Olympia -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/24/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5105
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The Olympia area was well established by 1853 thanks to the Hudson's Bay Company's nearby Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound Agriculture Company, the early U.S. settlement at Tumwater, and Catholic missionary activity. The discovery of coal and a good harbor boosted the pioneer economy and Olympia served as the terminus of the Cowlitz Trail, the northern extension of the Oregon Trail, where settlers could transfer from foot and wagons to canoes and ships and spread outward along the shores of Puget Sound. The town grew with its own economy as Washington grew as a state, in addition to serving as the seat of government from 1853 to the present time.


Native Americans of the Nisqually and Squaxon Tribes built a settlement of long houses at a series of waterfalls on the Deschutes River they called Tum-wa-ta for strong water. Two miles downstream, the river emptied into Puget Sound where a neck of land resembled a bear at high tide. The natives called the peninsula Cheet-woot for bear and they camped there winters to gather shellfish and trade with one another.

The bay was named Budd Inlet in 1841 by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) after one of the officers in his mapping expedition. The first American settlers in the area were Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867) who arrived by wagon train in October 1845 by way of the Columbia River. Simmons’ party included George Bush, Simmons’ African American neighbor from Missouri. The migrants survived that first winter with help from the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Nisqually. Simmons built a sawmill and a grist mill at the falls of the Deschutes, which he called New Market to announce that there was an economic alternative to the Hudson’s Bay Company. New Market became Tumwater in the 1860s. Bush built a prosperous farm on a prairie that took his name.


In October 1846, Levi Lathrop Smith and Edmund Sylvester arrived from New England and filed claims that included Cheet-woot, where Smith built a small cabin. Smith called the settlement Smithfield. He was elected to the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1848, but drowned accidentally on his way to his first session. Sylvester inherited the property by virtue of their joint claim. The California Gold Rush of 1849 pulled Sylvester and other settlers away for a short time and Sylvester returned with enough gold dust to start buying land and goods and to establish a town. By that time, Smithfield was at the Puget Sound end of the Cowlitz Trail that funneled settlers from the Columbia River to Puget Sound.

In the spring of 1850, Sylvester hosted a dedication ceremony for his new town and he invited pioneer and fellow gold seeker Isaac Ebey (1819-1857). Ebey is said to have offered these lines:

"Afar their crystal summits rise

Like gems against the sunset skies,

While far below, the shadowy mist

In waves of pearl and amethyst,

‘Round somber fir and stately pine,

Its dew, jeweled fingers twine;

Olympia’s gods might view with grace,

Nor scorn so fair a dwelling place" (Newell, 7).

Sylvester chose the name Olympia for his town.

That summer, Sylvester, Ebey, and other investors purchased the brig Orbit, Puget Sound’s first home-owned ship. The Orbit ran pilings sawed by Michael Simmons’ mill to San Francisco and returned with goods for the growing community. This led to the opening of a Customs house at Olympia by the U.S. Government in 1851. The Collector of Customs set up shop in a two-story building, the largest in town, where Simmons ran a store that "on paper is designed as being near First and Main streets, though the streets, to a great extent, exist in the imagination" (Newell, 8).

Businesses bloomed on Budd Inlet and the discovery of coal nearby helped make Olympia the hub of activity on Puget Sound. French Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded a mission on the bay where native converts raised fruits and produce. The Columbian started weekly publication in September 1852 and immediately publisher T. F. McElroy campaigned for a territory separate from Oregon. Congress answered by forming Washington Territory the following year. The residents would have preferred to call it Columbia however.

Seat of Government

President Franklin Pierce appointed Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) as territorial governor as well as Superintendent of Indian Affairs and head of the transcontinental railroad survey. Stevens arrived in Olympia after an arduous overland journey in November 1853. He designated the town -- population 100 -- as territorial capital. From this base, Stevens traveled about the region to induce the tribes to relinquish title to their lands.

