Historic Mosquito Fleet commemorated in Olympia's alleys

Staff writerAugust 30, 2013 

The city of Olympia set sail this month with a project to reclaim five downtown alleyways as public spaces.

Each chosen alley is named after a steamship that cruised the waters of Puget Sound 100 years ago and more, paying frequent visits to Olympia long before Puget Sound communities were linked by highways.

Puget Sound was the maritime highway for mail, people and freight, and Olympia was the southernmost destination for what was named the Mosquito Fleet.

The name conveys an image of wood-burning, then diesel-burning, ships as thick as mosquitoes on the state’s inland marine waterway, as many as 2,500 vessels laboring from the 1860s to the 1930s.

Naming the alleys after steamships was the brainchild of local historian Roger Easton. It was one of the last projects he worked on prior to his death last year.

Fellow historian Ed Echtle, with the enthusiastic support of the Olympia Heritage Commission, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and city staff, carried the project forward. Take a stroll downtown today and you will see the more than 30 crimson red signs mounted on downtown buildings at the entrance to alleys from State Avenue to the north, Capitol Way to the west, Legion Way to the south and as far east as Chestnut Street. Soon a handful of free-standing signs will be mounted on posts at alley entrances.

“The alley project helps people understand that the entire city is here today because of its connection to the water,” Echtle said. Promoting alleys as part of the urban landscape, and places for safe pedestrian and bicycle access, has been a pet project of Buxbaum’s since he took office in 2010.

“By giving our downtown alley’s historically significant names we can also use them to enhance awareness of our city’s history and spark people’s imagination about both the past and the future,” Buxbaum said.

One of the immediate goals of the historic alleyway project is to take back the alleys from those who use them to conduct drug deals, inject drugs and defecate in public. Merchants and citizens alike have complained long and hard about unsavory activity in downtown alleys.

Look for lighting to be added to key alleys, and perhaps other alley improvements, although the size, cost and funding for future projects is unknown.

But Buxbaum and others can envision a day when these now barren, uninviting alleys are home to cafe and shop entrances, more mural art, pocket parks and places for booths and displays during special downtown events such as Arts Walk.

Here’s a look at the alley names borrowed from five historic steamships with strong Olympia connections.

n The SS Eliza Anderson was an early vintage side-wheeler that monopolized the route from Olympia to the British colony of Victoria in the 1860s.

A 13-year-old black slave, Charlie Mitchell, from Olympia, stowed away on the vessel and found freedom in Victoria in 1860. The ship was abandoned in Alaska in 1898 after a Klondike Gold Rush voyage.

A five-block alley between State and Fourth avenues is named after the ship.

n The SS TJ Potter was launched in Portland in 1888, and gained a reputation as a swift and luxurious steamboat. It served Puget Sound for much of its life and reportedly made a run in record time from Tacoma to Seattle — 82 minutes. It eventually returned to the Columbia River and was abandoned in Astoria in 1921.

The three-block alley named after the side-wheeler runs from Capitol Way to Adams Street south of Fourth Avenue.

n The SS Bailey Gatzert was a stern-wheeler built in Ballard in 1890 and placed initially on the Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle run. She was named after Seattle’s eighth mayor and first Jewish mayor.

The Bailey Gatzert alley is just one block long, but connects the front of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts to Capitol Way. Pedestrian traffic is commonplace in this alley, especially before and after an arts center performance.

n The SS Fleetwood was another fleet steamship best known in Olympia for delivering Olympia firefighters and fire equipment to Seattle to help combat that city’s catastrophic fire in 1889.

In a talk at the Olympia Timberland Library Wednesday night, Echtle said the dispatch of Olympia aid to the Seattle fire may have helped secure Seattle’s critical vote to keep the capitol in Olympia when the territory gained statehood in November 1889.

The Fleetwood alley runs three blocks from State Avenue to Legion Way behind Washington Street.

n The SS Messenger made three round trips weekly between Olympia and Seattle in the 1870s. She caught fire and sank in Commencement Bay in 1894, a stark example of the danger inherent in steam-producing fires on board a wooden boat.

The Messenger alley runs three blocks north from State Avenue to Legion Way between Jefferson and Adams streets. Check out the signs and alleys and support Olympia in its effort to connect to its maritime past while restoring downtown public space.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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