Tim Walsh, the state’s chief hazards geologist, raced through 65 million years of geologic time in just short of an hour Thursday at the historic Schmidt House in Tumwater, which is home to a new, free public history program hosted monthly by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation.
Time traveler Walsh, who is employed by the state Department of Natural Resources, fast-talked his way through what amounted to a geologic history of Washington state, with an emphasis on South Sound.
He reminded us that South Sound has been buried under more than 1,000 feet of ice at least seven times in the past 2.6 million years as North American glaciers advanced and retreated.
“The ice was probably here the last time about 16,450 years ago,” Walsh told a noon gathering of 40 people. The last glacier reached about one-quarter mile north of Tenino, he said.
And when the ice melted, it contributed to a Columbia River-sized flow that made its way to the Pacific Ocean through what today is the Chehalis River. You see, what the glaciers carved to become Puget Sound was not connected to the Pacific Ocean, and was called Glacial Lake Russell.
That’s one of the cool things about geology: Features you think of as permanent can come and go with a geological blink of an eye.
Or, as American historian-philosopher Will Durant, who, with his wife, Ariel Durant, wrote 11 volumes from 1935 to 1975 telling the story of civilization, liked to say: “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.”
Walsh saved his most sobering geology hazards lesson for the last: Since 1872, there have been 15 damaging earthquakes within the geologic confines of Washington state.
But it’s the type of earthquake that hasn’t struck the region since 1700 that should have everyone worried the most - that’s one of those 9.0 magnitude monsters cooked up along a 700-mile-long boundary just off the West Coast where the Juan de Fuca Plate is subducting, or diving under, the North American Plate, which is home to millions of people from northern California to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
These Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes happen when the two plates lock up, then break free of each other on intervals of every few hundred years.
“Reduced to simple odds, the chances that an earthquake as large as 9.0 magnitude will occur along the zone within the next 50 years is one in 10,” according to a report released last week by the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, a non-profit coalition of scientists, engineers, government officials and business people who work on emergency preparedness.
Since subduction zone earthquakes trigger tsunamis, coastal inhabitants and their built environment are most vulnerable to destruction.
If the earthquake and tsunami happened tomorrow, the CREW estimates 10,000 deaths, more than 30,000 injuries and $70 billion to $80 billion in damages in Washington and Oregon.
By comparison, the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001 caused one stress-related death, 700 injuries and up to $4 billion in damages.
Walsh’s talk was the first in a monthly series designed to turn the Schmidt House into more of a public education and history venue with less emphasis as a place to hold weddings, Christmas parties and other events.
The Schmidt House was built in 1904 for Olympia Brewer founder Leopold F. Schmidt, his wife and six children. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Tumwater’s historic places register, too.
“We want to tell more of the history of the house and the history of the area,” noted John Freedman, executive director of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, the non-profit group that also owns and operates Tumwater Falls Park.
To that end, the foundation this past summer hired former Tumwater museum coordinator and local historian Carla Wulfsberg as its public history manager.
The next history offering at the Schmidt House features former Olympia Brewing Co. brew master Paul Knight.
He will explain the art of brewing in the original brick brew house on the banks of the Deschutes River just below the Schmidt House. That’s set for noon, Nov. 21.
At noon, Dec. 19, speaker Dan O’Neill, the great-grandson of Swiss immigrants and Tumwater dairy farmers Joseph and Magdalena Wickie, will talk about the Wickie Farm’s century-long role recycling Olympia Brewery by- products.
In addition, free guided tours of the Schmidt House will take place 1:15 p.m., 2:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. on Thursdays, starting with three Halloween tours that Wulfsberg told me could include encounters with the ghost of the Schmidt House.
The tours are limited to 12 people per tour, and tickets are available beginning at 1 p.m. tour days at the Schmidt House, 330 Schmidt Place, Tumwater.
For more on the increased public education effort focused on the history of the Schmidt House, the brewery and the surrounding Tumwater Historic District, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444