‘That moment is there forever’: 70 years on, earthquake memories are still vivid

‘We didn’t know what it was’ On the 70th anniversary of the 1949 earthquake, hear from those who experienced it.

The most powerful earthquake to rock the Puget Sound region struck April 13, 1949. Eight people died as a result fo the earthquake and hundreds of buildings were damaged.
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The most powerful earthquake to rock the Puget Sound region struck April 13, 1949. Eight people died as a result fo the earthquake and hundreds of buildings were damaged.

Margie Brown had convinced her mom to let her stay home from South Bay School one day back in 1949 because her brother was sick. Just before noon, the 9-year-old was attempting to fly a kite in a vacant lot near her home on Johnson Point Road northeast of Olympia when the ground started to roll.

“I sat down and started screaming,” recalls Brown, who now lives in Wasilla, Alaska.

George Bigelow did go to school that day. He was in sixth grade at the old Washington School on Eastside Street Southeast when the classroom started to shake and the teacher shouted “Run!”

“At the time we had no training in hiding from something like that. We did what the teacher said,” recalls Bigelow, who lives in Olympia.

On the city’s west side, Gerry Alexander, the future state Supreme Court Chief Justice, was a seventh grader on his way home for lunch when he heard a kind of rumble. His first thought was of air raid drills from World War II.

“I do remember it very vividly,” he said. “There’s certain things that happen in life — that moment is there forever.”

This weekend marks the 70th anniversary of the April 13, 1949 earthquake that struck near Olympia and was felt over an area of 150,000 square miles. Initially recorded as a 7.1 magnitude quake, it killed eight people and caused upwards of $25 million in damage, according to a federal report.

In Olympia, a pipe fitter at the Washington Veneer plant was crushed under brick that fell when a smokestack collapsed. A woman died of a heart attack at her home in the Hotel Governor, according to Olympian archives.

About 75 feet of Black Lake Road fell into the lake, while 150 feet of sandy spit at the tip of Cooper Point fell into Puget Sound, according to archives.

Rubble on the sidewalk outside the New Governor Hotel in downtown Olympia following the 1949 earthquake. Courtesy photo 1998.81.1, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma

“Public utilities suffered seriously when water and gas mains were broken and electric and telegraph services were interrupted,” according to the federal report on damage. “Railroad service into Olympia was suspended for several days, and railroad bridges south of Tacoma were thrown out of line.”

Photos from the Washington State Historical Society show downtown sidewalks covered in fallen bricks and rubble. At the Old Capitol Building in front of Sylvester Park, stone blocks from the top story fell to the ground; several of the towers were lost, along with the rotunda, House chamber and related galleries in the East Wing, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which occupies the building now.

Back at the South Bay School, a brick chimney collapsed and the floorboards rippled, said Esther Fesenbek of Olympia, who was in sixth grade at the time. The school was closed for good, and students moved in early to the current school already under construction down the road.

Cub Scouts at the Capitol

Some of the most significant damage was on the Capitol Campus. The 180-ton lantern atop the Legislative Building became dislodged and had to be replaced with a lighter model.

The top of the dome is where a 9-year-old Jim Flynn of Olympia found himself that day. His mother, Nancy Flynn, was a Cub Scout den mother who worked in the Secretary of State’s Office and she had arranged tours led by Cub Scouts for kids coming to meet with lawmakers — including a trip to the top of the dome. That meant a journey from the fourth floor, up an elevator, up a winding staircase, through a heavy door.

“We were doing that all day,” Flynn said. “It was going to be the last trip of the day, I had gone up and down and up and down, so I said, ‘You guys go up (without me).’”

Nancy Flynn was up there with a half dozen children when the earthquake hit. That heavy door jammed, the elevator stopped and they were trapped.

“She said the keystones were falling all around her. The darn things went all the way into the grass between the Temple of Justice and the Capitol,” said Flynn, who had run out of the building when it started to shake. “She had the kids up there singing ‘Down By the Station’ just to keep them active.”

Flynn wanted to get back into the building to find his mother after the quake, but a State Patrol trooper wouldn’t allow it. The building’s chief custodian Oscar Barclift came to the rescue, Flynn said, by grabbing a flashlight and climbing to the top of the dome to get the children and his mother out.

Damage at the Insurance Building on the Capitol Campus. Courtesy photo 2013.23.4, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma

That afternoon, Flynn went downtown to Fourth Avenue and Capitol Way for his after-school job selling newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had put out a special edition and Flynn — standing near the Kneeland Hotel, whose building predated paved roads in downtown and was so badly damaged it would have to be demolished — shouted “Extra, extra, read all about it,” just like he’d seen in a movie.

The earthquake had another lasting effect on that corner, said Deborah Ross, research coordinator for the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum: One lane of Fourth Avenue was closed for rebuilding efforts, turning it into a one-way street, with State Avenue made one-way in the other direction. That temporary change was made permanent a few months later.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.