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State capital and seat of Thurston County, Olympia spreads, fan-like, from its harbor on Puget Sound over gently sloping hills, with Mount Rainier on the east and the more distant Olympics visible to the north. Here, near the place where the Nisqually once met in solemn council to devise means of protection against the soleeks itsweet (angry brown bear), today legislators convene to represent the citizens of Washington State.

From a broad knoll near the center of the town rise the massive sandstone buildings of the Capitol Group, with the tall dome of the Legislative Building conspicuous for miles around. In general Olympia has an atmosphere of conservatism and moderate prosperity. Modern buildings predominate in the small compact business district, while residential areas represent an older architectural mode, quiet and attractive, with substantial homes, smooth lawns, and long colonnades of shade trees.

Southernmost port on Puget Sound, Olympia is the center of an industrial area concentrated along the waterfront, where the Deschutes River flows into Budd Inlet. Adjacent to the mitten-shaped tideflat is anchorage deep enough for ocean-going freighters; and in the shallow waters nearby (in fewer numbers today than previously) are the beds of the delicious Olympia oyster—a bivalve so small that 1,600 to the gallon makes an average pack.

But, being a capital city, Olympia is greatly influenced by shifting political winds and registers recurrent changes in tempo in the life of its population, as the legislature convenes or disperses or State administrations change. With the convening of the legislature, an air of hurry and bustle pervades the city. Legislators, their families, friends, and attendant lobbyists come and go; the hotels fill, and restaurants and shops do a thriving business; groups of people, generally engaged in political discussion, gather in lobbies, in capitol corridors, on the street; visitors throng the galleries as lawmakers deliberate; traffic is thick on Capitol Way.

When Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith took 320-acre land claims, they combined parts of their names to create the name of Smither. The name was later altered to Smithfield. When several adjoining settlements combined, the name Marshville was chosen and used for a short time. In 1851, Col. Isaac N. Ebey persuaded the inhabitants to adopt the present name, which he took from a book named Life of Olympia. A post office was established as Nesqually by Michael T. Simmons on January 8, 1850, and became Olympia on August 28, 1850.


Ca. 1946 aerial view of downtown Olympia and South Capitol area, looking west.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Historic view of a boy and his bicycle on the Capitol Campus, Olympia.

Source: Washington State Archives