Tourism in the San Juan Islands, Part 1

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 4/03/2019
  • Essay 20753
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The San Juan Islands, an archipelago located in Salish Sea waters between Washington and Vancouver Island, B.C., have always held a strong attraction for visitors. From the first peoples who inhabited the area, through early explorers and pioneer settlers in the late 1850s, to today's thousands of tourists who arrive by ferry, private boat, or plane, those traveling in the area have found the islands a beguiling place to visit. Tourism, at times, has been encouraged, even promoted, while at other times it has been viewed by many residents as intrusive, destructive of a fragile ecosystem, and a strain on island infrastructure. Part 1 of this two-part history focuses on the earliest tourists in the San Juan Islands, especially on Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez islands, and initial accommodations for them as well as the first promotional campaigns to encourage travelers to experience the remarkably beautiful scenery, variety of available activities, and atmosphere of relaxation that characterizes the area. From the late nineteenth century to World War II there was continuous growth in the number of visitors, and tourism was well on the way to becoming an important island industry.

First Visitors to the San Juan Islands

For millennia before the first non-Indians began to explore the Pacific Northwest, Native peoples including the Lummi, Samish, Saanich, and other coastal groups, were familiar with the San Juan Islands. Some settled there in small villages, but most were seasonal visitors, spending summers hunting, gathering shellfish, cultivating and harvesting local berries and crops of beautiful blue-flowered camas plants whose bulbous roots were an important element of their diet, and especially fishing the islands' rich salmon resources. Their efficient reef-net fishing techniques and the abundance of the harvests were noted by the British, who in the 1840s and 1850s were settling on Vancouver Island where the Hudson's Bay Company and British government had, by 1850, established a major commercial and military headquarters at Victoria on the island's south end. In the archipelago, the British deemed San Juan Island, especially, to be of strategic and commercial importance. To reinforce their claims to the island, they built a fish-processing and barreling operation there and later a farm with extensive livestock and a large vegetable garden. American settlers were arriving as well, and in 1859 tensions between British and Americans resulted in a dispute over sovereignty and a joint military occupation of the islands lasting 13 years.

The British Daily Colonist newspaper, published in Victoria, was, for its Vancouver Island readers, the chief source of news about those interloping Americans on San Juan Island, so enticingly in sight just across Haro Canal (now called Haro Strait). Within days of U.S. forces landing on the island, curious visitors from Victoria were writing letters home recording their observations as the American troops set up camp. Victoria residents visited to see what life was like on San Juan Island during the joint occupation, although accommodations for overnight stays were almost non-existent. One-day excursions, however, were common. In 1863, for example, an advertisement in the Colonist announced that a trip was being planned that would delight the whole family. The cost of the day's activities was $2 for children under 12, $4 for a single ticket, and $7.50 for a double ticket for a lady and gentleman; tickets entitled participants to transportation, sports (cricket, baseball, football [soccer], and quoits), games, a luncheon, afternoon tea, and dancing supported by "an efficient band" ("Public Pic-Nic ..."). Only 150 tickets were available, and a note in the editorial column of the newspaper assured readers that "all who avail themselves of the opportunity will pass a day of enjoyment seldom within their reach" (Colonist, August 23, 1863). Holidays often were occasions for a visit to San Juan Island -- Coronation Day in 1869 was celebrated by a picnic excursion for the parents and children of St. John's Church in Victoria to the British encampment on the island.

By 1872, however, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, who had been invited to arbitrate the British and American claims to the San Juan Islands, had decided in favor of the United States, and the population immediately became subject to American governance. In 1873, the San Juan Islands, initially designated a part of Whatcom County, became a separate entity, San Juan County, the smallest in land area in Washington Territory. Henceforth, a notable rise in visitors from the U.S. mainland made increased demands on local resources to serve them. As early as 1885, territorial governor Watson C. Squire (1838-1926) was reported to have noted about San Juan County that "the scenery ... is beautiful and the various islands are attaining prominence as summer resorts" ("Tourism in San Juan County ...").

Early Transportation, Housing, and Tourist Destinations

The first challenge in visiting an island, of course, is how to get there. The journey from Victoria to San Juan Island or from Anacortes to Orcas Island was not difficult to undertake in a small boat in the summer, but at other times of the year long weeks of cold, wet weather and often rough waters demanded safer and more efficient transport. And the trip from Seattle, Bellingham, or other larger population centers on the Washington mainland was far longer and required a vessel of stability and reliable power. The steamship, therefore, became the preferred mode of moving around on Puget Sound and what today is termed the Salish Sea, north of the Sound itself. Between 1850 and 1900 hundreds of steamships, both small side-wheelers and larger stern-wheelers, plied the waters -- so many that they were collectively called "the mosquito fleet." Some sailed on scheduled routes, but others transported goods and passengers on demand, and would even pick up passengers waving them down from rowboats.

