To Know Me Is To Know My Family: (37) I feel the earth move under my feet or The great earthquake in Olympia Washington April 13th, 1949.

It was a typical Wednesday. Dad had dropped Mom off at work at the State Capitol, then he went on to his job at Capitol Chevrolet. It was the week before Easter giving my siblings time off from school. They were being watched by our Grandparents which was always a treat.  Alanna, Henry and Janice had just finished lunch at the family table. Grandma Elhardt, always made a delicious lunch. That day they had homemade bread, butter and fresh cut vegetables from the garden such as cucumbers, radishes, onions and sliced garlic. My siblings remember Grandma made her special treat of “cougar pie” (a variation of custard), for all of them to enjoy. It was 11:55 a.m. As custom, after lunch my siblings had laid down on the front room floor to take their afternoon nap. They had just settled down and were close to nodding off, when Grandma and Grandpa came running into the room. Helping the children up, they all ran out the front door. Grandma took the children to the middle of the yard where she fell to her knees and started praying in German. Grandpa held on to the house as if he was trying to hold it together. After what seem like an eternity was in fact less than a minute long, the earthquake stopped shaking. It was originally thought to be a 7.1 magnitude but later determined to be a 6.7 It is to date the largest earthquake to strike in the Puget Sound area. The damage was extensive, especially in the State Capitol building and grounds.

Mom was working in the basement where they had the many files that contained licensing for automobiles along with her desk. As the earthquake began, she said when looking up at the open pipes it appeared to resembled snakes slithering as they hung from the ceiling. Files had fallen over. Mom was a tiny thing, but was also pregnant with me at this time. She told of being trapped and having to climb over filing cabinets to find a way out of the room hoping to get out of the building safely. Once she got out of the room, she realized that it would be impossible to take the elevator, and moved to the stairs. Many people where on the stairs trying also to get out. When they got to the main floor, she realized that there was people trapped in different areas, including some boy scouts who were trapped in the rotunda. Damage to the area was making it impossible for them to escape. People panicked while trying to exit through the doors and were stepping over people that were laying on the floor who had fainted or fallen. Of the many building on the Capitol grounds, the actual Capitol building sustained the most damage. Major sections of the Capitol that was damaged along with the central rotunda were 10 of the original 12 conical shaped towers, the House Chamber and east wing galleries. A total of eight buildings at the State Capitol grounds were damaged that day. Mom was able to escape that day without getting injured. She waited on the grounds away from the building waiting to see if Dad would come to give her a ride home to see if the family was safe.

Luck would have it that Dad was working at Capitol Chevrolet that day. He happened to be on a ladder cleaning the large show windows in the building when the shaking started. He got off the ladder safely and thankfully the windows did not break. He got permission to leave his job to pick up Mom. Once he got to the Capitol there was some confusion as to traffic and emergency vehicles, but Dad found his way to Mom. They were both relieved to see that they both had escaped injury. Now it was time to go home to see if their children and Dad’s parents had survived this natural disaster. As they drove through what is now Historical Downtown Olympia, the view of the damage only made them worry more. Some streets were blocked off because of the debris from the buildings in the street. They found there way to the house where they found Alanna, Henry and Janice all well. Grandma and Grandpa were not injured either, a little shook up, nonetheless there was actually no damage to either house except for a few things falling off the walls and shelves. Seems that God heard Grandma’s prayers that day loud and clear. What a blessing.

The earthquake that day was centered between Olympia and near by Tacoma in Western Washington. The ground shook for about 30 seconds and was felt over a 230,000 square mile area. The earthquake affected all of the state of Washington and parts of Oregon as well. In Olympia, damage was primarily confined to the old part of the city and to the areas of the port built on artificial fill. A portion of Olympia’s industrial area, built on the land fill extending into Pudget Sound, settled 5 inches. A large sandy split (300-foot section jutting into Pudget Sound) North of Olympia fell into the Sound, near Tacoma. An estimated 10,000 chimneys in northwestern Washington required repair. And 24 breaks were reported in water mains in Olympia, resulting in a temporary closing of the business district. Nearly all the tall buildings sustained damage and numerous residential buildings were wrecked. Approximately $150 million dollars of damage was incurred in the state of Washington due to the Earthquake that day. Eight people lost their lives and dozens received serious injuries.

2 thoughts on “To Know Me Is To Know My Family: (37) I feel the earth move under my feet or The great earthquake in Olympia Washington April 13th, 1949.

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  1. Your family and mine…my aunt Emilie (Trudy’s mother), your grandfather, Adolf (my dad’s uncle), and Emilie’s husband Walter. Just thought you might be interested. Take care, Fred


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