Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve (Whidbey Island)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/12/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22789
See Additional Media

Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is unique – the first, and as of 2023 only, national historical reserve in the United States. Established in 1978 by the National Parks and Recreation Act (NPRA), the Reserve's mission is to preserve, protect, manage, and interpret much of Central Whidbey Island, from the historic town of Coupeville in the east to pioneers Isaac and Rebecca Ebey's 1850 donation claim to the west. The Reserve initially encompassed only the 8,000-acre Central Whidbey Historical District, which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NHRP) in December 1973. The historical district and the Reserve were later enlarged to 17,572 acres – 13,617 acres of land and 3,955 surface acres of the waters of Penn Cove. The Reserve includes woodlands, open prairies, wetlands, shorelines, sloping uplands, dozens of historic structures, and the entire town of Coupeville. It is administered by a Trust Board of nine individuals – three representing the town of Coupeville, four representing Island County, and one each from the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and the National Park Service (NPS). Eighty-five percent of the land within the Reserve is privately owned, and a process of consultation, cooperation, and compromise to harmonize often-competing interests has been key to its success.

The Origins of Ebey's Landing

In 1850 Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), the first permanent white settler on Whidbey Island, claimed one square mile (640 acres) of mostly prairie land on a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet on the island's east side, 320 acres in his name and 320 acres in the name of his wife, Rebecca, who at the time remained in Missouri. Their claim was known thereafter as Ebey's Prairie.

In April 1851 Ebey wrote to his brother Winfield Scott Ebey (1831-1865) in Missouri:

"My dear brother – I scarcely know how I shall write or what I shall write ... To the north down along Admiralty Inlet ... the cultivating land is generally found confined to the valleys of streams with the exception of Whidbey's Island ... which is almost a paradise of nature. Good land for cultivation is abundant on this island. I have taken a claim on it and am now living on the same in order to avail myself of the provisions of the Donation Law. If Rebecca, the children, and you all were here, I think I could live and die here content" ("Ebey Letter," April 25, 1851).

Less than a mile away from the Ebeys' claim, the island's east shore is deeply indented by Penn Cove, a secure harbor for ships, with fertile prairies nearby. Members of the Lower Skagit Tribe, by far the largest Native American presence on the island, resided in several permanent villages on the shores of the cove and nearby waters. Also called Whidbey Island Skagits, they regarded more than 50,000 acres on Central Whidbey as part of their ancestral lands. Smaller numbers of Snohomish lived in two villages on South Whidbey, and there is evidence of a third Snohomish village on the island's west coast at Willow Point (now Bush Point).

Soon after Ebey's arrival in 1850, Coupeville on the south shore of Penn Cove and Coveland on the north became the first permanent American settlements on Puget Sound north of Olympia. In 1852 the Oregon Territorial Legislature picked Coveland (today called San de Fuca) as the official seat of Island County; in 1881 the Washington Territorial Legislature moved the seat to Coupeville.

In 1854 Isaac Ebey was appointed inspector for the Customs District of Puget Sound, and regular visits to Port Townsend to perform his duties convinced him that this was a city destined for greatness. To facilitate commerce between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend, he built a dock on Whidbey's west shore at the lowest point of Ebey Prairie's bluff. This became known as Ebey's Landing, and in 1860 Isaac's brother Winfield, who had come west with their parents in 1854, built Ferry House on the prairie at the top of the bluff to provide accommodations for travelers on Puget Sound. It still stands today in a part of the Reserve owned by the National Park Service. In 2019 the NPS received $867,000 from the U.S. Navy for the restoration and preservation of the historic structure.

Keeping the Past Present

The federal Historic Sites Act of 1935 declared "a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States" (49 Stat. 666, Sec. 1). Two years earlier, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) had been created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal response to the Great Depression. Administered by the Interior Department through the National Parks Service, the survey's purpose was not physical preservation, but rather to locate and thoroughly document buildings having historical significance. Even should the structures be lost, a permanent, comprehensive record of their existence, use, and character would remain.

This was a nationwide undertaking. On Central Whidbey alone, 18 historic structures were studied, documented, and listed on HABS before the end of 1935, almost all dating back to pioneer days. Perhaps because of their island location, these structures had endured and would endure; nearly 40 years later, 15 of the original 18 still stood. By 2022, 54 properties in and around Coupeville had been documented by HABS, including homes, public buildings, commercial buildings, barns, blockhouses, farms, even chicken coops.  

