Orcas Island lies in the San Juan archipelago of the Salish Sea in Northwest Washington. Mountainous and heavily forested, the island is nearly divided by the long inlet of East Sound, with two smaller inlets (West Sound and Deer Harbor) indenting its western half. Human habitation stretches back thousands of years and Orcas has been part of the traditional home for the Lummi tribe and other Straits Salish peoples. European explorers charted the island and its environs in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and British and Americans trappers and settlers arrived by the 1850s. Included in the territory disputed during the "Pig War," Orcas Island became part of San Juan County in the State of Washington after arbitration awarded the islands to the United States. Settlement immediately increased and by 1895 a highly productive agricultural community had been established. The agricultural economy declined dramatically in the face of increased competition during the first decades of the twentieth century and tourism became a lasting mainstay of the scenic island's economy. The efforts of Robert Moran (1857-1943), beginning in 1905, led to the establishment of Moran State Park. Resorts opened throughout the islands while agriculture declined, and tourism-driven economy continues with many social activities, resorts, hotels, boutique shops, and the state park catering to tens of thousands of summer visitors.
Straits Salish peoples, particularly the Lummi tribe, inhabited Orcas Island for many generations. The island abounded in food -- deer and elk on land and clams and shellfish around the shore. Innumerable salmon filled the waters around the island and the Lummi built large fish traps to supply the bulk of their diet. Communal longhouses -- mainly used in the winter months -- were built at a number of points around the island.
Closer contact with Spanish, British, and American explorers came in the 1790s and the first terrible wave of smallpox swept over the region. This, exacerbated by intensified raiding by northern tribes, began a time of trouble and decline for the Lummi tribe and other Coast Salish peoples in the nineteenth century. This climaxed in a devastating raid in 1858 when a band of northern tribes wiped out a Lummi village at a place now known as Massacre Bay at the head of West Sound. The names Victim Island and Skull Island in Massacre Bay also remember the event.
A new commercial force moved into the Salish Sea in 1843 when the venerable Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Victoria at the southeast end of Vancouver Island, just west of the San Juans. James Douglas (1803-1877) led the effort and soon fur trappers were canvassing the San Juan Islands, including Orcas. Within a few years, over-trapping eliminated the beaver from Orcas and the other San Juan islands, leaving only mink and low-value raccoon. Politically, the Treaty of Oregon in 1846 established the boundary between British Canada and the United States, but left the San Juan Islands in an ambiguous position. This uncertainty about whether the islands belonged to Britain or the United States would lead to the famous Pig War showdown of later years.
After the Oregon treaty, Vancouver Island became a crown colony under the administration of the Hudson's Bay Company, with Douglas in charge. Although the fur trade had already declined through over-trapping, other business boomed, especially with the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the Fraser River Rush of 1858. All of these activities spurred the growth of commerce between settlers and indigenous inhabitants and brought tens of thousands of prospectors to the region. Some of these men would stay and settle after the latest gold fever had run its course.
To support the expanded business that came with the gold rush and the beginnings of settlement, James Douglas established Belle Vue Farm on neighboring San Juan Island in 1853. Hudson's Bay Company employees began raising sheep and pigs and also hunting deer and trading with the local Indians. Kanaka shepherds from Hawaii tended the sheep while French Canadians trapped and hunted on San Juan and Orcas islands.
One of the hunters was Louis Cayou, who married a local Lummi-Saanich woman, Mary Anne, and settled permanently on Orcas in 1859. Their home site was in Deer Harbor -- so called because of the many animals that had been taken from there by Cayou and other Hudson's Bay Company hunters. Another former Hudson's Bay employee by the name of James Bradshaw took up residence at the same time, but he died in an accident shortly after. Cayou is generally credited as the first permanent settler of Orcas Island. Other early settlers included William Moore, who settled in Olga in 1860, and John Viereck at Doe Bay in 1872. An early resident of the Orcas village community was Paul K. Hubbs, who ran a small store for a few years in Grindstone Bay during the 1860s.
