Remove the modern vehicles from the street and driveways and replace them with World War II vintage cars. Do that and Rogers Street in west Olympia would look very much like Rogers Street circa 1942.
Strip away the blacktop that runs down the center of the quiet neighborhood street. That’s where the tracks ran to support electric-powered street cars that ran from 1892 to 1933 on a route that included Fourth Avenue, Capitol Way, Harrison Hill and Rogers Street all the way to the Westside Grocery.
The trolley cars were long gone by the time the Alexander family of four moved from Aberdeen to 233 Rogers St. in the summer of 1942. One of the Alexander boys was 6-year-old Gerry, who went on to a distinguished legal career, including a 17-year stint on the state Supreme Court.
During a noon presentation Friday to west Olympia business folks and local history buffs, Alexander’s love of local history shined through. He remembered a wartime Olympia with World War I veterans serving as air raid wardens, patrolling the neighborhood streets at night to make sure residents kept their homes cloaked in darkness. The fear of a Japanese invasion or bombing of the West Coast was very real.
There were air raid drills at Garfield Elementary School, the only school on Olympia’s west side and west Olympia’s de facto community center. There were military convoys plodding their way up Harrison Hill on the way to Aberdeen and the Washington coast. And in June of 1945 Alexander watched in awe as President Harry Truman drove by in an open sedan on his way to Westport for a salmon fishing trip. Truman was just two months into his sudden presidency and two months away from the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II.
“I waved to him and he waved back,” Alexander recalled. “I wasn’t more than 100 feet from my house.”
Alexander reminded his audience that west Olympia was originally named Marshville after Edmund Marsh, who had the land claim for most of the property above and below the Westside hill. The west side was a more confined area 70 years ago, bounded to the east by a West Bay Drive lined with sawmills and plywood plants.
“The mills were noisy and sooty, but I don’t remember anyone complaining,” Alexander said. “Mill jobs were good-paying jobs.”
Ninth Avenue formed a southern boundary to the neighborhood, and everything north of Bowman Avenue and west of Division Street was wooded and rural.
“I remember camping along Percival Creek and playing in the woods on courthouse hill,” he said.
The Fourth Avenue Bridge connecting west Olympia to the downtown area was a west Olympia kid’s ticket to fun-filled activities, such as attending a Saturday movie matinee at one of the three downtown theaters or swimming in the pool at the YMCA, the place Olympia kids learned to swim.
A bridge didn’t connect the west side to downtown Olympia until 1869. The wooden drawbridge didn’t work properly and was prone in the drawn position to fall down onto tug boats heading to and from Tumwater at high tide. Termites feasted on the bridge, and it was a haven for rats. The second bridge was built in 1890, but it was infested with pests, too. It collapsed in 1915 and was replaced with a concrete bridge rendered unsafe for passage by the Nisqually earthquake in 2001.
Just like with bridges, the west side’s Garfield Elementary School is on its fourth iteration. The first school opened on the west side in 1884. It was followed in 1891 by a three-story brick-and-stone structure built at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and Rogers Street at a cost of $15,000. The third school, built at 325 N. Plymouth St. in 1929, was designed by notable Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb and cost $135,000 to construct and equip. It lasted 60 years, with the fourth school opening in 1990.
One of the most imposing buildings on the west side was St. Peter’s Hospital. Built in 1924, the concrete, five-story structure with a brick facade survived two earthquakes and escaped relatively unscathed when the pilot of a P-38 grazed the top of the hospital during a training flight in June 1942. The pilot died in the crash, and the fiery wreckage touched off 50-caliber machine gun bullets in all directions. Fortunately, no one else was hurt.
Before he spoke, Alexander gave credit where credit is due in two places. One is a pictorial and written account of Garfield Elementary School (1884-1990) inspired and compiled by former Olympia School District historian Esther Knox. The other is a booklet titled “How the West Was Once, a History of West Olympia” prepared in 1974 by Larry Smith’s eighth-grade English classes at Jefferson Junior High School. They were invaluable in helping Alexander prepare his speech and, for that matter, aiding me in writing this Soundings column.John Dodge: 360-754-5444 email@example.com