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Sometimes we’re lucky enough to glimpse a view of the big picture outside our daily grind. While downtown may provide gorgeous waterfront views and lovely, walkable restaurants and shopping, it’s also a window to the world thanks to the Port of Olympia marine terminal. Big ships arrive and depart laden with all manner of cargo and there’s a buzz of activity that’s kept Olympia a regional maritime hub for more than 100 years.

steamer ship at the Port of Olympia in the 1920s
The Port of Olympia was officially founded in the 1920s but this was a vibrant area for trade and commerce for many years beforehand. Photo courtesy: Port of Olympia

In their book “The Port of Olympia: A 75 Year History 1922-1997,” Port historians explain that: “as used in early advertisement, the phrase ‘romance of foreign trade’ has characterized the Port of Olympia’s key role in international trade and domestic economic development…however, the trade and transportation history of the South Sound predates the founding of the Port itself in 1922. The Olympia area has been an active center of transportation and commerce for almost 150 years, as well as for centuries before.”

Though published timelines may not start until the 19th and 20th centuries, this region was inhabited by the Coast Salish tribe for thousands of years and documented by British Explorers Lt. Peter Puget and Captain George Vancouver as early as 1792. Fort Nisqually was established in 1833 and a mere decade after that the first permanent American settlement north of the Columbia River included George and Isabella Bush. Their land claim is the Tumwater area site of the Olympia Regional Airport.

ships in the Port of Olympia in 1946
Ships, shown here in 1946, have long found our port accessible and welcoming. Photo courtesy: Port of Olympia

Lumber shipments centered on Olympia in 1851, the same year the city was established as a Port of Entry for the Puget Sound Customs District. The following year, Thurston County was established, and Olympia was made county seat. By 1900, Washington was a state with Olympia its capital and the bustling waterfront its ever-beating heart.

The Port’s Executive Director Sam Gibboney loves playing a role in keeping the Port’s marine terminal strong and vital. “The investments made 100 years ago continue to benefit the Thurston County community and the entire region’s economy,” says Gibboney. “The Port honors the work of the past century and now looks to continue our mission of economic development in a manner that contributes to the health of our community and environment.”

How the Marine Terminal Supports Jobs and the Local Economy

Port Operations Director Rudy Rudolph explains that the Port terminal became a hub of timber export early on and is still one of the  largest in our state today. “Despite the ups and downs of the market over time, forest products are a key business commodity for the Port,” he says.

timber being put onto a boat by crane at the Port of Olympia in the 1950s
Logs and timber, shown here in the 1950s, are a primary resource and helped put our region on the map. Photo courtesy: Port of Olympia

“The international shipping industry and market demands drive change.”  “The Port of Olympia has adapted to the changing industry over the years.”. . “If a cargo doesn’t fit in a traditional industry shipping container, it is an ideal candidate for a “Break Bulk” port like Olympia,” says Rudolph. “Ninety-percent of the world’s goods are moved by ship, and this positively impacts local economies.”

And what an impact it has here in Olympia! Over the years, in addition to forest products, the Port has supported cargo liner service and has moved a wide array of products including: canned fruits and veggies from a local cannery, wind energy equipment, dairy cattle, hay, scrap iron, commodities like rice and sugar, construction supplies and equipment, and that much beloved staple, Olympia beer.

The marine terminal continues to bring jobs and economic activity to people and businesses throughout the greater Olympia area. According to an Economic Impact Study completed in 2021, about 461 jobs in the Olympia regional economy trace back to cargo and vessel activity at the Port of Olympia. In 2020, marine cargo activity at the Port boosted the regional economy by $20.8 million.

The Port of Olympia Today

black and white aerial photo of the Port of Olympia in the early 1960s
1963’s bustling waterfront echoes that of today, almost 60 years later. Photo courtesy: Port of Olympia

Though the Port’s downtown footprint has changed with the addition of the Olympia Farmers Market and other tourist-favorite destinations, they still maintain a dedicated environmental stewardship focus. Their Environmental Programs center on the ideas of remediation, restoration and recreation, regulatory compliance and sustainability.

One important new phase of activity at the Port is maritime disaster recovery and natural disaster response. Agency officials attend planning seminars and participate in drills like the Cascadia Rising event in conjunction with local emergency management personnel and national FEMA officials.

Want to know more about all the hustle and bustle at the Port and marine terminal? Sign up for one — or several — of their email updates including arriving vessels, press releases, waterfront development, Airport Master Plan updates and reports from the Commission. While there, read through frequently asked questions or provide input. You can also follow Port happenings on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

On the Port’s community page you’ll find information about tours, speakers, events and so much more. There’s always something happening on the waterfront. Thanks to the Port of Olympia, it’s also a window to the world and valuable part of the economy, entertainment, tourism, culture, history and the arts for all ages, eras and interests.

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