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The History of Anacortes
Early History of Fidalgo Island

In many ways, Fidalgo Island struggles for its rightful place among romantic histories of the region. Fidalgo, so named for Spanish explorer Lt. Salvador Fidalgo, gets far less romantic press than neighboring islands including Whidbey and San Juan. The reality is that many people who arrive here via Deception Pass or Duane Berentson bridges are unaware they are on an island at all.

Too many Northwest neighbors think of Fidalgo Island as nothing more than home to a state ferry terminal anda stretch of twisting highway that connects Whidbey Island to the mainland. A glance at the history books,however, reveals a rich history – and recent census figures provide ample evidence that Fidalgo Island is anything but old news.

The island’s status in the story of the white man’s settlement of this region is told in part in "History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties," a book compiled by the Interstate Publishing Company at the turn of the century:

"It was after the Fraser River excitement (gold rush of 1858) began its influence ... that the first permanent settler commenced the task of home-building in what is now the county of Skagit," reported the authors. "In a land where the sound of the locomotive’s whistle had never yet been heard, where roads of any kind were not in existence and where waterways were practically the only means of travel, it is not surprising that an island should be chosen as the site of early settlement.

"Furthermore, on Fidalgo was one very potent attraction to those who would follow husbandry (farming) in a densely timbered country. At the head of Fidalgo Bay was a fern-covered prairie of considerable area, a prairie which is said had been a favorite camping-ground with the Indian tribes for unknown ages."

This book tells of a decision by adventurer Charles W. Beale, his cousin Robert and a party of four others to build a cabin on what is now known as March Point. Among those in the Beale party was Lt. Robert H. Davis, nephew of the man who would be come president of the Confederacy.

According to this history book, Davis "gave up his wild ways," returning home to fight in the Civil War. His place in the Northwest was filled by William Bonner, who sold his property rights in December 1869 to William Munks. Many settlers followed. Almina Richards Griffin, wife of John T. Griffin, is credited with being the first white woman to live on the island. She and her husband arrived from Whatcom in the late 1860s. By the early Seventies, settlement on the island was permanent.

"Practically all the government land was taken by 1873," reported the History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties. "The inhabitants were enjoying semi-weekly communication by steamer with the outside world, while in their own settlement they had two stores, two blacksmith shops, a wheelwright’s shop, a post office and a good public school."

Courtesy of Tesoro Refinery
Courtesy of Port of Anacortes
Courtesy of Port of Anacortes


Much of the development of the Seventies was due to speculation that the island would be selected as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Extensive holdings along the shore of Ship Harbor were secured by Hazard Stephens, son of Governor Isaac I. Stevens.

"It remained the property of the Stevens family until 1877," reports the History, "when the clouds became so thick over the Northern Pacific Railway project that it seemed the road would never be completed."

It was not completed, and Stevens sold his property to Mrs. Anna (Curtis) Bowman, wife of city founder Amos Bowman.

This is where most histories of the island begin. A slightly corrupted version of Anna Curtis Bowman’s name was talken for the island’s ‘capital’ city – Anacortes. This city ultimately would be the only incorporated community on the island.

Among those reputed to be the first permanent settlers on the neighboring mainland of Skagit County was Samuel Calhoun. Already the Swinomish Channel that defines Fidalgo’s east shore had the reputation as a formidable body of water. Neighboring farmers and Swinomish tribal leaders alike scoffed when Calhoun began to dike a farm adjacent to the Slough – but the diking succeeded and Calhoun soon brought in bumper crops.

Let there be no mistake. Fidalgo – home of lakes, forests, beaches and harbors – is an island steeped in history.

BY STEVE BERENTSON

FIDALGO AND GUEMES ISLAND HISTORY

NATIVE AMERICANS 10,000 B.C. - PRESENT
For more than 10,000 years people have lived in the Fidalgo and Guemes Island areas. The most recent native peoples to arrive are the Samish and the Swinomish. The Samish lived mainly on Samish, Guemes and northern Fidalgo islands, the Swinomish on southern Fidalgo Island, northern Whidbey Island and part of the Skagit River delta. In 1873 the Swinomish Reservation was established on southeastern Fidalgo Island, where many of the Swinomish and other native Skagit peoples live today. In 1996 the Samish were officially recognized as a tribe.

EXPLORATION 1790-1792

  • 1790: Spanish explorer Carrasco discovered the entrances to present Deception Pass and to Rosario Strait.
  • 1791: Spanish explorer Narvaez of the Eliza Expedition discovered and named Guemes Island and Padilla Bay.
  • 1792: Master Joseph Whidbey of the Vancouver Expedition, sailing for England, discovered Deception Pass and Whidbey Island, which were named by Captain George Vancouver.


