Three Things You Didn’t Know About Interstate 5 And Tumwater

By Emmett O’Connell

Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

If you go down to the Tumwater Historical Park, you’ll see interpretive signs about how the area once was Tumwater’s downtown. When the interstate system made its way to the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s, its path through northern Thurston County eventually covered one of our oldest local neighborhoods. If you’ve lived here for very long, you’ve probably heard about how I-5 destroyed Tumwater. But, the story is more varied that that. Here are three things you probably didn’t know about I-5 coming through Tumwater.


1. Interstate 5 was not the first road to bridge the Deschutes River at that particular location

When Tumwater’s original commercial center was established in the mid-1800s, it was based around the historical park and underneath the berm of Interstate 5. Those commercial blocks were most directly connected to Olympia by “the long bridge.” This over 800 foot span crossed the Deschutes River perpendicular to the current interstate’s path.

Old Oregon Trail SW, a street in the farthest southern portion of the South Capitol Neighborhood, is the last existing street of the long bridge route between Tumwater and Olympia.


2.. Interstate 5 almost didn’t go through Tumwater (it almost went through downtown Olympia)

During the planning stages of Interstate 5 through Thurston County, there was discussion locally about what exact route the highway would take. There was a strong effort in Olympia to bring the interstate right under the Capitol Campus.

In this scenario, Interstate 5 would have travelled down the Percival Creek gulch from around the current auto mall area down to where Marathon Park is now. Then, it would’ve crossed the newly completed Capitol Lake (paralleling the train tracks),  gone underground until 10th and Adams and then connecting with Martin Way.

Although Olympia and the state highway commission signed an agreement in the early 1950s on the route, it proved too expensive for the state. Eventually, the Tumwater route was chosen as a less expensive option.


3. Interstate 5 did not destroy downtown Tumwater

I-5 may have come along later to bury Tumwater’s historic downtown, but by the time it got there, Capitol Way had already done enough damage.

Before 1936 the main drag through Tumwater dog legged through the old downtown Tumwater. This is basically the current path of Custer Way, then turning south onto Boston and crossing the river there near the Falls Terrace.

After the current Capitol Way was finished in 1938, the main route bypassed the old downtown, leading to the creation of the commercial area down at Capitol Way and Trosper Road.

Going from crossing the Deschutes on a low bridge over waterfalls, the main road through Tumwater now crossed the Deschutes at a much wider point (a more than 1,000 foot span) over what is now the old (but then new) Tumwater brewery.


For over a decade before Interstate 5 uprooted the blocks old downtown Tumwater in the 1950s, the city was already abandoning its waterfalls based history and moving south.


Washington State Archives · Digital Archives

“A Freeway Runs Through It,” by Shanna Stevenson in “TheRiverRemembers,” edited by Gayle L. Palmer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email