Tourism in the San Juan Islands, Part 2

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 4/03/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20754

From the earliest settlement of the San Juan Islands, visitors traveled to the enchanting archipelago in the far Pacific Northwest Salish Sea to fish and hunt; explore rocky coasts and inland forests; undertake a variety of outdoor, cultural, or social activities; or just to enjoy rest and relaxation. Island residents found that providing accommodations and services to visitors was profitable, and promotion and expanding opportunities for travelers sparked the development of a nascent tourism industry in the early years of the twentieth century. Part 2 of this two-part history describes the growth of tourism from the years after World War II into the twenty-first century. For several decades after the war, tourist activities were promoted, new events and attractions were offered, and visitors were enthusiastically welcomed. By the 1980s, however, concerns were being raised about the impact of tourism on the islands' environment. Studies were undertaken and community debate intensified, but tourism continued to expand as travel guides, advertising, and internet websites tempted the traveling public to the islands. Residents in the twenty-first century recognize that despite some problematic impacts and seasonal disruptions, tourism is a vital contributor to San Juan County's economy.

Air Travel and Other Changes

During the decades after World War II, San Juan County, which includes more than 170 islands, of which only a few dozen are inhabited, experienced an enormous spurt in the number of tourists visiting the islands and the number of new businesses operated and accommodations built to serve them. The three largest islands -- Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez -- received the most visitors, and all had busy summer seasons in the late 1940s. "The Friday Harbor waterfront was a beehive of activity" ("Many Yachting Parties ..."), the local paper reported in July 1947. Just the month before more than 1,000 motor vessels entered and cleared through the local U.S. Customs office, and this did not even include cruising parties.

And tourists had a new mode of transportation available to bring them to the islands. In 1946 Bob Schoen (1919-2003) of Orcas began offering commuter-air flights between the islands and the mainland, a service that quickly expanded when he and Roy Franklin (1924-2011) of San Juan Island inaugurated Island Sky Ferries, providing scheduled service from the mainland to Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez. Facilities were all but non-existent -- take-offs and landings could be a bit bumpy as no formal airports or paved runways were initially available in the islands, so pastures and beaches were utilized instead.

Other changes and upgrades also were underway in the early post-war years. In one typical case a Friday Harbor restaurant advertised that it had added an outdoor dining porch with views to Lopez and Mount Baker and even hot and cold running water for hand washing in the restrooms. Old resorts like Kwan Lamah on San Juan Island and Beach Haven Resort on Orcas were spruced up, and new resorts were opened. A few resorts were established on some smaller islands, including one on Waldron Island in buildings of a former ranch, to which a swimming pool, saddle horses, and fishing and boating facilities were to be added. The San Juan and North Star camps on Lopez Island also had a busy season in 1947, with more than 200 children from Oregon, Alaska, and British Columbia as well as Washington in attendance. With many facilities, trails, and other upgrades built by Depression-era workers, Moran State Park on Orcas Island attracted an ever-growing number of visitors.

On San Juan Island the newly formed Chamber of Commerce sponsored an event in 1948 that was to become an annual highlight of the summer months on the island -- an enormous salmon barbecue dinner accompanied by activities and entertainment including two dance venues. Named the San Juan Rendezvous, it was billed as an effort to acquaint visitors (yachting parties especially) with the pleasures of exploring the scenic beauty of the San Juans and to show them the Island's hospitality. That first year 800 pounds of salmon were served to more than 1,500 people; in later years (the event grew in popularity over three decades) the amount of salmon barbecued at a single event grew to three tons. In 1954 even Washington Governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) and U.S. Senators Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) joined the festivities.

Optimism Prevails

A general air of optimism about the future of tourism in the islands prevailed through the 1950s. The Port of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island was formed to provide services to those arriving on the island by sail or motorboat and to plan and build needed support facilities for these visitors. The Black Ball ferries that had served the islands since 1930 were, in 1951, taken over by the State of Washington, which assumed responsibility for building and maintaining wharves and moorage. This in turn allowed the Port to focus on moorage for fishing boats and visiting boats and yachts. And interest in yachting was on the rise. In 1956 motorboat and sailing enthusiasts established the Orcas Island Yacht Club, followed a few years later by the formation of the San Juan Island Yacht Club and then the Lopez Island Yacht Club. The clubs had reciprocal arrangements with other groups as far away as Hawaii and British Columbia as well as California clubs and others along the coast. These clubs included many members eager to come cruise through the islands and enjoy the local amenities and attractions.

