On April 7, 2022, at 3:43 a.m., a passing tow-truck driver spots flames coming from the windows of one of the oldest buildings in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Through the night and following day, fire departments from San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez islands work to extinguish the inferno engulfing half a block of Spring Street in the center of town just above the ferry dock. The blaze destroys three historic buildings and damages three others, but cooperative action involving many county, state, and local agencies keeps it from spreading farther. The fire is determined to have been deliberately set, and within 10 days investigators arrest a suspect who is arraigned on federal arson charges. The community mourns the loss of buildings that housed more than 125 years of Friday Harbor history. One building, home to a long-favorite tavern and a popular coffee shop, was originally a store selling everything from groceries to wool fleece. The oldest was a hotel for more than a century before becoming a real-estate office. The third began as the town's first movie house and was used by numerous enterprises over the years, most recently a kayaking business.
In the Beginning, a Hotel
When in 1873 the Washington Territorial Legislature created San Juan County (occupying an archipelago in the Salish Sea between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island), Edward Warbass (1825-1906), the first county auditor, reserved land for the county seat on a deepwater harbor on San Juan Island's east side. Because the island's population was scattered on homesteads and already patronized the store and saloons of an early settlement on the island's south end, it took most of a decade before Friday Harbor attracted residents. Town lots convenient to the harbor were the first to be developed. Many of these lots had been purchased on speculation by Joseph Sweeney (1841-1920), who in the early 1880s established a store and warehouse (no longer extant) at the harbor.
Among Friday Harbor's other earliest residents were brothers John "Jack" (1859-1946) and William (1853-1934) Douglas. While Jack drew newcomers to the nascent town with his "Saloon Best," his brother William built a handsome home in 1884 just across the barely cleared trail that ran up the hill from the harbor to the freshwater spring that soon gave the road its name. Spring Street is still the town's main thoroughfare. As travelers came to visit and do business on San Juan Island, William converted his home into the island's first hotel, the William Douglas House. It was just steps from the harbor, making it an attractive and convenient stopping place for visitors.
In 1890 Douglas sold the hotel, which continued to operate, with the addition of large porches and a boardwalk outside, as the Bay View Hotel. Rates in 1894 were $1 and $2 per day, and the hotel proprietor advertised in the local newspaper that sample rooms were available for rent to "traveling men" as short-term business quarters. One of those salesmen was Isaac W. Holloway (1861-1897), a jeweler, who first came to Friday Harbor a few times a year, especially near the holiday season, to offer jewelry, clocks, and watches for sale. He decided to settle in the growing town and rented a ground-floor space on the east side of the general store next door to the hotel. An enterprising young man, Holloway also managed the hotel for a time and he purchased it in 1895. But just two years later at age 36, he entered the hotel through a side door heading for his office, "when in the doorway, [he] dropped his hands to his side and fell forward into the office dead" ("Local and Personal").
New owners continued to extend the hotel's hospitality and emphasized its excellent cooking. To celebrate Christmas 1899, adults (for 50 cents) and children (25 cents) could feast on roast turkey or goose with cranberry sauce or apple jelly, chicken pie, mashed and sweet potatoes, celery, creamed onions, turnips, sweet pickles, cheese, fruit, and nuts, with tea and coffee. And, if diners had room for dessert, there was mince, lemon, or pumpkin pie; fruit cake; tarts; and English plum pudding.
By 1901 the premier hotel in town was the newer Tourist Hotel, and when its owner, Patrick Welch (1855-1903), needed to expand, he bought out the Bay View Hotel, renaming it the Tourist Hotel Annex. Activities at the Annex were not all domestic and serene. By 1907 it had become known throughout Washington (which had become a state in 1889) for its raucous backroom saloon and illegal gambling. In 1908 its new proprietor, William H. McCrary, established a poolroom in association with the hotel. The hotel also for a time offered local and visiting businessmen wireless telegraph services on the premises and housed the Island Telephone Company switchboard.