TRADERS AND TRAPPERS 1790s - 1840s
Trappers trapped sea otter, beaver, and many other fur bearing animals, seriously depleting the animal population.

EARLY SETTLERS 1850s - 1870s
On the small peninsula now called March Point, in an area with few trees which they called Fern Prairie, the first white people who settled on Fidalgo Island established claims. Some came for a short time, then left, some returned, others settled permanently. Their backgrounds included work as hunters, trappers, prospectors, soldiers and surveyors. They became farmers, harvesting fruit, cabbage and cauliflower seed, hops, and raising cattle. The first who came were Enoch Compton, Jack Carr, William Munks, William Bonner, Charles and Robert Beale, Hiram March, James Kavanaugh, Henry Barkhousen, John and Almira Griffin. Carrie White wrote that there were eight white women when she arrived in 1873, including Almira Richards Griffin, first teacher on Fidalgo Island, and Kate Hilton March, married to Hiram March. Some male settlers married native women, most notable were Henry Barkhousen, who married Chief Sehome's daughter Julia, and James Kavanaugh, who married a Swinomish chief's daughter known as Tol Stola. She is affectionately remembered as Grandma Kavanaugh.

EARLY ANACORTES 1860s - 1890s
Inc. 1865 Richard and Shadrack Wooten settled along the western shore of northern Fidalgo Bay, at present Anacortes. Around 1870, Mr. Walker, William Griffin and Dr. Deere were the first to settle in the Cap Sante area, then called The Portage. Later others settled along the Guemes Channel called Ship Harbor. In 1876 Amos Bowman and wife Annie moved to the eastern area of Ship Harbor. In 1877 Amos Bowman established a post office and named it Anacortes from Annie Curtis, his wife's maiden name. It was Amos Bowman's dream for Anacortes to become the terminus for the transcontinental railroad. In 1890 Anacortes experienced a boom based on the speculation that it would be the railroad terminus. On January 1, 1890 the population was around 200; by mid-March it had increased to 2,000, streets and buildings were being built, the price of lots went from $50 per acre to up to $3,000 for a corner lot. Later in 1890 when Anacortes was not selected as the railroad terminus the town experienced a depression, hundreds of people left, large amounts of money were lost, the tents disappeared, hotels emptied, but the buildings remained, some until the present day. In 1891 Anacortes incorporated as a city, and began the road to economic recovery and a new identity as a fish and lumber town.

THE FISHING AND LUMBER INDUSTRIES - c 1890s - c 1960s
Salmon canning and codfish curing industries began in the early 1890s. By the early 1900s there were around a dozen fish processing plants employing hundreds of people. Most had closed by 1960. Trident Seafoods, Sugiyo, and Seabear continue. By 1903 Anacortes had ten shingle mills and three sawmills, forming the second major industry of Anacortes. The arrival of these industries helped the economy revive after the depressions of 1890 and 1893. In 1905 the Anacortes Box and Lumber Company began operation; other large mills included the Fidalgo Mill in 1913, Morrison Mill in 1918 and E.K. Wood in 1923. The E.K. Wood Mill, 1923-43, then Walton's 1943-52, was located at the present Skyline Marina. It cut large beams and was the largest mill on Fidalgo Island. The 600 feet long planing and drying shed still stands. In 1925 the Anacortes Pulp Mill started operation and in the 1930s, community leaders succeeded in starting a cooperatively owned plywood mill, which continued to operate until c.1990. By the 1950s the box mills had ceased operation, victims of the shift to cardboard paper for boxes. See's Brick Factory, Anacortes Glass Factory, Anacortes Steam Laundry, boat building and repair were some of the other early industries.

TECHNOLOGY, RETIREMENT, TOURISM 1950s - PRESENT
Shell and Texaco built refineries on March Point in the 1950s. In the late 1960s expensive housing developments were built, most notably in the Skyline area. Many retired persons were attracted to the area. Technology-based industries arrived beginning in the late 1980s: Sun Healthcare Systems, now called SHS, located here in 1997. Marinas appeared where once there had been mills and canneries. Motels and other tourist-based industries grew.

ARTS AND CRAFTS 1960 - PRESENT
Fidalgo and Guemes islands have developed a reputation as communities with many fine artists. There are several shops in Anacortes and since 1962, during the first weekend of each August, Anacortes hosts the Anacortes Arts Festival. Anacortes Community Theater produces several highly admired plays each year. All age groups are involved in the activities of art and drama. It is an integral part of the area's culture.

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