Anderson Island -- Thumbnail History

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 11/04/2020
  • Essay 21119
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The southernmost island in Puget Sound, Anderson Island has forged its identity in the background of its better-known neighbor, McNeil. It comprises 7.75 square miles, with about 14 miles of convoluted shoreline. Drayton Passage separates it from the Key Peninsula to the northwest and the Nisqually Flats lie just below its southernmost tip. A ferry connects it to Steilacoom, 3-1/2 miles to the east, and passengers looking north can see the arches of the Narrows bridges, 8 miles to the northeast. The year-round population is something over 1,000 as of 2020, growing to around 4,000 in the summers. Although increased ferry service and remote work opportunities have attracted more commuters and younger families, it is best known as a retirement community. It was settled originally mostly by Scandinavian immigrants, who saw it as a place to pursue familiar trades in the woods and on the water, and it remains a literally insular community, self reliant and low key, with a strong interest in its agrarian past.

Naming Rights

Anderson Island first entered the historical record in 1841, when American Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), captain of the eponymous expedition and a prolific namer of places, called it Anderson in honor of Alexander Anderson (1814-1884), a Hudson's Bay trader at Fort Nisqually who had been helpful to him. Wilkes also named the island geography of Oro Bay, Yoman Point, and Otso Point. Members of the Wilkes expedition were not the first white visitors, however. In 1792, Peter Puget's longboat crew camped at Oso Bay on the third night of their survey of the southern Sound, dining on wild raspberry shoots and salmon provided by the local tribes. According to Cecelia Svinth Carpenter (1924-2010), a Nisqually tribal member and historian, the tribe called it Klol-Ehk-S (Stephenson, 10). Though the island was probably not a village site, the Nisqually and Steilacoom tribes visited to harvest and process shellfish, pick berries, and fell some of its towering cedars for canoes.

It took a while for the Anderson name to take hold. The British called it "the little island" when Hudson's Bay workers logged parts of it in 1850 and later applied the name of Wallace, after Leander Wallace. Young Wallace, an American, may have established a home on the island before he died, in 1849, in a skirmish outside the Hudson's Bay compound. Another early name was Settlers Island.

Visitors and Settlers

The early residents themselves came and went. Nathaniel Orr (d. 1896) took a donation claim in 1854 but left it in 1855 to join the Washington Territorial Volunteers, after which he settled in Steilacoom.

Michael Fleenan Luark (1818-1901) rowed a scow to the island and set up a cedar bough shelter in April 1854. He and a companion named Ballard made a shelter of cedar boughs and got to work sawing pilings and cordwood. He continued the journal he had kept while coming west on the Oregon Trail, and is responsible for some of the earliest descriptions of Anderson Island landscape and fauna: "Seeing no signs of man, and feeling (no doubt) that he was the Sir Francis Drake of this small circumscribed world, he christened the lakes [now Lake Josephine and Lake Florence] The Twin Sisters, and observed that 'the island would be beautiful for a rich man's retired residence'" (Heckman, Island..., 60). After that prescient statement, he left for Montesano. The woodcutting camps continued, but when they closed -- the easy, close-to-shoreline pickings being gone -- the island was uninhabited by whites until 1870.

The first long-term white settler was Christian Christensen (1841-1887), a Danish immigrant who cut and sold wood for the burgeoning steamship trade. Several of his siblings also spent time on Anderson. In 1872, he married Helda Marie Cardell (1853-1933), an 18-year-old cousin who had sailed from Denmark to join him. After the ceremony they rowed the six miles from Steilacoom to their cabin on the island. By the time he died of pneumonia in 1887, they had six children and a seventh on the way. Helda stayed on, remarrying after a couple of years to August Lindstrom (1853-1897). Several years later, Lindstrom shot himself and their young son Conrad, leaving a note that he didn't want his son to grow up in this "rascally world," (Heckman, Island..., 75). Helda and her surviving children persevered once more, bringing the farm into the twentieth century.