The islands received good publicity. In 1949 the Washington State Department of Transportation issued a brief travelogue promoting the San Juans with scenes of a ferry trip through the islands featuring stops on Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan and activities that included horseback riding, fishing, boating, and, especially, enjoying the slow, quiet pace of the area. A 1952 article in Sunset magazine called the San Juans the "Treasure Islands of the Northwest" and added beachcombing, camping, and picnicking to the growing list of visitor activities ("San Juans ..."). It was also noted that the presence of more than 100 miles of good gravel roads on each of the three largest islands made auto touring easy. A resident of Deer Harbor on Orcas Island invited Seattle's KING-TV to visit in 1954, and the resulting televised report on the life and scenery of the San Juan Islands featured not just film taken on a boat tour of the area but also aerial footage photographed from a local seaplane.

A new travel brochure prepared by the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce offered individualized information targeting the major visitor groups: the tourist, the yachter, the flyer, the retiring citizen, and the hunter and fisherman. Friday Harbor was described as "a good up-to-date progressive incorporated town with city water, electric power and lights, a modern fire department, police department, hard surfaced streets and local and long distance telephones" ("This Year ..."). Points of interest in town included the two canneries. And a guidebook published in 1958 and titled What's What in the San Juans asked the visitor reading it, "Why hurry? ... Didn't your blood pressure drop a couple of notches when you landed? Here, enjoying all this tranquility, city-stretched nerves lie down and behave" (Cook, 1). Together with much other useful information, the author offered warnings:

"DON'T shoot seagulls or other water birds which are protected by law. DON'T shoot a whale. You just might wing him and then it could wash up on the beach and one of you would have to leave -- but quick. This has happened" (Cook, 26-27).

New Resorts and Destinations

In 1956 a property transfer was the first step toward development of what became one of the most popular spots for visitors on San Juan Island. Since 1886 substantial acreage on Roche Harbor at the north end of the island had been owned by the McMillin family, who had operated a successful lime-extraction-and-processing company. By the 1950s, however, the lime works was no longer a profitable enterprise, many of the facilities had been abandoned, and the then company president, Paul McMillin (1886-1961), decided to sell the property. Reuben Tarte (1901-1968) purchased a total of 4,000 acres, including 12 miles of San Juan shoreline, all of Pearl Island, and land on Henry and Orcas islands as well as in King and Kitsap counties. Tarte envisioned restoring some of the property and building new facilities to create an extensive resort complex. He recognized that if Roche Harbor were designated a U.S. Customs clearing port, it would become the first stop for any boats arriving from Canada on the north side of the island, and would, therefore, have a large natural influx of visitors to be served by his new Roche Harbor Boatel and Resort (later just Roche Harbor Resort).

By 1958 he had opened a restaurant in the former McMillin family home, added outdoor dining, docks, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and an air strip. He restored the venerable Hotel de Haro, which had been abandoned for 16 years, and replanted its beautiful gardens, creating what would, decades later, become a popular venue for destination weddings. The resort was heavily promoted in Seattle and elsewhere and attracted celebrities and visitors from around the world. Expansion and development continued through the years and through changing ownership, and in the twenty-first century Roche Harbor remains a hub of tourist activity year-round.

With its many resorts, Orcas continued to be the most-visited island in the county; in fact, it was claimed that in summer more people visited Orcas than all the other islands combined. Eastsound, the only town on the island, boasted that among the amenities for visitors was a frozen-food locker where tourists could have their fish catch frozen, a pay telephone, and a doctor at the local medical clinic who was, unfortunately, only available on Tuesdays and Fridays. By 1961 the Orcas Island Resort Association was issuing an annually updated brochure with map to help market resorts all over the island.

A new Orcas Island accommodation for visitors soon became especially known for its historic elegance. Rosario, a mansion and property lovingly crafted by Robert Moran (1857-1943), who lived there from 1909 through 1938, had remained a private home for another 20 years before being sold to investors who wanted to create a luxury resort. Through the 1960s facilities were added and the property upgraded, so that by 1967 Rosario Resort was a popular convention venue with accommodations for 140 guests, meeting rooms, and moorage for 35 to 40 boats. It has undergone further expansion and changes in ownership over subsequent years but remains among the islands' best-known tourist destinations.

