In 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy was in the Pacific Northwest, exploring and charting Puget Sound, when he noted “a small, round island” in his journal but neglected to give it a name. Early inhabitants called it High Island, although the island’s maximum elevation is only 160 feet.
In 1841, Lt. Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition, charted and officially named Blake Island, probably in honor of George Smith Blake who was in charge of the United States Coast Survey (1837-1848) during the time of the Wilkes expedition. The local settlers, however, referred to it as Smuggler's Island.
Blake Island was an ancestral camping ground of the Suquamish Indian tribe and legend has it Chief Seattle (178?-1866) was born there.
Cutting Down the Trees
In the mid-1800s, the island was owned and logged by G. A. Meigs and W. P. Sayward, who operated a big saw mill at Port Madison on Bainbridge Island. Most of the timber produced in the Puget Sound region was being shipped to San Francisco, the largest market for forestry products on the West Coast.
After the timber supply was exhausted, and the island was no longer a source of revenue, Meigs stopped paying property taxes to Kitsap County. Eventually, the taxes became so far delinquent that Kitsap County, to avoid taking over the property, forgave approximately $2,000 in interest, to secure settlement. Apparently Meigs was having other difficulties meeting his financial responsibilities. A Seattle bank finally foreclosed against Meigs and took possession of Blake Island, along with other properties.
The Trimble Era
Around the turn of the twentieth century, William Pitt Trimble (1863-1943), an attorney and real estate financier, purchased Blake Island. Born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, Trimble came to Washington state in 1890 from Cincinnati, Ohio, making his home in Seattle in 1892. He married Cannie Webb Ford (1871-1929) of Covington, Kentucky, in 1897 and they had five children: Ford, William Jr., Mary, Augusta, and Webb. Trimble was a genius in real estate promotion and became a millionaire. By 1920, he was one of the wealthiest men in Seattle, with extensive commercial real estate holdings in the central business district.
After acquiring the property, the Trimbles renamed it Trimble Island. They were the first to build a house and lived there continuously from 1917 through 1923, spending these years making Trimble Island one of the most beautiful private estates in the country. William Pitt Trimble planned ultimately to give the island to Seattle as a municipal park, “a green fragment of nature surviving in a world of progress and subdivisions.” The Trimbles also had a splendid house at1019 Terry Avenue and maintained year-round residences in New York and Washington D. C.
The Trimble “mansion” was a rambling two-story house of 12 rooms, with five fireplaces on the main floor. The living room was 35 by 40 feet, with large Douglas fir ceiling beams. Across the front of the house was a broad verandah that overlooked the large front lawn and extensive formal gardens sloping gently toward the water. The estate also had a vegetable garden, a large pasture for horses, and a cement tennis court. Three caretakers maintained Trimble Island all year-round.
An Island Garden
Cannie Trimble established the island as an ad hoc bird and wildlife sanctuary. The discharge of firearms was forbidden. Local residents claimed that during hunting season, deer would swim to the island from the Kitsap Peninsula, seeking refuge. In the summer, when the family was living on the island, William Trimble commuted daily from his private boat landing to Seattle aboard his 50-foot yacht, Athena.
Trimble Island even had its own post office, with William Pitt Trimble duly appointed as postmaster. The boats that plied the waters of Puget Sound, picking up and delivering mail, stopped regularly at Trimble’s Landing. Potable water, food, and other supplies were delivered to the island every week.
During the Prohibition era in Washington state (1916-1933), bootleggers and rumrunners sometimes tried to take refuge on the island. The Trimbles would often hear the subdued sound of powerboats, probably from Canada, traveling at night, without lights. Occasionally, they heard the muffled sound of a rowboat; squeaking oarlocks and a keel grating on the beach rocks. It was the three caretaker’s job to make sure these nocturnal visits did not occur too often.
In 1924, the Trimbles moved back to Seattle, establishing their residence at 1206 University Street, but maintained Trimble Island as their private summer retreat.
Tragedy and Misfortune
On December 7, 1929, tragedy struck the Trimble family. Cannie Trimble was drowned in a freak accident when the family automobile plunged off the King Street Pier into Elliott Bay. Her husband, William Trimble, and sons Ford and William Jr., survived the mishap but the family never went back to Trimble Island to live.
