Two ideas for building a dam across Budd Inlet at Priest Point are separated by more than a century. These two proposals illustrate how our relationship with Puget Sound has changed.
Since the founding days of Olympia, community leaders worked to create some sort of way across the mudflats that appear twice daily along the Olympia waterfront. They were looking to find ways to reach deep water in Budd Inlet to facilitate shipping.
They tried moving shipping from Butler Cove via a short line railroad and building a mile long wharf, jutting across Budd Inlet from Capitol Way. While they eventually settled on a combination of filling in the tidelands with dredging a shipping channel, one audacious idea from 1903 stands out.
Seattle community leaders had a dream of their own to create a freshwater port on Lake Union. This idea would eventually comes to fruition as the Ballard Locks would cut through the city, opening both Lake Union and Lake Washington to ocean going vessels. For decades, Lake Washington and Lake Union were a bustling industrial areas because of the locks.
In 1903 local promoters brought the percolating Seattle idea south to Olympia.
Rather than building a lock to a freshwater lake, the idea was to create the freshwater lake out in front of Olympia.
From a 1903 story in the Morning Olympian:
The scheme is not any more visionary that is the Lake Washington scheme in Seattle. There would be no locks necessary, for the gates only be opened at high water for an hour at a time. The Sound at Park Point is very narrow and now shows great current of water out than in on account of the flow of the Deschutes. There is sufficient water from the river to make all the water of the harbor fresh in a very little while, if the exchange from the flowing tide were stopped. There is now twenty one feet for water at the docks at low tide. No one knows whether the men who are formulating the scheme will be able to see it carried out, but the scheme is being broached in good faith and with the men in it thoroughly convinced of is practicability.
It’s worth pointing out that twice before, in the 1890s, other locals proposed building a dam across the harbor to create a freshwater lake. These folks envisioned a dam at 4th or 5th Avenue, much closer in than Priest Point. The first was when Leopold Schmidt was initially founding the Olympia Brewery. He worried that he would not be able to ship beer regularly from Tumwater without a regular water depth. The other was to facilitate a proposed timber mill.
According to W.R. Brown, a land agent promoting the Priest Point dam idea, two other men went back east to try to raise money for the idea. Obviously they failed.
Now, roughly the same idea is being proposed, not to help Olympia reach out to international markets, but to protect our historic downtown from flooding caused by sea level rise connected to climate change.
Instead of trying to keep the tide in (or rather keep water at a certain higher depth), the plan is to keep the tide out.
A so-called “Marine Flood Barrier” would keep the highest tides back a safe distance from low lying portions of downtown Olympia. Like the 1903 idea, there would be large wall built across Budd Inlet with an open center portion. But, instead of waiting until low tides, the center would be closed on high tides, saving the neighborhood from inundation.
Though on a much more massive scale, a similar project is already underway to protect Venice, Italy. Three series of gates and walls are being planned to prevent the tides of the Adriatic Sea from inundating that city. Three years ago, the first test of the system showed it would be feasible.