Musings of An Olympian
(Published in “Olympia Power & Light” January 2016)
Before my family moved to Olympia we lived in Bremerton and would often rendezvous with our Salem relatives half way at the Tumwater Falls Park. This being the ‘60s you could come in to Olympia from the old highway and stop at a Kentucky Fried Chicken which at the time was still a roadside diner long before The Colonel made his regrettable decision to sell out to PepsiCo. We’d buy a bucket of chicken without needing to request “original” style as it was the only style available. I’d hug the bucket’s greasy warmth in the back seat of our custom gold Pontiac Ventura as we headed to The Falls for what was sure to be a good time with our cousins.
The Deschutes River flows fifty miles from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest before it reaches Tumwater. Fur trappers named her after the French word for “river of the falls”. It was the last few of these falls that caught the eye of settlers arriving at the terminus of the The Oregon Trail, a conveyer belt of sorts dumping pioneers into the Promised Land. That much water pounding over a natural ledge in the river’s bed made a 19th century child of manifest destiny salivate over the easy source of ready energy. They reigned their horses and harnessed the falls to power their mills and factories and the first American settlement of the Puget Sound was born. Ultimately German engineering and a penchant for brewing led the Schmidt clan to build their edifice on the river to address early America’s preference to be drunk most of the time.
By the time my family started picnicking there, the Olympia brewery complimented the bucolic setting where we sat by the river’s bend eating our still warm chicken and playing on the cement ships that stood in a small pond of sand. Looming over us, its familiar whistle and stench of warm hops was a benign combination of industry and community. We would look up from our picnic tables and wonder at the large windows visible from the old highway where the free beer was given away at the end of the public tours. There was a certain mystery and magic to the operation - a beer version of Willy Wonka’s factory. The happy workers with their crisp white uniforms like those of the bygone gas station attendant made the whole operation seem the height of American pride and wholesomeness.
The river that separated us in the park from the brewery held its own mystery and majesty as it cascaded down towards Capital Lake. There the majesty sort of ended. The “Lake” had always been a fraud as bodies of water go. The “reflecting pond” beneath the capitol dome was a concept born long before a dam was finally installed in the early ‘50s. The dam made the reservoir we call a lake and finished off the river’s natural estuary, a meeting place between river and Sound that made old photos of Olympia appear more a matter of inundation than industry. But the conversion was imperfect and low tides continued to reveal the lake’s faux nature, exposing its muddy underbelly in a vaguely depressing way on warm summer days during my youth.
We used to swim with the other kids in town at the old public pool carved out at the east end of the lake near Water Street. But that closed years ago when the lack of natural flow in Capital Lake led the city to shut it down as it had become a sort of unflushed toilet bowl. Now instead when it’s hot, the locals crowd with their children around a nearby squirting fountain: a public art installation never designed to serve as a community pool. It too presents sanitary risks unbeknownst to the kids who frolic amidst the jetting water sculpture.
Adding insult to injury, the dam also serves to stop the river’s sediment deposit that would normally flow into Budd Inlet. This has kept the Yacht Club happy as well as the Port, which continues to cater to large ships that, to this day, carry our raw old growth timber to other lands in unsettling numbers. Not the fault of the Port necessarily, but still.
A dead brewery, a dying “lake”, no safe place to swim, naked logs stacked like bodies on prime land…it’s enough to bring you down. I’m sure the kid sitting in the park by the river with a cold bucket of chicken would have felt that way.