Long before the arrival of humans, the shoreline of Budd Inlet was shaped by geologic forces over millions of years; glaciers advanced from the north and retreated four or more times.
As recently as 20,000 years ago, Puget Sound was under a mile of ice. It didn’t take on its basic, present-day shape until about 13,000 years ago, when the last glacier retreated, leaving Budd Inlet at the southern end of Puget Sound.
Budd Inlet, named for Lt. Thomas Budd of the 1841 U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Commander Charles Wilkes, is a relatively shallow inlet with an average depth of about 27 feet and maximum depth of 110 feet near the mouth. It’s about 7 miles long with an average width of a little more than 1 mile.
Long before white settlers arrived, Budd Inlet was a popular gathering place for coastal Salish tribes, including ancestors of the present day Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes. Budd Inlet was a favorite area for digging, drying and smoking clams and other shellfish. Several, if not all, of the five stocks of native Pacific Coast salmon frequented the saltwater and nearby rivers and streams. It was also a jumping off point for Native American travel from the Puget Sound basin to the Columbia River and other destinations south.
Before the arrival of white settlers in 1845, the hillsides flanking Budd Inlet were covered in thick stands of Douglas fir and other conifer trees. Closer to the water’s edge were Western red cedar and leafy trees such as alder and maple, interspersed with sloughs and marshy areas covered in a thick tangle of underbrush, including salal, devil’s club and salmonberry.
An employee at the U.S. Custom House in Olympia in 1851 had this to say about Budd Inlet: “Clams and mussels abound, and ducks of diverse varieties are most abundant.”
Jutting into Budd Inlet was a peninsula, which, at high tide, resembled the silhouette of a bear. It was known as “Cheet-woot” (bear) in the Nisqually dialect. The peninsula included a 2-acre sandy spit that was the site of the first cabin built in Olympia, by Levi Lathrop Smith, who, along with Edmund Sylvester, each claimed 320 acres of land in 1846 that formed the backbone of downtown Olympia.
The Phoenix Inn sits near the end of Olympia’s original northernmost shoreline, according to Nathaniel Jones, senior asset manager for the state Department of General Administration.
But perhaps the most distinctive feature of Budd Inlet, and the one that served as an obstacle to growth and development of the young community, was the vast mudflats that encircled the peninsula, extending 1.5 miles from deeper water in Budd Inlet south to the Deschutes River falls.
“This is the greatest drawback to the place,” the 1872 Business Directory said of the mudflats’ influence on Olympia. “At high tide, the water is deep enough for any class of vessels, but at low water small boats even are left beached.”
MAN ALTERED SHORELINE
Early attempts to manipulate the Budd Inlet shoreline to overcome the tideflats involved construction of docks and wharves, beginning as early as 1854 and culminating in 1885 with a 4,798-foot-long wharf from the end of Main Street (today’s Capitol Way) north to deep water. But over time, the wharves were waylaid by the wood-destroying teredo worm, which made a shambles of the pilings in an era before creosote and other wood preservatives were introduced.
By the 1890s, it was becoming increasingly clear that for Olympia to continue to grow and compete with Tacoma and Seattle for commerce, and maintain its stature as the state capital city, major dredging and filling projects were needed to combat the mudflats.
“The mudflats were always an issue,” retired state historian Derek Valley said. “They were a hindrance to the economic development of Olympia.”
“A small expenditure of money in dredging out a deeper channel leading to the wharves already built will add immeasurably to the importance of Olympia (maritime) traffic with other Sound ports,” an article in the 1890 Business Directory stated. “One cannot help wondering why the Olympians did not bestir themselves at an earlier date.”
The first such endeavor occurred in 1893-94, when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the shipping channel along Fourth Avenue and deposited the fill material under the Fourth Avenue Bridge.
POLLUTING THE INLET
By the turn of the century, the shellfish harvesting in Budd Inlet that had been so important to Native Americans was just an afterthought.
“There were a few small attempts to raise Olympia oysters in the Deschutes River estuary where Capitol Lake is today, but nobody followed through,” noted longtime oysterman Dave McMillin. Meanwhile, pollution from human waste — Olympia didn’t have a sewage treatment plant until 1951 — combined with turn- of-the-20th-century garbage dumping on the tidelands and the proliferation of sawmills, log rafts and other elements of the timber industry, sealed the Olympia waterfront’s industrial fate.
Still, the area’s natural beauty was used as a selling point in a 1905 Olympia Chamber of Commerce brochure trying to draw newcomers to South Sound: “Fringing every bay, and covering the hilltops, painting their images in the crystal waters, are dark, evergreen forests which have no equal elsewhere on this continent.”
The Olympia waterfront experienced a major alteration with a dredging and filling operation in 1909-1911. In those three years, approximately 2.3 million cubic yards of mudflats, enough to fill 230,000 dump trucks, was pulled from Budd Inlet and used to create 29 city blocks, including the beginnings of the Port of Olympia peninsula.
The so-called Carlyon Fill was named after P.H. Carlyon, who came to Olympia in 1884 to practice dentistry, but became one of the city’s all-time civic boosters and political figures, serving as mayor in 1904 and as a state legislator from 1907 to 1929. All but $58,000 of the $250,000 project — $6.1 million in 2008 dollars — was financed by townspeople who paid an average of $450 per lot, or nearly $11,000 in 2008 dollars.
The Carlyon Fill and associated dredging projects paved the way for more industry on West Bay and the expanded peninsula.
The last major dredge and fill operation occurred in the 1980s, when the Port of Olympia scooped up more than 1.1 million cubic yards of sediment out of the East Bay of Budd Inlet to create moorage berths and 54 acres of uplands for the East Bay Marina and adjoining property.