Port of Olympia is formed by public vote on November 7, 1922.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 3/28/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9612
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On November 7, 1922, Thurston County voters form the Port of Olympia, which encompasses all of Thurston County, and elect its first commissioners. Passage of the measure follows a massive dredging and filling project (1909 to 1911) and explosive economic growth in the early 1900s. For decades the Port’s economy will be dominated by the lumber trade.  Hard hit in the Great Depression years, the Port will utilize government funds in the 1930s for improvements and will set records for log shipments in 1939.  During the 1960s and 1970s the Port of Olympia will modernize and diversify, expanding into air transportation with the purchase of the Olympia Airport -- now Olympia Regional Airport -- and will add new business tenants. The Port currently owns and operates an international shipping terminal, a marina and boatworks, a regional airport, and a real estate division.  Export products include logs, wind energy equipment and project cargo. The southernmost deepwater port on Puget Sound, the Port of Olympia is one of Washington’s 11 deep-draft ports, accommodating ocean-going vessels and international trade.  Despite recent recession years, the Port records banner economic highs in 2009 and 2010 and is undertaking community revitalization projects.  

Port Origins

The Port of Olympia began in 1922, but its maritime heritage goes back thousands of years to the Coast Salish who lived at this location and used the waterways for transportation and trading. The earliest Euro-Americans who followed consisted of Hudson's Bay Company trappers, military men, the Puget Sound Agriculture Company, early settlers at Tumwater, and a few missionaries. In 1850 the first commercial ship to call at the pioneer harbor was the Orbit, which arrived to transport wood products to San Francisco markets.  The harbor at Budd Inlet boosted the pioneer economy and Olympia became the northern terminus of the Oregon Trail, the place where settlers transferred from wagons to boats, departing for other parts of Puget Sound.    

Territorial Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1848-1862) established the territorial seat at Olympia in 1853, and Olympia’s port became an important Puget Sound link for transportation and commerce.  Olympia was also the site of the first Puget Sound Collection District and Custom House; all ships had to register at this location after entering Puget Sound and before proceeding to other ports.  Olympia soon became a busy shipping port.   

Olympia’s Early Growth  

Olympia was incorporated on January 29, 1859, with a population of somewhat fewer than 1,000 residents.  Water transportation remained the best route for commerce and travel for many years, but a shallow harbor at Budd Inlet posed problems. 

In 1885 the City built a 4,798-foot-long wharf, running from the foot of Main Street (now Capitol Way) to deep water. This wharf was used until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the harbor in 1895 to accommodate passenger runs aboard Mosquito Fleet steamers and growing industrial waterfront development. With Washington statehood in 1889, Olympia became the capital city.

Port of Olympia

Olympians funded an extensive dredging and filling project from 1909 to 1911 to create a deeper marine navigation channel and used the fill to add 29 blocks of land to the city. This opened the way for greater trade.   

The Washington State Legislature empowered formation of port districts in 1911 and in the first decade of the twentieth century, Olympia’s waterfront industries prospered. In 1917 Olympia began World War I shipbuilding with the Olympia Ship Building Company, which became the Sloan Shipyards.

Port formation offered economic opportunity and in 1922 the city’s Chamber of Commerce supported port formation. Voters approved the port measure on November 7, 1922, and elected the Port’s first commissioners: Fred Stocking, Secretary of Capital Savings and Loan; James L. Mosman, of Yelm Irrigation Project; and P. F. Knight, owner and manager of Mutual Lumber Company.  Port district boundaries encompassed Thurston County.   

The Ernest Gribble Era -- 1926 to 1950s 

In late 1926 the Port of Olympia hired Ernest Gribble (b. 1894) as its first manager.  He played an important role in the Port’s history, serving from peak growth years in the 1920s through the stock-market crash and the Great Depression, the World War II era, conversion to a peacetime economy, and the prosperous 1950s. 

Transportation of wood products dominated the Port’s economy in the 1920s. In 1924 the Port dredged and filled again, the dredging creating a 250-foot-by-3,000-foot channel to a depth of 30 feet. Port Commissioners anticipated a bright future with the city’s 30 lumber mills, five shingle mills, a veneer factory, and a cannery on the waterfront. The Port of Olympia completed its first marine shipping docks in 1925, positioning the Port well for business in the booming 1920s. From 1928 to 1930, the Port of Olympia set records for shipping with more than 298 million board feet of lumber exported.    