Game Changer

On October 15, 1966, more than 30 years after HABS was established, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). This was the first nationally directed program tasked with supporting and coordinating public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and when possible, preserve America's historical and archaeological resources. The statute created the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), which, like HABS, would be administered by the NPS. The register has become a vast, deeply researched catalog of buildings, other structures, and sites from around the nation that are deemed to be historically significant. The law's impact has been tremendous, but its application has often engendered controversy, particularly when attempts to preserve historic sites conflict with the foundational American reverence for private property.

Preserving the Prairie

Central Whidbey Island, anchored by the town of Coupeville, is saturated with the long history of its Indigenous peoples and the much shorter history of the non-Native settlers who displaced them. It also has an extraordinary number of relatively undisturbed historic structures and sites. This wealth of associations, structures, and artifacts has made Central Whidbey the primary focus of the island's preservationist movement.

In 1969 a group calling itself "Friends of Ebey's" was formed, dedicated to preserving Central Whidbey's heritage. It was not long before confrontation between pro-preservation and pro-development forces arose, triggered by a dispute over land use. Smith Farm, which occupied the northwestern half of Isaac Ebey's original claim, had been purchased by Harry Smith (1877-1958) in 1917, and upon his death it passed to his sons, Knight (1912-1970) and George (1922-1976). During the 1960s, the brothers farmed the land and bred cattle and horses, but before the decade was out had concluded that what they were doing was unprofitable and unsustainable.

In June 1968 the Smith brothers petitioned the Island County Board of Commissioners to reclassify 82 acres along the northwest boundary of their property from agricultural to rural residential. Without apparent objection, the request was granted. But in March 1970, the brothers asked that an additional 124 acres bordering the shoreline be similarly rezoned. This encompassed Ebey's Landing and much of Ebey's Prairie along the bluff -- among the most intensely historic and visually spectacular sites on the entire island.

This second rezone request caught the public's attention. In 1972 a new preservationist group, Save Whidbey Island For Tomorrow (SWIFT), was formed. There followed a years-long legal battle that pitted pro-preservation forces against landowners and well-funded, off-island development companies eager to capitalize on these extraordinarily attractive but deeply historic properties. A detailed recounting of that dispute is far beyond the scope of this article but can be found in Chapter 4 of "An Unbroken Historical Record: Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve Administrative History," cited in the sources below. It suffices to note here that the state supreme court's 1976 ruling in SWIFT v. Island County was in large part favorable to the preservationist side.

The Central Whidbey Island Historic District

The fight to preserve Ebey's Prairie became a catalyst for efforts to preserve much more of Central Whidbey Island, including dozens of structures, open space, vistas, agricultural land, Native American sites, and tidelands. Following the mandate of the NHPA, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission was working to inventory historic building and sites throughout the state. In 1970 the commission asked the Island County Historical Society to survey and document all structures in the county that were of sufficient age and significance to merit listing on the national register. Society member and longtime Island County records clerk Jimmie Jean Cook took on the mammoth and painstaking task of compiling information on each structure and its ownership history, using county records, archives, and interviews.

The original aim of Cook's survey was to document and nominate individual structures for placement on the national register. But as her research deepened, Cook discovered that the boundaries of many of the original Donation Land Law claims from the 1850s remained identifiable, evidenced by roads, fence lines, and other physical traces. One historian notes:

"It was becoming clear that she was describing not just individual structures but a unified historic district of great significance ... Cook outlined a wedge-shaped historic preservation district that radiated westward from the mouth of Penn Cove. The district followed the original Donation Land Claim boundaries, explicitly acknowledging the cultural landscape as well as historic buildings. It included more than eight thousand acres, with over 100 structures and sites, including properties in Fort Casey State Park" (McKinley, Ch. 4).

NHPA rules provide that an entire historic district could qualify for listing rather than registering separately each structure within the district. Cook completed her inventory by May 1972, and on October 16 that year, with the concurrence of the town of Coupeville and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Island County Commissioners created the Central Whidbey Island Historic District. It was this district, rather than individual buildings, that would be submitted for listing on the national register.

In the original application to the NRHP, the district was briefly described as:

"containing approximately 8,000 acres surrounding Penn Cove. Located within the District are: original Donation Land Claims preempted by early settlers according to the provisions of the Donation Land Law passed by the U. S. Congress in 1850; eighteen places listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey, fifteen of which still stand; Fort Casey, a turn of the century coastal defense installation and lighthouse; and numerous structures portraying a cross section of early domestic architecture" (NRHP Nomination Form, p. 19).

