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History at Main & Second, Olympia, WA


Budd Inlet is the traditional territory of the Steh-chass. The Steh-chass village was located on the Olympia peninsula on the eastern shore of Budd Inlet, on land now occupied by downtown Olympia. Steh-chass remained on the Olympia peninsula as the American settlement developed here in the 1850s. Lurana Percival reported that canoes and huts lined the shoreline in 1853. “Chinook street,” the location of a longhouse near Columbia and Fourth Streets, was frequented by American settlers for trading. The Olympia peninsula was also called TuxustcE’txûd “frequented by black bears,” which was pronounced Chit-hoot in Chinook Jargon.

During the Puget Sound Indian War (1855–1856), when Steh-chass were confined on Squaxin Island, Olympia’s settlers constructed a 20-foot tall wooden plank palisade along Fourth Street across the width of the peninsula, in order to barricade the settlement from “hostile Indians” landing on the peninsula. A log and timber bastille with a mounted cannon was built at Fourth and Main Streets in early November 1855. Soon after the war, some Steh-chass returned to Olympia and resumed business with settlers.

Levi Smith and Edmund Sylvester

The first American settlement at Tumwater Falls in 1845 attracted newcomers Edmund Sylvester and Levi Lathrop Smith to the area in 1846. Although Steh-chass occupied the Olympia peninsula, Smith claimed the land that would become downtown Olympia, establishing a cabin near Main and Third Streets in 1846. Upon Smith’s death in 1848, Sylvester inherited the claim of his business partner. In January 1850, a meeting of American settlers resolved to establish a town site at Olympia. Sylvester offered free town lots for development, and Olympia was soon a hotspot for American settlement.

From 1879 E.S. Glover Bird’s Eye View of Olympia

Construction in the Territorial Capital City

American settlers in the region began organizing for self-governance in 1851, resulting in the establishment of Washington Territory in early 1853. Olympia was declared the territorial capital. Olympia lagged behind other local metropolises, but the city worked to retain its status as the capitol when Washington achieved statehood in 1889 through development and civil works projects.

Many of Olympia’s earliest buildings were constructed on pilings along the waterfront. In 1860 a street grade base monument was established west of Main and Fourth Streets. Beginning in 1882 any person who violated town ordinance and did not pay their fines could be ordered to labor on Olympia streets at the rate of one dollar a day, under ball and chain if necessary. Prior to an 1884 exclusion ordinance, land grading work was completed by Chinese contractors who were responsible for numerous early civil works projects in Olympia. Roads were unpaved prior to automobile use, and wooden pedestrian walkways lined blocks.

1902 Asahel Curtis photograph of the Main (Capitol) and Second (Olympia) Street intersection, looking south.

German Jewish American Settlers

Olympia’s first German Jewish settlers, brothers Louis, Mose, and Sig Bettman arrived in 1853 from Bavaria, and established a mercantile on the northeast corner of Main and Second Streets. The single-story wood frame building that housed this business is visible in a 1902 photograph of this location (above). Olympia’s early businesses bartered their goods as currency was scarce, but the Bettman business and family flourished by the 1900s. Louis Bettman was esteemed by the community for his business integrity, personal honor, and wealth.

Circa 1885 photograph of Jack Gimblet’s Saloon, located near southwest corner of Main and First Streets.

Red-Light District

As Olympia’s waterfront properties began deteriorating in the 1870s, new buildings were constructed around the southern margins of the original downtown core. Older buildings were vacated, and a red-light district formed along Main Street between Third Street and the waterfront. Jack Gimblet’s Saloon (photographed in 1885 at right) had been established by the 1860s at the southwest corner of Main and First Streets, where it was easily accessible to waterfront workers. The district must have been well-established by the 1870s, because in 1880, Olympia passed an ordinance creating a “dead zone” north of Third Street where enforcement of gambling, drinking, drug use, and prostitution would lax. Maps from the 1880s–1890s record a concentration of saloons, billiard halls, “female boarding houses,” and ruined structures in this district. Near the intersection of Main and Second Streets, many brothels were in operation between 1880 and 1910. The east side of Main Street, between First and Second Streets, was lined with “female boarding houses.” As the demand for real estate increased, red-light district activities were finally banned in 1910.

Automobile District & the Port of Olympia

Dredging of the Olympia harbor and filling along the waterfront promoted the development of an industrial district, and the Port of Olympia was established in 1922. Industry at the Port of Olympia helped sustain the city through the Great Depression when Olympia suffered a 23% unemployment rate.

Several automobile businesses, including auto painting, auto sales, and auto storage shops had developed near Capitol Way and Olympia Ave (formerly Main and Second Streets) by the 1920s. The first automobile, a Woods Electric, arrived in Washington in 1900, and by the 1920s autos were popular amongst the middle class. Zeigler’s Welding and Hitch Shop was established at Capitol Way and Thurston Ave in 1927. The Bettman building, which had been used as a carpentry shop in the 1900s and may have been about 70 years old in the 1920s, was still in use in 1924 as a used auto parts store. The buildings on the northeast corner of Capitol and Olympia had been demolished sometime between the 1920s and 1940s, but nearby auto businesses proliferated through the 1940s. A machine shop was constructed at 106 NE Olympia Ave in 1947 (now Pete Lea’s). The northeast corner of Capitol and Olympia was paved for use as a parking lot in 1962. A 1968 map of the property indicates the lot was used for used auto sales.

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City of Olympia Heritage Commission

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Squaxin Island Tribe

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