The first legislature met upstairs in Edmund Sylvester’s Gold Bar Store on February 28, 1854, starting a cycle of legislative sessions that would characterize Olympia’s development and culture. The lawmakers organized school districts and decided not to grant women the right to vote. More counties were organized and state and county officers were appointed.

The territorial capital continued to grow and the 300-foot Giddings Dock enhanced Olympia’s importance as a port. But at low tide, the dock was marooned in the middle of a mud flat, a mile from the water. The Olympia Lodge 5, Free and Accepted Masons built a colonnaded hall which became the temporary home of the legislature in 1854. In this building, the legislature formally set Olympia as the territorial capital. In 1856, the legislature was called to order in its own building that would serve for almost 50 years.


Governor Stevens got his treaties with the tribes, which removed all the natives to small reservations where they were expected to become farmers. The inequities of these treaties sparked the Indian War of 1855-56 when Olympia became territorial military headquarters. The neck of land where the town was located proved very defensible and the residents built a stockade from shore to shore to block the attack that never came. Citizens fielded two volunteer companies that saw action on the White River. Stevens declared the war over in December 1855 only to have Seattle attacked the following month.

One political spectacle that grew out of the war resulted from Stevens’ order that Pierce County settlers suspected of being in league with the tribes abandon their homesteads and remove to the safety of stockades. When they refused, they were arrested. In April 1856, the homesteaders applied to Territorial Supreme Court Justice Edward Lander (1816-1907) for a writ of habeas corpus. Justice Lander ruled against the governor and ordered the farmers released. Stevens reacted by declaring martial law. He dispatched the militia to remove Lander from his court. The officers kicked in Lander’s door and forced him out. Lander issued a contempt order against the governor, which the U.S. Marshal attempted to serve on Stevens. Martial law ended a few weeks later and Stevens paid a $50 fine for contempt of court. Stevens returned to Washington, D.C. and died in 1862 at the head of his regiment at the Battle of Chantilly in Virginia.

Olympia Railroaded

The next intrigue to visit Olympia was over its designation as territorial capital. In 1859, business interests in Portland got a bill into the legislature to move the capital to Vancouver, but it was defeated. The matter came back in 1860 and again in 1861. This time it passed and was signed. Somehow the enabling language was omitted from the final version (legislation was printed by a business in Olympia) and the Supreme Court nullified the statute. For a time, the legislature and the Supreme Court met in both Vancouver and Olympia. Tumwater took a run at becoming the county seat in 1861, but the issue was defeated at the polls.

Olympia was incorporated as a city on January 29, 1859, with a population of fewer than 1,000. Key to the development of the region was the transcontinental railroad surveyed by Isaac Stevens. The community selected as the terminus had its future assured and the residents of Olympia saw their town, a capital city with sheltered access to salt water, as the best connection between the United States and Asia. Boosters formed a company, which donated land to the railroad as an inducement to build there. The dreams of economic hegemony were dashed in 1873 when the Northern Pacific Railroad not only picked Tacoma's Commencement Bay as the terminus, but also routed the tracks 15 miles from Olympia.

Olympians responded with a railroad of their own. Every Thursday 300 men worked on a line to Tenino with 75 women preparing the food. In 1878, a narrow-gauge railroad connected the capital to the Northern Pacific. The water connection was still the best route for trade and travel. Mosquito Fleet steamers ran regularly up and down Puget Sound faster and more conveniently than the railroad, which required a change of trains. In 1885, the City built a long wharf, 4,798 feet long from the foot of Main Street (later Capitol Way) out to deep water so that ships could tie up regardless of the tide. The long wharf was needed only until 1895, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the harbor.

State Capital

In 1889, Washington was admitted to the union and city residents sponsored a $2,500 addition to the capitol building for the constitutional convention. Statehood was celebrated on November 18, 1889 (statehood officially granted on November 11). Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895) became the first governor. Olympia acquired the features of a real city -- water mains, a streetcar system, telephones, and a proper connection to mainline railroads. Hydroelectricity arrived in 1890 from a plant in Tumwater.