On December 12, 1973, the Central Whidbey Island Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The listing of private property on the NRHP does not, under federal laws or regulations, prohibit any actions that may otherwise be taken by a private owner, up to and including the property's complete destruction. Local governments, including cities, towns, and counties, can exert far greater control over the use of such property with a combination of land-use policies, design criteria, restrictive zoning, and incentives such as tax breaks to private landowners.

The National Parks and Recreation Act

In February 1977 Senator Frank Church (1924-1984) of Idaho introduced a bill for the limited purpose of funding the purchase of an addition to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in his state. By the time the final bill emerged from Congress in October 1978, it had morphed into the National Parks and Recreation Act (NPRA), one of the most expansive pieces of legislation ever passed affecting the nation's parks system. The statute provided increased funding for additions to dozens of parks, monuments, and other historic sites; increased financing for the further development of existing sites; and established 12 "new areas and additions to the National Trails System," including "Parks, Seashores, etc." (Public Law 95-625, Sec. 501 et seq.). So expansive was the law's reach that some opponents called it the "parks barrel bill" (McKinley, 43).

Due in large part to the efforts of Washington Representative Lloyd Meeds (1927-2005) of the state's 2nd Congressional District (which includes Island County) and U.S. Senator Henry Jackson (1912-1983), the bill established Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve (commonly abbreviated as EBLA). Its inclusion was not a certainty; among the early opponents of the Reserve was Russell E. Dickinson (1923-2008), then Northwest regional director of the National Park Service, soon to be the agency's overall director. Despite such influential skeptics, the bill became law with the Reserve intact, the first and still only (2023) reserve of its type in the nation.

Section 508 (a) of NPRA reads, in part:

"There is hereby established the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve (hereinafter referred to as the "reserve"), in order to preserve and protect a rural community which provides an unbroken historical record from nineteenth century exploration and settlement in Puget Sound to the present time, and to commemorate --

                (1) the first thorough exploration of the Puget Sound area, by Captain George Vancouver, in 1792;

                (2) settlement by Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey who led the first permanent settlers to Whidbey Island, quickly became an important figure in Washington Territory, and ultimately was killed by Haidahs from the Queen Charlotte Islands during a period of Indian unrest in 1857;

                (3) early active settlement during the years of the Donation Land Law (1850-1855) and thereafter; and

                (4) the growth since 1883 of the historic town of Coupeville.

The reserve shall include the area of approximately eight thousand acres identified as the Central Whidbey Island Historic District" (92 Stat. 3507, 3508).

(Historical note: With regard to Sec. 508(a)(2) above, more recent research indicates that Isaac Ebey was slain not by "Haidahs," but by warlike Tlingits from Kake Village far to the north. In November 1856 a Kake raiding party was shelled at Port Gamble by an American warship, the USS Massachusetts. Several Tlingits were killed, including a chief. Tribal custom required the killing of an enemy chief in revenge, and a large contingent of warriors returned south in August 1857 to take their vengeance. After learning that Isaac Ebey carried the military rank of Colonel and was the most prominent white man on the island, the raiders went to his home, shot and beheaded him, and took his head back to their village as a trophy.)

The NPRA explicitly included the Central Whidbey Island Historic District's 8,000 or so original acres in Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, but didn't preclude future additions. In fact, the Reserve's boundaries would remain coterminous with those of the historic district as more and more acreage was added over the following years. A 1997 amendment to the historic district's 1972 NRHP inventory noted that the district (and thus the Reserve) had grown to encompass approximately 17,000 acres, of which approximately 85 percent was privately owned. The Reserve now included historic sites associated with the Skagit villages on Penn Cove and the military installations at Fort Casey and Fort Ebey.

Step by Step

A national reserve is a partnership between federal, state, and local authorities to manage a protected area that is a mix of federal land, state parks and forests, local public lands, and private property. It takes but little imagination to conceive just how difficult it could be to administer a historical reserve that is 85 percent privately owned. This was largely uncharted territory, but the NPRA provided a framework to get things started:

Section 508 (b) (1): To achieve the purpose of this section, the Secretary, in cooperation with the appropriate State and local units of general government, shall formulate a comprehensive plan for the protection, preservation, and interpretation of the Reserve. The plan shall identify those areas or zones within the Reserve which would most appropriately be devoted to –

                (A) public use and development;

                (B) historic and natural preservation; and

                (C) private use subject to appropriate local zoning ordinances designed to protect the historical rural setting.

Washington state, Island County, and the town of Coupeville each had land-use jurisdiction over parts of the Reserve, and the comprehensive plan required the adoption of zoning and land-use ordinances that would protect the district's historic and natural features. Only then would management of the Reserve be turned over to the local governments.

