By Emmett O’Connell
For thousands of years, Woodard Bay and Henderson Inlet (its larger neighbor) were home to villages housing local tribal members. At various parts of the year, at least one village (known as toot-SEHTS-awh’lh) was located on the west side of the bay.
The modern name of the bay comes from Harvey Rice Woodard, who moved with his family to Washington Territory from Michigan in 1853. Woodard worked at sawmills around Henderson Bay and the local area. He was also elected at different points as judge and justice of the peace.
The Woodards left the bay after only two years, purchasing a farm closer in to Olympia (on what is now West Bay Drive), citing the Puget Sound Indian War as their major motivation.
The Woodards’ property stayed in the family for over 20 years when Ben Turner bought a portion of the land in 1878. Turner was the first one to bring the timber industry directly to Woodard Bay, operating a timber camp off of Woodard Point.
Various families bought and sold portions of the original Woodard claim throughout the decades. One family raised oysters, another bought in the hopes that a railroad terminus would come there.
The quiet, industrious history of Woodard Bay was loudly interpreted in 1902 when Harry Tracy, a criminal who at one point was associated with Butch Cassidy, came to the bay. On the run from the law after escaping prison, Tracy stole a boat, took the crew hostage and went to Seattle. The law eventually caught up with Tracy later that year, cornering him in Eastern Washington. Injured in a shootout, Tracy shot himself, rather than being captured again.
But, most of the original property near Woodard Bay was bought up by the Weyerhaeuser Company in the 1920s. Throughout the early 1900s, the company had expanded its operations, including a massive mill in Everett that opened in 1915. The company also owned lots of trees in Thurston and Lewis County.
To solve the problem of getting trees from the deep South Sound to Everett, Weyerhaeuser bought much of the Woodard Bay area and built a 26 mile railroad from the water to Vail. The trees were cut down in the south part of the county, loaded onto trains and then dumped into the saltwater. They were then floated north to Everett for milling.
The railroad crossed over Woodard Bay continuing onto a peninsula and then to a half-mile long wharf.
The company built a foreman’s house on the site (which is still standing) and several outbuildings to house up to a 30-man crew. The employees on the site would sort the timber by species before it was floated north. Hand sorting continued through the 1960s when cranes were built on the wharf.
In the exactly 60 years that the log dump operated, more than a billion board feet were dropped into the bay. A daily dump went as high as a million board feet.
In 1987, the state Department of Natural Resources bought the timber company property on the bay and turned it into a Natural Resources Conservation Area. These places are close to being parks, but don’t offer camping or any high intensity recreational activities.
The old railroad right of way was bought up in the 1980s and 1990s and put into public ownership. Now, a 22 mile bike and pedestrian trail operated by Thurston County covers much of the original railroad that used to dump logs into Woodard Bay.
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