Thurston County built a courthouse in 1891 out of Chuckanut sandstone that was grand enough that the state bought it as the state capitol in 1901. The new building was not ready for four years, so the legislature had to meet at the Farquhar Store building, the local feed store and armory. In the 1910s, the legislature approved plans by architects Wilder and White for a new Capitol Group of buildings to house the functions of government. Classically styled buildings would be constructed in relation to one another. First to go up was the Temple of Justice beginning in 1912. Because of difficulties in funding, progress was slow and the project took eight years. There followed the Insurance Building (1920) and the Legislative Building (1928). The Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts designed the landscaping of the capitol campus.

A dramatic change overtook Olympia itself beginning in 1909 with another dredging project that filled mudflats north of downtown, adding 29 blocks, and filled in the Deschutes Waterway. Olympians paid for most of the $250,000 project. Voters formed the Port of Olympia in 1922. Lumber mills lined Budd Inlet and shipped forest products to the world.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) not only brought hard times to Olympia, it brought drama. Unemployment was never precisely measured, but it was as high as 23 percent. Little Hollywood, Olympia’s version of the Hooverville shantytowns of unemployed men and women, sprouted on mudflats in the shadow of the new capitol dome. In January 1933, the Unemployed Citizens League marched from Seattle to Olympia. They descended on the small town to demand that the governor or the legislature provide relief in the form of unemployment insurance, a prohibition on foreclosures, and free water, light, and gas. They were met with locked doors and State Troopers in the corridors. In March 1933, another group from Seattle arrived to demand higher taxes on the rich and milk and hot lunches for children. They were met and surrounded in Priest Point Park by 800 police and by men calling themselves American Vigilantes of Thurston County. The marchers dispersed, but some got to meet with the governor.

The Depression ended with the coming of World War II. Olympia hummed with shipyards and the airport became a satellite of McChord Field. The port became a major avenue for lend-lease materials for the Soviet Union. After the war, a mothball fleet of up to 185 ships was moored at Gull Harbor north of the port for the next 30 years. The 1940s saw the port continue to buzz. Capitol Lake, designed to reflect the capitol dome, was formed by damming the Deschutes River where it entered Budd Inlet.

Urban Center

An earthquake on April 13, 1949, severely damaged the capitol dome and other State buildings and several old structures downtown. In 1950, Olympia celebrated its centennial with parades, carnivals, a "Street of Yesterday," "Olympia of Today and Tomorrow," (Stevenson, 200) and a pageant. State government expanded in the 1950s and although the community was able to stop a state parking garage in Sylvester Park, the capital campus moved east of Capitol Way and a number of history buildings were lost to the wrecking ball. Interstate-5 sliced through Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater and redefined the axis for travel and for growth.

Olympia saw a major shift by the end of the 1960s when three large lumber mills, the descendants of Michael Simmons’ water powered mill at Tumwater, closed. In April 1972, the Evergreen State College opened on 1,000 acres on Cooper point with both original architecture and innovative educational strategies. In 1977, Olympia was one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S., but much of the development was suburban with shopping malls drawing off the commerce that once went downtown. Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater, although politically distinct, grew into one metropolitan area.

Downtown was revitalized in the 1990s with a historic preservation program to identify significant properties and with incentives to rehabilitate old buildings. The Thurston County Courthouse and the Old Olympia Firehouse and City Hall were renovated and put to active use. From 1960 to 2000, the population of Olympia quadrupled to more than 200,000.


Gordon R. Newell, So Fair A Dwelling Place: A History of Olympia and Thurston County, (Olympia: The Olympia Press Publishing Company, 1950); Shanna B. Stevenson, Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey: A Pictorial History, Revised Edition (Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Co., [1985] 1996); "Arthur Denny Proposes White-woman Suffrage," HistoryLink Timeline Library (www.Historylink.org); J. C. Rathbun, History of Thurston Co., Washington, (Olympia: [1895] 1972), 39-42; Gordon Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1975), 28-29.

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