The Conceptual Plan

Before a comprehensive plan could be developed, a conceptual plan was needed. In February 1979 the Island County Board of Commissioners and Jack McPherson, the mayor of Coupeville, jointly appointed a 12-member citizens' planning committee, the first of its kind in the nation. A variety of interests affected by the Reserve were represented – farmers, preservationists (including Jimmie Jean Cook), a historian, two artists, two businessmen, a realtor, a jeweler, and Reed Jarvis of the National Park Service. Given this diversity, a degree of distrust and conflict was inevitable:

"But with no precedents to follow, developing a conceptual plan for the reserve would be challenging. The language of the legislation was general, and no detailed NPS guidelines existed that explained how to plan or manage a reserve ... The committee also had the difficult task of reconciling widely divergent views regarding land management within the community. Objectives needed to be broad enough to satisfy everyone without jeopardizing the historic and rural character of the landscape. Because all meetings for the conceptual plan took place in public, they provided a forum for the local citizenry ... Developing the conceptual plan would take several months" (McKinley, 65).

Different areas required different treatment. A map showing the types of land use in the Reserve was prepared, and the committee selected five primary "visual" or scenic areas deemed of critical importance: Ebey's Prairie; the coastal strip on its west (Ebey's Landing); Keystone Spit; Crockett Lake and uplands; and Grasser's Hill and Lagoon. Three secondary visual areas – Smith Prairie, Coupeville, and the Fort Casey Uplands – were also identified. Len Engle, one of three committee members representing farmers, described the approach: "We 'dropped a rock' at Ebey's Landing, and the ripple effect going away from it was how we developed the initial concept of what to preserve" (McKinley, 50).

After identifying the most significant areas of the Reserve, the focus turned to the natural and historical landmarks within each area. Because much of the land was in agricultural use and the average age of those working the farms was nearly 60, preserving the Reserve's prairie farmland ranked high on the list of priorities. After extensive discussion and debate, in May 1979 the committee selected by vote 17 areas deemed of special significance and in need of urgent attention – what one member called the Reserve's "heartwood" (McKinley, 50):

  1. Ebey's Landing/Perego's Bluff and Perego's Lake/Hill Road
  2. Ebey's Prairie and Valley Sides
  3. Town of Coupeville
  4. Fort Casey/Keystone Spit/Camp Casey Campus
  5. Monroe's Landing
  6. Crockett Prairie
  7. Jacob Ebey Uplands and Ridge
  8. Scenic Highway Routes
  9. Grasser's Hill
  10. Fort Ebey/Point Partridge
  11. Grasser's Lagoon
  12. Crockett Uplands
  13. San de Fuca/West Beach Uplands
  14. Fort Casey Uplands
  15. Kettleholes
  16. Blowers Bluff and Uplands
  17. Smith Prairie

By early 1980 the conceptual plan was complete, and despite some opposition voiced at public hearings, it was adopted by the Island County Board of Commissioners. The citizens' committee, its conceptual work done, formally disbanded. A mere four months remained until the NPRA deadline for creating a comprehensive plan expired.

The Trust Board

Reed Jarvis of the NPS led the preparation of the comprehensive plan, which was completed before the deadline. The NPRA did not specify how the reserve was to be governed once turned over to local control, leaving that to be determined in the comprehensive plan. A preliminary management plan was completed by Jarvis in 1983, and in early 1985 he invited the Reserve's governmental partners to select representatives to form a "Trust Board." The town of Coupeville and Island County appointed citizen volunteers to fixed terms of four years (later reduced to three years); the state of Washington and the National Park Service assigned paid professionals for unspecified terms. As with the citizens' planning committee, the Trust Board's membership represented diverse and sometimes disparate interests.

The Trust Board held its first meeting in March 1985. Many issues remained unresolved, including questions of financing and the details of the Trust Board's management guidelines. Reed Jarvis and NPS ranger Kris Ravetz launched "an eighteen-month seminar on how to become a trust board" (McKinley, 77). The NPRA had specific requirements that had to be met before the secretary of the interior could cede authority over the Reserve to the local governments. It was hoped the handover would happen in 1986, but it was not to be. There were simply too many outstanding issues to be resolved, but one stood out.