The second settler family was John (c. 1825-1896) and Ann Ekenstam (d. 1901), who came along with seven of their 11 children in February 1879. Unlike many immigrants, they were an established family on arrival to their 212-acre homestead, bringing an array of household furniture and livestock. The humans were able to walk to shore along the dock built by the Christensens. The cow had to swim. They settled on a spot that has been rumored but not proven to have been occupied by Leander Wallace before his death. The Ekenstams grew wheat and refurbished an orchard that had been damaged by neglect and the depredations of the island's herd of wild cattle. They had good relations with local tribes, and more nervous ones with the "Victoria Indians" (Island..., 78), northern bands that sometimes traveled down from Vancouver Island and Haida Gwai in their oceangoing canoes. An Ekenstam family story recalled the time a tribal group landed near the farm in late summer and stripped the orchard of every apple, pear, and plum, carrying the fruit to the shore in cedar baskets and then, after a intimidating confusion of gestures, departing. When the children walked to the shoreline later, they realized that the raid had been a trade. A massive painted and carved canoe, one of the masterworks of Northwest Coast art and craft, was left behind.

The third family, Bengt (1836-1917) and Anna Nilson Johnson (1859-1939) and their baby son Gunnard (1880-1943), landed on the island in the spring of 1881.They had originally settled in Enumclaw after their migration took Bengt from Sweden to Chicago, to Kansas (where he met and married Anna) to the Pacific Northwest, but they found the abundant black bears of the Cascade foothills troublesome. On a visit to the dock at Steilacoom, Bengt heard a man "swearing forcefully in Swedish" (Bergman, 50), and struck up a conversation. The man praised his homestead site on Anderson, and Bengt was interested. (The island's bearlessness was in its favor.)  

Bengt was already in his mid-40s, and had some financial resources. He bought more than 400 acres on Anderson and spent another $3,000 to build a brick-lined cistern on his wharf and piping to bring water up to it. The idea was to sell steamboats the wherewithal to make steam. Soon after he finished the project, the advent of condensers, which trapped hot steam so it could be returned to water and reused, meant the ships no longer had to stock up at every stop. They still needed wood to fire the boilers, though, as much as 16 cords a day, so Johnson adapted by giving away fresh drinking and washing water to ships that bought his timber.

Beyond cutting an estimated 80,000 cords of wood, he had big plans for his farm. He wanted a substantial orchard, and pasture and hay for a herd of beef cattle. And he was known for decisive action. When crows ate the clover he had seeded to get his pasture started, he retaliated by strewing the acreage with wheat kernels laced with strychnine. So many crows were poisoned that he then had to hire help to dispose of the feathery corpses in the Sound.

The Johnsons had six more children in the next 16 years. Their third child, Emil, died in 1883 after just a month, and was the first known burial on the island. Their youngest daughter and fifth child, Betsey Johnson Cammon (1886-1975), became an island matriarch and chronicler.

Nels Magnus (1828-1897) and Anna Petterson (1833-1919) also stopped in Kansas on their way west from Sweden. They and their three youngest children -- Andrew (1866-1903), Anna (1872-1925), and Carl (1879-1947) -- arrived at Anderson Island arrived in 1882 and bought 270 acres. They farmed for a few years before returning to their previous home in Heppner, Oregon. By 1892, they were back on the island raising livestock and using their construction skills to raise community buildings.

A Nordic Enclave

The early settlers were almost exclusively white, and more specifically Scandinavian, primarily Swedes and Swede Finns. The one Asian island dweller that early islanders remembered, a Chinese woodcutter who lived alone in a cabin he had built himself, vanished during the Chinese expulsion from Tacoma in 1885. "He had gone to town by steamer, as he sometimes did, to visit other members of his race," Bessie Cammon told Hazel Heckman. "He never returned to the island" (Heckman, Island..., 97).

Formal Lutheran services began in 1896, with Sunday gatherings rotating among households on Anderson and McNeil islands. The pastor of the Swedish Lutheran Church in Tacoma would come out once a month or so on a weekday, usually boarding at the Johnsons near the steamboat landing. Islanders went to Tacoma for more formal religious occasions, including weddings. When it came time to have their own building, a committee made up of residents of both islands chose land offered on the south end of McNeil Island. Anderson Island worshippers rowed across, and after-service activities were timed to the tides and currents. Nels Magnus and Carl Petterson were among the charter members.

