Creating the Friday Harbor Water System (San Juan County)

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 3/18/2022
  • Essay 22434

Establishing a water system for the residents of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island was a topic of discussion as soon as the town was incorporated in 1909, but it took five years to complete a system. Surveys were undertaken to determine the practicality of piping water from an island lake to town. By late 1911 Trout Lake was determined to be the best source and volunteers built a temporary dam at its outlet. But Samuel Cowell (1861-1955), president of the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company that owned the land around the lake, ordered the dam destroyed. He disputed the town's right to the lake and land, leading to years-long court battles. In addition, an error was made on the initial ballot asking voters to approve the water system and bonds to pay for it. Two separate elections eight months apart were needed before community approval was officially obtained. Court proceedings finally concluded when a judge awarded the company $2,400, and the property could be condemned for town use. It was not until the last days of 1914 that water finally flowed from Trout Lake to the town's homes and businesses.

When San Juan County, an archipelago in the far Pacific Northwest between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island, was established in 1873, Edward Warbass (1825-1906), the first county auditor, chose the site known today as Friday Harbor on San Juan Island as ideal for the county seat. Among its several advantages, in his eyes, was a freshwater spring just up the hill from the shoreline. For the next 40 years that spring was the primary water source for many households and businesses in the growing community. Located in the middle of the main road through town, soon named Spring Street (approximately opposite where King's Market stands in 2022), it was a community gathering place where conversation flowed as residents filled barrels that were loaded onto wagons for transport. Some homes and businesses had individual or shared wells. Cesspools were relied on to dispose of waste, sometimes with lamentable outcomes when contamination of household wells was not detected promptly.

Investigating the Options

The incorporation of Friday Harbor in 1909 was quickly followed by interest among some business leaders in building small, private water systems, for which town-council permission was sought. Within a year, however, more ambitious plans were underway. Otis H. Culver (1862-1941), editor of The San Juan Islander (SJI), one of two rival newspapers in town, was an early and tireless advocate for a town water system:

"Without it little or no expansion of the enterprises already established on the water front is possible, nor can any new ones be expected ... Insurance rates would be greatly reduced, the town beautified and its growth wonderfully stimulated by a good gravity system" ("To Investigate ...").

One possible source for such a gravity system (relying on gravity rather than expensive pumps to transport the water) was Trout Lake, a 45-acre body of water in the hills approximately five miles west of town. In January 1910 Henry L. Tibbals (1859-1930), a principal stockholder in Port Townsend's water system in Jefferson County, was persuaded to come to San Juan Island with an engineer to assess Trout Lake's potential and undertake a preliminary survey of the amount of pipe needed for the project. If the survey results were favorable, Tibbals proposed to request a franchise for construction and operation of a water system for the town. It was determined that Trout Lake water was 20 feet deep on average, 325 feet in elevation above tideline, and that a dam could easily be constructed at the outlet to raise the water level even higher. Tibbals took a jug of water to be analyzed for its purity for domestic use. He estimated the cost as about $4,000 per mile for the approximately six-and-a-half miles of pipe laying. Water mains in town and hydrants would raise the final cost to approximately $30,000. When the sample results came back from the testing laboratory, however, the water was reported to be unfit for cooking or drinking without treatment in an expensive filtration system. Tibbals decided the project was not financially viable.

But then the Friday Harbor Commercial Club took up the cause and began exploring the possibility of creating a gravity system for water from Sportsman's (or Sportsman) Lake, only three and a half miles north and west of town, but much less deep. In dry summers the lake covered only about half the area that it did in the winter. The lake was found to be 139.1 feet above tidewater and approximately 60 feet above the community's highest point, seemingly adequate for reasonable water pressure in town. It was assumed from the outset that the water would not be suitable for domestic use. Costs were estimated to be approximately $6,000 for pipe and installation.

The town council was still considering Trout Lake as a possible town water source. Dr. Victor Capron (1867-1934), a physician and community leader then on the council, requested a cost and feasibility study, and a committee was formed to oversee the study. Capron soon reported to the council on the potential difficulty of getting title to the land surrounding the lake, which was owned by the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company. Still, a water system had become a council priority, and Capron called for the council to pass an ordinance to (1) propose water and sewer service for the community, (2) declare estimated costs, (3) offer a method of raising the money for the project by issuing negotiable bonds, and (4) call for a special election for voters to ratify or reject the proposition. A further motion was made that the mayor secure the services of an engineer to do a study and estimate the costs of piping from Sportsman's Lake. Efforts were begun to secure the rights-of-way from affected property owners.