By 1876 most of the major steamer routes were established and several stopped at various ports in the San Juan Islands perhaps once or twice a week. An advertisement in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in September 1883 noted, for instance, that the steamer USS Biz would sail with a load of mail and was also available to transport freight and passengers to San Juan, Lopez, Friday Harbor, Orcas, and Eastsound on the Port Townsend-Semiahmoo route. By 1900 the Puget Sound Navigation Company had become dominant in the area's water transport of goods and people, and several ships including the USS Rosalie, City of Anacortes, Islander, Perdita, Mohawk, and Lydia Thompson became familiar sights among the San Juans and in local ports, especially on Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez, the three largest in the group. Special steamship excursion trips to the San Juan Islands were frequently advertised in Seattle newspapers.

With more travelers arriving for business or just for pleasure, housing for visitors was in demand. In Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the county seat, the small San Juan Hotel had been established in the late 1870s or early 1880s in a former private residence on Spring Street, the main road through town. Eventually a big porch was added and the hotel enlarged to become the Bay View Hotel, promoted as providing the best in services for the business traveler. But the Tourists Hotel, built in 1891 by Patrick Welch (1853-?) was soon the fashionable place to stay. In 1901 the local newspaper, The San Juan Islander, included a supplement featuring the hotel among other notable buildings in Friday Harbor. Ladies, it was pointed out, had their own reception area, a large verandah provided views of the town and harbor, the cuisine was excellent, and men could enjoy a bar and pool room serving the best in whiskeys, gin, beer, and other beverages and quality cigars. For a town of slightly more than 300 residents, the hotel was a source of considerable pride.

Lopez Island and its farming and fishing community were also well served by steamships arriving at wharves around the island, including at Richardson, Lopez Village, and Port Stanley. Fishing and cannery operations in busy Richardson at the south end of the island drew visitors and business travelers who were housed at the comfortable Richardson (sometimes known as Ridley) Hotel, built in 1890. Port Stanley also had an inn and restaurant catering to both residents and visitors.

On Orcas Island additional types of lodging were being developed for the growing number of visitors. During the early 1890s the first of the many resorts for which Orcas would become renowned offered much more than rooms and meals. One early example was the East Sound House (on the site where the Outlook Inn was later built) overlooking the harbor of the same name. The resort billed itself as providing activities and relaxation in a beautiful setting. Tourists could explore in a boat, ride ponies, hike Mount Constitution (with a pack mule to carry supplies), or borrow horses for riding or driving. If restorative serenity was wanted, travelers would find that the "enjoyable shade of forest and fruit trees invites restful ease and quiet. Hammocks and rustic seats are found in many a secluded spot silently weaving a web of enchantment to entrance the mind and lull the heart to happy rest" ("The San Juan Islands, Illustrated ..."). Visitors could enjoy saltwater bathing, sailing, and evening clam bakes with bonfires and songfests.

If travelers were of a more adventurous disposition or looking for less expensive accommodations, there was, for example, the Norton Inn (later the Deer Harbor Inn) which, like many other early resorts, initially offered housing primarily in tent-cabins -- structures with wood floors and partial walls topped by canvas caps. Meals were served in a dining room in a central building. These accommodations appealed to a wide variety of people; among the inn's early visitors was a group of Seattle schoolteachers on a retreat.

Other facilities soon became popular destinations. The Orcas Hotel, in 2019 still a landmark at the Orcas Island ferry landing and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built between 1901 and 1904. A sanatorium with bath house and a nearby medicinal spring were developed by an Orcas physician as a health resort treating medical cases of all kinds (especially rheumatic, kidney, and skin diseases) with the exception of infectious or contagious conditions. The first of eventually several camps in the islands for young people was established when a Seattle family invited the YMCA to build Camp Orkila on its Orcas Island property in 1906; the camp was established initially to offer city boys environmental education in a natural setting. With vastly broadened programs, Camp Orkila still provides camping experiences for both boys and girls in the twenty-first century.