The estate was abandoned and, over the years, was systematically vandalized and plundered. On a chilly afternoon in the late 1940s, Don Winslow and Keith Williams, two South Kitsap High School students, landed on the island in a 16-foot homemade boat. The boys visited the deteriorating Trimble house and built a fire in the massive fireplace to warm up. They left after a couple of hours and returned to the mainland. During the night, the old house burned to the ground, most likely caused by a smoldering chimney fire or errant embers.
The Great Depression (1929-1939) added to William Trimble’s misfortune. Real estate lost much of its value and he found himself “property poor.” In 1936, in an effort to recoup some of his fortune, Trimble traded the island to the United National Corporation, an investment company, for the Medical-Dental Building in Tacoma. Most of his fortune gone, Trimble retired to a small house on Capitol Hill where he lived alone until his death on March 19, 1943.
The Decades of Neglect
After the Trimble family left, the island reverted to its original name, Blake Island. The property, untended during the next two decades, became a tangle of natural vegetation in a forest of second (and perhaps third) growth alder and hemlock trees. Only the enormous stumps remained of the giant cedar and fir trees that had covered the island in the 1800s. On May 11, 1954, the United National Corporation, owners of Blake Island, changed its name to the United Pacific Corporation.
Blake became a forbidden island, ringed with “Private Property-Keep Off,” and “No Trespassing” signs. Even so, small boats prowled around the island, landing on the beach for picnics and minor exploration. During World War II (1940-1945) there was an unsubstantiated rumor that Blake Island was being used for an ammunition dump. Navy cargo ships were sometimes anchored offshore, leading people to believe the whole center of the island was stacked with explosives. Plus, the Manchester Naval Supply Depot and the Bremerton Naval Shipyard were only a short distance away.
In 1958, controversy arose when a private concern showed an interest in developing an exclusive housing project, luxury resort-hotel, and yacht harbor on Blake Island. Washington State Land Commissioner Bert Cole believed the island, adjacent to such a populated region, should be preserved and developed for the use of the general public. He proceeded to gather all the details for acquiring the property from the United Pacific Corporation. During the early planning stages, Blake Island was even considered as the site for Seattle’s “Century 21 Exposition” (1962), but ruled out as impractical.
An Island Park for Washington
In January 1959, the Kitsap County Auditor’s office recorded a deed transferring title to 355 acres of property, with 14,000 feet of tideland, from the United Pacific Corporation to Washington state. The state traded timber in Mason County valued at $250,000 for the Blake Island property valued at $300,000. The state already held title to 120 acres on the southern end of the island as common school land.
On August 4, 1959, the Washington State Board of Natural Resources, acting on the recommendation of Commissioner Cole, set aside all of Blake Island for a park. The Washington State Parks and Recreation Department immediately set about developing the island into a state park, creating camping facilities, installing sanitary facilities, and developing a water supply from underground springs.
In 1961, Seattle caterer William “Bill” Hewitt (1917-2002) came up with an idea for Blake Island State Park: Tillicum Village, a tourist attraction to showcase Northwest Coast Indian arts, culture, and food. Hewitt built a giant cedar-lined longhouse with a restaurant, a performance area for Northwest Indian dancing, and a gift shop on the northeast side of the island. Since the village was only accessible by boat, he also built a 324-foot public pier with a 180 foot float.
When completed, Hewitt turned ownership of the facility over to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Department, with the understanding he would be allowed operate Tillicum Village as a concession. The entire Tillicum Village complex was operational in June 1962, in time for the Century 21 Exposition. Although not affiliated with any tribal entity, 70 percent of the Tillicum Village’s employees are of Native American ancestry.
Approximately 100,000 people visit Blake Island State Park every year, arriving mostly on the tour boats from Seattle waterfront piers 55 and 56, just eight miles (about 45 minutes) away. Meetings and conferences are held in the longhouse, most importantly the November 1993 "summit" of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference (APEC), attended by United States President Bill Clinton and the Presidents or Prime Ministers of the People's Republic of China, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Indonesia, South Korea, The Philippines, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Thailand, plus high officials from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Most visitors use the State Park for outdoor recreation. There are 12 miles of hiking trails on the island, mostly old service roads. The longest trail, 4.5 miles, circumnavigates the island on the bluffs above the beach. Located on a trail behind Tillicum Village, the foundations of the Trimble family home, and a few other remnants of the estate, can still be seen. Blake Island is truly the most unique state park in the Puget Sound region.