Soundings: Markers start conversation about Olympia's history

As I strolled along north Capitol Way Good Friday morning, I encountered a slice of Olympia’s homeless population dispersing from overnight shelters, and merchants opening front doors to their customers.

I also found what I was looking for: 11 colorful historical markers, circular decals pasted to the sidewalk along Capitol Way from Sylvester Park north to the corner two blocks shy of the Olympia Farmers Market.

Instead of hunting for Easter eggs, I was hunting for a sense of place, for bits and pieces of Olympia history.

At the northeast corner of the Olympia Center, the sidewalk is adorned with one of the 42-inch diameter, historical markers. This one shows us where Olympia pioneer Levi Lathrop Smith built a 256-square-foot cabin in 1846 near the tip of a sandy peninsula that jutted into expansive mud flats at the bottom of Budd Inlet.

A lonely man plagued by epilepsy, Smith’s diary is filled with accounts of illness and solitude. He was elected to the 1848 Oregon Territorial legislature but died before he could serve.

Less than a block to the south, another decal marks the site of a two-story building that served as the executive office of the Washington Territory created by Congress in 1853. It was from here that the first territorial governor — West Point graduate Isaac Ingalls Stevens – ventured forth to negotiate treaties with the native people. And it was here that Nisqually tribal leader Quiemuth, who had surrendered during the Indian Wars of 1855-56, was murdered with no one held accountable.

There are stories, illustrations and photos on every marker. More information about every depicted city landmark is available at the project website, olympiahistoryspot.org.

South Sound historians and the Olympia Downtown Association collaborated on the Olympia Heritage Corridor Project. It was funded with an $8,450 grant from the Thurston County Heritage Commission. The project serves several purposes.

The historical markers shed light on key events, characters and buildings otherwise vanquished to the history books by the march of time, fires, earthquakes and redevelopment, noted Ed Echtle, the principal project researcher whose text on the markers and on the website is concise and informative. The Williams Group of Olympia gets credit for the creative marker design.

The project also encourages downtown visitors to get out of their cars to walk along and learn about the history of the city’s old Main Street, said Connie Lorenz, executive director of the downtown association. As a center of early development in the Puget Sound region, Olympia downtown core has stories of local, state and regional importance to tell.

“The history here in Olympia is really incredible,” she said. Here’s a couple more cases in point: The city’s main water supply in the early years was an artesian well near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Capitol Way. The original well was described as an open-ended wooden barrel with one end sunk into the ground. The barrel was replaced by a crude underground tank, or cistern, in 1864, marking the beginnings of a city water supply system.

As the Olympia central business district grew south along Capitol Way, older buildings near the mud flats segued into a vice district, home to saloons, brothels, opium dens and gambling houses. The Tenderloin District, which operated with a wink, a nod and the occasional police raid, is represented by a marker near the intersection of Olympia Avenue and Capitol Way. After alcohol use was banned in Olympia in 1910, the vice district started to unravel and the aging buildings fell into disrepair and disuse. Olympia’s downtown continued to march south. Massive dredging and filling projects in lower Budd Inlet in the early 20th century turned the old downtown into an industrial zone home to some of the earliest plywood manufacturing plants in the Pacific Northwest.

The southernmost marker sits at the northwest corner of Sylvester Park, which was platted by Olympia founder Edmund Sylvester in 1850. It remained a somewhat shabby, undeveloped town square used for livestock grazing into the late 1800s.

Lorenz and Echtle joined forces on Monday to plaster the decals onto sections of sidewalk blasted clean with a pressure washer. The decals are projected to last up to eight years before exposure to the elements erodes away the images and text.

“It’s been a really enjoyable project to work on,” Echtle said. He hopes it leads to more permanent historical markers at some of these sites, and maybe others.

Perhaps the marker begging the most for a more prominent exhibit is the one showing the site of the first territorial building and the scene of Quiemuth’s murder, he said.

“We should do something there in concert with the Nisqually tribe,” he suggested.

Consider these 11 historical markers in downtown Olympia as just the first chapter in an interactive history story to foster in people a stronger sense of place.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444