The statute that created the Reserve authorized the secretary of the interior to transfer administrative authority over the Reserve only "to the State or appropriate units of local government" (92 Stat. 3506, Sec. 508 (2)(c)(1). Island County was the only unit of local government whose regulatory ambit encompassed the Reserve, but its commissioners feared that if they accepted the sole responsibility, the county would be "saddled with an expense for which it did not have an adequate revenue source" (McKinley, 79). For its part, Coupeville made up but a small part of the entire Reserve, and the thought of it assuming management responsibility for the entirety was not seriously considered.

Island County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Jamieson found a way around this standoff. The Washington Interlocal Cooperation Act authorizes "any agency, political subdivision, or unit of local government of this state including, but not limited to, municipal corporations, quasi municipal corporations, special purpose districts, and local service districts; any agency of the state government … to create joint boards for the administration of services or functions common to two or more governmental units" (RCW 39.34.20). If the Trust Board was established pursuant to this law, it could be considered a single unit of local government, competent to accept the transfer of administrative authority over the Reserve. This proved key to resolving the dilemma, and in July 1988 Island County, the town of Coupeville, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, and the NPS signed an "Interlocal Agreement for the Administration of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve." On July 24, 1988, full authority to administer and manage the Reserve was formally transferred to the Trust Board in a ceremony at the Prairie Overlook.

Into a New Century

As of 2023, the Trust Board was made up of four volunteers representing Island County, three volunteers representing the town of Coupeville, and a staff representative from both the state parks commission and the National Park Service. While not represented on the board, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Whidbey Island Conservation District, Whidbey Camano Land Trust, Friends of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, The Nature Conservancy, and the Washington State Department of Transportation have significant input as "interested agencies and organizations" ("Fact Sheet").

Administering and managing the Reserve can be a complicated and at times contentious task, but the board's mission statement is succinct: "The Trust Board works through partnerships to preserve and protect Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve so it forever remains a living, rural community with an unbroken historical record." It has largely succeeded. The NPS estimates that the Reserve attracts approximately one million visitors a year, drawn by "The pastoral setting and views of open prairies, forests, farmsteads, donation land claims, Puget Sound, and surrounding mountain ranges [that] are largely unchanged since original settlement of the area" ("Fact Sheet").

Laura McKinley, An Unbroken Historical Record: Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, Administrative History (Seattle: National Park Service, Pacific Northwest Region, 1993), National Park Service website accessed December 1, 2022 (http://npshistory.com/publications/ebla/adhi.pdf); SWIFT v. Island County, 87 Wn.2d 348, 552 P.2d 175 (1976);  Jimmie Jean Cook, National Register Nomination Form for the Central Whidbey Island Historic District, 1972, National Park Service website accessed November 20, 2022 (http://npshistory.com/publications/ebla/nr-cent-whidbey-is-hd.pdf); Cathy Gilbert and Gretchen Luxenberg, Central Whidbey Island Historic District (1997 amendment), National Park Service website accessed November 20, 2022 (http://npshistory.com/publications/ebla/nr-cent-whidbey-is-hd.pdf); "Foundation Document Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve," National Park Service website accessed December 4, 2022 (http://npshistory.com/publications/foundation-documents/ebla-fd-2018.pdf); "Historic Sites Act," Public Law 74-292, 49 Stat. 666 (1935); "National Historic Preservation Act," Public Law 89-665, 80 Stat. 915 (1966); "National Parks and Recreation Act," Public Law 95-625, 92 Stat. 3467 (1978); "Interlocal Cooperation Act," 1967 Wash. Laws ch.65; "History of HABS HAER HALS," Dennis Hill, Content Creation website accessed December 5, 2022 (https://dennishill.com/history-of-habs-haer-hals/); Letter, Isaac Ebey to Winfield Scott Ebey, April 25, 1851, excerpted in "Ebey's Landing, History and Culture," National Park Service website accessed November 28, 2022 (https://www.nps.gov/ebla/learn/historyculture/index.htm); "Friends of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve," Friends of Ebey's website accessed September 3, 2023 (http://www.friendsofebeys.org/); "Interlocal Agreement for the Administration of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve," Island County Auditor record No. 88009136, copy in possession of John Caldbick, Langley, Washington; "The Trust Board of Ebey’s Reserve," Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve website accessed August 28, 2023 (https://www.ebeysreserve.com/trust-board); "Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve Fact Sheet," National Park Service website accessed September 6, 2023 (https://www.nps.gov/ebla/learn/management/ebeys-landing-nhr-fact-sheet.htm); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whidbey Island – Thumbnail History (by John Caldbick), "North Coast Indians, likely members of the Kake tribe of Tlingits, behead Isaac Ebey on August 11, 1857 (by Patrick McRoberts) https://www.historylink.org/

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You