The west coast of North America between the Alaskan panhandle and the state of Washington is lined with fjords and inlets that enable ships to avoid the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. The southernmost of these waterways is Puget Sound, and at its southern tip is Olympia, capital city of Washington state. Two streams, Deschutes River, and Moxlie Creek flow into the southern reach of Puget Sound. The latter flows partially beneath the city’s streets.
The city has a visible environmental movement whose goals include the restoration of Moxlie Creek to the surface, but with so much development atop its buried course it’s not an easy proposition. One hint of the creek’s presence is at its outfall into the East Bay of Budd Inlet, where it is seen flowing during low tide.
Where it Flows
The headwaters of Moxlie Creek are inside the 153-acre Watershed Park, a dense temperate rainforest where the sources collect into a ravine. On the map above from the 2010 report titled Landscape Conditions in the Moxlie Creek Subwatershed, we see the dense green of Watershed Park contrasting with the red of the urbanized area where Moxlie and its tributary Indian Creek flows beneath the streets.
The park is comprised of land set aside in the 19th century as the designated watershed for Olympia’s water supply. After the decommissioning of the pumping station the city intended to sell off the land to loggers. A public movement saved this property from destruction. The creation of a park on land previously used for collecting drinking water has many examples in New York city, such as Ridgewood Reservoir, Williamsbridge Oval, Baisley Pond Park, Brookville Park, Silver Lake, and many others.
A detailed historical sign in the park tells the story of Olympia Water Works. The pumping station dates to the 1880s and was acquired by the city in 1917. It was decommissioned in 1955 and subsequently designated as a park. The park’s namesake is R. W. Moxlie, an early settler who briefly served as the city’s sheriff in 1869. I could not find any images, birthdate, or details on this man. Nor was I able to find the creek’s indigenous name, which clearly demonstrates how much it is hidden, not only from public view, but also its conscience.
The creek leaves Watershed Park and goes underground beneath Interstate 5, Henderson Boulevard and Plum Street. On this stretch of the creek, there is green space along these roads that would allow for daylighting. On the map above the underground sections of Moxlie Creek appear as gray lines. To its east is Indian Creek, a tributary that originates at Bigelow Lake and follows the highway towards Moxlie Creek. It is also paralleled by Woodland Trail, a former railroad line transformed into a rail-trail.
Under the Surface
North of Union Avenue, the creek flows for 3200 feet through a pipe that empties into Budd Inlet. This pipe runs beneath the parking lots of the Washington State Department of Commerce and Washington Traffic Safety Commission, which are based in large office buildings ringed by an enormous parking lot. Certainly there’s room here to daylight the creek by eliminating parking spots or replacing them with a garage.
On this campus for public workers is a statue of Mark Twain, one of two in the city that commemorates his 1895 visit to Olympia. The one here has a frog in his jacket pocket, a reference to his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Now wouldn’t it be great to see actual frogs here in a daylighted Moxlie Creek?
Looking downstream on Chestnut Street, there is little traffic on this road and not too many storefronts or driveways. One can easily imagine this street with a channel running down its middle and footpaths on its banks. Prior to urbanization, salmon swam upstream here to spawn in Watershed Park. Imagine the public standing here and watching fish swimming against the flow in a restored waterway.
Proposals for daylighting the creek write about the improved water and air quality that would result from it, improved wildlife habitat, tourism, and educational opportunities. One can imagine a revitalized neighborhood along the restored stream reminiscent of Yonkers and Saw Mill River.
At low tide the outfall at Olympia Avenue reveals the unceremonious mouth of Moxlie Creek from where the water widens into Puget Sound. The inlet used to reach further inland.
On the Map
The 1891 map of Olympia shows the city resting on a neck of land between the mouths of Moxlie Creek and Deschutes River. Budd Inlet here is shallow and a couple of hundred miles from the ocean, resulting in a massive amount of land exposed during low tide.
One can see how easy and tempting it is here to fill in this empty space with landfill to expand the city. In the 20th century, Moxlie Creek was filled while the wider space of the Deschutes estuary was dammed to form the freshwater Capitol Lake. The knob of land on the bottom center of this map is Capitol Hill, named after the one in Washington DC, which was in turn named for the one in Rome.
Instead of being filled, the Deschutes Estuary was subjected to redesign proposals that would refashion it as a reflecting pool facing the Capitol, akin to Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, and Paranoá Lake in Brasilia. On the above 1937 USGS map we see the city center sandwiched between the estuary and Moxlie Creek. The estuary dam would be completed in 1951.
A truly strange vision for Olympia appears on the 1962 Metsker atlas which resembles its contemporary Hagstrom in New York with its grid of unbuilt streets and anticipated highways. On this map, Capitol Lake is eliminated in favor of more streets and the are no hints of Indian Creek and Moxlie Creek except for the large rectangle on the bottom that is Watershed Park. The population of Olympia did not grow to the numbers that would justify such an unchecked overdevelopment of the watershed. The 1973 map of Olympia by the same publisher has Capitol Lake to show that it would not be taken away by planners.
Hidden Waters of Olympia
This city of 50,000 is relatively small compared to the capitals of other states and most of its streams can be seen on the surface. Schneider Creek and Mission Creek deserve honorable mentions. The former is partially covered and the latter has a nature park.
If I had to relocate to the West Coast, this city has plenty of natural sights and potential for parks projects that I could do, plus a college renowned for environmental activism where I could push my book and deliver lectures. This blog post is my first West Coast out of town example and I know that nearby Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland have more hidden urban waterways to explore and document.
In the News:
Untapped Cities has its 2019 holiday gift guide with other books on New York’s history and architecture.
City & State asks if it is safe to swim in the East River.
Fast Company reports on a new park slated for Brooklyn that will include a beach on the East River.