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Discover Olympia’s hidden histories

History is detectable in the landscape–if you know where to look

At the kickoff for the Hidden Histories Tours. Photo by Lindsey Dalthorp

On October 7, several “Olympia Hidden Histories” self-guided walking tours were introduced to the public. The multimedia walking tours are a collaboration of student authors and faculty at The Evergreen State College, with the “Walls Tell Stories, Olympia” project of Art Forces and Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

Today’s stories of restoration with hard truths about the past

Student teams in the Evergreen class “American Frontiers: Homelands and Borderlands” (taught by Kristina Ackley, Zoltán Grossman, and Mike Ruth) developed four walking tours that cover historic displacements—of the Indigenous (Squaxin), Chinese, and working-class communities that resided downtown, and of the oysters and salmon that inhabited the Deschutes Estuary.

The tours tell contemporary stories of cultural revitalization and ecological restoration while revealing hard truths about how Olympia’s landscape was created: through the settler-colonial removal of Indigenous people, the racialized displacement of immigrant and working-class communities, and the destructive altering of the Deschutes Estuary. This juxtaposition shows how understanding the past is vital to planning for the future.

History in the palm of your hand

The public launch, part of Fall Arts Walk, drew about 100 people to the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural to hear student authors and their research partners speak about the tours. Among the speakers were Squaxin Island Tribe Chairman Kristopher Peters, Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Clark Gilman, and Evergreen President John Carmichael. A new “Peacemaker Gallery” was opened in the adjacent Labor Temple, featuring an exhibit showcasing historical and contemporary photographs and art connecting to the history represented in the tours. During November, the gallery was open every Saturday.

The ArcGIS StoryMaps tours seek to uncover layers of Olympia’s rich cultural and ecological history, revealing connections to the region and world. They combine narrative text with images, maps, audio, and video, bringing history to the palm of your hand. Follow the tours in the presented order, or explore them according to your own interest:

(Steh-Chass): People of the Water

(James Martinez, Nico Maynes, Ashes Gleason, Reno Buchanan)

The first tour tells the story of the original people of Budd Inlet, the Steh-Chass band of the Squaxin Island Tribe. It focuses on the Steh-Chass village of bsctxwd (Bus-chut-wud, or “frequented by black bears”), located near the Mural.

For generations, villagers harvested oysters, salmon and other natural wealth in the Deschutes Estuary, and traded with other tribes over great distances. A Steh-Chass chief signed the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, but the villagers were removed from Olympia’s walled military fortifications during the 1855-56 Puget Sound War. They were forced to live on the Squaxin Island Reservation, with constricted access to fish and fresh water.

Throughout the 20th century, tribal members lived in Kamilche and around the South Puget Sound, which became a religious nexus of the Coast Salish world. They fought for treaty rights to harvest fish, and today the tribe has expanded its cultural, economic, and environmental presence back into downtown.

Tidelands: “When the tide is out, the table is set”
(Kaiah Costa, Charity Turk, Robert O’Hanlon)

The second tour tells the story of the Olympia oyster that flourished in the tidal zone of the Deschutes Estuary mudflats, which were raised by Indigenous and Chinese harvesters. The native oyster drew settlers to Olympia (and later promoted its status as the capital city), before it was displaced by foreign oyster species.

The tour traces the town’s expansion as a center of shipping and timber processing industries that industrialized the waterfront, drawing many US and immigrant workers, but polluting the waters that had sustained oysters and salmon. The dredging of the mudflats to make way for shipping to the Port of Olympia enlarged the downtown land base through a series of fills.

The tour concludes with a walk along Capitol Boulevard, the historic Main Street, which started as a seedy frontier boardwalk servicing sailors, lumberjacks and oystermen, and developed into a working-class community of timber mill workers and stable businesses.

Olympia’s Chinatowns: exclusion and endurance
(Adam Andres, Carlos Funk, Jonah Eadie, Tucker Morehouse)

The third tour tells the story of early Chinese immigration to the West Coast after the 1849 California Gold Rush, and how the immigrants were originally drawn to Olympia by the oyster, timber and railroad industries. Many Chinese people came from the same county in Guangdong Province.

The Chinese established laundries and restaurants, and built roads and bridges. Merchants established family associations to support their community. As downtown’s shoreline expanded, Chinese businesses were pushed from desirable to undesirable land around the tideflats. In the 1880s, racist mobs drove Chinese out of many other Western cities, such as Seattle and Tacoma.

A mob threatened to evict Chinese from Olympia’s first Chinatown in 1886, but the Thurston County Sheriff protected the Chinese community. A second Chinatown was established the following year, with businesses forming a core community that moved by 1913. The third and final Chinatown was razed in 1943, but the Chinese-American presence and influence has persisted into the 21st century.

5th Avenue dam: Reflections on Capitol Lake

(Elyssa Conn, Arlo Dolven, Tristan Glaser, Avery Millard)

The fourth tour tells the story of how the Deschutes Estuary was transformed into Capitol Lake, by the 1951 construction of the 5th Avenue Dam, to impound the lake that serves as a reflecting pool for the State Capitol.

The planned impoundment was an opportunity to remove Little Hollywood, a multiracial working-class community condemned by city leaders as a hazardous blight. The “shantytown” was razed beginning in 1941. With the creation of Capitol Lake, the health of the former estuary plummeted, with toxic algae blooms, invasive species and impeded salmon runs. In the 20th century, the dam became a flashpoint in the “fish wars” for tribal treaty rights.

Several years ago, a public campaign was mounted to remove the dam and restore the estuary. The campaign is led by restoration groups and the Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes, and is described at Capitol Lake – Deschutes Estuary Long-Term Management Project.

The 2022 walking tours are being used by Evergreen classes, a Squaxin youth group and others. The Evergreen program “Taking Back Empire” is currently developing additional tours focused on water resources and the history of the Port of Olympia, to be published in 2023.

Access Olympia’s Hidden Histories Walking Tours online

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