Thurston County

Thurston County

As more settlers moved north of the Columbia, the Oregon Territorial Legislature felt the need to provide increased governmental services, especially around the Puget Sound area. On January 12th, 1852, the Legislature created Thurston County with land taken mostly from Lewis County. By the end of that same year, Thurston County would lose most of its size as the Legislature would create four more counties around the Sound.

Historically, the area now known as Thurston County was the home of the Nisqually and the Squaxon tribes. Both tribes had a settlement at the falls on the Deschutes River, just upstream from where the river enters Puget Sound. The Nisqually called the area Tum-wa-ta, or Strong Water. It was a good location for a people who ate the produce of the river–primarily salmon. The first documented exploration by European visitors was in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound. In late May, two of his officers, Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey did an extensive exploration of the southern end of the water that now carries Puget’s name. (Not to be ignored, Whidbey also left his name on the large island in the center of Puget Sound, Whidbey Island, one of the nine islands that make up Island County.) The Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort on the east side of the Nisqually River, Fort Nisqually, in what is now Pierce County.

In October 1845, Michael Simmons arrived to settle near Tumwater Falls (as he understood the Nisqually name). As he was one of the first settlers in the area, when the new county was considered, there were those who wanted to name it Simmons County. On a side note, while it was Hudson’s Bay Company policy to discourage American settlement in their part of British North America, the people at Fort Nisqually helped Simmons and his neighbors survive their first winter in the area. Rather than name the new County for Simmons however, the Legislature chose to honor the first man to be sent as a delegate to Congress from Oregon Territory, Samuel R. Thurston. Thurston had made a name for himself by defending the rights of American settlers in a region still largely thought of as British, or at least in the pocket of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Thurston went to Congress in 1849 and died in 1851, so his memory was still strong when the new County was organized.

A new county requires a County Seat, and from the beginning there was no doubt that the honor should go to Olympia. The fathers of Olympia are generally seen to be Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith who claimed what is now downtown Olympia in 1846. In 1850, Colonel Isaac N. Ebey, a local resident, suggested the town be named Olympia as he viewed the Olympic Mountains to the northwest. In 1851, the U.S. Congress established the Customs District for Puget Sound and placed the customs house in Olympia. When Isaac Ingalls Stevens arrived as first Territorial Governor in 1853, he consulted with locals concerning the best place for a territorial capital, Olympia or Seattle, and was counseled to choose the former. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, the Capital has remained in the city at the southern end of Puget Sound ever since. Incorporation as a town came on January 26th, 1859, and as a city in 1882. 

The Washington State Capitol Dome

Over the years, Thurston County has had various County Courthouses, one of which even served as state capitol for a while. The current courthouse is a complex of suburban looking buildings in a tree-covered park with atrocious parking. I have pictures I took of the complex, but I don’t consider them worth sharing. Even the powers-that-be agree that the County has outgrown its government housing, and as of January 22nd, 2019, the County Commissioners voted to build a new Courthouse in downtown Olympia. With state government also centered in Olympia, it should not be surprising that the main source of employment in Thurston County is government. The five largest employers in the County are the State of Washington, Local Government (the County and the various cities in the County), Providence St. Peter Hospital, Tribal Government and Federal Government. Walmart, the largest retail employer, is in seventh place. For those interested in historic tidbits, the dome of the State Capitol is the largest free-standing masonry dome in the United States, and the fifth largest in the world.

The three largest cities in Thurston County are Olympia (2010 population 46,470), with Lacey (42,393) on the east side of the capital city, and Tumwater (17,371) on the south. Other cities include Rainier, Tenino and Yelm, and there is one incorporated town, Bucoda. Numerous “Census Designated Places” and unincorporated communities make up the rest of urban Thurston County. All told, according to the 2010 Census, 252.264 people call Thurston County home, and the 2017 estimate showed a growth rate of 11%.

Littlerock United Methodist Church

The Littlerock United Methodist Church sits alongside a country road in southwestern Thurston County, not far from the Black River. The community is an “Unincorporated Community” but there are no Census records to show the number of people living here. The community was named, not surprisingly, for a small rock that someone found, and not for the larger city in Arkansas. The church’s website tells you that parking is limited, but if you visit the 30 member congregation for Sunday services, someone at the front door will tell you where to park. The church’s current pastor, Laurie Sardinia, told me that the building dates from 1885 when it was built on the site of a Methodist camp meeting across Beaver Creek from its current location. In 1905, the congregation decided that it would be better to have the church closer to a populated center, so the church was dismantled piece by piece, carried across Beaver Creek and rebuilt in its present location using all the original lumber. Only the roof is new. The bell tower was added more recently (1911?) along with an annex. The church historian wanted me to know that back in the day, Littlerock was a “hotbed for suffragette activity. ” I know that should I ever be back in the region on a Sunday, this Methodist PK will be dropping by to join in the hymn singing.

Black Lake

Wikipedia informs us that 52 square miles of Thurston County is water. There are numerous lakes throughout the county, and, of course, the county sits at the southern end of Puget Sound. Looking at maps, it would appear that the County is sticking four fingers up into Puget Sound, creating Totter Inlet, Eld Inlet, Budd Inlet, Henderson Inlet and the Nisqually Reach. Of the numerous lakes, Black Lake, southwest of Olympia, is the largest natural lake in the County, covering over 576 acres with a maximum depth of 40 feet. Many early reports name the lake some variant of Satchall, the name Governor Isaac Stevens used. The lake is the principal source of the Black River which flows in a southwesterly direction to its confluence with the Chehalis River in neighboring Grays Harbor County.

Delphi School (1910)

The Delphi Road runs north to south across the western extent of Thurston County, passing through a place that shows on the map as Delphi, but that name doesn’t even make the list of the County’s unincorporated communities. None-the-less, from 1910 to 1942 students attended class in the one-room schoolhouse known as the Delphi School. With the students gone, the building fell into disrepair, but was saved as a community center for the people of Delphi. You can rent the building for your gathering, but be forewarned, the building still has its original slate blackboards and is heated, apparently very well, by a single wood-burning stove.

A Southern Thurston County Barn

Thurston County is the eighth most populous county in Washington State, and is eighth smallest in size. says that in 2016, the County was 79% urban and only 21% rural. It goes further to state that the average size of a farm in Thurston County is only 64 acres, or 1/10th of a square mile. Washington State University notes that in the five years of 2002-2007, farmland in the County decreased by half, and since the 1950s, the County has lost 75% of its agricultural land. The WSU report counted 1,288 farms, with 42% growing crops and 58% involved in livestock and poultry. That said, as I drove around the County, first entering it on U.S. Highway 101 from neighboring Mason County, then just taking drives around the area, I spent more time in the country than in the city, or so it seemed. The two lane roads I drove passed through dense timber and every so often, I would see a barn such as the one shown above which I found in the southern part of the County, someplace between Littlerock and Tenino.

The Crosby House, Tumwater, Washington

Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr. never lived in this house. It was built for his grandparents, Nathaniel Crosby III and Cordelia Jane Smith Crosby, and they raised their children here, including Harry Lillis Crosby, Sr. The house was built around 1860 and the Crosby family lived in it until 1872. In time, Olympia Chapter 4 of the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington acquired the home, refurbished it, and furnished it with period correct furniture and fixtures. The house is now a museum owned by the City of Tumwater and operated by Olympia Chapter 4. It is open from April through October, and has costumed re-enactors who help to tell the story of the house. As for Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr.? You probably know him better as Bing.

6 Comments on “Thurston County

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