Through the twentieth century the building continued to cater to travelers and boarders. In the 1930s, as the San Juan Hotel, it still included in each room a bowl and pitcher, iron beds, and a fire escape consisting of rope tied to a windowsill or bed leg. Decades later the San Juan Inn served visitors into the twenty-first century. New owners in 2005 brought an end to the building's long history as a hostelry when it was entirely remodeled and became a Windermere Real Estate office with the address of 50 Spring Street.
And a Store
Joseph Sweeney's first store at the waterfront was prospering in 1888 when Norman E. Churchill (1852-1919), a dapper dresser and distant cousin of the Duke of Marlborough, moved to San Juan Island and went into business with Sweeney, forming the San Juan Trading Company. By 1890 Sweeney was ready to move on to other ventures and sold out his share of the store to Milton Noftsger (1859-1927). Churchill and Noftsger planned to expand the business dramatically and needed more spacious quarters.
They purchased a prime lot at the corner of First and Spring streets, immediately west of (uphill from) the Bay View Hotel, and built an "elegant and commodious" store and storeroom that opened in 1892 ("Our County ..."). The next year they built a wharf and warehouse to handle the increasing inventory of merchandise, and later they opened a branch of the store in the San Juan Valley to serve farmers and families in that area. The local newspaper provided Churchill and Noftsger with good publicity in reports like: "The San Juan Trading Company received $2,500 worth of Dry Goods from San Francisco during the past week, and now have a fine line of ladies dress goods, flannels, notions, etc." (Islander, August 30, 1894).
In 1901 Churchill bought out Noftsger, and the store was henceforth known as the Churchill General Store or, more commonly, Churchill's store. It continued to expand its offerings and soon could supply purchasers with dry goods, clothing, hats and caps, groceries, hardware, boots and shoes, paints, oils, and farm and garden implements. The store's invoices noted that the owner would purchase farm produce, and the store bought and sold, for example, hay, grain, stock, wool, butter, and eggs.
The store eventually was sold and, with a more limited inventory, became the Bell-Middleton Grocery. In 1928 a notice and accompanying advertisement appeared in the Friday Harbor Journal informing patrons that Lyle King (1886-1948) had purchased a large Frigidaire cold-storage unit and was placing it in the Bell-Middleton Grocery to establish a meat market there that would be operated by the grocery, but as a separate enterprise under his ownership and management. King later built King's Market just across First Street from the existing store. King's remained a major presence on Spring Street; in 2022 it is the downtown supermarket in Friday Harbor.
By the 1940s the old grocery store had become the Bayview Tavern, a popular retreat from campus for students at the University of Washington Oceanographic Laboratories (now Friday Harbor Laboratories) just outside town. In 1943 the tavern was partially destroyed by fire and then rebuilt as Herb's Tavern, which remained, after several changes in ownership, a lively community gathering place at the corner of First and Spring.
The small section on the east side of the tavern also underwent many changes in use over the years. It had housed Holloway's jewelry store in 1895 and later another jewelry store, owned by Herman Fredell, who advertised frequently and enthusiastically in the local papers and claimed his prices were "guaranteed to be lower than Roebuck's catalog" (San Juan Islander, March 6, 1914). In subsequent decades it housed a small grocery, a barber shop, and a realty office before being transformed into the Crows Nest, a friendly coffee shop that welcomed locals and visitors at 70 Spring Street.
And a Building of Many Incarnations
Just east (downhill) of the Bay View Hotel, on another property originally owned by Joseph Sweeney, a new kind of entertainment debuted in 1912. Moving pictures had come to town and were shown every Wednesday and Saturday at the small Star Theatre there. Because there was no town electric utility, John Browning and his son Charles arranged with the nearby creamery, which had its own dynamo (electricity generator), to provide power to the theater over long wires strung between the buildings. The result, it was said, showed the films "to better advantage than many that are seen in the cities" ("The Picture Show"). A typical program would include three or four reels (movies such as The Governor or Locked Out of Wedlock) and an illustrated song. Unfortunately, the creamery's direct current (DC) electricity was not the right kind to operate the electric piano (alternating current [AC] was needed) purchased to accompany the silent films, which were brought to the island on the steamship Rosalie.