When the McNeil Island church closed in the 1950s, Anderson Islanders organized a Sunday School on the island and in 1964 began formal planning for a building. Construction began in 1967. Lowell Johnson, the great-grandson of the Nels Magnus Petterson, who built the island's first schoolhouse in 1883, was the lead contractor for a volunteer crew. The first official event at Anderson Island Community Church was a teen dance on New Year's Eve, 1968, and the church building was dedicated January 23, 1969.

The Community Church, which is nondenominational, was one sign of many that islanders by the later twentieth century were no longer overwhemingly Lutheran. There is now a Lutheran Church as well, however, as well as the Anderson Island Christian Fellowship and a Latter Day Saints congregration.

Wide Awake Scholars

Though the early settlers were few, their children were many. The first three families together had enough offspring to justify a school. Calvin Wilt was the first island teacher, instructing the seven school-age children who were there in 1882. He was followed by five more teachers in the next five years. The pay -- $110 for three months of instruction, plus janitorial duties -- likely contributed to the turnover, along with limited social life and sparse work opportunities in the off-season. The school year ran June through August, when the walking trails were at their driest. Since the government land allotted for school construction was largely underwater, and the part that was dry was hard to get to, after a first year in a vacant house by Oro Bay, islanders chose their own site. In 1883, Christian Christensen donated 10 acres near the center of the island. Islanders built a 26' x 16' building for $113.87 in lumber and labor. The school was named Wide Awake Hollow.

In 1889, the school year was extended to six months in three month segments with a break for haying season in the middle. The school age population grew through the early 1900s, and then began to dwindle with narrowing job prospects on the island. By 1958, there were only 106 full-time residents on the island, fewer than in 1920, and the student population was back down to seven. The school was closed, and for the next 32 years, grade school children commuted by boat to McNeil.

Anderson Island Elementary School reopened in a new building in 1980 with 12 students and in 2020 was up to 34. Middle and high school students continued to travel to Steilacoom for their education, as they had since early days. The original building, now a fitness center, remains, thanks to the Anderson Island Park and Recreation District, which was formed to preserve it. It is the oldest surviving one-room schoolhouse in Pierce County.

Making a Living

There have never been many paycheck jobs on Anderson Island. Early residents made their living primarily from the land and the sea, shifting to the next opportunity when the market changed or the resource was used up.

Business-minded islanders tried a number of enterprises over the decades, few of which lasted long. The island was too small to be a stand-alone commercial community, and too isolated to make exporting financially feasible after the timber ran out. There was no store on the island until 1912, so residents shopped on board steamboats that churned a route through the Sound. One of them, the Otter, stopped at McNeil Island once a week and Anderson residents rowed over. Others included the Vaughn, which docked at Anderson with the Ehricke family living aboard, and the Ruby Marie, which supplemented Gus and Emma Carlson's grocery store at Oro Bay. Most early trade was by barter -- island produce in return for dry goods and hardware. For trips to the mainland for bigger purchases and other errands, islanders could take a steamboat for 50 cents or row themselves the three-plus miles over and back.  

Clay deposits are common around Puget Sound, and many locations hosted brickyards. Anderson Island got one in 1890, at Jacob's Point, managed by Charles Anderson and possibly later by John Koucher and his son Charles. The Panic of 1893 dealt it a death blow, though it hung on for a few years more. The equipment was hauled away, but some of the workers remained and became islanders. (The remains of the brickyard are part of the park at Jacob's Point, and are of archeological interest, with field work through the Evergreen State College tentatively scheduled for 2021.)

Albert McCay was the first resident to take up commercial shrimping, needing an income beyond farming to support his large family. He started with a skiff, a trawl and a winch soon after his arrival in 1894. By 1896 he had teamed up with Frank Brown to operate a small steamer, dragging the sea bottom for shrimp, cooking them on board with water heated by piped steam from the ship's engine, and wholesaling them around Puget Sound. At the height of the season in the early 1900s, a skilled and lucky shrimper might bring in a ton a day, good money even at 4.5 cents per pound.  That bounty was unsustainable, though, and overfishing depleted the beds and ended the local industry by the 1930s. 

