Port of Friday Harbor incorporates on October 9, 1950.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 1/09/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9689

On October 9, 1950, San Juan County commissioners officially incorporate the Port of Friday Harbor.  Facing a faltering economy in the 1940s, San Juan Island residents look to port creation for new directions.  Earlier, on September 12, 1950, voters approved -- 354 to 146 -- formation of the Port of Friday Harbor, which includes all of San Juan Island, and elected a three-member board of port commissioners, each to serve a three-year term:  Robert F. Buck (1917-2001), Nourdine Jensen (1914-2009), and John Jones (1904-1970).  Progress on the Port's development will remain slow until the 1970s.     

New Directions

By the late 1940s, San Juan Island's farming and fishing economy was clearly struggling. With the rise of the auto and interstate highways, the cost of waterborne freight transportation was becoming too expensive for the islands to compete with other communities and although the fishing industry had good years, it was seasonal and unreliable. Wartime shipbuilding in small boat yards had given a boost to waterfront commerce in World War II and salmon canning continued but increasingly the island needed new economic directions.   

In 1950 the island's business community backed creation of a port district as key to economic development and on September 12, 1950, San Juan Island voters overwhelmingly approved port formation, defining the district to include all of San Juan Island. Three port commissioners were chosen to serve three-year terms:  Robert F. Buck, Nourdine Jensen, and John Jones. The port officially came into existence on October 9, 1950, when the San Juan County commissioners passed a resolution creating the Port of Friday Harbor and taxing all privately held real property in the district at a rate of $2 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. 

Building a Tourist-Based Economy

The newly elected Port commissioners began maximizing San Juan Island's greatest assets, its scenic beauty and recreational potential.  In 1951 the state took over operations of the private ferry system connecting the islands to the mainland at Anacortes.   

At the time of Port formation the only moorage facilities in Friday Harbor were for fishing boats.  While each of the San Juan Islands had its harbor, the Port of Friday Harbor was the deepest and best, eventually making it the main port in the islands.  Port commissioners sought to build a tourist-based economy by attracting small-boat and yacht owners to the San Juan Islands.  They envisioned the Port of Friday Harbor as a welcoming harbor where boaters could stop for fuel and provisions and thus support a year-round island economy. What they did not envision was that San Juan Island would become a destination point as well. 

But the harbor needed improvements.  Protection was required from strong north winds that could be devastating.  The new Port commissioners planned to build a breakwater using rock mined from nearby Brown Island -- near the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs -- but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saw this as too costly, given the depths at the harbor mouth. 

Innovations and Slow Progress

Port growth progressed slowly, with the first employee hired in 1960 at a salary of $100 a month.  Small harbor improvements were made and the ferry landing was moved to its present location.  Port commissioners remained persistent in their plans for a better harbor.  In the 1960s new technology allowed for a new breakwater design and the Port of Friday Harbor pioneered a floating breakwater of wooden planks over plastic pontoons, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Port could now proceed with its boat haven. The first main pier was built in 1968 and the Port's first harbormaster, Jack Fairweather, was hired in 1972.  That year the Port also began leasing to business tenants. The first marina was completed in 1973. 

In the early 1980s the Corps of Engineers replaced the floating breakwater with a stronger concrete version. New concrete floats enlarged the marina. The Port created a waterfront park and added parking to accommodate the increase in marina customers.

The 1990s saw additional improvements along the waterfront, including the development of Spring Street Landing, a terminal for passenger ferries and excursion boats.

Friday Harbor Airport 

Pioneer airline operator Roy Franklin (owner of Island Sky Ferries) began a privately run airport near the town of Friday Harbor in 1948.  A million-dollar gift from San Juan Island philanthropist Paul Whittier (1904-1991) allowed the Port to acquire the Friday Harbor Airport in 1982.  Using FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) grants, the Port built a new 3,400- by 75-foot runway, completed in 1985. A new passenger terminal opened the following year. Additional funds from the FAA have allowed for ongoing improvements. 

Although Friday Harbor Airport is one of the smallest primary airports in Washington, it is the state's sixth busiest, offering commercial, commercial passenger, general aviation, medical evacuations, aerial and charter tour service with flights to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Bellingham International Airport, Anacortes Airport, Skagit Airport, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Stewart Island, Center Island, Jones Island, and Boeing Field. It is a U.S. Customs point-of-entry. 

Commissioners Jensen and Nash  

Two port commissioners strongly influenced the Port of Friday Harbor's directions, Nourdine Jensen (1914-2009) and Charles Nash (1921-2010).  Both held long terms as commissioners, Jensen serving from 1950 to 1972 and Nash from 1973 to 2001.  Jensen was a boatbuilder with a company having a long history in Friday Harbor.  Nourdine's father, Albert Jensen, established a boatyard on the Friday Harbor waterfront in 1910, the year that Friday Harbor incorporated as a town.  At the time of this writing (2011), Albert Jensen & Sons, Inc., is still operating and is currently the oldest family-owned business in San Juan County.  Since water routes were the main connection between the islands and the mainland, the Jensen Boat Yard did well with business both from individuals and government contracts.  In 1940 the Jensen boatyard was leased to a consortium that held army contracts to build warships, becoming San Juan Shipyards. Nourdine Jensen -- a Navy motor machinist -- was chosen as the plant's construction manager.  In 1946 Jensen returned to boatbuilding with Albert Jensen & Sons, Inc., and the company prospered from a rising market for small pleasure boats.  Nourdine became company head after his father's death in 1958.  When fiberglass craft became popular, the Jensen Shipyard concentrated on boat maintenance, repair, storage, and moorage.   

