Sunday, July 11, 2021

Interstate 5 did not destroy Tumwater's downtown. It was already dead. Killed by isolation

One of the most persistent Olympia-area history myths is that Interstate 5 destroyed Tumwater's downtown. I've written about this before, so what follows you can find in different forms in other places, but I tidied it up for this post.

Daisy Ackley in her “Wagon Wheel’s A’Rolling” history tells what has become common knowledge in our area, the interstate came careening through town and destroyed what was Tumwater.

Poor old Tumwater. There is nothing left of the original town, save the name. It has been drawn and quartered (as it were), but the "Freeway" running through it from "stem to gudgeon." None of the old landmarks on Main Street (now Deschutes Way) are left.


Let’s take a step back and explore Tumwater’s history through its roads. Interstate 5 wasn’t the first road to change the course of Tumwater’s history. It is possible to tell the story of the town through its roads and railroads.

The Olympia Tenino/Port Townsend Southern Railroad (1875) and the Olympia Terminal/Union Pacific (1915) and the transition between the two show how roads changed Tumwater and how they changed the focus of Tumwater.

The Port Townsend line ran through the old river focussed Tumwater, connecting its industries directly along the lower Deschutes estuary to the saltwater on the shores of West Olympia.

The Union Pacific line (while it did connect through a branch down to the old Olympia brewery site then on saltwater) is certainly new Tumwater. And, through ownership changes in the early 1900s, both lines became owned by the same company (Union Pacific) and the latter replaced the former in connecting Tumwater to the Olympia waterfront.

In geography, here's the difference between the two lines. The Port Townsend line ran through the west side of what is now the Tumwater Falls Park. Much of the current trail is actually the old railroad grade. It continued down the west side of the Deschutes River (now Capitol Lake) until reaching saltwater near where Tugboat Annie’s is now.

While the Port Townsend Line sunset in 1916, the Union Pacific (former Olympia Terminal Line) was being completed just a year earlier. This is the current line when you think of the Olympia Brewery. Going down Custer Way, this is the line you cross over. The one obstacle that the road had to face to get from up on the east bluff to downtown Olympia and the waterfront was the bluff itself. The solution was a tunnel under Capitol Boulevard.

What's interesting to me is that while the new railroad, the railroad that started drawing Tumwater up and away from the river, seems so tiny compared to I-5. While tunneling under Capitol Way created a nice shortcut for the railroad, it pales in comparison to the obliteration of the same hillside by I-5 just decades later.

And that move, away from the industry of the river in the early 1900s, was the most vital step. It shows that Tumwater as a community was already moving away from what people claim as the city’s “downtown” well before the interstate.

This is "downtown Tumwater" as it existed in 1946 (detail from this photo at the Washington State Archives):



While I-5 may have come along later to bury Tumwater's historic downtown, by the time it got there, Capitol Way had already stuck the knife in.

The best history of this, actually what got me started on this entire line of thinking, is Shanna Stevenson's chapter "A Freeway Runs Through It" in "The River Remembers." She points out that before 1936 the main drag through Tumwater dog-legged through the old downtown Tumwater.

After the current Capitol Way was finished in 1938, it totally bypassed the old downtown. This bypass led to the creation of the commercial area down at Capitol Way and Trosper Road.

Going from crossing the Deschutes on a low bridge over waterfalls, the main road through Tumwater now crossed the Deschutes at a much wider point (a more than 1,000 foot span) over what is now the old (but then new) Tumwater brewery.

For over a decade before Interstate 5 uprooted the blocks old downtown Tumwater, the city was already abandoning its water-falls based history and moving east and south.

Even compared to the current downtown Olympia, “downtown” (and that is a real stretch to call it that) Tumwater in the early 1950s was isolated and not a thriving business district.

And the kicker is that the Tumwater City council signed onto the plan:


By 1951 a route for the future I-5 was selected which would have separated the state Capitol from downtown Olympia via an underground viaduct along Tenth Avenue. It would have crossed Capitol Lake near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad trestle and traveled up the Percival Creek canyon into West Olympia. A spur road to the west was to be located near the head of the creek, and would have provided access to Shelton and Aberdeen.

However, in 1954 cost estimates for the Tenth Avenue route caused highway engineers to seek an alternative alignment. The Tumwater Canyon, with its basalt bedrock, was proposed as an alternative. The Tumwater Canyon alternative would virtually wipe out the original central business district of Tumwater, cross Capitol Lake in a wide curve, and cut under Capitol Way at 27th Avenue.

Another alternative route, called the Dunham bypass, would have by-passed both downtown Olympia and Tumwater to cross near Ward Lake. ...In April 1954, after much discussion, both the Olympia and Tumwater city councils signed onto the Tumwater Canyon alternative.


If I-5 did kill any part of Tumwater, Tumwater let it happen. And at any rate, Tumwater's actual commercial districts had already moved on.

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