Olympia Washington History


By Ken Balsley

Photos From: Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

In its early days, the City of Olympia had many names.   The local native tribes referred to it as Cheetwoot which meant the “place of the bear.”   The first white settlers in the area  Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith filed a land claim and named the area Smither, or maybe Smithfield or maybe even Marshville.

In 1850, the name that stuck was Olympia, suggested by Colonel I.N. Ebey, for the Olympic Mountains, which were prominent in the city’s backyard.

But, while the city had many names in the beginning, it always held one distinction.  It was the only territorial capital and state capital, the  state of Washington has ever had.   That’s a unique distinction.   In many other states, the capital moved many times.  But not in Washington.

In November 1853, Territorial Governor Issac Stevens arrived in the largest city in the territory- – Olympia.  And from that point on, Olympia was and always remained, the political center of the territory and the state, although it was not without controversy and conflict.

In that same year of 1853, Olympia began a port city with the arrival of a side-wheeler steam boat from San Francisco.  The next year a “long dock” was constructed which reached out from downtown into deeper water and allowed other boats to dock.  Then in 1860 Sam Percival built a waterfront dock and the city became a port of entry with a toll house.

Photos From: Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

In 1854, Governor Stevens called a meeting of the territorial legislature to meet in Olympia, at the Gold Bar Tavern, thus cementing the city’s title as the capital.  As the largest city on Puget Sound, Olympia continued to attract business and residents and in 1860, had its own newspaper “The Washington Standard.”

Like other cities on Puget Sound, in the 1870’s, Olympia awaited the coming of the railroad then making its way up from the south.   When Tacoma was named as the terminus, Olympia residents bonded themselves and built a railway extension to meet up the railroad in Tenino.

In 1861 the issue of territorial capital was put before the voters.   Olympia came out on top of the July vote with nearly twice as many voting for Olympia as the second place city Vancouver.   However, local residents voted to move the county seat to Tumwater.

In 1889 Washington became a state, and the issue of a state capital came up.  In a statewide vote, Olympia retained the state capital and got twice as many votes as the second place city North Yakima.

Photos From: Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

It’s said, that the legislators wanted the capital to remain in Olympia because they like the delicate Olympia Oysters which grew in abundance in the inlets in South Puget Sound.

In 1890, after having retrieved the county seat, Thurston County Commissioners built a new courthouse in Olympia adjacent to Sylvester Park.  However, the building soon became too expensive to operate and the State of Washington purchased the building and the park in 1905 fo use as the state capitol.

The state built an addition, and the building served as the state capitol until the new capitol group was opened in 1928.   That same year, the old state capitol burned and in 1949 lost its clock tower to an earthquake.  The building has since been restored and is now serving as a state office building.

While the state capitol was Olympia’s claim to fame, it was logging, lumber and plywood, which provided much of the city’s money.   In the 1930’s into the 1950’s, logging brought significant business into the city.  A half dozen lumber and plywood mills opened up in and around the Port of Olympia, where the finished product was later shipped.  Most of it to California.

Farming, oyster harvesting and manufacturing made Olympia a “blue collar” town while at the same time hosting legislators and those who make their living off the legislature.   A dichotomy that the city handled well.

By 1950, most of the state agencies had moved their headquarters to Seattle leaving Olympia with just the shell of a state capitol and a legislature meeting a few days each year.

A lawsuit, led by the Olympia Chamber of Commerce, forced all state agencies to have their headquarters in Olympia.  By the 1970’s that had been accomplished and the state embarked on a major building boom on the East Capitol Campus.

However by the 1970’s a decline in logging capped with new environmental regulations forced most of the mills in downtown to close.  At the same time, a new state college – – The Evergreen State College – – opened just west of the city.

Photos From: Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

New state employees and students from the new state college, have made Olympia into what it is today.  A center for state government and a regional center for education, medicine and entertainment.

Thurston County and Olympia stand ready to become commercial and retail business focal points in the coming years, as Puget Sound growth moves south along Interstate Five.

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