On August 15, 1966, Island County commissioners authorize the Port of Coupeville and call for a port measure to be placed on the November ballot. On November 8, Central Whidbey Island voters in the San de Fuca, Prairie, Central, Coupeville, and Greenbank precincts will approve the measure and elect three port commissioners. On November 17, Island County commissioners will officially recognize the new port district, which includes one of Washington’s earliest settlements, Coupeville and Ebey’s Prairie. Facing east toward Saratoga Passage, the Coupeville Wharf, built in 1905, is central to port development, having provided passenger ferry service and transport of goods between the island and the mainland for decades. In 1967 new port commissioners will adopt plans to build a large modern marina but residents will object and support plans for historic preservation. In 1973 the Coupeville Wharf will be included in a National Register of Historic Places District and in 1978 will become part of the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. In 2011 the Port manages the Wharf and Marina and Greenbank Farm. Its comprehensive plan (2007-2026) supports economic development while emphasizing the district’s historic roots, protection of the environment, and eco-tourism.
One of Washington's oldest towns and the seat of Island County, Coupeville is situated on the south side of a sheltered inlet known as Penn Cove on Central Whidbey Island, facing east on Saratoga Passage. It was once the site of three permanent Lower Skagit tribal villages and in the 1850s the area was settled by sea captains and farmers. Coupeville was named for a sea captain, Thomas Coupe. Whidbey Island narrows near Coupeville, making Ebey's Landing and Ebey's Prairie only a short distance from the town center and the communities share a common marine, military, lumber, and agricultural history.
There were several early wharves and associated buildings at Penn Cove in the latter half of the 1800s, built for passenger travel and importing and exporting products between the island and the mainland. Activation of Fort Casey in 1901 brought a larger population quickly to Central Whidbey. To accommodate the growth, local merchants and farmers built a 500-foot dock extending into Penn Cove at the foot of NW Alexander Street in 1905. The Coupeville Wharf, as it was called, included an L-shaped building with a waiting room and restroom that served as a passenger ferry terminal and became an important community center. The town of Coupeville incorporated in April 1910.
Elmer Calhoun purchased the Coupeville Wharf in 1909 and added a grain tower. During the Great Depression, Calhoun made major repairs to the wharf but due to the hard times, passenger ferry service was suspended at Coupeville in 1936. The growing popularity of the automobile and the completion of Deception Pass Bridge in 1935 ended the water transportation era. Dick Hansen purchased the wharf in 1949 for a grain screening mill. By the early 1960s Whidbey Islanders were trucking most of their goods and produce since it was the cheapest option. Central Whidbey Island residents looked to the creation of the new port for new waterfront uses.
Creation of Port of Coupeville
On August 15, 1966, Island County commissioners authorized the Port of Coupeville and set November 8 for voters to decide about port district formation. On that day Central Whidbey Island voters in the San de Fuca, Prairie, Central, Coupeville, and Greenbank precincts approved the measure and elected three port commissioners. Island County Commissioners officially established the Port of Coupeville on November 17, 1966.
The new port district encompassed the town of Coupeville, Ebey’s Prairie, Ebey’s Landing, and the town of Greenbank. Port commissioners adopted a comprehensive plan on March 13, 1967, a prerequisite for applying for grant money. In 1969 the Port of Coupeville purchased the wharf and tidelands from owners Dick and Faith Hansen for $28,344, the price set at $7.10 per foot for 4,133 feet of tidelands.
Port commissioners considered building a large new marina but Central Whidbey residents were beginning to consider historic preservation of their locale. Coupeville’s Front Street merchants wanted to see transient, not permanent, moorage on the waterfront and agreed to be taxed for repair and maintenance of the Coupeville Wharf. The Port collected tax from all properties within Coupeville School District 204, which included all of Central Whidbey from San de Fuca to Greenbank.
Central Whidbey Island had a number of older homes and buildings that had survived into the 1970s. Island support for the arts and tourism at this time gave impetus to formation of a National Historic Preservation District which included buildings along Front Street. Coupeville residents made it clear that they did not want a modern marina as a backdrop to their new historic district. In 1973 the Coupeville Wharf was included as a supportive property in a National Register of Historic Places district. Residents helped preserve four historic blockhouses, buildings and homes, and most significantly, the prairie itself. In 1978 this became the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, the first district of its kind recognized in the United States.
