Exploring Olympic’s History

You are driving a piece of the past, so why not connect with the history of the Olympics? With your van serving as a time machine, Peace Vans can help make your trip a journey into the past, celebrating thousands of years of stories and culture. From Presidents taking road trips and a strong logging history, to exploring old forts from the late 1800s, discovering legendary murderers and gazing at geological wonders, the Olympics have interesting stories around every bend in the road. Spread around the region, the tales are sure to entice you to dig a little deeper when exploring the area, discovering unique and fun facts along the way. While there are dozens of fascinating historical gems all around the peninsula, we have shared six of our favorites.

Legends of Lake Crescent

Just west of Port Angeles, where the rains fall heavier and the forests are greener, Lake Crescent shimmers under the mountains. For millennia, Lake Crescent has been a sought after destination, making it extremely rich in quirky cultural and geological history. Today, some of the history can still be seen and experienced, if you know where to look.

To start, we look at Lake Crescent itself. Around 10,000 years ago, the Klallam and Quileute peoples were engaged in a battle on the east side of the lake. As the tribes were battling, legend has it that Mount Storm King, a 4,537 foot mountain rising above the lake, got angry at the warring factions. The mountain, in its rage, threw a boulder to stop the fighting, splitting the valley in two, forming both Lake Sutherland and Lake Crescent and supposedly ending the war. Science backs up this fantastic story, though it doesn’t quite have the flair that the old tale uses. Around the same time the battle was raging in the valley, a huge earthquake, possibly as large as 9.0, caused a massive landslide to split the valley and waterway in two.

More recently, the northern shore of the lake nearly became the location of a railroad. In 1919, during WWI, the Port Angeles Western Railroad was going to help the war effort by transporting spruce from the western Olympic Peninsula for the aircraft industry. The railroad was completed in 1919, after the war had ended. Today, the old railroad grade is a hiking trail in Olympic National Park, called the Spruce Railroad Trail.

In 1929, a couple disappeared while driving around Lake Crescent. For seven decades, their disappearance was a mystery. Their car was discovered in 2002 when a diver found it 160 feet deep in the lake.

Another famous story is that of the Lady of the Lake. In 1937, a waitress named Hallie Illingworth went missing and was found, completely preserved by the near-freezing lake temperature, three years later. She is said to have been tied to rocks and sent down to the bottom of the lake but once those restraints decomposed, her corpse floated to the surface. Her skin was preserved by minerals in the water that interacted with her body fat, in a process called saponification. Now you will never look at the lake the same!

Also in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the region, staying in the lodge for a night. It is rumored that it was here at the lodge where he decided to help create Olympic National Park.

The Triangle of Fire

Triangle of Fire via Douglas Scott.JPG

The Triangle of Fire is a much more tangible historical area to visit on the Olympic Peninsula. During the turn of century into the 1900s, the US government looked into ways to protect the towns and interests of the Puget Sound. On June 6, 1896, Congress authorized the Secretary of War to create three forts with large gun emplacements to watch over the waters of the region. While never used, the forts were manned during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Two of the three forts of the Triangle of Fire are located on the Olympic Peninsula, near Port Townsend, and can still be visited today.

Known as Fort Worden and Fort Flagler, the areas are now both Washington State Parks, offering hiking trails, beach access, camping, and a chance to explore the old grounds of the forts. While both are worth seeing, they are somewhat different from each other. Fort Flagler is smaller and less developed, giving a sense of timelessness and the ruggedness to the region. You’ll enjoy the woods, bunkers and shoreline at this historical park.

Fort Worden is the largest of the two, with a museum, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, 70 historic buildings and the best display of bunkers around. This is always a great place to visit, highlighted by the batteries and the scenic lighthouse. You can also dine at the Officer’s House Pub, hike the 11 miles of trails or even rent kayaks and see the fort from the water. Don’t skip this park if the Triangle of Fire interests you.

If you’d like to see the third fort, Fort Casey, head across the water on the ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. This fort is a great place to explore after a ferry ride, as well a good destination to catch a sunset, go birding and to see the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

Wild Man of the Wynoochee

While chasing down illusive mythical creatures may not be your thing, there is a way to walk in the footsteps of the Wild Man of the Wynoochee. The story of John Turnow, the Wild Man of the Wynoochee is one that few today know about; but 100 years ago, it was national news.

Wynoochee via Douglas Scott.JPG

John Turnow was always different than his family, preferring the solitude and silence of the old growth of the Olympics over a life of jobs and society, dressing in animal skins, and supposedly wearing shoes made of tree bark. With his imposing figure of 6’4” and 250 pounds, most in the region considered him to be a gentle giant. However, the more withdrawn he became, the more his family worried for him. His brother placed him in a sanitarium in Oregon; but John escaped, returning to live in the woods of the Wynoochee area. Occasionally, people would catch glimpses of John, helping to grow his legend of being a wild man.

In September of 1911, John shot a cow and was dressing out the kill when a bullet is said to have flown overhead. He fired in the direction of the shot and upon inspection, it was discovered that he had killed his sister’s twin sons. He once again fled into the wilds of the Wynoochee, vanishing. As winter came, John is said to have robbed a grocery store for food, also stealing a safe with $15,000. A posse was sent to locate him, which they did and reported their findings to the county sheriff and game warden. The two went out to get John, but John Turnow found them first, killing them. A few weeks later, another group went out to find John Turnow and found him. This time, they shot first, killing the man locals had called the Wild Man of the Wynoochee. His death was so important to the region, the picture of his body was plastered on newspapers and postcards. Each year, locals give a tour of the region, tracing the history of the wild man. To get the route or to book a tour, contact Tracy Travers through the Wild Man of the Wynoochee website.