Homesteaders and Lime Kilns
After the boundary dispute was resolved in October 1872, the pioneer "squatters" on Orcas could finally homestead officially and a government survey was conducted by Tilford Sheets in 1874. New settlers soon gobbled up the remaining arable land, although later homesteaders would lay claim to beautiful but agriculturally marginal lands on the hills and mountains of the island for the next 20 years.
Another change came with surveying and the influx of new settlers. For several decades the first settlers had allowed sheep to range freely across the island, simply bobbing off the tails of local sheep. Thousands of sheep roamed the forests and prairie clearings, as the island has no predators. Between the traditional Indian practice of encouraging wildfire as a way of clearing the forest and the thousands of sheep introduced by settlers, the forests of the Indians and the early pioneers were both taller and less brushy than island woods today, before fire suppression and the confinement of sheep as more land was homesteaded changed the local ecology.
But while old-growth forest floors may have been clear, the incoming settlers still had to remove the huge old trees in order to develop successful agriculture. Some of the wood went to feed the first large industry on the island -- lime kilns. Orcas Island, like San Juan, has a number of exposed limestone outcrops that were mined extensively for lime to make cement and other products.
Langdon's Lime Kiln, the first kiln on Orcas and in all of San Juan County, lay on the eastern shore of East Sound where a slab of white limestone was exposed. Although the center of lime production would shift to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, line kilns remained important on Orcas and the industry continued into the 1930s. Lime from these operations was used to make cement for cities throughout the West Coast.
To convert the limestone rock to lime, vast swathes of forest fell to fuel the kilns, which each burned four cords of wood a day. Cutting cordwood from the huge, gnarled trees of the island could tax anyone, but the kiln owners offered $1 to a $1.75 a cord, depending on local market conditions. On old growth land, a sturdy pioneer farmer could cut about one to one-and-a-half cords a day. On land that had already been partly cut over, production might drop to as low as a half cord a day. Still, this was money, and many debts and farm improvements were paid off with money earned with sweat and blisters.
Although the lime kilns burned vast amounts of wood, the land was being cleared for agriculture anyway. Trees that were not burned in the kilns were often felled and burned in huge piles to clear land for crops and orchards. Sawmills also became established at many points around the island, often associated with small stave and box operations that created barrels for lime and boxes for shipping agricultural products to the mainland.
Despite the ruggedness of the island and the crude trails that connected the scattered homesteads, a lively social life developed. Neighbors often visited each other and enjoyed big dinners and picnics. Dances at the first schoolhouse in Eastsound drew families from all over the island. Livened with a fiddle and some local wine, these events easily justified the long row from isolated homesteads in Deer Harbor and Doe Bay to the village at the head of East Sound that would become the island's largest settlement.
Orchards and Churches
A new figure came ashore in the summer of 1883. Sidney R. S. Gray, an aspiring Episcopalian minister from England, had trained as a landscape painter under James Whistler (1834-1903) of Boston before marrying a German princess, Alma Mecklenburg. Their marriage displeased both sets of parents to the point that, disinherited, the couple sought a new life in the United States. Gray's decision to become a minister in the Episcopal denomination led him westward and he and his wife pioneered a church in Eastsound in 1883.
Delighted in the island's similar climate to his native England, Gray quickly imagined a grand plan to develop the island and form it into an enclave of English settlers, all patterned after an English village. An avid promoter, the minister zealously recruited his island neighbors and encouraged them to plant new orchards to supplement those already proven and established by pioneer families. He also platted out a model community with the name Village de Haro in what would become Eastsound. To finance the operation, which would take years to realize, Gray convinced Seattle investors to bankroll many agricultural improvements. Putting his own money on the line, Gray also invested heavily in his dream community.
These investments rested on the work of local orchardist E. V. Von Gohren who had come to Orcas in 1879. Von Gohren developed an extensive orchard and determined that Orcas Island was best suited for the production of a type of plum known as Italian prunes. Funded by mainland capitalists, islanders planted orchards of apples, prunes, pears, and apricots from one end of the island to the other. In fact, Prune Alley in the middle of Eastsound village used to be a country lane through an orchard of Italian prune trees.
