Back before there were cell phones and radio communications, skippers and captains of the large ships moving cargo (and people) into the Port of Olympia relied on tugboats to navigate them into harbor. Spotters would catch site of the tall ships and let the skippers of steam-driven tugboats know that sheep needed to be brought into port. Smart tugboat skippers would already be set to go, tossing their lines and leaving the docks to race out to intercept the ships. Usually, the first tug to reach the ship got the job of bringing her into port. The start of tugboat racing was born.
Now a major Puget Sound maritime festival, Olympia Harbor Days began in 1974 as a small, one-day gathering of historic vessels at the Port of Olympia marine terminal. The informal, end-of-summer event was organized by the newly-formed Olympia-South Sound Maritime Chapter (OSSMC) of the State Capital Historical Association, which operated the State Capital Museum. The OSSMC’s founders were Olympia resident and regionally-known maritime historian Gordon Newell, local boat builder Albert Giles, and State Capitol Museum curator Patrick Haskett. A year later, in 1975, the OSSMC’s Harbor Day event focused on vintage tugboats with addition of the first tugboat race in the South Sound. This marked a return of traditional tug racing in Puget Sound that had ended 20 years earlier in Seattle.
In 1978, a separate downtown arts and crafts event, Harborfair, was inaugurated as a companion shore-side event. Organized by downtown merchant Marti Galbreath, Harborfair included arts, crafts and food vendors, and entertainment acts. Harbor Days and Harborfair continued as coordinated but separately-organized events through 1983 when they were co-sponsored by the OSSMC, City of Olympia, Port of Olympia, and the Olympia Downtown Development Association. The two events merged under the Olympia Harbor Days name starting in 1984, with the same primary co-sponsors.