Along the Highway: The History of Tumwater Square Shopping Center

In 1938, Highway 99 was rerouted along what is now Capitol Boulevard through Tumwater. Crossing over the Carlyon Bridge through the Olympia Brewery grounds, drivers would then enter a new shopping district, Tumwater Square. Although I-5 would later redirect highway traffic once again, Tumwater Square has remained an important shopping area in Thurston County.

Transportation has shaped Tumwater’s history. Founded in 1845, early Tumwater centered along the Deschutes River, where industries clustered near the falls to harness the power of the water. Times changed and water power declined in importance. The coming of automobiles also changed the dynamics of the area.

In 1915, the Boston Street Bridge was constructed over the Deschutes River, replacing an older wooden structure. Four years later, the Pacific Highway (later Highway 99) was built through Tumwater and Olympia, a winding route that took traffic straight through the heart of both cities. It funneled traffic through the main street of Tumwater, crossing over the Boston Street Bridge, and into south Olympia at what is now Capitol Boulevard.

Chicken Coop advertisement
The Chicken Coop, located at the north end of Carlyon Bridge, was a community landmark. This advertisement comes from the May 26, 1950, issue of the Daily Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

This new route through Tumwater proved hazardous with increasing traffic and in the 1930s the state decided to reroute the highway more directly on the road presently known as Capitol Boulevard. In 1938, the state built the Carlyon Bridge to carry this road over the Deschutes River. This four-lane bridge, sometimes informally nicknamed the “Totem Pole Bridge” by locals, is now officially named the Capitol Way Crossing.

Highway 99 took commerce away from the original route and businesses hurried to build in the area off the north end of the Carlyon Bridge. This area would first be referred to as “Tumwater Square” by local newspapers in 1946, when even more businesses flocked to the area after the end of World War II-era scarcity.

A gas station, Tumwater Texaco, was constructed in 1938 to capitalize on through traffic, complete with a lunch room for visitors. It was built next to the former Tumwater Club which had been built in 1908 as a clubhouse for Olympia Brewing Company workers. In the 1920s, the structure was turned into a roller rink.

Tumwater Square 1946
Tumwater Square was booming when this advertisement was published in the October 3, 1946 issue of the Daily Olympian. Photo credit: Washington State Library

Other businesses sprang up as well. The Chicken Coop was originally built in 1935 at what is now the southwest corner of Cleveland Avenue and Custer Way (now the site of a 7-Eleven). The restaurant served fried chicken, Olympia beer and pies to hungry travelers. In 1938, with the rerouting of Highway 99, the landmark restaurant relocated down the street to just off the north end of Carlyon Bridge (3507 Capitol Boulevard). The restaurant later renamed itself the Oregon Trail Café, to honor the town’s pioneer history, which was celebrated in the design of the bridge. In time this restaurant closed and was reopened as the South Pacific Restaurant. The South Pacific closed a few years ago.

Numerous businesses have called Tumwater Square home over the years. Indeed a succession of businesses operated in the area. A May 26, 1950, advertisement from the Daily Olympian newspaper promised shoppers, “Plenty of free, easy parking” (always a struggle in a busy district) at that the complex was “The End of the Oregon Trail.”  The advertisement listed businesses such as Heath’s Flower Home, Dickinson Auto Repair, Tumwater Hardware, Tumwater Cash Market, Southside Cleaners, Arends’ Variety, Tumwater Texaco, Gillette and Guffey (a pharmacy complete with a soda fountain), Meuter’s Market (a meat market that also rented meat lockers) and Reder’s Tumwater Grocery. Another landmark business, Big Tom’s drive-in was built around 1960 and torn down in the 1990s for Olympia Federal Savings.

Tumwater Square businesses
This illustration of Tumwater Square businesses in the mid-20th century is from the “Official Souvenir Program, Olympia’s First 100 Years, 1850-1950: Olympia Centennial, Olympia, Washington, May 1-7, 1950.” Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

In the 1950s, the state decided to route I-5 through Tumwater. About a hundred buildings were demolished in the old historical area down by the river and the road split the city in half. Construction began in 1954 and the road opened in 1958. I-5 routed traffic away from Tumwater Square. The former Tumwater Club had already burned down in 1955. Tumwater’s business development shifted to Trosper Road, near the I-5 interchange. This included the Southgate Shopping Center (built 1961) and Tyee Motor Inn (1959).

Despite changes in traffic, Tumwater Square still exists and is now home to a diverse array of businesses including Safeway, Olympia Federal Savings, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, Elyse’s Catering & Events, Grindstaff’s Trophies, Fuller and Fuller Law Firm, Two Monkeys Toy Store, Artistry in Flowers and the Schmidt Chiropractic Center.

Through the passing years, Tumwater has had to adapt to changes in traffic and business. For over 70 years, however, Tumwater Square has remained a place of thriving business and an important part of the community.

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