Olympia, Washington
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History of Olympia, Washington

The site of Olympia was home to Lushootseed-speaking peoples for thousands of years. The abundant shellfish in the tideflats and the many salmon-spawning streams entering Puget Sound at this point made it a productive food-gathering area. Many tribes shared access to these resources, including Squaxin, Nisqually, Puyallup, Chehalis, Suquamish, and Duwamish.

In the 1830s the Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post at nearby Sequalitchew Creek (now Dupont) In the 1840s Catholic missionaries established a mission and school at Priest Point near the future townsite for the conversion of natives to Catholicism.

American settlers came to the area in the 1840s, drawn by the water-power potential of Tumwater Falls and established nearby "New Market," now known as Tumwater, the first American settlement north of the Columbia River.

Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith jointly claimed the land that now comprises downtown Olympia. Smith's untimely death in 1848 left Sylvester the sole owner of the land on which he platted the future townsite. In a time when water travel was the easist form of transportation, Olympia's location on the main north-south route through the region made it a crossroads for regional trade. The site was the northern end of the "Cowlitz Portage," the overland trail between the Cowlitz River and Puget Sound.

A campaign by settlers to create a separate territory from Oregon resulted in Congress creating Washington Territory. Isaac I. Stevens served as its first governor. Upon his arrival in Olympia in 1853 Stevens declared it capital of the territory.

In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed Olympia, choosing Tacoma as its west coast terminus. Shaken by the slight, Olympia residents set to work building their own spur connector to the main line at Tenino. It was completed in 1878 and served as Olympia's only rail connection until 1891.

After Washington achieved statehood in 1889, Olympia continued to serve as the state's capital city. Construction of the current Washington State Capitol began in 1912, with the prominent Legislative Building completed in 1928.

Aside from its role as the seat of state government, Olympia was a fairly typical Pacific Northwest town. Early on, extraction industries such as logging and oystering were the basis of much of the economy. By the twentieth century, sawmilling, fruit canning, and other industrial concerns comprised its economic base. Olympia also served as a shipping center for materials produced from the surrounding countryside, including sandstone, coal, and agricultural products.

Scandinavian immigrants founded two cooperative plywood mills after WWI. During WWI and WWII there were also increased influxes of labor attracted by wartime industry including shipbuilding.

A significant earthquake in 1949 damaged many historic buildings beyond repair, and they were demolished. Others were retrofit with new facades to replace the damaged Nineteenth Century wood and glass storefronts. Subsequently, much of Olympia's downtown reflects mid-twentieth century architectural trends. Olympia was the closest major city to the epicenter of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, M6.8, centered approximately 15 miles northeast of the city. Damage in that quake was focused in older buildings and some roadways.

By the 1970s the local industrial concerns that supported working class families were on the decline. Downtown businesses struggled to compete with newly constructed shopping centers when former downtown "anchor" businesses relocated to the outskirts of the city.

In 1967, the state legislature approved the creation of The Evergreen State College near Olympia, mostly due to the efforts of progressive Republican Governor Daniel J. Evans. Evans later served as president of the college, leaving Evergreen in 1983 when he was appointed to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson's death.

Because of the college's presence, Olympia has become a hub for artists and musicians (many of whom have been influential in punk, post-punk, anti-folk, lo-fi and other music trends (see Olympia music scene)). Olympia was recently named one of the best college towns in the nation.Outside Magazine, September 2003

Olympia hosts the state's largest annual Earth Day celebration, Procession of the Species, a community arts-based festival and parade. Olympia is also known for its farmer's market, the second largest in Washington as well as the Washington Center for the Performing Arts.

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