By Jennifer Crooks
Tracing their origins back to 1928, the trees lining Legion Way between Plum and Central Streets in Olympia were planted as a unique memorial for veterans along a road that honors those killed in World War I. This project was sponsored by two Olympia veteran organizations: Alfred W. Leach Post #3 of the American Legion, who lent its name to the road, and the Ira L. Cater Post #318 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Both posts were named for Olympia-born soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. Taking an active role in their community, these organizations remain important to the present day.
In early 1927, the Leach Post petitioned the City of Olympia to rename State Avenue “Legion Way” to honor veterans who died in World War I. State Avenue at the time formed part of the Pacific Highway that cut through Olympia. The Legion promised a “beautification” program of planting trees and erecting a memorial arch along the Avenue. However, after a series of public hearings and city commission meetings, Sixth Street was renamed “Legion Way” instead of State Avenue. The City Commission approved the proposal on December 28, 1927 and the road’s name was changed by ordinance shortly later.
Though the arch idea was abandoned, the American Legion went ahead in partnership with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to create a memorial avenue of trees on both sides of Legion Way between Plum and Central Streets along the “parking strip.” In October 1928 they began collecting donations to pay for the trees. These included sweet gums commemorating those who died in World War I and oaks for veterans who served in prior wars.
The trees were planted in two main stages. On Monday, November 12, 1928, the first two trees (honoring Alfred Leach and Ira Cater) were dedicated as part of Armistice Day observations.
Gathering at the American Legion Hall (then located at 219 W. Legion Way), a parade snaked its way eastward up the street to the intersection of Legion Way and Eastside Street where the Leach and Cater trees were dedicated. Reverend R. Franklin Hart of St. John’s Episcopal Church (Olympia) gave an address. Once the ceremony was completed, the parade returned to the Legion Hall for other festivities.
Phase two of the “perpetual memorial” began shortly afterwards with the planting of another 140 trees on Legion Way. These included 28 sweet gums for Olympia men who died in World War I and 112 oaks that commemorated veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. Most trees were planted in early January. Two additional sweet gums were planted at the intersection of Legion Way and Eastside Street and were dedicated to the Olympia Grand Army of the Republic and United Spanish War Veterans posts on Memorial Day. Reverend Elijah Hull Longbrake of the First United Methodist Church (Olympia) gave the dedicatory address.
Exactly which tree was dedicated to who remains a bit of a mystery. The Leach tree was planted on the southeast corner of the intersection and a sweet gum remains in that position. The location of the two later trees is simply indicated as “opposite” of the Leach and Cater trees. A sweet gum remains in the northeast corner, but the ones on the southwest and northwest corners of the intersection were taken out some time ago for traffic signals.
Over the decades the memorial trees have been extensively impacted by people, too often in ways that have endangered their long-term survival. In June 1939, a Legion post member topped (cut off upper limbs) and pruned the trees. Topping, though once an acceptable pruning practice, is now realized by experts to be seriously harmful to trees. Topping weakens a tree’s support systems and makes it more vulnerable to disease and storm damage. The trees on Legion Way were again topped on one side of the Avenue to make way for power cable lines that were later rerouted to an adjacent alley. Unfortunately, the trees on the opposite side of the street were topped as well, for uniformity. Other trees have been chopped down for commercial development.
In 2010, the City of Olympia decided to remove, over time, many of the trees along Legion Way. However, the City is replanting replacement trees, with the Eastside Neighborhood Association helping raise money. On November 11, 2010 a ceremony began the replanting efforts with participation by active and retired soldiers. Dan Cushman, an Air Force veteran and American Legion member was also present. His father, Frank Cushman, was commander of the Leach Post during the time of the initial project.
Today the tree-lined Legion Way corridor forms a vital and beautiful part of the Olympia community which many strongly believe should be maintained. Preserving old trees and replanting new trees where needed will help keep the area a living and “perpetual” memorial for veterans who have given so much for their country.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank several staff members of the City of Olympia who kindly provided information for this article: Michelle Bentley (Urban Forester, Community Planning and Development), Stacey Rae (Associate Planner, Community Planning and Development) and Cathie Butler (Communications Manager). Other information was found at the always-helpful Washington State Library.