Like the Hudson's Bay Company's attempt to establish British sovereignty over the islands, Gray's attempt to create a thriving English-style town on Orcas met with failure. This time the culprit was the depression of 1893. With the bank panic, economic activity ground to a halt. Capital dried up, markets sagged, and banks went under. Reverend Gray, like many of his neighbors who he had sold on the plan, was broke. Devastated by this turn of fortune, and no doubt humiliated by the hopes he had raised and seen dashed, Gray sadly left the island two years later. He moved to Indiana, continuing in the ministry for many years, and today the delightful Episcopal Church on the waterfront of Eastsound affectionately recalls its "painter parson."
Although Gray had departed, his church -- dedicated in December of 1884 -- continued and was soon joined by a Methodist Episcopal Church. The latter included a bell tower that dominated the humble Eastsound skyline for many decades to come. The churches also differed in tone, with the Methodist Episcopal holding revivals and railing against the worldly pleasures of drinking, dancing, and card playing. John Tennant, a part-Indian pioneer missionary, established the Methodist Episcopal Church in July of 1887 after holding services for several years in the Eastsound schoolhouse. The land for both churches was donated by Eastsound homesteader Charles Shattuck.
The ministers of the two congregations faced many privations along with their flocks. John Tennant and his wife Clara, of the Lummi tribe, survived their first year on $130. Tennant noted to his superiors that he better stay with the work because "any other man with a family would starve to death on that field" (This Is Our Story, 11). Fortunately, he and Clara had grown used to living on clams, a common recourse on Orcas and other coastal communities.
Facing the hard times of the early 1890s, islanders had very little hard cash. A Reverend Dyer, who built his own sailboat to travel between several of the islands for the Methodists in the 1890s, complained dourly that "Money is about the scarcest thing in the country now unless it is live spiritual Christians. Yesterday I walked 14 miles, preached twice, took 2 collections and received 70¢" (This Is Our Story, 23) On another occasion, the reverend capsized in the channel, losing his Bible and the week's collection of "eggs, butter, potatoes, and 35¢" (This Is Our Story, 24). Clearly the barter system remained the rule on the islands through the 1890s.
However, by the last years of the nineteenth century the tide began to turn economically and the maturing orchards began to pay. Soon they were bearing fruit, whatever the market might say, and Orcas achieved a part of the promise hoped by its boosters. Gradually the slump ended and Orcas Island famers faced much better prospects.
Island Life at the Turn of the Century
Indeed, by the close of the nineteenth century the village of Eastsound lay covered in orchards. A few buildings poked up out of the plantings of apples and Italian prune trees, but the crops dominated the landscape. What was true in Eastsound was true throughout the island. Much land today that is healthy second-growth forest used to be orchards of the first order.
So what was life like on Orcas at the beginning of the twentieth century? To get a feel for the island at this time, it is important to note that there were quite a number of small communities scattered along its shores. Post offices marked the small population centers. By 1900 offices could be found in the scattered communities of Deer Harbor, West Sound, Orcas, Eastsound, Dolphin Bay, Ocean, Newhall, Olga, and Doe Bay.
Between these hamlets, farms and orchards had expanded up to and sometimes into the mountains where tough pioneer families eked out a difficult existence. In many parts of the island the now-mature orchards required substantial barns, some with large fruit dryers that employed many people in season.
The pace of business also increased. Five stores operated on Orcas at the turn of the century. Since even remote areas of the island on marginal land had been planted with orchards, nearly everyone had something to export to the mainland cities and the island's wharves were jammed with produce during the harvest season.
Decline and New Possibilities
The first decades of the twentieth century featured an economic transition in the life of the island. Agriculture continued to grow during the first decade but faced increasing challenges and eventual decline thereafter. Tourism increased during the period with the opening of the first resorts and a number of new hotels. Eventually tourism would replace agriculture as the most lucrative industry on the island.
The population expanded steadily and reached 833 persons in 1900. Ten years later 1,119 persons were recorded by the national census. This was a high point, with the population then declining to 943 in 1940. The reason for this drop was a long decline in the profitability of agriculture on the island, particularly the fruit orchards. Competition from irrigated orchards in Eastern Washington and California and improved mainland shipping drove down profits for Orcas Island farmers. Not all farms went under, but many did, and the pace of the local economy slowed substantially.