In the 1910s, much uncut timber remaining on the island burned. That opened ground led to masses of wild huckleberries, small and time consuming to pick but intensely flavored. They became a new source of cash, sold to a packing house at Longbranch, across Drayton Passage on the Key Peninsula. The big harvests lasted until the understory vegetation regrew and shaded out the bushes, diminishing production. Huckleberry and other foliage remained a "crop" of sorts, attracting brush pickers who supply the florist trade with sturdy greenery. But that requires forested land, which diminishes as housing multiplies.

The Ferry Era

Ferry service began April 1, 1922, when the Elk, a recycled fish carrier, began its run from Longbranch to Steilacoom with a stop at Anderson. Two years later it was replaced by the larger City of Steilacoom. After that came the Tahoma, built in 1939, and the Islander, purchased in 1967. The Christine Anderson took over the route in 1995 and is in service as of 2020, joined by its twin, the Steilacoom 2.

In addition to increased ferry capacity, the arrival of community electricity on the island, started with 44 houses connected by submersible cable in 1961, led to a population spike. From 110 residents in 1960, the count grew to around 400 in 1980 and over a thousand by 2010. Most of the newcomers settled in the real estate development called the Riviera Community Club, which comprises around 800 homes built on more than 3000 lots, mostly inland, centered around Lakes Josephine and Florence. It includes a golf course, restaurant, marina, and park land. By 2020, about 70 percent of the island's population lives in the development.  

Pierce County Fire District 27, established on the island in 1978, was one response to population growth. Like the first church, its creation was a community project. Fire fighting had previously been an informal system where neighbors were alerted by one long ring on the community phone line. And volunteers pooled their cash to buy a decrepit ambulance for medical calls. Morris Krepky (1918-2005), Mary Jane Reynolds (d. 2014), and Jim Morrison decided to move past these ad hoc accommodations and garnered community support to apply to Pierce County for a local fire district. By 1981 they had funded a dedicated building with equipment and a crew of volunteer firefighters and EMTS. Since then the district has added a fire boat for marine emergencies and transport.  

Ever larger-capacity ferries and more frequent runs have driven a variety of changes in island life. The Tahoma held nine cars and made five runs a day. As of 2020 the 54-car Christine Anderson and Steilacoom 2 run a combined 14 times a day with five more weekend crossings added in the summer. This steadily increasing auto capacity and number of trips, along with more opportunities for working remotely, has allowed the island to become a bedroom community, to the dismay of many longer-established residents. Lot sizes in the Riveria Community Club are smaller than on the rest of the island, allowing for more density and more pressure on the aquifer that supplies Anderson Island's water. Some wells have experienced saltwater intrusion, and reserve osmosis desalinization systems are now sold on the island.

"Having lived on Anderson Island for the past 7 years, I've never before witnessed such a dramatic change in the island as I have during the past year when Pierce County added a later ferry run on weekdays," wrote Elizabeth Galentine in 2005. "Just three additional runs per day has substantially affected our small island" ("The Anderson Island Effect").

The Johnson Farm

Although increased ferry runs make commuting more feasible, the island population is still weighted toward retirees, and more particularly toward active people who are good at creating their own institutions and entertainment. That combination has led to a busy round of annual events, many of them centered around the Anderson Island Farm Museum.

Oscar (1895-1969) and Rudy (1903-1975) Johnson ran their family farm until the 1970s. Oscar, who was wounded in World War I, had used his Army disability benefits to attend an agricultural course at Washington State College (now WSU). When his father died in 1924, he took over management, assisted by Rudy. The Johnson brothers milked half a dozen Jersey cows and kept around 2,000 chickens. They sold eggs and cream off island for decades, while providing their neighbors with checked eggs and milk at minimal cost. Island customers "never paid for anything at the time," said Jean Gordon ("The Johnson Farm Story"). The Johnsons kept a tally record for each island customer and "it was pretty hard to get anybody to send a bill," Gordon said. Generations of local teenagers helped out with milking, haying, egg gathering and sorting, and the endless round of firewood cutting and splitting, working for around 50 cents an hour and a quart of milk a day. The farthest geographical reach of Johnson farm production came from the hens that had passed their laying prime. Starting in the 1950s, they were hauled away by C.A. Swanson & Company to become TV dinners. 