In later years this building was the site of a variety of businesses. At several periods it housed a barber shop, and at one time the barber also provided a laundry service in the back. Sometimes it was a real-estate office. In the 1970s it was the cozy Sweet Tooth Saloon tea shop, and then it housed several consecutive different restaurants before being transformed once again into a real-estate office. By 2022, this building at 40 Spring Street was the site of outdoor-adventure firm Crystal Seas Kayaking, offering kayak tours in the San Juan Islands.
These were some of the oldest buildings in the center of Friday Harbor, buildings that were treasured for their history and for the character they lent to the town. They were among the first seen by residents and visitors arriving by ferry on San Juan Island. And they housed businesses employing several dozens of people. Like most old buildings in the Pacific Northwest, they had been built of wood and at a time when building codes were nonexistent. Although they had all been extensively renovated, their underlying structures were largely original and intact, making them especially vulnerable to fire.
Then Came the Flames
Friday Harbor is asleep at 3:43 a.m. It was by fortunate chance that a tow-truck driver wending his way down Spring Street early on April 7 noticed smoke and flames coming from the upper story of the real-estate office building. The fire department and other first responders were soon on the scene, and a battle to save the heart of the town from devastation was underway. The fire was initially suppressed but quickly reignited and spread rapidly. By 7 a.m. the San Juan Island Fire Department and San Juan Island EMS had been joined by personnel and equipment from the Orcas Island Fire and Rescue (brought to Friday Harbor through an emergency assist by the Washington State Ferries system) and Lopez Island Fire & Rescue (brought by the boat of the county sheriff 's office). Fortuitously, just two weeks earlier the crews had been conducting training exercises on coordinated structural firefighting.
Ultimately 14 agencies as well as local utilities were involved in fighting the fire and supporting those involved in the effort. Spectators gathered, appalled, and wanted to help in some way, even if it were just to encourage the first responders or to offer caring hugs to "those who were watching their livelihoods burn" (Spaulding, "The Aftermath ..."). Restaurants in town sent food, water, and coffee for the weary crews when they could take a break from working shift after shift. Traffic, including cars and trucks coming off the ferries, was rerouted. One ferry brought fire crews and their equipment from Skagit County on the mainland. They had learned of the disaster and came to relieve San Juan County first responders and provide backup service for potential additional emergency calls on the island. It was many more hours before the fire was considered fully under control and it was determined that while three buildings had been wholly destroyed, three others had only been damaged and the firefighters had managed to contain the blaze, sparing neighboring structures from the conflagration.
By evening the fire was almost out, although a crew was kept on site to watch for hot spots and residual flareups. Some fire engines had been running for 16 hours, and a half million gallons of water as well as biodegradable fire-suppressant foam had been poured on the flames. The next afternoon, April 8, a local contractor was able to start tearing down the remaining, but unstable, front sections of the destroyed buildings, and a preliminary investigation had begun.
Investigation and Community Action
It was quickly decided that help was needed to determine the cause of the fire since the few local law-enforcement and fire personnel needed to be available for their normal duties. Thirty agents from the National Response Team of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) arrived the day after the fire as requested by the county fire marshal. These teams, which can travel to a scene within 24 hours of being notified, include experienced special agents and scientific and technical personnel who are skilled in determining the origin and causes of fires and can provide expert testimony in court. It was expected to take three to five days for the investigation to be completed, and the ATF agents urged residents and visitors to contact the county sheriff's office if they had any information or photos that might assist with the inquiry.
