Being in Steilacoom for a few hours yesterday got me thinking about that old saw about Tumwater: that even though Tumwater city fathers invited I-5 into town to roll right over the old Tumwater downtown, it was a short sighted decision and ending up "killing the town."
Steilacoom struck me as what Tumwater could have ended up like if I-5 had gone around the old town. Slow, a few old commercial buildings tucked neatly into a mostly residential town. Probably smaller than it is now, depending of course on how close I-5 got to town. Probably what saved what we now know as Steilacoom is that Pierce County gave the outskirts of town to the Army to build Fort Lewis.
Anyway, first off, I took a look at what the most basic impact I-5 had on Tumwater. In short, did the city father's gamble in the 1950s, to raze the old Deschutes-side downtown for an interstate, work out?
So, here's a spreadsheet that puts together two basic measures, structures (which I stumbled upon months ago) and population.
There was an early surge in structures from Tumwater after the highway went in, but Olympia quickly took the lead.
In terms of population, there also was a surge, and Tumwater is still leading in growth, but their lead is shrinking.
So, in short, yes the gamble worked. By the raw numbers, I-5 coming through certainly had an impact and seemingly surged Tumwaters growth (and in my opinion) made it the town it is today. But, that surge is subsiding, and I'd even venture to say that along with Lacey being created out of nearly nothing, Tumwater's post I-5 growth advantage is now gone, and all the communities are on the same playing field.