Mayor John L. Murray (1859-1949) joined Capron in urging the council to act. Under the headline "More Action and Less Talk" on the front page of the Islander he wrote that the town could drill large wells and pump water or pipe it from one or the other lake, but "our citizens must be willing to go down into their pockets and dig up the money necessary to put in the necessary plant ..." (Murray).

At its November 14, 1911, meeting, attended by a large number of interested citizens, the town council voted unanimously in favor of "a water supply from Sportsman's Lake, and a sewage system adequate to the community" ("Going Ahead ..."). Costs were estimated to be $8,500, and a local man guaranteed to do the work for that price. The special election was expected to take place in January. An editorial in the Islander noted little opposition in town to the project and that although the water could not be used for cooking or drinking, it would be good for both residents and businessmen. The lake water was so much softer and wouldn't leave the heavy lime deposits that built up on domestic boilers and manufacturing equipment because of the extreme hardness (high mineral content) of water from local wells.

The engineer for the city of Bellingham in Whatcom County, H. L. Whitney, under the direction of a council committee, was asked to conduct yet another survey and offer recommendations on whether Sportsman's Lake or Trout Lake (which some still thought a better option) should be the source for the town's water system. Whitney was unequivocal in his recommendation: the preferred source would be Trout Lake and, indeed, Sportsman's Lake should be entirely omitted from consideration. Trout Lake, he noted, lay in a rocky basin fed by four mountain streams; there was no contamination in the watershed. Purity sufficient for cooking and drinking could be guaranteed simply by having a gravel filter at the mouth of the intake. The lake had an available water supply of 64 million gallons, volume sufficient for a community 20 times the size of Friday Harbor's 1911 population of slightly more than 400. The elevation was sufficiently high that there would be enough water pressure to eliminate the need for a reservoir in town. And the cost would not exceed what the town already proposed to raise through bonding. The Islander editor was thrilled: "The people of Friday Harbor will enter upon the New Year with brighter prospects than they have had for some years. There is now evident a get-together spirit that promises to accomplish something in 1912" (SJI, December 29, 1911). But this optimism proved to be premature.

The Battle for Trout Lake

Passage of a town council ordinance calling for establishment of water and sewer systems and scheduling a special election increased community anticipation and eagerness to get the project started. Even as further studies were being completed, and before the vote took place, it was decided to build a temporary dam at Trout Lake to ascertain how much lake depth could be achieved; the work was accomplished by enthusiastic volunteers at a total cost of $65. Whitney soon found the lake level had risen three-and-a-half feet. He estimated the cost to bring water just to the town limits as $13,000.20, and if extended into town as $14,812.05. Costs to individual taxpayers on the interest for a $14,000 bond issue would be minimal, the town assessor assured taxpayers. Even John Murray, with one of the most highly valued properties in town, would pay only $17.74 per year. Many would pay only a few dollars.

Spirited campaigns were waged in both the Islander and the Friday Harbor Journal, the other town newspaper, urging support. The women of the town (who had won the right to vote with passage of a state constitutional amendment a year earlier) were especially encouraged to do their part to get the bond passed. "The opportunity is at hand for the new voters, the ladies," to help ensure the town has a water supply and other improvements; "they are equal to any municipal emergency when aroused, and their help is needed right now" ("Their Help ...").

Property owners needing to cede rights-of-way were generally found to be in favor of the project. Culver opined that the Cowell Company would consider the land around Trout Lake of little value and that the owners ("non-resident people of very large means") would "readily concede ... the right to construct a dam and to lay pipe across their land without asking any 'damages'" ("Talk for ..."). He could not have been more wrong.

The special election took place on March 5, 1912, and out of the 242 votes cast, only 17 were against the proposition. Unfortunately, it was soon realized that the ballot had been improperly structured. Voting on a water system and a sewer system with their attendant costs had been combined in a single question. Legally, each service should have been presented in a separate question; the results could not be declared official, and another election was required. However, a more immediate problem demanded urgent attention. One week after the vote, the temporary dam was deliberately destroyed. C. Coghlan, the local agent for the Cowell Company, had notified his superiors of the election results and the dam, and he had been ordered to tear it down.

Samuel "Harry" Cowell had only recently succeeded his brother as president of the company, which was headquartered in San Francisco. The company had had an interest in San Juan Island since his father purchased a lime operation on the west side of the island in 1886, but the Trout Lake property was a separate investment and had not been developed. The company had a reputation for a fiercely uncompromising attitude concerning any of its interests and a preference for use of legal proceedings to enforce its claims. Coghlan, with some sympathy for the local situation, had, in advance, notified Dr. Capron (who had succeeded Murray as mayor) that he had been told to destroy the dam. Capron quickly obtained a county court restraining order until a judicial determination could be made on the rights of the town and the company, but Coghlan received instructions to ignore the order and remove the dam. That a structure, no matter how temporary, had been built and land assumed to be available for town appropriation without any consultation with or permission from the Cowell Company was not, under any circumstances, to be tolerated.

