The Garry Oak Tree Landmark and Old Hwy 99


Could Old Highway 99 someday be as famous as Route 66? Will songs be written and tourists drawn to visit it? To some people that seems unlikely, but I suggest that it is worth considering. There is a sense of romance to this historic transportation route, arguably one of the oldest overland roads in Western Washington. Known in the past as the Cowlitz Trail, it could be said that it was a northern extension of the Oregon Trail, ending in Tumwater.

One aspect of its heritage has received a lot of attention recently with the discussions surrounding one of the south Tumwater landmarks, the Davis/Meeker Garry Oak Tree next to the old Olympia Regional Airport hangar. Without discussing the controversy regarding the saving or removal of that 400+ year old tree, I thought it might be helpful to provide a little historical background to this landmark.

It does my historic heart good to see the passion for Tumwater’s heritage expressed by members of the public. Keeping in mind that all trees will eventually fail and fall, it certainly represents a unique part of the culture of our historic community. Not everybody knows it is far older than the famous Bush Butternut tree that fell in recent years. My humorous nature leads me to call it the Tumwater Family Tree. It honors our roots and tempts me to go out on a limb to suggest developing a branch office to preserve it as long as possible.

It doesn’t take too much to imagine just how many people through the generations have traveled by that living landmark. The tree reaches back to native American tribal roots. The foot trail was a part of their trading routes for a multitude of generations. It was important to them also for the nearby prairie land which provided an important seasonal food source for Camas Root bulbs. Later the British of the Hudson’s Bay Company utilized and improved upon the trading routes serving their farms and other operations in the northern part of the Oregon Territory. Tumwater’s founders, the Simmons/Bush party were the first Americans to expand upon the trail by cutting a rough wagon road in 1845 from Cowlitz Landing (near Toledo in Lewis County) to New Market, the first permanent American community north of the Columbia. The town is known today as Tumwater and is an end of the northern extension of the Oregon Trail.

That special oak tree was a landmark for everyone who came through the area. One memory was shared by a descendant of the Rev. Thomas Harper family as they arrived at Bush Prairie in 1853. Elmira Harper wrote in a family memoir, “Their first camp on Puget Sound was real close to the big oak trees that are seen at the Olympia airport. The family stayed there for some time while Rev. Harper looked around.”

The narrow gauge Olympia Tenino Railroad roughly followed the Cowlitz Trail route starting in the mid 1870’s. Train passengers would have seen the big oak trees as they traveled between Olympia and Tenino, paying a dollar per ticket to connect with the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The age of the automobile era brought about many paved roadways. The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1 and Highway 99) was part of the main route between Portland and Seattle. A huge number of cars, trucks and buses would have passed under the limbs of the big oak trees on Bush Prairie. In fact, as the highway was improved in later years, Old Highway 99 was diverted around the Garry Oak landmark, recognizing its historic value. The Olympia Regional Airport also developed about the time of the highway. It expanded during the World War II years of the 1940s and later gave the State Capitol access to regional air travel.

Interstate 5 came through Tumwater in the late 1950s, paralleling Old Hwy. 99 to the west, reducing the traffic load on the old highway. The old highway and Capitol Boulevard remain a main thoroughfare south from Tumwater. It is expected to see more growth since south is the future direction of Tumwater’s expansion.

There are few remaining landmarks in the Tumwater area. It is a community with a bright future for cultural tourism. It is important as we grow to preserve landmarks along this historic route that traverses the pioneer farms of the Bush family, the Gabriel Jones farm, the Kindred farm, and through the important landmark that made Tumwater famous, the former site of the Olympia Brewing Company.


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  • Treehugger1

    A trip down memory lane... the Cowlitz Trail I should say, is surely an appropriate journey to take right now. We must conserve our history, whether it is remembering the many Native Americans who walked under the Garry oaks and on the prairies those oaks nurtured, or even today the many of us who drive by the grand Garry oaks and thank the lord for the wonder of such glorious trees in our midst. This tree we are trying to preserve is a reflection of our own growth and our

    understanding of how the world depends on us. We have the power to help each living thing, be it a person or a tree.

    Please Tumwater, save our Davis/Meeker Garry Oak Tree.

    Thursday, May 30 Report this

  • Karinamurphy1

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I along with several Tumwater residents feel very strongly this tree should be perserved for history's sake and the habitat it provides.

    Thursday, May 30 Report this

  • PamelaJHanson

    Don Trosper,

    Your words and knowledge echoed in my ears while I read because you have a very memorable and very recognizable cadenced voice. Most who don't know you or about your efforts should be in awe. Everyone should search and find your videos and articles that you placed so much time and effort into for our benefit and as a foundation for worthwhile preservation efforts. You are a treasure that calms people with writings and presentations regarding history and you very effectively remind us that we are participating in making history. I hope my humble writing, that probably pales in comparison to past compliments you have recieved, makes this compliment one to add to your many other compliments - past, present and future. You are the greatest.

    Thursday, May 30 Report this

  • JJmama

    Thank you for the perspective and for this important wandering through our history.

    It is a tragic misfortune that your authority was torpedoed in the matter involving this beloved and QUITE HEALTHY 400 year old antiquity. (The city's own contracted Level 3 expert evaluation of the tree by Tree Solutions found the tree to be healthy, vigorous, full-canopied and able to carry its own weight, recommending some mitigatory measures such as pruning and retrenchment--but DID NOT recommend removal)

    The process to determine the fate of this venerable Garry Oak clearly stated a necessary de-listing under Historic Preservation rules BEFORE moving forward to a final conclusion by the City Council. Neither of these steps were carried through by the rogue behavior of Mayor Debbie Sullivan and her City Manager Lisa Parks (who came from the Port of Olympia--a body which has long expressed their desire to have this tree removed from this location).

    A member of the Historic Preservation Commission as you are, we are very sorry to see that authority usurped and the Mayor unchallenged, by both the Commission and by the City Council.

    You have all been duped. The City Council clearly held the legislative authority to make final decision, yet the Mayor decided to use an as yet unnamed specific city code, rule or interpretation of law--to corrupt the process.

    She thinks using the argument of 'safety to the pubic' was all she needed to cite, yet gave no credible reply as to why THIS tree poses any more risk than ANY OTHER TREE IN THE CITY OF TUMWATER WHICH HAS LOST A BRANCH. The city has recently mischaracterized the fallen branch in June of 2023 (which I'd still like to see proof of, in fact), since the controversy has having fallen in the road, when it was clearly stated in all previous documentation that the limb fell in the parking lot. The Mayor resorted to creating a sense of danger and emergency to embolden her power grab.

    We will watch the tree hacked to the ground.

    We will watch the community MOURN the unnecessary and corrupt early loss of this beloved tree's life, as though it had no right of its own to live its full and healthy life to its natural conclusion.

    We will watch as the city widens the road to make way for some new housing development which will violate the urban growth boundary and gobble up rural lands.... and/or watch the airport traffic routes change to accommodate more noisy polluting air traffic overhead.

    There's a reason the Mayor and her hatchet Manager want the tree down....and it's NOT public safety.

    They have violated the public trust.

    Friday, May 31 Report this