Once health department rules forbade the selling of the farm's unpasteurized milk for human consumption, many islanders developed a need for "cat milk," which the Johnsons were happy to provide.

The Future Meets the Past

After Rudy's death in 1975, their niece Alma Ruth Laing (1931-1919) inherited the farm. Her donation of seven acres including 14 wooden buildings launched the Anderson Island Historical Society on July 15, 1975. John and Karen Parks donated an additional 20 acres, allowing for the establishment of an orchard and a community garden. After years of working to refurbish and refurnish the historical buildings, the society embarked on new construction to accommodate its expanding plans to recall and preserve island history. Construction of an archival building was authorized in 2007, with the design, "described as two chicken coops joined by a hall," ("The Johnson Farm") finalized in 2013. Thanks to donations both monetary and material and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, with average worker age of well past 60, the building passed its final inspection on January 19, 2017, with "no residual debt at all," according to Ed Stephenson, the volunteer project manager ("The Johnson Farm"). The first annual Island Art Show was held shortly thereafter.

The Association puts on a yearly round of events that keep residents occupied, as participants and spectators, without needing to head for the mainland for entertainment. The art show is followed by the Easter Egg Hunt, the spring benefit concert, a Farm Day on Memorial Day weekend, a July salmon bake, a summer band concert, a film festival, an October apple squeeze using the harvest from the orchard, and a Holiday Open House at the farmhouse. A museum and a gift shop featuring local artists is open on summer weekends and holidays, with docents available for tours. Volunteer landscapers and gardeners maintain the grounds and organize the 32 community garden plots.

Their work parties and meetings echo the ethos of the early days of settlement, when islanders joined forces to create the community they wanted. On apple squeezing day in 2020, using fruit from their community orchard and the Red Dragon, a repurposed potato harvester turned into an efficient press, they illustrated the description by the island's best-known chronicler Hazel Heckman, 60 years prior, "a horn of plenty and diminutive Eden" (Heckman, "Island...," 5).


Hans Bergman, History of Scandinavians in Tacoma and Pierce County with Brief History of Tacoma and early Settlement, Tacoma, 1926; Nancy Covert, "The Red Dragon Cider Press," The Suburban Times, October 18, 2012, Suburban Times website accessed October 16, 2012 (; Elizabeth Galentine and  Debbie Lowe, "The Anderson Island Effect," website accessed September 30, 2020 (; Joan Curtis, "An Afternoon on Anderson Island," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 1987, 1, 4-10; Kim Thompson, "The Island Kids: The Story of a Small School with Big Community Support," Sep 30, 2011, University Place, Wasington website accessed September 30, 2020 (; Elizabeth Galentine and the Anderson Island Historical Society, Anderson Island: Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C.: 2006; Lucy Stephenson, Michal Sleight, and Rick Anderson, Legendary Locals of Anderson Island, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, NC: 2015; Hazel Heckman, Island in the Sound, University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1967; Hazel Heckman, Island Year, University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1972; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound, University of Washington Press: Seattle, 2018; Betsey Johnson Cammon, Island Memoir, Personal History of Anderson and McNeil Island, Anderson Island Historical Society: Anderson Island, 1987; "Our History," Anderson Island Community Church website accessed September 30, 2020 (; "The Johnson Farm Story," directed by John Larsen, posted by Anderson Island Historical Society, March 31, 2020 accessed October 12, 2020 (; "Stephenson Hall Posters: The History of Anderson Island," Anderson Island Historical Society website accessed October 15, 2020 (; "Patterson Fletcher Luark and Michael Fleenan Luark, 1853 Oregon Trail Diaries," Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington website accessed October 10, 2020 ( 20Materials/Reading%20the%20Region/Writing%20Home/Commentary/1.html).


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