It sounded incredible to me, too…but a 1940s survey by the City of Olympia identified 96 active artesian wells and springs in the downtown area. They supplied water for restaurants, steam trains, water fountains and industry in a city where it was cheaper to drill your own well than pay the high prices demanded by the private water companies. I could only name one artesian well, in the Diamond Parking lot on 4th Ave., so what happened to the other 95?
I read a subsequent study done in 1994 by Thurston County and Friends of Artesians which located 31 wells still functioning. The last study, in 1999, conducted by LOTT Wastewater Management, found only 19 wells and 3 springs. The numbers were dwindling, indeed. Were there some charming watering holes I didn’t know about that could disappear any time now?
Using the maps from the 1999 study, I spent an afternoon exploring whether or not there were other artesian wells accessible to the public.
Two of the existing wells, #32 and #34, supply drinking water to The Spar and The Reef. Many other artesian wells emerge into downtown buildings, and then are plumbed directly into the sewer outflow such as U.S. Bank, Bamboo Restaurant, Bayview Market, the YMCA, Olympia Fireplace and Old Town Bicycle.
I discovered artesian well #29 (photo, above) buried in ivy behind the former Northern Pacific Depot by Capitol Lake, more recently the Economic Development Council of Thurston County. In the woods to the east of the train tracks lies a large concrete basin filled with water from an embedded fountain (rightside of photo). This fountain flowed upwards and outwards energetically, draining downhill towards Capitol Lake. Historical records indicate that this water was piped over to the old Depot for the steam trains.
Artesian well #22 (photo, above), located in a parking lot on the corner of Olympia Ave. and Washington St., seems the younger sibling of the popular well on 4th Ave. The outflow pipe is only 1 inch in diameter, but it flows constantly, and I shared its refreshment with a gentleman waiting for his bus to arrive at the Intercity Transit Center across the street.
An artesian well on the corner of State Ave. and Adams St. (photo, above) was flowing as recently as October of last year, but now is capped off. It is on state land which the city is hoping to buy for a parking lot, which makes this well’s future unclear. Friends of Artesians would like it to be considered as a possible site for a (long promised by the city) artesian park.
A particularly unfortunate casualty in the artesian well story lies in an un-marked grave at the corner of 4th Ave. and Washington St, in the northeast corner of U.S. Bank’s parking lot. When I moved here in 1991, there was a water fountain here, issuing forth drinking water to passer-bys. The stone fountain is gone and the well is now capped (photo, above).
Artesian wells are created when a hole is drilled down into the aquifer. An artesian spring emerges from the ground of its own accord. A stunning example can be found at Bigelow Springs (photo, above), in a park on the corner of Quince St. and Bigelow Ave. When I went, there were a dozen children playing in the sparkling spring and a mother confided in me that her kids love to splash in, tromp through and even drink the spring water.
The conclusion of the 1999 survey, and of my own search, are that almost all of the original wells have been capped or buried as buildings and streets were renovated. Of Olympia’s original 96 artesian wells, I had found only 3 flowing outdoor wells...plus Bigelow Springs. With its flower gardens, decorative rock beds, and happy children in a rainbow of rain jackets, these springs provided an inspiring model for how to protect and showcase Olympia’s artesian features. Not that parking lots won't work in a pinch.