Sometimes it takes you a real long time to explore things straight in your backyard. This happens to have been the case with a pretty park none too far from our Lakewood home – the other day, after having lived in the Pacific Northwest almost ten years, we decided to explore Tumwater Falls, close to Olympia, WA.
We chose scenic back-roads to get to Tumwater and then almost missed E Street, the access to the parking lot, as there are no signs to the riverside at all. To be sure, I didn’t have much of any expectation, as the entrance to the park on the Deschutes River was one huge construction site which apparently includes the hatchery situated there. A huge old industrial building, windows partly burst, sits on the bank opposite a viewing terrace. Not really enticing at first sight, to be truthful, and the uppermost falls are definitely those of a weir, not anything natural.
But looking down the river, a totally different impression offers itself to the eye. Several bridges span the Deschutes River, which fills the air with its joyful murmuring below the metal walk on top of the hill and wild bubbling further down. Of course, we were drawn by the shadowy walk by the river, a slow and convenient descent along the boiling waters. All along the way you find witnesses to former industrial use. And indeed, if you take your time and read the explanatory signs all the way to the last dramatic fall that empties into a quiet large basin, you discover a most intriguing piece of history.
For what is now Tumwater Falls used to be the site of the first “European American” settlement in Western Washington, a busy small-town called New Market. Tumwater, I learned, is Chinook for “waterfalls” which actually turns the name Tumwater Falls into a tautology. Tumwater, by the way, was incorporated only in 1875, leaving the title of first town in Washington to Steilacoom, incorporated in 1854.
Anybody rooted here is probably familiar with the Olympia Brewing Company founded in Tumwater in 1896 – by German Leopold Friederich Schmidt. After a colorful history of sales, close-down during Prohibition, reopening, relocation, further sales, and final close-down in 2002, today the brewery machinery helps produce ethanol for motor fuel in Illinois. Only last year, the brewery building fell victim to a horrendous fire and partly collapsed. Which, after such knowledge, made me look at the entire area with new eyes.
Another huge structure was a hydroelectric plant on the river. Olympia Light and Power Company built a dam and provided electricity, among others, to the Olympia-Tumwater tram as of 1890 – earlier than the plant on Snoqualmie Falls was built. It must have been a pretty bustling and modern town back then where today there are just some remnants of the industrial foundations. These structures together with the fish ladders and the phantasmagorical volcanic rock formations washed out by the river create some intriguing vistas. Add the cascades in half-tamed Nature, and you realize that you have just found a pretty jewel in an unexpected place.
We didn’t test the restaurant that is overlooking the Deschutes River’s uppermost fall. We saw a beautifully arranged area of traditionally Salish plants in a garden area right below it. And we certainly are viewing this site with knew appreciation as we drive by whenever we go south on I-5 past Olympia. A place of leisure and contemplation after what must have been a truly industrious spot in times long past.