Places and events of interest to visitors brought more tourists. The peacefully settled boundary dispute was memorialized in 1904 with tall granite monuments erected with great ceremony by the Washington University State Historical Society at the sites of the American and British encampments on San Juan Island, and these monuments and camp areas quickly became popular tourist destinations. In 1906 the first San Juan County Fair in Friday Harbor drew crowds from the islands and the mainland. The Chambers of Commerce of Bellingham and Anacortes enthusiastically arranged for a chartered steamer to bring 500 or 600 people to enjoy the gathering. Even the wireless telegraph office and communications apparatus in Friday Harbor proved to be a popular stop for tourists, who commented on how pleased they were with the friendliness of the operators and the informative explanations of how the wireless telegraph worked. Increasing numbers of meetings and conventions of regional organizations, whether occurring in the islands or featuring excursions to the islands, introduced many new visitors to the opportunities for sightseeing and leisure activities.

Promoting the Islands

The editor of the San Juan Islander observed in 1906 that with proper accommodations and advertising the islands could become an important tourist destination, as the Northwest was beginning to recognize the value of the area's outstanding scenery:

"It is a fine thing, of course, to have other crops beside the summer tourist, but with the travel and sight-seeing habit growing even faster than American wealth is growing, it is worthwhile to cultivate the summer resort ... as a source of income for the thousands who will profit directly and indirectly by the tourist trade" ("Importance of ...").

The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition in Seattle was viewed as a golden opportunity to promote the islands, and W. J. Court (1840-1913), who was in charge of San Juan County's A-Y-P exhibit, enthusiastically encouraged all those stopping by the booth to take time while they were in the area for a cruise and visit to the islands. Beautiful scenic landscapes by the skilled local photographer J. A. McCormick (1867-1945) provided the backdrop for the exhibit, and before the exposition's end, a conveniently pocket-sized, multipage, fold-out souvenir book of photos of island scenes with brief descriptions was available for visitors to take with them. The only dark cloud over all this positive publicity, it seemed, was the billowing smoke from too many fires burned by loggers, farmers, and others in the islands that obscured the views of the much-touted scenery for disappointed tourists cruising by during the months of the exposition. A letter from a clearly exasperated McCormick appeared on the front page of a local paper, pointing out the loss of a good promotional opportunity for the islands and urging a cooperative effort in the future to not have major burns between June 15 and October 15, the prime tourist season:

"We can have tens of thousands of tourists coming annually to this coast, spending hundreds of thousands of good 'eastern dollars,' if we will only make them comfortable while they are here and LET THEM SEE WHAT WE HAVE ... They will have a never ending topic of conversation with their friends -- all of which is the best of advertising" ("The Commercial Importance ...").

In 1910 the San Juan Island Commercial Club was inaugurated in Friday Harbor. Over the years it would undertake many projects not just to publicize the island but also to improve infrastructure and accommodations to make the island more appealing to visitors when they arrived. By the late 1920s, commercial clubs on Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan had jointly developed a souvenir yearbook to publicize the islands and by 1930 the island clubs, together with promoters in Anacortes, had organized a San Juan Islands Publicity Bureau. The souvenir pamphlet that year included pictures and glowing descriptions of the many aspects of the islands' appeal including an idyllic climate in which, it was claimed, "winds and frost are unknown" (San Juan Islands Souvenir ... ).

The Puget Sound Navigation Company undertook an advertising campaign, sending information folders to railway and steamship agents in the U.S. and Canada, and claimed that its leaflets "are in the hands of Bureaus of Information all over the World" ("Advertising the ..."). In addition, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Puget Sound Railway proposed to publicize the islands and Mount Rainier National Park as places tourists to the West ought to include in their travel plans. "If they don't, they should" ("To Exploit ..."), the editor of the Friday Harbor Journal declared.

Efforts to promote the islands became more organized and coordinated among tourism-related businesses and island commercial groups. In 1922 a presenter at an Orcas Island Farm Bureau meeting suggested that agriculture and horticulture could not really induce full development of the county economy, and that wealthy entrepreneurs should be encouraged to come to the islands, build substantial waterfront cottages, and then develop nearby properties as hotels and tourist facilities. In order to inform travelers and potential investors of the opportunities awaiting them, a major public-relations effort was needed.

A gathering of civic and commercial club representatives proposed that a publicity fund be started to finance just such a project. The editor of the Friday Harbor Journal strongly supported the undertaking, and urged widespread public participation, noting that good publicity would benefit everyone in the county. Lists of donors and donations were included in the paper each week. Quickly strengthening promotional efforts was considered especially important because car-ferry service was expected to begin in the near future, and the motoring public, able to bring automobiles and tour the islands, would be a natural target for such publicity.