Fixing the Wharf
The Port inherited a badly deteriorated wharf in 1966 and public discussion ensued over how to historically restore it. Should the dock restored to the way it was in 1905 or as it was in the 1930s or at a later date? There were many considerations and, in making the renovations, the Port worked closely with the Department of Ecology, the Native Tribes, Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, historians with Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and the Coupeville Historical Advisory Committee to determine the best plan. Repairs were done as money allowed. The approach pier was renovated from 1970 to 1984. The waiting room was removed in 1974 and a rock bulkhead installed at the head of the pier in 1983.
In 1985 the Wharf building took on new life with a privately funded project. The grain tower was removed, the causeway renovated and the east end remodeled for use as a marine store and delicatessen. Mike Williams opened a Marine Store in the building in 1986 and in 1996 the Port once again renovated the wharf, following historical guidelines. The Port added a concrete fuel dock, an underground fuel tank, and three mooring floats for the use of pleasure boats.
Port Manager John Coyne, responding to a citizen who objected to the removal of the grain tower, stated to the press in June 2000:
“It is true that the cupola (tower) of the wharf was removed in 1985, but the cupola was added in the 1930s, for processing grain. However, that addition was made without adequate structural considerations. By 1985 it was readily apparent that the additional weight of the cupola had adversely affected the integrity of the western wall of the wharf. It was deemed desirable to remove the cupola before proceeding with rehabilitation of the section of the structure. An observation regarding the loss of a part of history poses something of a philosophical question. Obviously there was a period prior to 1906 when the wharf did not exist. Is that the historical context that should be preserved or should it be the era of 1906-1931, or that of the 1930s to 1985 or the configuration since 1997 which now offers community services and attracts thousands of visitors annually?” (Sherman, Coupeville Wharf History, 8-9).
Not easy choices. In 2001 two additional moorage floats and four mooring buoys were placed west of the Wharf.
Port of Coupeville Today
Today’s Port of Coupeville operates the Marina and Dock and Greenbank Farm, a 1904 dairy that was converted to the largest loganberry vineyard in the U.S. in 1943. Chateau Ste. Michelle winery sold the property to Island County, the Nature Conservancy, and the Port of Coupeville in 1997. The Port contracts with the Greenbank Farm Management Group to manage the farm and has developed it for visitors and events. Greenbank Farm has a wine shop and cafe.
In 2007 the Port drew a new comprehensive plan that called for increasing tourist awareness of Coupeville; establishing the wharf as a link in a marine passenger system; re-establishing waterfront facilities at the Port as a freight link for local marine businesses; increasing moorage sites for visiting boaters; continuing development of Greenbank Farm and changing a portion of the wharf building for use as a marine education center.
The Port has found it challenging to move ahead in hard economic times but it lists new directions as:
supporting and growing its agricultural projects;
creating an airport facility;
developing a light industrial facility
supporting alternative, sustainable energy generation projects in partnership with others;
utilizing energy conservation in all activities; and
establishing a marine refuge harbor for boaters on the western shore of the marine facility.
In its mission, the Port emphasizes protection of the environment and the development of eco-tourism. To this end, it is a member of the Island County Shore Stewards, working in partnership with others on Whidbey Island in managing the shoreline to preserve critical habitat for fish, wildlife, and birds.
Port of Coupeville Executive Director in 2011 is James M. Patton with Long Bechard as Harbor Master. Commissioners are Marshall Bronson, (District 1), Benye Weber (District 2), and Ann Macdonald (District 3). Businesses at the Wharf presently include Kim’s Café, Harbor Gift and Kayak Rental, Local Grown (Whidbey Island Farm Foods, Espresso and Marine Supplies), and KWPA 96.9 Radio for Whidbey Island locals.
The Port has announced that the Seattle based Victoria Clipper will return to Coupeville to offer whale watching trips in Saratoga Passage on weekends starting in March 2011. Victoria Clipper excursions will include a visit to the Coupeville Wharf where the passengers will be able to stop for a couple of hours and enjoy local restaurants and shopping, the kind of business the Port continues to support.