On June 2, 1953, the Anacortes Bulletin announces that Shell Oil chooses to locate an oil refinery in Anacortes. A special edition of the paper covers the whole front page with the headline "SHELL PICKS LOCAL SITE." The struggling community suddenly finds itself the unwitting host to Big Oil and enthusiastically embraces the economic prosperity that the company will bring. Reeling from industrial decline and a tide of local problems, city residents are seeking a new way forward. The Shell refinery, along with a second one opened by Texaco, will revitalize the Anacortes economy and change the identity of a town built on lumber, fishing, and canning.
Within a week of Shell's announcement, a city planning consultant had been hired to give advice as to the best way to prepare for a new industry that planned to employ 600 (besides 1,500 in the construction phase). This also meant many new jobs in the service sector. And the city held its collective breath hoping that Shell would not get cold feet or that geologic tests would not compromise the city's future. Wallie Funk, co-owner of the Anacortes American, wrote an editorial about the excited mood of the town:
"Townspeople are doing a huge business in rumors. It's getting so you can't look sideways at an empty lot or make a regular monthly payment on your house without drawing a few looks as the front man for an industry, department store or luxurious motel" (American, June 25, 1953, pp. 4-5).
He continued with a caution drawn from the stubborn history of the town, stretching all the way back to 1890:
"Those who are familiar with this community seem to take the sweet (in this case Shell Oil) with a grain of salt. Their disappointments in chromium, aluminum, government laboratories, smelters, mills and other prospective giants are a matter of record in Anacortes dating back to the boom and bust of 1890" (American, June 25, 1953, pp. 4-5).
Objecting to the raw enthusiasm that Anacortes founder Amos Bowman (1840-1894) would have appreciated, Funk detailed each time the town had been left at the altar.
But this time the hope fulfilled its promise and Shell built its new $ 75 million refinery. In fact a second, Texaco refinery, followed in 1957. The new industry arrived just in time as the 1950s and 1960s saw a slow-down in logging and a sharp drop in the fisheries.
Danger and Prosperity
Anacortes has prospered since the coming of Shell in 1953. But one challenge that has come along with the prosperity is the danger posed to refinery workers. Two workers died in a fire at Shell Oil in 1979, six workers were killed in a huge explosion and fire in 1998.
In 2010, six workers were killed or later died of injuries in another fire at the Anacortes refinery. These grim events have placed a perspective on the blessings of the refineries to the city and compare unfavorably to the city's other deadly occupation -- fishing -- which has claimed over 100 lives of city residents in the last century.