Washington’s capital city “” and its newly renovated capitol “” invites RVers to inspect its history and pleasant environs.
By Bob Loeffelbein
Olympia, Washington, is not as well known as Seattle, but it has come a long way since the first settlers arrived there. The town, which wraps around Budd Inlet at the south end of Puget Sound, was called Smithfield back in the 1840s. Its first claim to fame was the fact that it was home to a regional U.S. Customs House.
Olympia now is the starting point of the Olympic Highway (U.S. 101), which circles the Olympic Peninsula, with access to Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. But it’s the city “” and the neighboring town of Tumwater “” that we will focus on here.
You’ll want to use a towed car to tour Olympia. I was assured that plenty of free or reasonably priced metered parking was available in town for my car, and it’s true.
As you enter town via Interstate 5, the neoclassical dome of the capitol comes into view. The building occupies the same site as the original territorial capitol. It was there on November 11, 1889, that Elisha P. Ferry, a territorial official, received word that the Washington Territory had been declared the 42nd state in the Union. Ferry served as its first governor.
The current dome, which measures 267 feet high (or 287 feet, depending on one’s source) and contains 262 stairs, for those who opt to climb up and view a panorama of the city, is the fourth-tallest all-masonry dome in the world.
This is a visitor-friendly seat of government. The capitol sits on 30 landscaped acres surrounded by seasonal floral displays, including Japanese cherry blossom trees. Centralized metered parking is spacious and easy to navigate. The Visitor Information Center “” open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday “” is adjacent. Here you’ll find a collection of brochures touting many of the state’s interesting sites, along with the most helpful attendants one could wish for. The visitors center phone number is (360) 586-3460.
Pick up your city guide map here and it will lead you around the capitol campus. Use it to explore the sunken English Garden; the reproduction Tivoli Fountain; the World War I Winged Victory statue; the POW/MIA monument; and the Washington State World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War veterans memorials. Continue on through the State Rose Garden and Conservatory, and to major state government buildings, which were designed as a group, though constructed in stages, all of native Wilkeson sandstone.
The freshly renovated legislative building is open for tours daily. Free group tours are offered on the hour between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Notice how stone ox skulls circle the base of the outside dome, commemorating the oxcarts that brought pioneers to Washington. Inside the building are elaborate ceilings, as well as Louis C. Tiffany-designed chandeliers, floor lamps, and sconces. The enormous chandelier that hangs inside the rotunda weighs five tons.
The building was first completed in 1928 at a cost of $7.3 million, and was renovated and decorated in 1986 as it would have been in 1928 had the funding been available. In December 2004 yet another renovation of the building was completed, this time to the tune of $118 million.
Washington’s state capitol is similar in design to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and houses the state legislature and other executive offices. You’ll find that the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and able to expound on everything from the history of the Great Seal in the lobby floor to the weight of the front doors (seven tons each).
The state seal is the focal point of the legislative building rotunda. The original tools used to create it, along with other artifacts, rare documents, newspapers, and photographs are on permanent display at Talcott Jewelers in downtown Olympia. The reason for this goes back to a short time before Washington became a state in 1889. A committee visited jeweler Charles Talcott with a proposed design for a state seal. He told them their design was too complicated and would be quickly outmoded as the state grew. He took an ink bottle on his desk and drew a circle around its base; then he placed a silver dollar inside that, and drew another circle. Between these circles he printed “The Seal of the State of Washington 1889.” Then he licked a postage stamp and pasted it in the center, saying, “That represents a bust of George Washington.” The committee accepted his design on the spot.
Adjacent to the legislative building is the 1908 Georgian-style governor’s mansion. Free, one-hour public tours are offered most Wednesdays by reservation only. Phone the State Capitol Tour office at (360) 586-8687 for more information and to make your reservation.
Make another stop while you’re on the capitol grounds at the Capitol Conservatory. It was built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration and is small and cramped, but packed full of orchids, succulents, and all kinds of cacti. They seem to shoot off in all directions and occasionally have wriggled through broken panes in the ceiling. It is a working greenhouse, too, producing bedding plants for the entire capitol campus. Free access is offered from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. weekdays.
The Mansion Museum
Eight blocks south of the capitol campus is the Washington State Capital Museum, housed in the Clarence J. Lord Mansion on 21st Avenue. It features two floors of exhibits focusing on the area’s history and settlement.
The beautiful mansion was originally owned by C.J. Lord, who, with his new bride, Elizabeth, came to Olympia in 1890 from Chautauqua County, New York. Lord founded Capital National Bank and became the city’s mayor in 1902.
The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. A small admission fee is charged. Phone (360) 753-2580 for more information.
In 1920 Lord had the California mission-style mansion designed by famed architect Joseph Wohleb (who also designed a number of commercial buildings still standing in town). The house was contracted to be finished by Christmas 1923, but it wasn’t. Lord already had invited guests over that evening for Christmas dinner; so, he and his daughter spent that afternoon carrying table settings, holly decorations, etc., from their old house to the new. Food was transported via baskets and, since there were no tables, it was served atop rough-sawn planks placed on top of sawhorses. The house had no electricity, heat, or toilet facilities. In spite of all this, guests sat on the hard plank benches in their winter coats, and ate and caroled the evening away.
With 32 rooms and five fireplaces on three floors, the mansion cost $125,000, including a coach house in back for the family’s three Packards, and a one-bedroom apartment atop it for the chauffeur. Many of the rooms are paneled in beautiful woods, such as Brazilian mahogany in the dining room, walnut paneling in the library, and all oak in the foyer, stairwell, and second floor bedrooms.