Nourdine Jensen's contribution as a port commisioner was in his vision for a boat haven that would attract tourism through creation of a welcoming harbor for small boats, a place where boat owners could stop, visit, and hopefully shop. Perhaps as important was Jensen's tenacity in holding to his dream for two decades until the original commissioners plans were realized. His vision still resonates on San Juan Island today. As Friday Harbor grocer Verne Howard recently expressed it, in a phrase reminiscent of Seattle's Ivar Haglund (1905-1985):  "When the port's full, I make money.  When it's not, I don't" (Journal of the San Juan Island, April 2010). 

Jensen retired as commissioner in 1973 and Charles Nash took his place, a position he would hold for 27 years.  A commercial fisherman for most of his life, Nash was an officer on the submarine USS Finback during World War II, ran a fleet of seiners across the Pacific to Shanghai, served as Friday Harbor postmaster and delivered mail to the outer islands, and fished in Bristol Bay for more than 50 years.  Nash believed that the island needed a diverse economy and he is credited with arranging the purchase of the airport in the 1980s, overseeing development of the Spring Street Landing area as a business center, and acquiring Jackson's Beach recreation area. 

Today's Welcoming Port

Today the Port District owns the Marina which includes an international seaplane base, Friday Harbor Airport, Jackson's Beach, and Fairweather Park.  Due to its central location in the San Juan Islands and its accessibility for services and supplies, Friday Harbor is considered by many boaters as the heart of the San Juans. The present mission statement for the Port is close to the original commissioners' dream: "The Port of Friday Harbor shall strive to maintain a healthy economy with family wage jobs, and to improve the social, economic, and natural environments of the island."

Marina tenants include U.S. Customs, boat charter companies, Kenmore Air, Orcas Boat Rentals, San Juan Excursions, sailing expeditions, the San Juan Island Yacht Club, Victoria Express, Victoria San Juan Cruises, and Western Prince Whale Watching & Wildlife. Major airport tenants are San Juan Airlines, Kenmore Air, Skagit Valley College, San Juan Air Maintenance, UPS, and Westwind Aviation.  The Animal Protection Society of Friday Harbor also resides at the airport. 

The Port of Friday Harbor is one of Washington's certified clean marinas, recognized for its responsible environmental management. This includes a program of hazardous waste reduction, conducting marine operations while protecting the environment, demonstrating leadership in marine ecology and educating boaters about using environmentally sound practices such as clean washdowns.  The Port provides garbage pick-up and recycling, a state-of-the-art sewage pump out vessel for boats and attempts to achieve zero spills in fueling.  

The Marina currently has 500 slips with space available for 150 visiting boats ranging in size from dinghies to 150-foot yachts. It is one of the busiest small boat harbors in the Northwest.

The Port owns and maintains two park areas, Jackson's Beach, with a free public boat launch, two miles from the ferry dock, and Fairweather Park, named in honor of first harbormaster Jack Fairweather. The latter is a landscaped park with ADA-accessible pathways, scenic vistas, and works of art by local artists. The Port's passenger terminal building at Spring Street houses the Friday Harbor Aquarium.

Celebrating 60 Years 

On February 9, 2009, the town of Friday Harbor celebrated its 100th birthday with events that continued throughout the year. It was a community celebration involving the town's Centennial Commission, the San Juan Island Historical Society and Museum, the Community Theater, the Friday Harbor Historical Preservation Board, the San Juan Island Library, Skagit Valley College, the Lummi Nation, and the local Grange.   

The Port of Friday Harbor continued the celebration by honoring its own 60th anniversary in the spring of 2010 with visits from classic sailing ships, an airport fly-in, and a beach party complete with barbecued salmon and roast pig. Significantly 2010 also marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Jensen and Sons Shipyard, one year before the 2011 centennial anniversary of Washington's Port District Act that allowed citizens to create public port districts.  


"Interesting Facts About the Port District," Port of Friday Harbor 1950-2010, a Special Section Celebrating 60 years of Progress and Service, The Journal of the San Juan Islands and the Islands' Sounder, April 28, 2010, p. 11; Greg Hertel, "Charles Nash Worked for Economic Diversification," Ibid., p. 4; Greg Hertel, "Nourdine Jensen Saw the Port as Vital to the Town and Island's Economy," Ibid., p. 5; Greg Hertel, "Progress Came Slowly, But the Vision Never Dimmed," Ibid., p. 6; "Timeline of the Port of Friday Harbor," Ibid., p. 8; Jen Vollmer, "Sound Navigation History," Reflections: 50 Years of the Port of Friday Harbor, A Supplement to The Journal of the San Juan Islands," May 2000, p. 8; "A Salute to 50 years of Progress," Ibid., p. 3; Port of Friday Harbor website accessed December 2010 (http://portfridayharbor.org/); "Port of Friday Harbor Plans a Memorable 60th" and "Jensen's Shipyard Celebrates its 100th," San Juan Journal, May 10, 2010, San Juan Journal website accessed December 5, 2010 (www.sanjuanjournal.com/); Richard Walker, "Greg Hertel: Satisfied With Direction of the Port of Friday Harbor: Friday Harbor Port Commission Candidate Profile," October 2, 2009, Ibid. accessed December 2010; "A History of Jensen's Boat Yard," Jensen's Boat Yard website accessed December 20, 2010, (www.jensenshipyard.com/boatyard_history.html); James Wallace, "Friday Harbor's Mysterious Millionaire Philanthropist Donates Then He Vanishes," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 3, 1988, p. B-2; "Friday Harbor to Host Fly-In and Open House July 24," posted April 12, 2010, San Juan Islander website accessed December 30, 2010 (www.sanjuanislander.com/); HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Friday Harbor-Thumbnail History" (by Margaret Riddle),  http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 28, 2010).

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