Olympia area will see benefits from new Maritime Washington National Heritage Area

Chuck Fowler
Chuck Fowler Olympian file photo

As the South Sound area welcomes the 46th annual Olympia Harbor Days tugboat festival and races this weekend, a newly approved federal program will bring national recognition and year-around economic and tourism development benefits to the Capital City and Thurston County.

In mid-March, Congress passed overwhelmingly and the President signed legislation establishing the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area (MWNHA). One of 55 National Heritage Areas in the nation, it is the only one with a strictly maritime theme. A core group of western Washington nonprofit, government, and other heritage leaders have worked for more than a decade to make it a reality.

Administered by the National Park Service, the new program will help local groups coordinate and promote existing attractions such as maritime museums, historic ships, tribal heritage sites, lighthouses and community events such as Harbor Days. The geographical area covered consists of about 3,000 miles of shoreline beginning in Grays Harbor, north to Neah Bay, east along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and all of Puget Sound.

Under the new law, the nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation (WTHP) will organize the new NHA. It is charged with developing an extensive management plan that will then be submitted to Congress for approval and authorization of federal matching funds. Between $300,000 and $500,000 annually is expected to be available. These funds would need to be matched dollar-for-dollar by local and state governments and nonprofit organizations for staffing, marketing and other support services.

The major initiative began in the early 2000s when King County 4Culture, a local government historic preservation group, teamed with the National Park Service regional office in Seattle to explore the development of a maritime-themed National Heritage Area. The Pacific Northwest Maritime Heritage Council, an informal alliance of regional maritime groups, subsequently promoted the idea more widely.

The State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation picked up the concept, and received $150,000 from the State Legislature for the feasibility study required by Congress to establish the NHA. The completed study was submitted by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in 2010. After nine years of quiet but persistent advocacy work by many groups in the state, including the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association (SSMHA), the MWNHA law was approved.

In Olympia, one of the projects that could be included in the new MWNHA is the SSMHA’s proposed “Heritage Tugboat Walk.” This year-round expansion of Harbor Days’ working waterfront theme would connect the historic tug Sand Man at the south end of Percival Landing with the almost fully restored tug Parthia at the north end, near the Port of Olympia’s Marine Terminal and city’s Farmers’ Market.

Parthia has a more than century-old working heritage, much of it in the Capital City. She towed log rafts and docked ships for 40 years, from 1934 to 1975, first for the Delta V. Smyth Tugs & Barges company, and later Foss Launch & Tug, now Foss Maritime.

Built in 1906, the tug had been a longtime participant in Harbor Days. She was sold after the 2016 event, and the new owner took her to Hood Canal, where in August 2017 she sank accidentally in 25 feet of water. He offered Parthia at no cost to the SSMHA. After serious consideration, the SSMHA board voted to acquire, salvage and restore the tug.

Subsequently, the SSMHA submitted a proposal to the Port to exhibit Parthia near where she operated for four decades. The nonprofit group is working with the Port to locate a suitable public exhibit site. To date, the SSMHA, with the support of many businesses, families and individual donors, has raised more than $130,000 in cash and in-kind materials and services to restore and exhibit Parthia.

But there is more to do before Parthia, together with Sand Man, can become a significant heritage and educational attraction as part of the new Maritime Washington National Heritage Area. Stop by the SSMHA’s Parthia information booth at Harbor Days on the Percival Landing boardwalk, learn more and volunteer. You’ll be welcomed aboard.

Chuck Fowler is a past president of the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association in Olympia, and served on the steering committee for the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation’s Maritime Washington National Heritage Area feasibility study.