While agriculture declined, a new industry arose to provide a long-term boost to the island's economy. During the first decades of the twentieth century, enterprising islanders capitalized on the scenic beauty of Orcas Island and a number of resorts opened for tourists. East Sound House opened in 1891 with Luther Sutherland as proprietor on land purchased from pioneer Shattuck. In the next few years both the Norton Inn (later the Deer Harbor Inn) and West Sound House opened for visitors and boarding islanders. The latter were important customers for the nine off-season months. All of these early operations were family affairs and offered rustic accommodations in tent cabins and a few rooms.
The Orcas Hotel
The Orcas Hotel, built from 1900 to 1904, exemplifies the local roots of a successful tourist venture. William E. Sutherland, who had homesteaded 60 acres around what is now the state ferry terminal at Orcas Landing, built a store, warehouse, and dock on the site in the 1880s. To feed passengers waiting for steamers at the dock, Sutherland hired Octavia Van Moorhem to cook. She and her husband, Constant, had homesteaded up the hill from Sutherland and their farm provided the food for Octavia's popular home cooking at the landing.
By 1900, Sutherland had realized the need for a small hotel to shelter both islanders waiting for passage aboard the steamers and tourists visiting the island. He hired Octavia's father, Joseph Van Bogaert, to build a small hotel above the landing. Using "balloon" construction methods, Van Bogaert began carefully building the hotel in 1901 and finished in 1905. As soon as it was finished, Sutherland and the Van Moorhems with their four children all moved in. However, this only left two rooms for the guests! Most visitors simply camped around the hotel and ate Octavia's delicious, home-cooked meals in the hotel's dining room.
Together the Van Moorhem family built a thriving business. The beauty of the location and its proximity to one of the principal landings (eventually, the single ferry landing) provided enough customers to keep the hotel going. But the ultimate success of the hotel lay in the Van Moorhem family and the intimate culture that they created. Tent campers, provided with buckets of water and chamber pots, could bathe on a nearby beach and explore the neighborhood. The food was excellent and Octavia rang a hand bell to call the guests to their meals.
Another activity that delighted guests was a summer excursion to the top of Mount Constitution, which dominates the center of the island's eastern half. Visitors were rowed around the island while Constant loaded his wagon with a giant picnic and headed across the island and up the rough road to the mountaintop. Guests disembarked at the base of the mountain and walked the strenuous path to the 2,409-foot summit. Finally everyone rested, enjoyed the magnificent 360-degree view, and lightened Constant's wagon for the trip home in the evening.
In 1916 Sutherland had tent cabins built with wooden half walls and roofs and a removable canvass around the upper half of each. This was a popular choice at the time, featured at other island resorts as well. Other improvements of 1916 included sidewalks and a drinking fountain. In 1926 William Sutherland died and left all of his property -- the store, warehouse, dance hall, dock, and hotel -- to the Van Moorhems. It would remain in their family for another two decades. The property then changed hands a number of times through the 1960s until Dick and Shirley Cundy revived the hotel in the 1970s. They maintained a festive atmosphere in the hotel that appealed to locals and visitors alike. However, by 1977, enforcement of new building codes led to closure and the property was considered for demolition to create room for a new ferry parking lot.
However, local champions emerged and the hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and remodeled to meet contemporary codes. Orcas Landing residents Doug and Laura Tidwell have run the hotel as a family business since 1998.
From Newhall to Rosario and Moran State Park
The coming of Robert Moran to Orcas anticipates and exemplifies the changes that Orcas experienced in the twentieth century. He was, on one level, a wealthy retiree who, like many others, was attracted to the beauty of Orcas and the idea of island life. He also spearheaded the creation of a large public park and built a private mansion that later became a resort.
Robert Moran arrived in Seattle in 1875 at the age of 18 with 10 cents in his pocket. Thirty-one years later he had built a fortune through his family's shipbuilding business and had served two terms as Seattle's mayor. But he had also ruined his health and planned to retire, as the doctors warned him he had only a short while to live.