And thus began a legal struggle that would delay the project for more than two years. Having ignored the restraining order, the Cowell Company was found to be in contempt of court but remained defiant. Proceedings for condemnation of property for the pipeline right-of-way continued, but Harry Cowell was obdurate in his opposition and had "no trespass" warnings posted at the lake. The town council authorized the mayor to "institute proceedings against the Cowell Lime Co. for the purpose of securing a right-of-way for the proposed pipe line and all lands necessary to be taken ..." ("Minutes ...," March 26, 1912). Capron received a letter from Cowell asking that the proceedings not be pursued until he made a visit to the island for consultation. At a brief meeting with the mayor Cowell made his stand clear, saying that while he wanted to be fair, it was his opinion that the town had acted outrageously and, furthermore, "the public ha[d] no rights in the lake ..." ("The Prospect ..."). He said he would consult with company attorneys and directors and consider contesting the issue in court; he'd let Capron know when a decision had been reached.

Cowell's attorneys first tried, unsuccessfully, to delay a hearing scheduled before the county judge to determine whether the town could proceed with the project. Then the attorneys claimed that the Trout Lake property was valued at $10,000 (more than could be at issue in a county court), and since a county judge was not eligible to rule on valuations, the case had to be tried in federal court in Bellingham. The county attorney thought that it would be easy to prove that the land value was much less, causing the issue to be returned to a lower court, and that "the lake is a meandering body of water and belongs to the state" ("The Water Matter Again"). Time passed; before it came to trial, the case had to be moved from Bellingham (which did not have enough cases to hold a session that summer) to Seattle. In Seattle Cowell's attorneys claimed that Friday Harbor, as a legally designated town of the fourth class, had no right to condemn lands outside its boundaries, and that new state legislation was required before the town could undertake the project. The court rejected that ploy. Then Cowell's attorneys said that there should be a postponement because the town had not submitted a copy of the ordinance in question and because of an incorrect description of the property (a claim that the judge later admitted was his mistake and that the proper documents had been submitted). The hearing was consequently put back to August 30. The Islander editor remarked with uncharacteristic patience that "Friday Harbor citizens are long-suffering and will appreciate the water all the more when they get it" ("Water Case ...").

The Cowell attorneys were creative and determined. In August the Cowell agent was instructed to file a new notice: "I do appropriate and claim the water lying, being, or flowing into Trout Lake for the purpose of irrigating the lands lying below, and to furnish power for the manufacture of electricity, such electricity to be furnished to the inhabitants of the island of San Juan" ("More water ..."). If the court found this filing to have merit, new and substantive complications for the town would result; briefs from both sides were submitted for judicial consideration. The ruling was not in Cowell's favor, but the tactic assured still more delay. In October the judge decided that the town could not proceed without prior legal authority through voter approval of appropriately structured ordinances. The town council decided to craft entirely new documents with meticulous attention to proper procedure. The new ordinances were even submitted to the state attorney general for review. Meanwhile all the property needed for the pipeline, except the Cowell holdings, had been acquired by quit-claim deeds.

Another campaign for the second election was mounted to assure positive votes on the now separate ordinances concerning the water system and sewer system. J. A. McCormick, a well-known and highly respected photographer who maintained a studio in Friday Harbor, was asked to write a supporting piece for the Journal, and he submitted an almost-three-full-column article including a detailed line of logic as to why the systems were needed together with examples from other cities. He even noted that water was so essential to a town that Friday Harbor might never have come into existence if it hadn't been for the spring at its heart since earliest days, and a water system for the town would be just as essential if the town were to continue to thrive and expand. In December the vote was again in favor of the Trout Lake project, $14,000 in bonds to finance the water system, and $1,000 for the town sewer system. Of the 285 registered voters, 236 cast their ballots; 182 voted for the water system.

