A conversation with Carol Riley
For the last two years, Capital Heating and Cooling has supported Olympia Harbor Days, our community’s summer celebration of maritime history.
We love that this festival supports the history of tugboats in this area, draws people to downtown Olympia, supports artisans and musicians from around the region, and introduces people to boats in a tangible way. Plus, it takes place in late summer, one of our favorite seasons in the Pacific Northwest—and the best season to be out on the water.
We thought you’d like to know more about this flagship Olympia event, so we sat down (over the phone) with Carol Riley, Harbor Days executive director, to hear more about the event and what we can expect for the future.
Capital Heating and Cooling: Tell us about the festival, Carol. How did it come about?
Carol Riley: The first event took place in 1974 along a dockless, rickety pier where the boardwalk is today. It was just a gathering of tugboat owners who got together to resurrect the turn-of-century practice of taking Labor Day off. From around 1900 and into the 1920s, tugboats rafted themselves together on Labor Day and had a big party.
After 1974, the tugboat skippers kept gathering every year, adding Sunday tugboat races. Around 1978, downtown merchants founded a landside party at the same time, to draw the public in. They set up booths and brought in arts, music, and food. The Boy Scouts hosted a pancake breakfast and the brewery would attend, sometimes with Clydesdale horses. It was a total community event.
These two events came to be known as Harbor Days (the flotilla) and Harbor Fair (the party on land). In 1984, the two events became one, known simply as Olympia Harbor Days. In 2012, the Olympia Kiwanis Club took over management of the festival. I’ve been executive director since the 2016 event.
CHAC: What happens at the modern Olympia Harbor Days?
Riley: Today, Harbor Days has tugboats and other vessels at the docks, tugboat races out near the country club, and about 100 arts-and-crafts vendors from the region, with many from Thurston County. There’s live music and a sand carving contest. People love it: we draw up to 60,000 visitors every year.
Visitors can also take a four-hour cruise to Olympia from Tacoma and spend a car-free weekend at the festival and in downtown Olympia. Participants arrive in time for the opening blessing from the Squaxin Island Tribe, our title sponsor. As the “people of the water,” who have been the navigators and keepers of these waterways for countless generations, we’re honored that they sponsor this event. The tribe opens and closes the festival with cultural sharings such as drumming and dancing. It’s been wonderful to learn about their culture and have their partnership.
CHAC: You have an unusual logo. Will you explain it to us?
Riley: The logo was developed as an award of sorts. Each year, we feature a different tugboat in its center. It’s always in the same style, but has a different color scheme and a drawing of a different tug. You can see a history of all the versions of our logo on our website.
CHAC: When does Harbor Days take place?
Riley: It’s always Friday through Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. We always take Monday off, but every year I see people downtown wondering where the festival is!
CHAC: Have your plans changed because of the COVID-19 crisis?
Riley: This year, Olympia Harbor Days was planned for September 4 through September 6. Sadly, we had to cancel the event this year. We’re so disappointed. We know how much it hurts local artisans and musicians when events are canceled. But we want to be part of keeping our community safe.
CHAC: Has the festival ever been canceled before?
Riley: Not that I’m aware of. In 2013 or 2014, they did call it off early because of high winds and a torrential downpour. But other than that, no.
CHAC: Did you already have a logo in place for this year’s event?
Riley: We did. It features the Patricia Ann, built by Moe Boat Works of Tacoma in 1942.
CHAC: Why is Harbor Days important for our community?
Riley: Olympia is a waterfront town and has a strong port connection, strong boating commerce, and a strong recreational boating and fishing connection. It’s important to keep our maritime history alive and stay connected to this vital part of our community. And that’s exactly what Harbor Days does.
Also, it’s a tradition. And people like traditions. Many local people have fond memories of the festival from long ago, when they were kids. That makes me want to keep it going.
On a bigger scale, a lot of people in many waterfront communities never get to go out on the water because they don’t have access to a boat. Harbor Days features tugboats and other vessels that people can interact with: they can look at them, talk about them, board them, go on tours, and learn about their history directly from the skippers. It’s experiential.
CHAC: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Carol! We’re so grateful for all the work you put into this event. We know it’s a year-round job!
Riley: And we’re so grateful for your partnership. The Olympia Kiwanis Club and I are very thankful to the Schmidtke family and Capital Heating and Cooling for being such a wonderful community partner of Olympia Harbor Days.
At Capital Heating and Cooling, we’re heartbroken that this fantastic community event has been canceled for this year. But we believe in it more than ever and can’t wait until we can all celebrate our maritime history together again.