In 1904, the same year he had received the dire medical pronouncement, Moran took a pleasure cruise through the San Juans and took note of a small business operation on Cascade Bay in East Sound. Brothers E. P. and Andrew Newhall had operated the Cascade Lumber and Manufacturing Company since 1887 and gradually the land around Cascade and Mountain Lakes to east had been homesteaded by the last wave of pioneers. This land was beautiful but difficult to turn into homesteads, and many of the settlers eked out a bare existence. Still, they persevered and Newhall, as the community was known, had a post office and schoolhouse along with the Newhalls' company, which employed about 10 men.
In 1905, a year before he formally retired, Moran purchased the Newhalls' business and moved his family to the island. He also hired agents and began buying up property as quietly as possible, though in such a small community it didn't take long to figure out what was up. Many of the families he bought out had fallen into debt and some welcomed Moran's deep pockets as a way to get some hard cash for years of hard toil. Yet old settler James Tulloch lamented the loss of many friends that he had helped recruit to the island and of the tiny community that had sprouted there. Among the hardy individualists who held out for a time was a Mrs. Cox, who had run a small hotel on Cascade Lake. The hotel had burned in 1895 and Cox had lived a solitary life after that. She eventually sold her property to Moran and moved east, but retained the rights to an inactive hard-rock gold mine on Mount Constitution.
The economic downturn in 1907 aided Moran in his efforts to buy up all of the homesteads around Mount Constitution and the nearby lakes. Eventually he secured more than five thousand acres, about 15 percent of the island and about a third of its eastern portion.
However, after gobbling up all this land, Moran moved in a new, altruistic direction. Although his initial purchases had been designed to secure the water rights for the hydroelectric power of the lakes and streams, much of the rest of the land had little value other than scenic beauty. Initially he had considered preserving the estate for his heirs, but that seemed unlikely to succeed. Instead he began considering the idea of donating the most scenic portions of his massive estate as a public park.
The suggestion to donate land for a park may have come from Moran's close friend, University of Washington professor Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935). However, Moran initially proposed that the state buy only the 80-acre summit portion, with Moran directly donating another 80 acres. He soon enlarged to the idea of thousands of acres, but required the state to buy some of the adjacent land.
Although Moran's conditions weakened the proposed park's chances in the legislature, the real problem lay in the total lack of a state organization to maintain this and similar properties. Although city governments in Seattle, Spokane, and elsewhere eagerly sought parks during this time, the state lagged behind and did not found a State Park Commission until 1914. Even then, funding remained extremely low through the 1920s. The state finally accepted Moran's offer of 2,731 acres in 1921.
Over the next decade, Moran acquired and added another one thousand acres to the park and funded the vast majority of improvements, especially roads and bridges that linked Cascade and Mountain lakes to the majestic views at the summit of Mount Constitution. Many of the park's roadways and one-lane bridges reflect these earlier developments under Moran's stewardship. Moran continued to patronize the park until about 1933 when he began to "retire" from his retirement and liquidate his holdings at Rosario. Thereafter, Moran State Park would find a new benefactor in the federal government.
From 1933 until 1941 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked diligently to develop and extend the park's facilities. During the twenties, auto campgrounds had developed, particularly at Cascade Lake. Now more extensive campgrounds with supporting buildings were erected, many of which remain. The "rustic" style of the main buildings at the Cascade Lake day use area is apparent to even the casual visitor and the CCC endeavored to enhance access for the public without jeopardizing the beauty of the park through over-development. Indeed, large parts of the park remain isolated and remote today.
Over time, Moran State Park has come to include more than 5,000 acres and is consistently one of the most popular park destinations in the state, with summer campground reservations always full. Indeed, many consider Moran's philanthropic gift to be a crown jewel of the State of Washington's excellent park system.
