Olympia’s Dead Zone, 1860 to 1910
Although Olympia’s “Dead Zone” was not a feature of national news, the district was a prominent part of Olympia culture from the 1860s to 1910. One of the first businesses in the developing entertainment district, Jack Gimblet’s Saloon had been established near Main and Second Streets by the 1860s. As Olympia developed, new buildings were constructed around the margins of the original downtown core and expanded south. Older buildings in the original core were vacated by established businesses, and an entertainment district formed along Main Street between Third Street and the waterfront.
In the 1860s to early 1870s, many of Olympia’s businesspersons were charged with civil crimes such as gambling, keeping billiard tables, keeping houses of prostitution, fornication, and sale of liquor to minors and Indians. On 17 August 1860, Olympia Ordinance 145 listed the following among nuisances: “houses of ill-fame, kept for the purpose, in which are embraced squaw dance houses or brothels; saloons, rooms, booths, scows, boats or other structures used as places of resort, where women are employed to draw custom or for the purpose of prostitution; all places of resort where gambling is carried on or permitted; all places where drunkenness, opium smoking or breaches of the peace are carried on or permitted.”
In the 1870s Block 12, the site of Edmund Sylvester's Oregon Donation Act claim, on the southeast corner of Main Street and Second Street, was well developed. Few buildings existed north of Second Street along Main Street, probably owing to the difficulty of developing on the Budd Inlet shoreline and intertidal zone.
In 1880, Olympia passed an ordinance creating a “dead zone” where enforcement of gambling, drinking, drug use, and prostitution would lax. The police chief collected monthly fees from Dead Zone residents. Sanborn maps from the 1880s–1890s record a concentration of saloons, billiard halls, “female boarding houses,” and ruined structures in this district.
The density of brothels increases in this area by the 1900s. The apartment at 124 Main Street was noted as a brothel at this time and had expanded with a 1.5 story addition to the north. Another brothel was constructed at 100 Main Street.
Census and directory data indicate the Dead Zone was occupied by a small group of diverse women and men. The 1900 census lists twelve women working as prostitutes at four brothels on Main Street. Two of these brothels were run by Black women, one by Japanese women, and one by white women. Ages at the brothels ranged from 18 to 30, and one six-year-old child lived with his mother at one of the brothels. The brothel residents included one married woman, three widowed women, and one divorced woman. The 1902 Polk Directory lists seven men and women as boarders or residents at brothels on Main Street. These people’s comfort with public advertisement of their name may suggest some local acceptance of Dead Zone lifestyles, but the fact that many other Dead Zone residents were not listed reinforces the clandestine nature of the Tenderloin.
The Dead Zone was quickly vacated in December 1910. The establishment of the Port of Olympia, filling of the waterfront, and the removal of the red-light district is reflected in the removal of all “female boarding houses” from the area by 1924.
Little has been written about Olympia’s Dead Zone, or the men and women who recreated, lived, or did business here. Urban myths of connections between prostituted women and government officials, and the places which may have staged these activities, still feed the imagination of Olympia residents. So far, research has uncovered two connections between the district and local politicians. First, in the early 1890s Juanita Ursula "Gypsy Ashton" Unfug, who was employed in sex work throughout the Northwest, married and murdered Thomas Henderson Boyd. Boyd was owner and editor of The Morning Olympian, active in Republican politics, and a frequent drinker at local saloons. Second, Jesse Truman Trullinger, a lawyer who served as the State Attorney General and was Olympia’s mayor from 1941 to 1946, may have been born in the district and adopted as one of Olympia’s “doorstep babies”. Olympia’s “doorstep baby” phenomenon, which placed illegitimate children with adoptive families between 1899 and 1902, was one of the only local avenues for women to have their children adopted.
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Glover, Eli Sheldon
1879 Bird's eye view of the city of Olympia, East Olympia and Tumwater, Puget Sound, Washington Territory, 1879.
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Olympia Historical Society
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R.L. Polk & Co.
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Sanborn Map Company
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United States Federal Census
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Washington State Archives
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Washington State Historical Society
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