The flower garden remains today, tended by volunteers. The Pioneer Herb Garden lies behind the house, and the Delbert McBride Ethnobotanical Garden runs along property borders.
A Downtown Walking Tour
From here, go downtown. Olympia’s downtown is an entertaining evolution of history, change, and diversity.
The first stop of interest is the round Yashiro Japanese Garden, a joint project between Olympia and its Japanese sister city of Yashiro. After enjoying this environmentally controlled relaxation, notice that across the street are glass-and-concrete state office buildings. Most visitors are not aware that many state offices are located in buildings owned or leased throughout the cities of Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacy.
The Old Capitol Building, east of Sylvester Park, is one example. Constructed in 1892, it served as the capitol from 1901 to 1928. It can be self-toured from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays. After touring the capital complex, it is difficult to imagine that all state offices and the legislature were once housed in that one structure. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it is used by the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
A Carnegie Library, on Seventh and Franklin, is also on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a well-preserved example of libraries built in an earlier era all across the country with Andrew Carnegie grants.
Washington Street, the heart of Olympia, is filled with renovated turn-of-the-century buildings, specialty shops, and diverse restaurants. It is also home to the Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
Across from the 1920s-era Hotel Olympian is Sylvester Park, which functions like a small-town square, complete with a bandstand. Free concerts are offered there in summer, and in winter it is bedecked with holiday lights.
Other parks gracing the area include Percival Landing, one of the town’s three waterfront recreation areas. Artwork and interpretive displays provide a history of the harbor, and plenty of picnic space is available.
Food lovers will want to visit the Olympia Farmers Market, the second-largest in the state. Between April and October, it’s open Thursday through Sunday, and in November and December it is open on weekends only. The December Christmas Market is a sight to behold. Electric heaters are strategically placed for shoppers’ warmth, and you can order local specialties to be shipped to loved ones.
Speaking of food, the past few years have brought an influx of ethnic groups to town, which has created an intriguing diversity of restaurant offerings. Popular spots include Wagner’s European Bakery and Cafe, which offers authentic German breads, pastries, and other delicatessen specialties. The Oyster House features the Olympia oyster and, in addition, offers a wonderful view of Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountains. For the café explorer, the Fishbowl Pub microbrewery and the Falls Terrace Restaurant are popular stops.
The Falls Of Tumwater
At one time, a visit to Olympia would not be complete without a tour of the Olympia Brewing Company plant in the neighboring town of Tumwater. But that was yesterday. Today the brewery, which was bought by Miller Brewing Company, and its popular tour are no more, for the plant closed in the summer of 2003.
You can still see plenty in Tumwater, however. The city’s roots go back to pre-Civil War Missouri, where 28 pioneers, led by Michael P. Simmons, headed west looking for “the promised land” in the Oregon Territory. It was 1845, and no American settlements had been made north of the Columbia River. The travelers established their town of New Market on the Deschutes River. The name was later changed to Tumwater, an American Indian word meaning “noisy water.”
The arrival of the railroad in 1878 and of German-born brewer Leopold Schmidt in 1895 were two important events in the history of the town. Schmidt’s appearance, triggered by his enthusiasm for the quality of the artesian water bubbling from the ground near the falls of the Deschutes River, signaled the advent of the Capital (later changed to Olympia) Brewing Company in 1896.
You still can see (but not visit) the historic brick brewhouse at the Lower Falls, built in 1906, and the modern plant adjacent to the Upper Falls, where the company moved in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition. They are the last remaining symbols of the dozens of companies that once occupied this important business site. Overlooking the old brewery is the former home of Schmidt’s family, nicknamed Three Meter. It was built in 1904, after the founding of the brewery. The unusual name is reported to have been born out of the boisterous play of the Schmidts’ five sons, likened to the battle of Three Meter Hill during that era’s Boer War.
These historical buildings are near Tumwater Falls Park, which offers 15 acres of picnic and play areas, nature trails that parallel the river, and a good view of the falls. The bridge crossing the falls is a replica of the wooden truss bridge that served Tumwater before the turn of the century. A fish hatchery and fish ladder, built by the Washington State Department of Fisheries for the development of the Deschutes River run of salmon, give the onlooker a firsthand look at the salmon migration. Most of the fish head upstream to the hatchery in October and early November.
Also in Tumwater is the Crosby House, one of the oldest wood frame homes in the state (circa 1860), which Bing Crosby’s grandfather built for his bride; and the Henderson House Museum, a restored 1905 home that preserves artifacts and pictorial displays of pioneer life and early industry in Washington’s first community. Admission to the Crosby House is free, with donations suggested. Admission to the Henderson House Museum is $2 for adults, $1 for children ages 12 to 18, and free for children under 12.
After sampling Olympia and Tumwater, it is time to head either north to see Tacoma, or east to admire Mount Rainier. But those are travel stories for another time.
Olympia/Thurston County Visitor & Convention Bureau
P.O. Box 7338
Olympia, WA 98507
State Capitol Visitors Center
14th Ave. and Capitol Way
Olympia, WA 98504
Tumwater Area Chamber Of Commerce
5304 Littlerock Road S.W.
Tumwater, WA 98512
Following are only two of the many campgrounds in the area. Please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, printed in the January and June issues of FMC and viewable online at www.fmca.com, for additional listings.
American Heritage Campground, C6403
9610 Kimmie St. S.W.
Olympia, WA 98512
Open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Olympia Campground, C6404
1441 83rd Ave. S.W.
Olympia, WA 98512