William Weller was traveling in front of the current location of the Capitol Campus when he hit and killed George Forbes, making Forbes the first car-related fatality in Olympia.

It was about three hours after sunset in December 1914 and Weller was driving with his wife and kids when he came across Forbes crossing the street back towards his house. Weller, traveling at most 15 miles an hour, swerved quickly to the right, which was the same direction Forbes started to move, putting himself back into Weller’s path.

It was too late by that point and Weller hit Forbes, dragging him at least 30 feet before stopping. It didn’t take bystanders long to pick Forbes up and carry him to St. Peter’s Hospital, which at that point was only a block away, across the street from the where the general administration building now is.

George Forbes Olympia killed by auto headline
The headline on the day after Forbes’s death. Photo courtesy: Seattle Public Library

Forbes himself was a longtime resident of Olympia, long enough that he was considered a pioneer of the city by the time he died.

Forbes was born in La Salle, Illinois and was entering his early 20s when the Civil War broke out. Like many of his state, he served in the Union Army and was held prisoner at Andersonville Prison. Andersonville became a totem for the mistreatment of soldiers during the late stages of the Civil War, as it was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with inadequate water supply, food rations and unsanitary conditions. Almost one third of the union soldiers held at Andersonville died.

George Forbes Olympia muddy roads
The neighborhood, before the campus was built was also different. Forbes was hit on the right of this map, St. Peters is on the left. Photo courtesy: Olympia Historical Society.

After the War

But he survived and after the war, Forbes moved west. He and his wife Mary first moved to California and then came north to Olympia in 1870 when Washington was still a territory.

Forbes served on the Olympia city council for three terms during the 1880s as Washington was reaching towards statehood.

One of the most interesting undertakings by the Olympia City Council in Forbes’s years was the investigation of excavating a ship canal between Olympia and the Washington coast. The idea was to use existing waterways (like the Chehalis River and Black Lake) to connect Puget Sound with the coast. The goal was to make Olympia a lynchpin in regional shipping. It turns out that there just wasn’t enough water in Washington to keep a canal like that filled during the summer.

Forbes also worked to expand Olympia’s fire protection, which was important after an 1882 fire that threatened to level the city’s entire business district.

One thing Forbes was not able to do in his time as a city leader was transition Olympia from its muddy roads to modern paved streets. It is ironic that it was exactly that issue that was on the city council’s docket in the weeks surrounding the accident that killed Forbes.

George Forbes Olympia Columbia and 10th
This nearby corner at Columbia and 10th gives you an idea of the street conditions in 1914. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives.

Long since retired from active civic life, Forbes himself had showed up at a city council meeting weeks before his death to ask whether the city’s paving plan included the streets in front of his house at Union and Main streets (now Capitol Way). Once the city’s plan went through, Forbes would have been on the hook for $167 in paving the street in front of his home. The coroner’s inquest, which ended up clearing Weller for any blame in Forbes’s death, pointed directly at the state of Olympia’s streets as the primary blame.

The coroner took his own car out to conduct an experiment on the condition of the roads and found that the ice and mud on the unpaved streets made it impossible to stop in less than 60 feet. “I found under the conditions of my experiment, that one must necessarily dodge a person crossing the street or run over him,” said the Thurston County coroner.

And that, is the story of the first person killed by a car in Olympia.

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