New Destinations, More Yachts

New visitor destinations and facilities improvements had a major impact on tourism in the 1920s and 1930s. Fish were stocked in lakes on Orcas and Blakely islands; a camp for girls opened; and more waterfront cottages, such as the Huteson cottages on Orcas Island's Crescent Beach, opened to visitors, as did many new resorts. All provided more options for tourists to visit the islands in greater comfort and with more diverse activities available. Robert Moran (1857-1943), successful shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor, had established a home on Orcas Island early in the century and over the years had accumulated vast areas of surrounding land. In 1921 he donated 2,731 acres, including much of Mount Constitution, to be used as a state park. Named for Moran, the new park quickly became a popular camping area.

National interest in yachting increased, and the brisk breezes and stunning scenery of the islands were considered especially appealing to the sailing public. Sea-going visitors from Canada increased in number, too, so that by 1931 U.S. Customs officers could report that several hundred craft were cleared for travel and landing in island ports each summer. So many leisure boaters wanted to moor in major harbors that complaints were soon common that there weren't enough places to tie up, as moorings designated for visitors were being usurped by ships of the mosquito fleet.

Car Ferries Boost Tourism

The ability to bring automobiles to the islands was of inestimable value in encouraging tourism. The first car-carrying ferries, which arrived in the 1920s, were not purpose-built but rather freight and passenger vessels rebuilt and adapted to carry vehicles, and did not immediately replace the familiar steamships that still brought passengers to island ports. Wharves, such as at Upright Head on Lopez island, had to be adapted for cars too. Steamship-line ads in Seattle, Bellingham, and island newspapers continued to promote excursions and other services through and to the San Juans. Most excursions were publicized as cruises with a single stop in one of the island towns for lunch and activities or sightseeing for a few hours before the return trip.

Car-ferry ridership increased with the advent of the Black Ball Line, which bought out the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1930 and expanded the fleet. Black Ball ferries quickly became a familiar sight to islanders and a dependable, scheduled mode of transport. A 1932 Seattle Times article informed readers that the thrill of living in the Pacific Northwest "is never fully appreciated until one has visited the San Juan Islands" because "there is a mystery and romance woven into the lore of this famous archipelago that challenges imagination" ("San Juan Islands Charm ..."). And, the paper pointed out, travelers could now choose to take cars on the ferry to the islands or, as in the past, arrive as walk-on passengers.

Even during the difficult years of the Great Depression, island resorts, hotels, and other accommodations continued to have busy summer tourist seasons and islanders did all they could to encourage visitors. A home-beautification contest in Friday Harbor in 1935, for example, provided incentive for residents to spruce up their properties not just for the overall improvement of the town but because it could then be perceived as "the banner little city on Puget Sound, which would be the best possible advertisement to outside visitors" (Friday Harbor Journal, March 21, 1935). Local resorts reported good patronage, especially around the Fourth of July holiday. Participants in government work programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) improved roads, parks, and other facilities used by visitors. In 1938 the Black Ball Line received 7,727 inquiries about the San Juan Islands. The ferry charge that year for a car and driver was $2.20 plus an additional 65 cents per passenger.

As the nation's economy improved, tourism in the islands increased. By the 1940s, Orcas residents could boast that 20 resorts and five camps were open for visitors on their 57-square-mile island and new activities were being added to the offerings. Most of the resorts featured cottages, some housekeeping and some with meals provided in dining rooms in a main hall. Tennis, fishing, beachcombing, hiking, and even some swimming pools were available for vacation enjoyment. The islands continued to get good publicity not just in the region but up and down the coast to California. A new brochure was prepared to promote the islands, and the Friday Harbor Journal enthusiastically urged local residents to take responsibility for sending copies out to friends and business contacts across the country:

"Last weekend was a good sample of what the tourist and sightseer business mean to the San Juan Islands. Town full of people, waters teeming with yachts and cruisers, resorts filled to capacity, stores, garages, oil stations all doing a land office business. We have what it takes; all we need to do is let the world know about the San Juans. Get those folders going" ("Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," July 10, 1941).

U.S. entrance into World War II in December 1941 brought changes to every aspect of American life. Rationing of food and fuel limited options for travel and leisure spending. A labor shortage affected what services could be provided for residents and visitors alike. And an office of the Defense Department sent out a notice about summer travel that specified six purposes of travel that were considered non-essential and therefore to be avoided: "trips to other cities to visit friends, trips home for the weekend, sightseeing trips, trips to the theater, races or other places of amusement, any social travel for pleasure, travel merely for the sake of going somewhere" (Friday Harbor Journal, June 24, 1943). While wartime conditions and restrictions meant that fewer travelers were coming to explore the San Juan Islands, some resorts continued to be family respites throughout the early 1940s, with visitors coming back year after year to relax and refresh themselves at favorite, welcoming spots throughout the islands. In the decades after the war, as described in Part 2 of this article, tourism would quickly expand to become a major economic force in the county.


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