The Port of Olympia was in its infancy in the late 1920s when it hosted the Olympia Maru, a Japanese freighter named in honor of the city. The ship’s visit was considered a civic festival.
The Olympia area has a long maritime history. In 1922 Thurston County voters approved the creation of the Port of Olympia. A 250-foot by 3,000-foot channel, 30 feet deep, was dredged in 1924 and marine shipping docks were built the next year.
These facilities greatly increased the port’s capacity to ship timber products. Overseas trade was the impetus for this expansion.
Olympia’s Connections to Japan
Olympians were especially excited by trade with Japan. A steady stream of Japanese freighters picked up lumber in Olympia to ship home. Locals rejoiced in 1927 at the news that a ship being built by Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha steamship line in Nagasaki was going to be named Olympia Maru, after the city of Olympia.
The ship’s Captain R. Ito, later stated that the name had been suggested by Gertrude Ingstad, wife of sub-manager Louis Ingstad of the Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha’s Seattle office. The idea was approved by the company’s Tokyo office before the new ship’s launch.
Local Japanese immigrants celebrated the ship’s naming as well. S. Tanaka carved a detailed model of the vessel, that was put on display in the windows of Talcott Brothers jewelry store shortly before its visit. The former sailor worked for the Olympia Oyster Company.
In March 1928 Port Manager Ernest Gribble was in talks with Mitsubishi about arranging a visit. Olympia mills were already under contract with other shipping firms and a lumber load would have to be arranged. Eventually, after six visits to Puget Sound, they scheduled the ship to visit Olympia in early September. The Chamber of Commerce planned an elaborate civic festival to celebrate the ship coming “home.”
Olympia Maru Visits Olympia
Due to heavy fog the ship’s entry was delayed from Thursday evening, August 30, to 7 a.m. the next morning. Loading its cargo of 1.5million board feet of lumber began immediately. The vessel was open to the public on Saturday and Sunday.
Culminating their visit was a banquet held by the Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Olympian for the ship’s officers and crew of forty on September 4. This included Captain S. Ito, Chief Officer K. Nagayama, Second Officer S. Kajero, Chief Engineer N. Owura, First Engineer T. Takeda, Second Engineer Z. Yanagida, Third Engineer S. Yamagota, and Wireless Operator N. Tsukahara. Company representatives from Seattle also attended.
The reception, attended by state, county and local officials, was only open to men by reservation. After the banquet the dining room doors were opened so people crowded in the lobby could listen to the speeches. Gribble was toastmaster. Olympia Mayor James Johnson welcomed the crew and company officials. Supreme Court Judge William Askren talked about the friendship between America and Japan, stating that the United States could learn much from the small and powerful country. Japanese Imperial consul S. Okomoto gave a brief address.
George Yantis, president of the Chamber of Commerce presented Captain Ito with a plaque for his ship, stating his hopes that “your children and our children grow in harmony and peace and prosperity.” The plaque depicted the Washington State seal.
Entertainment was provided by local Japanese immigrants, supervised by K. Miyamoto, T. Saito, and T. Kurimoto. Five Japanese children danced to traditional music on a raised platform in the dining room.
As the climax of the ceremony, Mayor Johnson gave the “official push” to an electric button in the dining room that activated ornamental street lighting on Capitol Way from 7th to 27th Avenues. Floodlights were also switched on that illuminated the Capitol dome. The project to beautify the approach to the new capitol building had been sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. A miniature version of the lighting had been installed in the dining room to go on at the same time. An emergency transformer was used for the ceremony and a permanent one installed a week later.
After the banquet the crew was given a tour of the capitol while the attendees went to an open house on the Olympia Maru. The ship completed its loading of lumber and left early the next morning for Seattle before sailing home.
Olympia Maru Returns
The Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha managers later wrote a letter of thanks to the Chamber of Commerce for their reception and warm hospitality, noting that the plaque was now in the ship’s officers’ salon and seen daily. “We feel that the only way that we may be able to repay your so many great kindnesses and courtesies is to do our very best” to increase trade and friendship between Japan and the United States.
The Olympia Maru visited Olympia several more times. The ship came back in March 1930, May 1930, July 1930, April 1931, June 1931, August 1933, September 1933, and February 1935.
The Port of Olympia managed to ride the ups and downs of the Great Depression and World War II. The Olympia Maru was taken over by Imperial military in 1941 and made into a fuel tanker. It was eventually sunk on September 24, 1944 by the Third Air Fleet of the U.S in the Philippines. Its wreckage is now a popular dive site. There is also a musical band with the name in Manila. Mitsubishi built another Olympia Maru freighter in 1952.
While the visits of the original Olympia Maru are now largely forgotten, Japan remains an important trade partner of Washington State and its Capital City.