Orcas Life in the Mid-1900s
While Robert Moran built Rosario and devoted his energies to championing his park, most islanders lived quiet lives in the lean years. As Orcas Island moved into the twenties and thirties, the ongoing agricultural decline was only exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a slow-paced life of gravel roads and little traffic. Islanders prided themselves on the beauty of the island and the maintenance of independent-mindedness and self reliance. Although commercial farming and horticulture declined, the island and the surrounding waters provided ample food for most families. But money remained very tight. Most people just tried to get by. There was some temporary work at the canneries in the summer season and others worked on commercial fishing boats. Young people often picked strawberries and collected bottles for some extra cash. Older teens might land a seasonal job at one of the resorts or a coveted job at Templin's store or one of the auto garages.
Socially, the island continued in patterns similar to pioneer days. Dances remained wildly popular on Saturday and Sunday nights. The dances usually went all night, with a midnight meal served to the party goers. Churches remained important too. The Episcopal and Methodist churches in Eastsound continued, as did a large Episcopal congregation in West Sound, which had founded its own church in 1895. A small church had formed in Olga as well.
Nearly everyone fished and the woods never seemed to run short of deer, which remained a pest. In fact many farmers and exasperated orchardists employed extremely dangerous gun traps and sharpened sticks along deer tracks in order to protect their hard-won crops. Many a young child learned a love of nature with fishing pole and, perhaps, a small boat. These island pleasures remain an important part of the community's identity.
Many of the patterns in Orcas Island life today stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century when tourism expanded and agriculture waned in importance. The economy remains highly seasonal, with about 4,000 year-round residents growing to more than 10,000 in the summer months. In some neighborhoods, such as the Olga hamlet, things seem hardly to change at all amid the quiet streets and hundred year old houses.
Broader patterns of social change reflect the wider American society. Fraternal societies have ebbed in the face of global media, but the district buses still make the long runs out to the edges of the island and school continues to be a source of pride and identity in the community. Fall Saturday afternoon football games are well-attended.
On a typical summer weekend, Eastsound is buzzing with tourists visiting the boutique shops along the waterfront and mixing with locals at the farmers market on the village green. Visitors enjoy perusing the works of many local artists at galleries spread throughout the island. Reputed to be the first pottery shop in Washington, Orcas Island Pottery opened in 1949 under Joe and Marclay Sherman. They began the tradition of pottery on the island that now also includes Crow Valley Pottery, opened in 1959, and Olga Pottery, opened in 1979. Olga also features the Orcas Islands Artworks Cooperative Gallery, located in a historic strawberry processing plant. Organized in 1981, the cooperative is one of the oldest artist cooperatives in the nation and features the works of more than 50 local artists.
Public arts also receive a strong following, given the small size of the island's population. The island boasts a local chorale, an a cappella group, a theater, and a community band. The Orcas Center, dedicated in 1976, showcases performing arts. The center hosts many events throughout the year and since 1998 has featured the Chamber Music Festival, a two-week celebration of music each August.
A more whimsical side of island life emerges and blends with the tourist culture in the many small parades each year. This tradition began with the first annual Historical Days parade of 1959, which coincided with the beginning of the Orcas Island Historical Museum. The museum combines several pioneer log cabins that were moved to the site and now contain a fascinating array of local artifacts and collections. The parade that celebrates pioneer history usually falls the Saturday after the Fourth of July.
Other parades include the Solstice Parade in June and the Pet Parade, a fun family event that includes everything from pet worms and bugs to golden retrievers and llamas. Usually local residents will get a chance to examine potential candidates for "Mayor of Eastsound," which may be a dog, a chicken, or April the cow.
Islanders continue to foster an unhurried mindset with a strong undercurrent of individualism and free-thinking. There is a strong strain of idealism in the community with dozens of non-profits in operation. There is also pride in living in such a beautiful place that attracts visitors from around the world. To protect the scenic beauty of the San Juans, the San Juan County Land Bank formed in 1990 to buy up and preserve for the public lands that were deemed to have especially scenic value. Notable acquisitions on Orcas Island include Turtleback Mountain and Crescent Beach, at the head of Ships Bay near Eastsound. Together with Moran and Obstruction Pass state parks, these places provide recreation opportunities for residents and visitors alike.
As Orcas continues into the twenty-first century, the local arts and civic life remain strong. Islanders will no doubt continue to embrace the quiet, peaceful island life with the same zest that captured the hearts of the island's first settlers and the Salish tribes for centuries.