James Anglican Church, still stands in Tumwater at the corner of B Street SW and S 2nd Avenue overlooking I-5.

Anticipation of the arrival of transcontinental rail lines connecting Washington to the rest of the country hit fever pitch in Puget Sound in the early 1870s. The Northern Pacific Railway's line north from the Columbia River was completed in late 1873, but it made Tacoma its terminus, bypassing Tumwater and Olympia. Tumwater and Olympia needed a railroad connection and, in 1878, a 15.5-mile narrow-gauge railroad track was completed from Olympia south through Tumwater to the main rail line at Tenino.

During the 1870s, the Deschutes River and the power it supplied to local mills was more than important to Tumwater, it had become embedded in the town's culture and heritage and essential to its industrial development. The high point of water power was the mid-1870s, with a significant proportion of manufacturing on Puget Sound done in Tumwater in part because of the water power and navigation facilities. A decade later in 1885 there were still sawmills, flour mills, factories, and a tannery all powered by the waterfalls. But use of water power was gradually decreasing as businesses switched to other types of power. Many industries built along the Deschutes River would eventually vanish.

On November 11, 1889, Washington became the 42nd state in the union. In 1890, the Olympia Light and Power Company built a generator facility at the middle falls of the Deschutes in Tumwater. Streetcars were becoming a popular form of transport and, on July 21, 1892, the company inaugurated electric-streetcar service along a four-mile track between Olympia and Tumwater. Over the years the route expanded. On December 1, 1933, the streetcar stopped running and the rails were subsequently removed.

"It's the Water"

The 1890s saw the development of power sources in other areas beyond Tumwater Falls. Newer plants and mills elsewhere around Puget Sound replaced water-powered mills, such as those in Tumwater. Sawmills in the area declined since forests around Tumwater were depleted. Olympia, now the state capital, was overshadowing Tumwater in size and importance. Tumwater was becoming a suburb of Olympia, but it also became known for a new industry -- beer brewing.

In 1895, Leopold F. Schmidt (1846-1914), a German immigrant who operated a brewery in Montana, decided to transfer his brewery business to Tumwater. The decision came after Schmidt was introduced to the pure water of artesian springs in Tumwater while visiting the new state capitol building in Olympia. After drinking the artesian water, he purchased the Biles and Carter tannery building and obtained water rights to the springs.

In the spring of 1896, Schmidt started work on the brewery at Tumwater. By October 1, he had built several wooden structures and piers to house the operations. The Capitol Brewing Company was formed. On October 4, 1896, the first beer, Olympia Pale Export, was sold. The company, soon renamed Olympia Brewing Company, grew to world-class stature. The slogan "It's the Water" explained the taste of the beer. In 1906, Schmidt replaced the original brewery buildings with an imposing six-story brick building that would go on to become a significant landmark in Tumwater known as the Old Brewhouse.

Schmidt died in September 1914, and prohibition, which took effect in Washington in 1916, closed down brewing in the state. The Olympia Brewing Company was nearly wrecked by prohibition. It continued producing fruit juices, jam, and jellies but the products were not a success, and the business closed in 1921. After prohibition ended in 1933 the company resumed brewing, building a new plant at the upper falls of the Deschutes River. Opened on January 14, 1934, it was operated by Olympia Brewing until 1983 when it was sold to Pabst Brewing Company. Pabst closed the facility in 2003.

Highway Construction and Historic Preservation

On July 12, 1916, a large granite monument to what press coverage referred to as "the Simmons Party" was unveiled by a host of descendants, friends, and officials, honoring the first American settlers on Puget Sound, who arrived in the fall of 1845 at Tumwater ("Pioneers Do Honor ..."). The names of the original 31 men, women, and children were listed on a bronze tablet on the monument. It stands above the Deschutes River near where Michael Simmons made his camp in 1845.

By 1921, Pacific Highway (later Highway 99) was built and paved through Tumwater and Olympia. The route originally went along Tumwater's main street, across the Boston Street Bridge over the Deschutes, and up Custer Way, then turned left on Cleveland and made its way through downtown Olympia. Due to increased traffic, the highway was rerouted to bypass downtown Tumwater. During the 1930s, the only major industry in town was the Olympia Brewing Company.

In 1941, the Schmidt family and descendants of the Crosby family purchased the Crosby House built in 1860 by Nathaniel Crosby. In 1947, the house was donated to the Daughters of the Pioneers, Chapter 4. The chapter gave the house to the City of Tumwater in 1981, but continues to operate it. The first occupants of the home, Nathaniel and Cordelia Crosby, had two sons. The second, Harry Lowe Crosby (1870-1950), born after the family moved to Olympia, was the father of renowned singer and actor Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903-1977), born in Tacoma and raised in Spokane.

On February 10, 1942, Selma Mary Lee "Sally" Eke (1914-1995) became the first woman to serve as justice of the peace in Tumwater when she was appointed to complete the term of her husband, Arthur Carl Eke (1896-1961), who resigned and joined the naval reserve during World War II. Sally Eke was elected to the justice of the peace position in November 1942, and the following year, while still serving in that office, also became the first woman police officer for the city of Olympia.

In 1955, construction of Interstate 5 began through the area. On December 12, 1958, the new interstate opened. Cut through central Tumwater, it split the city in half. Many homes and commercial buildings were demolished to make way for the freeway. Following construction of Interstate 5, opportunities opened up for new land development.

The Tyee Motor Inn opened in Tumwater in June 1958. Legislators from Olympia used the inn for conventions and banquets. The motel had expanded significantly by 1970, but during the 1970s it suffered multiple fires. The motor inn never recovered. It was torn down in October 1999, and a Fred Meyer store was later opened on its former site.

The first woman elected to the Tumwater City Council was Marion Argo (1898-1969), who won election in March 1960 and served two years. In 1962, Tumwater Falls Park opened along the falls of the Deschutes River. Land for the 15-acre park was donated by the Olympia Brewing Company and the park was developed by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. The nonprofit organization continues to own and maintain the park, now named Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls, which is open to the public without charge. By the end of the 1960s three lumber mills, descendants of the early settlers' water-powered sawmills, closed.

In 1978, the Tumwater Historic District was designated, encompassing land on both sides of the falls of the Deschutes River at the heart of historic Tumwater and including the Old Brewhouse, the Crosby House, and other historic structures. During the 1980s, the Henderson House Museum was created in one of those structures, a restored home that was originally owned by William Naumann, a German brewmaster who worked at the Olympia Brewing Company in the early 1900s. The building's name was later changed to the Brewmaster's House in honor of Naumann.

State Agencies and Local Planning

Given its proximity to the state capital, over the years Tumwater became home to offices of many state agencies. The Washington State Department of Corrections established its headquarters there in 1981. Other agencies with locations in Tumwater include the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, the Department of Revenue, the Department of Health, and the Washington State Library.

In 1988, Tumwater, Olympia, and the nearby city of Lacey together agreed to develop a joint plan for urban growth in the area. A comprehensive plan was adopted and amended over the years. The three cities and Thurston County also joined together in a partnership they named the LOTT Cleanwater Alliance to handle sewage and wastewater treatment for their growing urban areas.

In April 2016, the Old Brewhouse was donated to the City of Tumwater to preserve and restore the facility. In 2017, repairs began to prevent further deterioration.

On November 25, 2019, the City of Tumwater held a Sesquicentennial Celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of its incorporation. The celebration included a variety of projects and events focusing on the community's history.

By 2021, Tumwater's official estimated population had topped 26,000. The community continues to plan for the future while preserving its past, from being the oldest permanent American settlement on Puget Sound to being home to a nationally known brewery and much more.


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