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Across our State

Olympia's history dates back to 1792

When most people across the state think of Olympia, they think of the capitol building and the seat of government for the state of Washington. Some in Olympia think of their long history, which includes being the first port in the Puget Sound.

In May of 1792, Peter Puget tried to sail into this southern tip of the body of water named after him, but it was low tide. He was "unimpressed" with the mud flats that made the landing risky.

The Hudson's Bay Company came to the Nisqually Basin in 1831 and found landing feasible. An American exploratory expedition mapped and named the areas in 1841. Two midshipmen, Thomas Budd and Henry Eld, went down in history for their work as the inlets were named for them. When a townsite was established by Simmons, Smith, and Sylvester in the late 1840's, a wharf was quickly built since water transportation was easiest. From the wharf Edmund Sylester began shipping the abundant timber to San Francisco that had been cleared from the townsite.

So began the port's long history of timber commerce. As shipping grew, something had to be done about the mud flats. Several attempts at dredging the port area resulted. In 1885 the city hired the dredging barge Umatilla from Portland at a cost of $800 to dig a deeper channel from the wharf area to deeper water. A more effective job was started by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1893. The dirt from that dredge was laid down so that the Fourth Street bridge could be built so that there was easy access to the western part of Olympia.

In 1909-1911 the Corps did an even better job. This time the dirt from the bottom of the Sound added 29 blocks to the downtown area! Businesses sprouted up along the new waterfront. Lumber mills, plywood mills, oyster houses, fish canneries, and shipbuilding facilities crowded the water lanes. City father thought a little organization would aid the increasing commerce.

The Washington State legislature had established port districts in the 1911 session. The Olympia Chamber of Commerce actively led the campaign to create a port district that would encompass all of Thurston County. The campaign was successful in the November 1922 election, so a comprehensive plan with taxing and bonding authority would be possible.

After the boom years of l928-30, the depression hit. Business slowed dramatically. One bright spot was the visit in 1933 of the USF Constitution. During the 10 days the ship was moored, 39,000 people visited "Old Ironsides" before it returned to Boston.

Now the mills and canneries are gone. So are the sailing ships. But the port is still active. From our front windows here across the state, we can see this southern-most tip of Puget Sound. A couple miles from us ships come in to load and unload. We see two huge cranes jut up into the sky and four smaller cranes working side by side. There is still timber being loaded out along with other goods going mostly to Japan and China. Some foreign ships are unloading as well.

Although Olympia's port is small, it is international. It is quite a sight to tour the port area.

It's a change for someone from Sunnyside to observe a port district with water and ships, wharves and cranes, and hundreds of sea gulls swooping back and forth overhead!

Jerri Honeyford,wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column as a means to keep local readers informed on what is currently happening in Olympia.

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