By Emmett O’Connell
There are at least three different railroads that at one time or another transected Olympia, but are now gone. Each railroad bisects the history of Olympia and the region in interesting ways, showing how the waves of development crested and receded on our town.
Like my other recent piece on the last remaining railroads in Olympia, much of what I wrote here came from the deep resources provided by James Hannum, whose books I’ve linked to below.
The first, the Olympia and Tenino railroad, was the result of a community reaction to not being chosen as the terminus for a transcontinental railroad. Towns across Puget Sound jockeyed with each other in the 1870s, vying to become the most important commercial center in the Northwest, as it was seen the terminus would soon become.
The Northern Pacific eventually chose Tacoma, but Olympia boosters did not accept their fate, and ended up building a narrow gauge railroad of their own, opening for the first trains in 1878. The 15.5 mile road connected Olympia with longer regional railroads at Tenino, and changed ownership a handful of times before it was abandoned in 1916.
After coming up from the south, the line snaked through Tumwater (just east of Capitol Boulevard) and then through the Deschutes Canyon, and up the western shore of what is now Capitol Lake. The railroad’s main depot stood very near where 4th Avenue crosses the head of Budd Inlet now.
In the Tumwater Falls Park, you can still see remnants of the old rail line grade just uphill from the trail along the west side of the park.
The second, arguably most famous, of Olympia’s old rail lines, was the Olympia Power and Light’s trolley system. Constructed during the 1890s, the trolley system was operated by the area’s chief electric utility, the Olympia Power and Light Company. The OPL operated a hydroelectric facility at Tumwater Falls, which also marked the line’s southern terminus. That line mostly followed Capitol Way and Boulevard up to Olympia. Another east to west line ran from the westside neighborhood, across downtown and up to the east side, along 4th Avenue.
Like many interurban lines that were once common in Puget Sound cities, the Olympia trolley line fell into disrepair and lower ridership throughout the 1920s. The OPLC utility eventually sold, and the new owners shuttered the trolley in 1933. The transit system was taken up by what at the time were considered more modern buses.
The last rail line was a small logging railroad that snaked from the east side of Olympia near the old city hall to Chambers Lake. The Olympia and Mount Rainier Railroad did not come anywhere near Mount Rainier itself, but was a small logging railroad operated between for only about six years, between 1884 and 1890.
Isaac Chase Ellis had bought timberlands around the lake in the 1880s. When the logs were all cut down by 1890, Chase abandoned the railroad.
The rail line, which has a vertical descent of about 180 feet over three miles, used gravity to move logs from the woods that used to stand around Chambers Lake, to a log dump at Budd Inlet. This was also the time before the Swantown Slough was covered with fill, so Chase was able to reach saltwater with his logs without too much trouble. For loading the logs and for moving empty railcars back to Chambers Lake, Chase apparently used oxen.
Further Reading and Resources