Even before the election took place, and in hopes of getting the project moving, the town council had sent a letter to the Cowell Company requesting a negotiated "settlement of the water controversy" ("Minutes ...," November 12, 1912); no answer was received. A telegram was then sent; again, no answer was received. An article in the Islander reported that residents were increasingly frustrated. "Many ... are now indignant and feel that the city should assert its rights in the matter and assume an aggressive attitude" (SJI, January 10, 1913). The town submitted a request for judicial decision concerning property condemnation proceedings. Cowell's local agent indicated a willingness to settle out of court but had no directive from headquarters. At the January 14, 1913, council meeting it was revealed that a telegram had, in fact, arrived from San Francisco but had languished for a week at the telegraph office before being delivered to the council. The Cowell Company summarily rejected the council's request to negotiate and insisted the issue be resolved in federal court. And another 15 months passed before the case was at last heard in Bellingham in April 1914. Thirty-six jurors were called; only one was from San Juan County. The jury was brought to Trout Lake to view the property and the land that would be affected by the proposed dam and ultimately found in favor of the company. The judge awarded Cowell $2,400 in damages; the Trout Lake property could finally be appropriated by the town and work could proceed.

Water Flows to Friday Harbor

The town moved quickly to get the project completed. By May 1914 contracts had been let for the construction and materials. In June the first 16,000 feet of wood pipe were delivered, about half of the total order. By August the pipe had been laid to the town limits, and it was hoped that water would be flowing by the beginning of December. In September the council decided to add an additional eight feet to the height of the dam to assure the water supply would be adequate in the worst dry spells. The work was undertaken by a local firm for $600. In November Dr. Capron wrote an open letter to the community noting that the council had been keeping careful watch on the project expenses and felt that an additional bond issue of $5,000 should be passed for the purchase of town firefighting equipment (including, hoses, nozzles, and hose carts) whose availability, together with the water system, would substantially reduce insurance rates for residents and business owners. Final connections were being made early in December, and the recently appointed water superintendent asked the first water system users to watch for leaks, as he was soon going to connect the pipes to the town mains. It wasn't until the last week of 1914 that the water system was finally turned on and water began flowing to homes and businesses.

The water system provided immediate benefit to the town; early in 1915 it had 58 customers, and the number steadily grew. There were occasional early complaints that the water had a sulfurous taste or odor, but testing proved that there was absolutely no contamination. In 1916 the town council passed an ordinance imposing fines for any pollution of Trout Lake or its tributaries by feed yards, slaughterhouses, hog pens, or anything generally unclean or unwholesome. The sewer system improved the health and environment of the town, and within two years it was unlawful to dig or use a privy or cesspool within the town limits without special permission.

The wood pipeline continued to bring water to Friday Harbor until the early 1950s when it was replaced with a new pipeline along San Juan Valley Road. In 1958 the system was upgraded again and the dam at Trout Lake raised. Through the ensuing decades the water system has undergone frequent updates to assure that it is able to serve the community as the population grows and demands for business and residential service increase. It is a testament to the vision and persistence of the early-twentieth-century residents and town officials that more than 100 years later this vital utility still provides a reliable flow of water from Trout Lake, the continuing source of supply for twenty-first-century Friday Harbor.