Times were hard during the years of the 1930s Great Depression but the Port used federal revitalization programs to build cargo transit sheds, dikes, and wharves and to replace pilings. In 1939 the Port reached its highest volume of shipments to date.  Local 38-89 of the International Longshoremen’s Association was formed in 1933 and became a part of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Association in 1937.  Today it continues as Local No 47. Olympia was considered a “weekend port,” which allowed for topping off cargoes on weekends, a practice sanctioned by the union with longshoremen setting work records. 

The Port returned to shipbuilding during World War II and port property was expanded for production. Port facilities and cargo-handling equipment were upgraded under a comprehensive improvement plan and war-related cargo volumes increased significantly.   

Shipments of wood products continued strong during the 1950s, with 161 million board feet of lumber shipped in 1957.  The export of canned fruit and vegetables remained a major cargo through the 1950s, products of the Olympia Canning Company. The cannery was established in 1915 and closed in 1959.  

New Directions in the 1960s  

A new Port manager and a new comprehensive plan led to significant changes in the early 1960s. The Port of Olympia expanded into air transportation with the purchase of the Olympia Airport, now Olympia Regional Airport, one of the oldest public airports in the United States. Aircraft operated from this location (formerly known as the Bush Prairie Airfield Site) as early as 1911. The City of Olympia bought the airport property in 1928 and built paved runways and taxiways and building facilities. 

After the start of World War II, in 1942, the military managed the airport, operating it as a satellite facility to McChord Field.  The airport and adjoining property were transferred back to the City of Olympia, under the War Surplus Act of 1944, with permanent restrictions that the land and facilities be maintained and operated as a public airport. In 1963, the Port of Olympia purchased the airport and its 700 adjoining acres from the City of Olympia for economic development.  A few years later an Industrial Development District (now the NewMarket Industrial Campus) was developed on the airport property.

By the mid 1960s the Port had a full capacity of tenants at its West Bay area, and had purchased tidelands on the East Bay side of Budd Inlet peninsula and added acreage to the airport. In 1967 three plywood mills on the Port Peninsula closed. As it entered the 1970s, the Port sought new economic development.  

More Diversification


Marine Terminal berths were deepened in the 1970s to handle large, deep-draft vessels.  This growth, however, was offset by the suspension of air passenger service at the airport.  The Port dedicated some of its East Bay waterfront property for use as a recreational boat marina, the first non-industrial Port facility for Thurston County residents.  East Bay Marina -- now the Swantown Marina -- was completed in the early 1980s, and managed first by a private operator.  Since 1987 it has been managed by the Port of Olympia.

In the mid-1980s the Port constructed a 76,000-square-foot, clear-span warehouse at the Marine Terminal.  Olympia Regional Airport and the NewMarket Industrial Campus were also improved and linked more closely to the Interstate 5 corridor with the Airdustrial interchange built in 1986.  

The 1990s

In 1995 the Port adopted a new long-range plan for properties on the peninsula extending into Budd Inlet. The plan took three years and many public workshops were held. The result was a plan that emphasized diversification and strengthening the Port’s core business.

The late 1990s were exceptionally good economically for the Port of Olympia.  NewMarket’s proximity to I-5 attracted new tenants and the Port’s downtown waterfront Swantown neighborhood welcomed new multiple-use businesses including Olympia-based Batdorf and Bronson coffee roasting distributors; Anthony’s Homeport restaurant, and the Market Place office building.  The Port began development of Port Plaza, a waterfront park, guest moorage dock and public gathering area on the East Side of the West Bay. During this time, the Swantown Marina held to 95 percent occupancy of its facilities and adjacent to Swantown the Port constructed and operated the Boatworks. 

Today’s Port

The southernmost deepwater port on Puget Sound, the Port of Olympia owns and operates four business units:

  • The Marine Terminal handles shipments of logs, wind energy equipment, and project cargo. The Port’s 60-acre terminal has three modern deepwater berths, an on-dock rail, a U.S. Customs bonded warehouse, and a container yard equipped to handle specialty cargoes. 
  • Swantown Marina and Boatworks provides Puget Sound boaters with 733 slips for overnight moorage, liveaboard and day-use access. The Port’s Swantown Marina was honored with a Certified Clean Marina Award in April 2008. The Boatworks offers haulout and storage services, boat sales and repairs, and is a state-of-the-art environmental wash-down and water treatment facility.  Swantown offers waterfront parks, a Promenade trail and Anthony’s Hearthfire restaurant.
  • Olympia Regional Airport and NewMarket Industrial Campus.  The Airport is currently a general aviation facility offering runway and hangar space to corporate aviation tenants and private aircraft owners.  The airport has two  active runways with 165 based aircraft (2010).  NewMarket tenants include Timberland Regional Library; the Tumwater School District; Washington State Patrol; Department of Natural Resources aerial firefighting; State Department of Fish & Wildlife enforcement and wildlife restoration programs; air ambulance; a World War II flight museum; fixed wing and helicopter flight instruction; aerial photography; tourism; aircraft maintenance and overhaul; and various private and business aviation uses.  In 2011, the Airport consists of 835 acres with an adjoining industrial campus of 440 acres.
  • Peninsula Properties. The Port developed the downtown Olympia Market District to include restaurants, offices, a coffee roaster and retail stores -- all Port tenants. The City of Olympia operates a farmers market on Port property and this has served as the focal point with new businesses growing around the market. 