Golf, Rabbits, and "The San Juan Saga"

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, visitors found a number of new activities and events available to them. Nine-hole golf courses were opened on each of the three largest islands and golf events were soon attracting eager players. The Sportsman Pilots of Washington began an annual fly-in on San Juan Island, the yacht clubs planned joint excursions and social activities, and the San Juan Yacht Club organized the first Shaw Island Classic, an annual race for several classes of sailboats around Shaw Island (the fourth largest of the San Juans); it quickly became a popular event for the sailing community up and down the West Coast. Fishing tournaments were organized.

And then there was rabbit netting. In late 1800s or early 1900s European rabbits had been brought to the islands, probably for commercial breeding. Unfortunately, some escaped and over the years did what rabbits do best -- multiply --until vast areas of San Juan Island were overrun, despite the best efforts of resident eagles, hawks, and foxes. Hunting, or rather running the hapless rabbits down during nighttime expeditions in stripped-down cars equipped with searchlights, gathering them in salmon nets, and then shooting them, was for a number of years advertised as a fun sport for visitors to try.

In 1966, San Juan Island National Historical Park was established on the two sites where the opposing forces had encampments during the British-American joint occupation of the islands -- American Camp at the south end and English Camp near the northern tip. Both became much-visited destinations where park rangers explained the boundary dispute, how the restored buildings had been used, and what life was like in the encampments. For those wanting to explore pioneer life in the islands, museums were opened on Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan islands to showcase the local history of each community.

Or, for a more dramatic presentation of the islands' history, visitors could attend a truly unique performance -- "The San Juan Saga," presented weekends every summer in Friday Harbor during the 1960s and 1970s. The production was conceived and presented by a remarkable island personality, Emelia L. Bave (1911-2008), known locally as "Lee," who owned and operated Mar Vista Resort on the island's southwest shoreline for many years. The saga was part tableau, part one-woman stage show, and according to the presenter offered a "sublime and ridiculous tale about the Island, ... a mini-spectacular that [spanned] the conquest of civilization from Genesis to [the 1960s]" (Bave, vii).

Unable to recruit enough actors to fill the 35 roles required for the script she had written, Bave relied almost entirely on a collection of male, female, and child store mannequins that she costumed and posed on the stage for one scene (in which she, of course, also appeared), after which she changed the costumes and moved the mannequins into different positions on the stage (as the audience watched) for the next scene according to the varied characters needed and the narration recorded on tape. She and her husband had purchased the historic Odd Fellows Hall, on a bluff overlooking the harbor just north of Spring Street, to be used as a theater, and Bave herself painted the backdrop mural on the wall of the old building and even sewed the costumes. "The author-producer-artist-actress" (Bave, vii), in costume, would greet the attendees at the door. Audiences loved it.

More Tourists and Growing Concerns

After the final run of "The San Juan Saga," Bave and her husband sold the Odd Fellows Hall, and the Whale Museum, still a popular tourist destination today, opened its doors in the renovated building in 1979, becoming the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. Its mission was to provide education and stewardship of the ecosystem and whales, especially the southern resident orcas (or killer whales) of the Salish Sea that visited the islands each year. As whale-watching tours became an increasingly sought-out tourist attraction, the Whale Museum educated visitors who wanted to learn more about the iconic mammals.

In 1980 a new summer event, the San Juan Island Jazz Festival, quickly evolved into a much-anticipated and successful annual gathering (which continued to the end of the century) bringing jazz performers and fans from all over the Pacific Northwest for several days of performances in multiple venues around Friday Harbor. But while the islands continued to draw more and more tourists, and some residents applauded, others began to voice concerns about the impact of all these visitors on the islands' environment.

A Waldron Island resident, South Burn (1924-1994), undertook a detailed study of tourism not only in the county but also as experienced in other rural communities. Completed in 1983, his study was heavily documented and included many quotes from experts and well-known writers. Burn concluded that tourism in the San Juans was a strong local business not in need of any further publicity or promotion. Planning is needed, he said, because tourism "is an extremely corrosive [force] ... acting to destroy our one priceless, non-renewable source -- our beautiful, natural environs," and "the economic benefits of tourism go only to those in the tourist industry" (Burn, 41). The Journal of the San Juan Islands took up the conversation and that August published a special section on the pluses and minuses of tourism and the difficulty of finding any hard data on its local impact. More information was needed.