Meanwhile, the community swung into action to assist the individuals and businesses affected by the fire. Within days many of those unemployed because of the fire were offered jobs in other establishments. Businesses were invited to set up temporary quarters in vacant building spaces. The San Juan County Economic Development Council (EDC) organized sessions for business owners and employees who had been displaced. Employees were provided with information on rental and other forms of financial assistance and low-cost counseling services, assistance with resume evaluation, job-searching strategies, and job-skills training as well as how to file for unemployment insurance and other options. Business owners received information on resources for insurance, employee support, and helpful legal and financial services. The San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce set up a GoFundMe online account for those wanting to help the affected businesses and organized a silent auction of donations from the island's creative community. A former Friday Harbor resident living in Seward, Alaska, learned of the fire and held a fundraiser in his small coffee shop (in a retired train car), raising $1,000 for the EDC fund that had been established. The building and business owners were grateful. As the Crows Nest proprietors said, "'We've received so much love and support; it's been overwhelming -- in a good way. I don't know how we'd get through this if we were anywhere else than Friday Harbor" (Spaulding, "The Aftermath ...").
The investigation soon revealed that the fire had been deliberately started with lighter fluid and flammable material on the back deck of the kayaking company. It had been ignited late on April 6 and smoldered for hours before bursting into flame. Within 10 days a suspect was arrested in Langley on Whidbey Island in Island County. Investigators found that on the evening of April 6 in a Friday Harbor ferry parking lot, a county deputy sheriff had, as requested by a local church, served a trespass warning on Dwight Christian Henline (b. 1989), who said he was just about to leave the island. Henline had moved to San Juan Island in June 2021 and had a record of seven previous criminal convictions since 2016, including one three months earlier on the island.
Just before 10 p.m. on April 6, security cameras recorded Henline purchasing a bottle of lighter fluid at a local store. Other cameras showed a 34-second flash of light behind the real-estate office at 10:04 p.m., and at 10:05 a person matching Henline's description was seen quickly leaving the area behind a next-door restaurant, after which he retrieved a suitcase left near the harbor and entered the ferry passenger-boarding area. When the ferry arrived in Anacortes, the suspect was picked up by a waiting car. A search warrant for the residence in Langley where it was determined Henline was living was issued on April 16. When officers served the warrant, numerous items were removed, but Henline was not on the premises. The following day he was arrested and brought to San Juan Island for arraignment. He appeared in Superior Court on April 20 and pled not guilty to one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm; arson charges that had initially been included were dismissed at the request of the county prosecutor, as the arson case was to be transferred to federal court for prosecution. The county prosecutor asked that bail be set at $1 million; Henline's public defender suggested it be $10,000. The judge set bail at $500,000.
In Seattle a few weeks later Henline was charged with first-degree arson in United States District Court, Western District of Washington. It was decided that federal charges were appropriate because of the estimated $10 million in losses to the affected businesses, the scope of the fire, and ATF's involvement early in the investigation. U.S. Attorney Nick Brown noted that "federal investigators worked carefully and methodically with their state and local counterparts using video evidence and sales records" to identify the suspect ("Friday Harbor Arson Suspect Charged ..."). Henline was brought to trial on October 30, 2023, in federal court in Seattle, and the case went to the jury on November 14. After two days of deliberation, jurors notified the judge that they were unable to agree on a verdict based on the exhibits and other evidence as presented. The defense requested that a mistrial be declared, and on November 16, 2023, the judge granted the request. No decision was made at that time about a new trial date.
Past and Present
Where once three historic buildings stood, only empty leveled ground remained in October 2022. But planning for new construction was underway. Repairs and refurbishment of the three damaged structures had been undertaken. No lives were lost or injuries sustained in the fire that took a treasured part of the town. Shortly after the fire the county sheriff offered a long and detailed note of appreciation to those who had helped at the scene and contributed all-out effort during and after the disaster: "To my community, who I grieve with over the destruction of our historic downtown, my spirit is lifted by the outpouring of love, generosity, and support you have provided ... There is no better place to call home and no better community to be at home in" (Krebs).
The fire had once again demonstrated that a threat to their community, with its long history of mutual aid and united action against adversity, brings out the best in the islanders of San Juan County.