Setting Records in Hard Times

Although the country’s recent recession has proved challenging, the Port of Olympia not only recorded banner economic years in 2009 and 2010 but also has stimulated growth for the City of Olympia and for Thurston County. The Port has continued to build its infrastructure and business and all Port units have remained steady or have grown during these years.  Additional revenue came when the Weyerhaeuser Company moved its operations from the Port of Tacoma to the Port of Olympia, shipping its first load of logs from the new location in January 2009. With additional exports of wind energy equipment and project cargo, the Port ended the year at an all-time high. 

In 2010 the Port commissioners approved a long-term lease with Pacific Lumber and Shipping Company and this too boosted the Port’s economic gains to new highs again in 2010.  The companies export logs to Japan and China. In 2010 the Port of Olympia was ranked the No. 2 log export terminal in the Northwest.  

A study of the Port’s economic growth from 2004 to 2009 records that Port-generated jobs (direct, indirect, and induced) increased from 5,105 in 2004 to 7,249 in 2009.  Direct business revenue increased from $429.7 million in 2004 to $1.1 billion in 2009.

East Bay Redevelopment

Following the successful farmers market model in downtown Olympia, the Port partnered with the City of Olympia, the Hands On Children’s Museum, and LOTT Clean Water Alliance in a multi-million dollar renewal project that connects the Port’s East Bay area to Olympia’s Percival Landing Boardwalk and the Port Plaza. The project gives a permanent home to Olympia’s award-winning children’s museum as well as new administrative offices and a water education center for LOTT. Another highlight is the East Bay Plaza, which is under construction in 2011.     

The Port is investing $8-10 million in planning, environmental cleanup, road construction, and infrastructure for the East Bay project.  It is expected that restaurants, offices, shops, and a hotel will grow around the children’s museum. The Port has sold  1.8 acres to the City of Olympia, which will in turn lease it to the Hands On Children’s Museum, which is under construction in 2011.  In addition to Port contributions, the museum is being funded by public facility district funds, $1 million from the City of Olympia, and additional public and private contributions.   

Looking Ahead

The Port of Olympia plans to invest $13.6 million in capital projects in 2011 for environmental cleanup, security, and airport and marine terminal facilities and upgrades. Some 48 percent of the funds are coming from outside Thurston County, with $604,000 coming from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for an Airport Master Plan Update. The Port’s marine terminal will gain a new warehouse roof with solar panels funded by Port bond proceeds and reserves.  Security at the terminal will continue to increase with more than $3.8 million in multiple Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. 

In 2011 E. B. Galligan is the Port of Olympia’s Executive Director and Port Commissioners are Bill McGregor, George Barner, and Jeff Davis. Each commissioner is serving a four-year term.


Martin and Associates, “The Economic Impact of the Port of Olympia, January 24, 2011,” and other material at the Port of Olympia website accessed March 8-10, 2011 (http://www.portofolympia.com/); Shanna Stevenson, The Port of Olympia: A 75 Year History (Olympia: Port of Olympia, 1997); “Port History: A Proud Tradition, a Promising Future,” Port of Olympia website accessed October 5, 2010 (http://www.portolympia.com/about/history); HistoryLink.org Online  Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Airports Owned by Washington’s Public Port Districts,” “Olympia -- Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma) and “Deep-draft Ports of Washington” (by John Caldbick) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 1, 2010; “Airport Site Acquired: 283-Acre Tract on Bush Prairie is Under Option,” The Sunday Olympian, p. 1; Rolf Boone, “More Ships Likely at Port, Director Says, The Olympian, September 24, 2010,  The Olympian website accessed March 13, 2011 (http://www.theolympian.com/); “Olympia Regional Airport History, in files of the Port of Olympia; Margaret Riddle phone conversations with Kevin Ferguson, Jim Amador, Rudy Rudolph and E. B. Galligan, Port of Olympia, March 10-11, 2010; Kathleen White, email to Margaret Riddle, March 25, 2011, in possession of Margaret Riddle, Everett, Washington.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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