When the German Warship Falke Visited Olympia in 1905

The SMS Falke in Apia, Samoa. Photo credit: National Library of New Zealand
The SMS Falke in Apia, Samoa. Photo courtesy: National Library of New Zealand

In September 1905, Budd Inlet resounded with gunfire as a sleek German warship. the SMS Falke, fired off its guns. But there was no cause for alarm. The crew was only saluting the Governor of Washington State on the first official visit of a foreign warship to the Olympia area.

The SMS Falke was built at Kiel, Germany in 1890 for the German imperial navy. Falke means falcon in English. The Bussard-class ship was a cruiser 271 feet long powered by steam. During this time the German government was seeking to create a global empire. The ship carried a crew of about 160 sailors and 9 officers when it visited Olympia.

The ship traveled around the world and Olympians might have recognized its name from local newspapers. An October 22, 1899 Morning Olympian article, reprinted from the New York Herald, reported that Kaiser Wilhelm II, ruler of Germany, visited the Falke at Apia in Samoa to award decorations and thank the crew for their service. Perhaps they also read about the ship’s aid to victims of a disastrous 1902 volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. Or its participation in the blockade of Venezuela during the Venezuelan crisis of 1902-1903.

By 1905, however, the Germans were in a naval arms race against Great Britain over mastery of the seas. When the ship toured the Pacific Northwest, it was on a goodwill tour. “Cruiser Coming” proclaimed Morning Olympian headlines on August 8, 1905. The report was officially confirmed a few weeks later. The ship was expected to arrive between September 7 and 10, but it was delayed over a week after needing to go into drydock at Esquimalt in British Columbia for repairs, cleaning and painting.

SMS-Falke in oylmpia ad
On September 19, 1905 the Morning Olympian ran this advertisement for boat rides to the Falke. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

The Falke was warmly received in Washington State. In Bremerton the ship underwent repairs. German-Americans grandly received the ship in Seattle, holding a ball for the crew at the Madison Park Pavilion while the University Club organized a banquet for the officers. It also stopped in Tacoma before sailing on to Olympia.

Too big to enter Olympia’s harbor, the Falke moored near Butler Cove, on the western side of Budd Inlet, at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, September 13, 19905. That Olympia’s harbor was too shallow for the ship to dock probably embarrassed city officials, who discussed harbor improvements at the city council meeting just before the ship came at the same time as they talked about plans to entertain the crew.

The ship was visible from city docks, the newspapers reported. Local launches ran regular trips ferrying visitors to tour the ship during open hours on the next day, Thursday, September 14. Some crewmembers visited Olympia and local newspapers heaped praise on the crew and ship, although they were hampered by the language barrier. None of the crew spoke English except the officers.

SMS-Falke in oylmpia Officers
This picture of the officers of the SMS Falke was printed in the Morning Olympian on September 10, 1905. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

One unnamed officer took time to talk to a Morning Olympian reporter. “America is a nice state,” he said and was glad to see so many German-Americans. “We are here to look after our people. We have found many of them and have enjoyed the trip.” The officer also talked about the ship’s animal mascots. They had bear cubs and an eagle that were given to them in Juneau recently, as well as a parrot (who spoke German including “Hoch der Kaiser” and a few curses), a monkey and several cats (but no dogs). The reporter was fascinated by everything that he saw:

“The bread that the sailors eat looks like our graham bread, and seems much more appetizing than the hardtack on which the American men behind the guns subsist. The sailors sat at long tables, and every man had before him a bottle of Olympia beer. [The Olympia Brewing Company was owned by German immigrant Leopold Schmidt.] They were reading German newspapers-5 cents a copy-and highly colored postal cards showing amorous couples sitting under trees, while at their feet were printed verses, touching upon the happy springtime of youth.”

SMS-Falke in oylmpia Butler-Cove
The Falke anchored near Butler Cove in 1905. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

While some of the crew visited Olympia, an official visit to state officials was delayed because the officials were attending the funeral of deputy Secretary of State J. Thomas Hickey in Tacoma on Thursday. At 10 a.m. the next day, the captain and his officers formally called on Governor Albert Mead in his office at the State Capitol (now SPI Building).

An hour later the Governor, Supreme Court members, and state officials returned the call at the Falke. The Olympia business community sent John A. Rea as its representative. The ship offered a 17-gun salute to the governor and his party.

The Falke weighed anchor at 12:15 p.m. It eventually reached Astoria on the Oregon Coast on September 17. After a stop at Portland on the Columbia River, the ship headed to Latin America. The Falke was recalled to Germany in 1907 and decommissioned. It was broken up for scrap in Danzig in 1913.

The Falke’s captain Paul Behncke was promoted to rear admiral. During World War I he participated in the Battle of Jutland, commanding the fleet in the third phase of the battle even after being seriously injured. He also participated in the Battle of Moon Sound against the Russian fleet. Behncke retired in 1924 and died in 1937.

Back in Olympia, the Falke’s memory soon grew dim. Perhaps anti-German hysteria during World War I deleted memories of the time when the editors of the Morning Olympian could cheerfully wish “Gesundheit, Falke” and the community welcomed a German warship to the area.

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