A San Juan County tourism planning committee was formed to investigate the current status and report to the county commissioners; among the report's findings in 1985 was that San Juan County was almost three times more dependent on tourism revenue than the second-ranked county in the state. Two of the summary statements in the conclusion were that "the primary tourist resource of San Juan County is its beautiful natural environment, and ... that environment is fragile and must be protected to the benefit of all including tourists and the tourist industry," and that "business entities have the right to profit from the tourist industry, but they do not have the right to do so at the expense of the natural or social environment or the deterioration of the quality of life of the community" (Tourism in San Juan ..., 12.2, 12.3). A community survey taken in 1990 found that residents were quite negative in their views about tourism and generally opposed further promotion and advertising. One travel guide summed up the attitude of many residents:

"A visitor who flaunts the local customs is often called a 'tourist,' or a '@#* tourist.' Even the most obnoxious tourists are treated courteously, but they are respected only for the dollars they spend. A 'visitor' who respects the local values is always welcome and will be encouraged to return" (Miller, 4).

In 1993 another county tourism planning advisory committee was formed with representatives from San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. Town meetings were held on each island, input was solicited from residents, agency data was collected, and the previous study reviewed. In its findings the committee concurred with its predecessors that residents had the right to live in a stable community in which tourists could participate but not to the detriment of the community. The committee urged, moreover, that tourists should be required to pay (through taxes, fees, or other appropriate revenues) for the costs of public facilities and services provided primarily for visitors. Within a few years the county created a special excise tax on lodging establishments, the funds to be used for tourism-related facilities and programs and to help pay for promotional efforts.

Into the Twenty-first Century

Even as studies were done and recommendations made, the islands continued to come to the attention of an ever-widening pool of potential visitors. During the 1990s and through the second decade of the new century, an increasing number of published travel guides and articles extolled the delights of the islands for tourists, but they didn't provide much practical assistance for those wanting details of island businesses and resources that met visitor needs. In 1991 Emily Reed (b. 1934) of San Juan Island was seeking information to send to a friend and, finding little available, she undertook to create what was the first of a series of practical guides from a knowledgeable island resident. These guides not only offered information on lodging, dining, community and emergency services, where to buy groceries or books, where the drugstore was located, what tours were available and places of interest and entertainment, and more, but also, especially in early editions, conveyed a sense of what life in the islands was like. The first guide covered Friday Harbor and San Juan Island, but soon a guide was prepared for Orcas and another for Lopez and Shaw (the only other ferry-served island, almost entirely residential). Updated frequently, tens of thousands of Emily's Guides, as they became known, were sold to visitors into the first decade of the next century.

Today the internet provides a wealth of varied websites for travel planning and has enabled, for example, the San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez Chambers of Commerce and San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau to maintain up-to-date resources of detailed information on the entire county's bounty for travelers' enjoyment, from the Tour de Lopez bicycle event to exhibitions at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art in Friday Harbor and the Orcas Island Cider and Mead Festival. Visitor centers on the three largest islands offer friendly, helpful, in-person assistance. As a consequence of the broader exposure that the internet, travel commentators and reviewers, and other resources have provided, the San Juan Islands frequently appear on lists such as "15 Amazing Island Vacations You Can Take without Leaving the U.S.," or "6 Best Places to Travel to This Summer," or "10 Spring Break Spots for Grownups," ("2017 Annual ...").

New events, entertainments, and places of interest for tourists are constantly being developed in the islands. Local residents may grumble about the lack of parking spaces in town in July or the annoyance of dodging bicycles or mopeds and scoot-cars (a recent addition to transportation modes on San Juan Island) on narrow island roads, or the crowds at the weekend farmers markets, but most are happy to recommend to visitors a good place for a picnic, explain an aspect of island life, or provide directions to a destination on the summer artists' studio tour; tourism revenue is, after all, recognized as a huge component of the county economy. At the same time, determined efforts are being made to educate the traveling public about the islands' vulnerable natural environment and the need for special consideration and care so that future generations can experience it as well.

Whether day-tripping, camping, or staying in hotels, resorts, inns, bed-and-breakfast establishments, or the growing number of Airbnb accommodations, tourists today are only the latest visitors to be captivated by the beauty, serenity, and abundance of recreational opportunities afforded by the San Juan Islands. Some go seeking an active vacation of fishing, kayaking, hiking, bicycling, cruising, or exploring, while others want a more relaxed get-away with lazy hours to soak up the visual wonders of the scenery or just find a quiet spot for reading a good book. Others want to investigate the many art galleries, museums, and other cultural offerings on the largest islands. And walking, vehicle, or boat tours and whale-and-wildlife-watching expeditions seem to appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors. Almost all who go to the San Juans, whatever has drawn them there, leave refreshed and with an appreciation of the special qualities of the archipelago that lure visitors back again and again.


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