For an added bonus, stop by Billy’s Restaurant in Aberdeen and learn about the ghoul of Grays Harbor, a shady character who murdered numerous people and helped to make Aberdeen one of the most dangerous cities in Washington State.

Sol Duc’s Unique Past

For thousands of years, Sol Duc was home to the Quileute tribe, who told tales that the hot springs at both the Sol Duc and Elwha River Valleys were the result of dragons retreating back to their caves after a long battle.

That is how things remained until the 1880s, when a man named Theodore Moritz filled out paperwork with the State of Washington and built the first settler cabin near the site of the current lodge, along the 78-mile long Sol Duc River. Times were tough back then and soon after the cabin was built, Mr. Moritz passed away. The land was quickly purchased by big city entrepreneurs, who had a grand idea for the area. It would take a few years, but soon Sol Duc would be known by the masses.

By 1910, a road had been built to Sol Duc and by 1912, a four story, 165-room hotel had been built. In 1914, despite the start of World War I, over 10,000 people came from all over the world to take a dip in the 130 degree waters found at the hot springs. Tourists would bathe and drink the waters, promised that the chemical compound would cure what ailed them. However, the waters didn’t keep Theodore Moritz alive, so it probably didn’t work for them either.

As guests arrived in Port Angeles from their cruise ships, they were taken to their fully furnished rooms via private car at Sol Duc. Their rooms were amazing, especially by the standards of the 1910’s. With hot and cold water, electricity and phones inside the rooms, as well as golfing, tennis and a theater outside, it was one of the most lavish resorts in America.

The good times at Sol Duc didn’t last long though. On May 26th, 1916, after four years of excess on the Olympic Peninsula, a single spark started a fire, burning down the entire complex in a matter of hours. Rumor has it that the electric organ, hooked up to the PA system, played Beethoven’s “Funeral March” over and over until the fire consumed the speakers. A small resort was built on the same spot in 1920 and ran without any of the past fanfare well into the 1970’s. In the 70s, it had to be remodeled to fix a problem with access to the hot springs. Today, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort has been remodeled and is quite an amazing, romantic and scenic place to rest your head after a long day of hiking, soaking in hot springs and enjoying the Olympic Peninsula.

The Lumber History

While today, the Olympic Peninsula is known as a wilderness playground, the timber industry and the region go hand in hand. When the British first explored this area, they are rumored to have said that whoever controls these forests will rule the world. Within 130 years of the initial “discovery” of the Peninsula by Captain Robert Gray, the town of Aberdeen in Grays Harbor become the largest lumber town in the world.

With direct access to the Pacific Ocean, Aberdeen was once said to be the busiest port on America’s west coast. While at one time Grays Harbor was the lumber capital of the world, the remnants of the logging industry are barely noticeable today, replaced with tourism and outdoor recreation. To preserve the past glory of the logging industry in the area, as well as educate people curious to see what it used to be like, there are a few museums where the incredible history of logging can be seen. From the town of Forks, down to the eastern edge of Grays Harbor, two museums will have you inundated with impressive pictures, old machinery and buildings from the logging heydays of the Olympic Peninsula. 

One of the most visible and most visited museums on the Olympic Peninsula is the Polson Museum in Hoquaim. The name Polson is one of the most successful logging names in Grays Harbor, with half of the museum residing in their old mansion. The rest of the museum sits across the property, in the Railroad Camp Building. In the Mansion, 15,000 items including photographs, antiques, equipment, and texts, give a perfect view into the past. More logging history can be found in the aforementioned Railroad Camp Building, which was designed to showcase the aesthetic, original materials and functional qualities of a century-old locomotive shed.

Further up the Peninsula, the Forks Timber Museum is another great stop to see how early loggers lived while chopping down trees that helped build the nation. Located in a small cabin built by Forks High School students in 1989, the museum offers a look into the rich history of homesteading, farming and logging in the Pacific Northwest. The nearby Forks Visitor Center can provide even more insight into the region’s lumber history.

Following the Footsteps of a President

One of the cool things about driving around the Olympic Peninsula is that you are tracing the path of an American President that is responsible for the creation of Olympic National Park. From Port Angeles to Aberdeen, your route mirrors that of one of our nation’s most beloved public figures. You can even dine at a restaurant that served the President, making your road trip around the Olympics even better!

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the Olympic Peninsula, solidifying his support for the creation of Olympic National Park over the interests of logging. On September 30th of 1937, President Roosevelt spent the night at a cottage that is now the Lake Crescent Lodge. Here, around the fire place, Roosevelt discussed the creation of the park with elected officials and logging magnates. In what is said to be a heated debate, the two sides split for the night, looking to pick up the conversation in the morning.

The next morning, the party drove what is now Highway 101 to Forks, where the lumber town put on a logging exhibition for the President, hoping to show the importance of the industry to the leader of the country. As the group left Forks, the road passed through miles of untouched timberland, leaving an impression on the President. They lunched at the Lake Quinault Lodge, then made their way down toward the logging towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam. The closer they got to the town, the less trees were seen. Soon, the road was passing through clear cuts, prompting President Roosevelt to exclaim, “"I hope the son-of-a-bitch who logged that is roasting in hell.”

When he reached the twin timber towns, 50,000 people lined the streets to watch the motorcade roll through the main streets, unaware that the timbers that built the town were also the final push for Roosevelt to want to protect the wilderness of the Olympics.