"Investigate Water Question," Friday Harbor Journal, December 21, 1911, p. 1; "Engineer Reports on Water Problem," Ibid., January 4, 1912, p. 1; "Of Vital Importance," Ibid., February 8, 1912, p. 4; "If You Have the Welfare of Friday Harbor at Heart Vote for the Water Bonds," Ibid., February 22, 1912, p. 1; "Friday Harbor Votes Wet," Ibid., March 7, 1912, p. 1; "Trout Lake Dam Destroyed," Ibid., March 21, 1912, p. 1; "Condemnation Proceedings Ordered," Ibid., March 28, 1912, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., May 9, 1912, p. 5; "Water Case in Good Condition," Ibid., August 29, 1912, p. 1; "Briefs to be Submitted," Ibid., September 5, 1912, p. 1; "Judge Rudkin Makes Decision," Ibid., October 3, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Bond Election," Ibid., November 21, 1912, p. 1; J. A. McCormick, "Which Shall It Be?" Ibid., November 28, 1912, pp. 1, 4; "Friday Harbor to Remain Wet," Ibid., December 5, 1912, p. 1; "Water Case Set for December 29," Ibid., October 9, 1913, p. 1; "Water Case on Trial," Ibid., March 5, 1914, p. 1; "Bidding Active on Water System," Ibid., May 14, 1914, p. 1; "Contract Let to Baker & McCrary," Ibid., May 21, 1914, p. 1; "First Water Pipe Arrives," Ibid., June 18, 1914, p. 1; "Water System Completed to City Limits," Ibid., August 20, 1914, p. 1; "To Increase Water Capacity," Ibid., September 17, 1914, p. 1; "Peasley & King Secure Contract," Ibid., September 24, 1914, p. 1; V. J. Capron, "Regarding the $5,000 Bond Issue" (letter), Ibid., November 26, 1914, p. 1; "City Council Proceedings," Ibid., December 10, 1914, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 24, 1914, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 31, 1914, p. 5; "Regular Proceedings of the Town Council," Ibid., May 13, 1915, p. 1; "Well Pleased With the Water System," Ibid., July 1, 1915, p. 1; "Minutes of Friday Harbor Town Council," December 28, 1909, p. 95, February 28, 1911, p. 134, April 11, 1911, p. 140, August 11, 1911, p. 151, August 22, 1911, p. 152, and November 14, 1911, p. 156, in Record Book, Office of the Town Clerk, Friday Harbor, Washington; "Minutes of Friday Harbor Town Council," January 9, 1912, p. 3, February 26, 1912, p. 7, March 12, 1912, p. 9, March 26, 1912, p. 11, November 12, 1912, p. 29, January 6, 1913, p. 36, May 13, 1913, and pp. 46-50, in Minutes of Friday Harbor Town Council January 9, 1912-December 22, 1925, Office of the Town Clerk, Friday Harbor; Lucile Powers, "Friday Harbor Builds a Water System," typescript, ca. 1976, San Juan Historical Museum files, Friday Harbor, Washington; "To Investigate Trout Lake Water Supply," San Juan Islander, January 21, 1910, p. 1; "Elevation of Trout Lake Is Ample for Gravity Water System," Ibid., January 28, 1910, p. 1; "Much Depends Upon Good Water System," Ibid., February 25, 1910, p. 1; "May Yet Put in a Water System," Ibid., April 29, 1910, p. 1; "May Bring in Water Supply," Ibid., June 3, 1910, p. 1; John L. Murray, "More Action and Less Talk" (letter), Ibid., November 3, 1911, p. 1; "Council Trying to Get Water Supply," Ibid., November 10, 1911, p. 1; "Going Ahead at Last!" Ibid., November 17, 1911, p. 1; "Their Help Needed," Ibid., November 17, 1911, p. 5; Ibid., November 24, 1911, p. 4; "Recommends Trout Lake Water Supply," Ibid., December 22, 1911, p. 1; Ibid., December 22, 1911, p. 4; H. L. Whitney, "Engineer's Report," Ibid., December 29, 1911, p. 1; Ibid., December 29, 1911, p. 4; "Engineer Whitney Pushing Survey," Ibid., January 19, 1912, p. 1; "Temporary Dam Costs $65.00," Ibid., January 26, 1912, p. 1; "Engineer's Report on Water System," Ibid., February 16, 1912, p. 1; "Talk for, Work for and Vote for the Bonds," Ibid., February 23, 1912, p. 1; "The Bond Election," Ibid., March 8, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Situation," Ibid., March 22, 1912, p. 1; "Bonds-Water Mix-up," Ibid., March 29, 1912, p. 1; "Water Prospects Brighten," Ibid., April 5, 1912, p. 1; "The Prospect for Water," Ibid., April 12, 1912, p. 1; "Water Matter to Be Heard Tuesday," Ibid., May 3, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Matter Again," Ibid., May 17, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Situation," Ibid., June 7, 1912, p. 1; "Visit to Trout Lake," Ibid., July 19, 1912, p. 1; "To Try Water Case August 14," Ibid., August 9, 1912, p. 4; "Water Case Postponed," Ibid., August 16, 1912, p. 1; "More Water Confusion," Ibid., August 30, 1912, p. 1; "Water Case To-day," Ibid., August 30, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Matter," Ibid., September 6, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Decision," Ibid., October 4, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Matter," Ibid., October 11, 1912, p. 1; "Tuesday's Election," Ibid., December 6, 1912, p. 1; O. H. Culver, "More About the Water" (letter), Ibid., December 13, 1912, p. 1; "The Water Matter," Ibid., January 10, 1913, p. 1; Boyd C. Pratt, Lime: Quarrying and Limemaking in the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor: Mulno Cove Publishing, 2016), pp. 18-19, 29-35; "Henry Cowell's Lime Works," UC Santa Cruz Upper Quarry Amphitheater website accessed March 1, 2022 (; "Cowell Family," Cowell Historical Society website accessed February 28, 2022 (; "Landowner Samuel H. Cowell Dies," Santa Cruz Sentinel-News, February 2, 1955, p. 1 (copy available at Cowell Historical Society website,; "Trout Lake, San Juan County Fishing Map," GPS Nautical Charts website accessed February 20, 2022 (; "History," Town of Friday Harbor website accessed February 20, 2022 (

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