Jetty Island is a man-made island located in Everett Harbor (Snohomish County) approximately one-quarter mile from the mainland. First built in the mid-1890s, the island was originally a jetty that extended southwest from Smith Island to provide a barrier to protect the harbor. It soon became apparent that the jetty was creating a silting problem in both the harbor and along the shoreline, and a permanent gap was cut in it in 1915, making the jetty an island. Beginning in the 1960s the island became increasingly used for public recreation, and today (2021) Jetty Island attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year.
To Build a Jetty
Everett's early settlers recognized that nearby Port Gardner Bay had excellent potential to be developed into a harbor, and the man most responsible for making this dream a reality was Henry Hewitt (1840-1918), a wealthy Tacoma lumberman. Hewitt arrived in the spring of 1890 to explore the area for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which planned to build a rail line there. It didn't take long for him to realize that the site had a greater potential. When he learned that Charles Colby (1839-1896), an associate of wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), was looking for a location for the western branch of the American Steel Barge Company, he met with Colby and convinced him Everett was the place.
With the financial aid of Colby and Rockefeller, Hewitt purchased the land holdings of local settlers, most notably brothers Wyatt (1857-1931) and Bethel Rucker (1862-1945). In November 1890, Hewitt, along with Colby and one of his partners, Colgate Hoyt (1849-1922), and others formed the Everett Land Company (Land Company) to acquire the additional property needed to develop the waterfront and build a harbor that aspired to rival anything on the West Coast. One of the earliest plans drawn up, in late 1890 or in 1891, envisioned a large harbor protected by a jetty that blocked the flow of the Snohomish River as it exited into the bay and channeled it into the harbor.
The Land Company first had to buy the remaining tidelands, which proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Litigation ensued, which was finally resolved in the Land Company's favor in early 1893, only a few months before the financial Panic of 1893 kicked off a severe depression which lasted for much of the rest of the decade. Nevertheless, the Land Company moved forward with its plans to develop the harbor, and by the end of the year the company had received approval from the U.S. government to proceed at its own expense. But Hewitt needed federal funds for the job, and spent part of 1894 lobbying the federal government for funds to dredge the harbor and build a "training dike" in the bay in front of the harbor to protect it. By the time the federal government approved funding and provided plans and specifications for the harbor and jetty, it was the spring of 1895.
The contract to dredge the harbor and build the jetty was awarded to the Rucker brothers, and construction began in the early summer of 1895. Between then and November almost 8,000 feet of the jetty was built, stretching southwest from Smith Island and in front of the mouth of the Snohomish River. A double row of piles was laid and filled in with brush, but the brush wasn't anchored and soon began blowing away whenever there was a breeze. Crews learned to put rocks on the brush to keep it in place. Work paused in November 1895 and resumed a year later, during which time excavated soil from nearby dredging work was used to build up the west side of the jetty. By late 1897, the jetty was 14,000 feet long.
Here, work paused again. Though the original plan would have created tidal gates in the harbor to help keep it free of silt, the government had instead opted for a less expensive option and eliminated the gates in the final plan. This proved to be a costly mistake. Because the jetty blocked the flow of the Snohomish River as it exited into the bay, silt and debris from the river began flowing into the harbor and depositing along the shoreline. Repeated dredging as the 1900s began proved costly and futile. By the 1910s, it was becoming obvious that it wasn't working.
The problem had first been addressed in 1902 when a large opening, subsequently named Steamboat Gap, was cut out of the jetty in front of the mouth of the river to allow silt and river debris to flow into the bay instead of into the harbor. It worked, but the gap was nevertheless closed again in 1910 as part of a misguided attempt to increase the river's velocity to force the silt through the harbor channel and into the bay. Instead, the silt built up in the harbor at a faster rate than it had the first time the gap had been closed. The gap was opened permanently in 1915, and in later years it was widened at least twice until it was more than 2,000 feet wide.
Birth of an Island
The jetty was now a narrow, two-mile-long island, though it would be another half-century before the name Jetty Island would come into vogue. During the 1910s and 1920s, material from dredging operations and other sources was added to the west side of the island and slowly built it up. In 1912 and 1931 the northern part of the island was rebuilt to an elevation of slightly more than 14 feet, where it remains today (2021). The southern 3,250 feet of the island is considerably lower, and barely above sea level at high tide.
In 1928, Everett voters approved the Port of Everett's purchase of several tracts of land along the Everett waterfront. This included the island, which became known (at least to the port) as Tract Q. The port assumed ownership in 1929, but little changed on the island for the next 20 or so years, despite development on the waterfront during World War II (1941-1945 in the U.S.).
By the late 1940s it was becoming common to sink old barges off the island's northern end, near the north bank of the Snohomish River at its mouth, to provide a breakwater for the harbor. Boats were left on Jetty Island too, including a famous one, the Equator. The vessel was built in 1888, and the following year it hosted the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) on a voyage across the South Pacific. It later served as part of an Arctic whaling fleet and, during its final years, as a tugboat on Puget Sound. It was unceremoniously dumped on the island in 1956 and forgotten before being rediscovered and removed from the island in 1967 and later restored. As of 2021, it is on display at the Port of Everett Boat Dock.
The island began to attract more public notice in the 1960s. Part of it was from the attention generated by the efforts to save the Equator, but other factors played a role. In 1961 the port allocated a portion of the island to Everett's Park Board to be used for picnicking and swimming that summer, and from there recreation on the island slowly increased. Both the port and the park board developed small parts of the island for recreation, and the Everett Kiwanis Club built a shelter there. The port also sporadically offered foot-ferry service to the island during the 1960s, but this was abandoned late in the decade. By the 1970s the island was growing increasingly popular with the public, and it had acquired a new name: Jetty Island.
This very popularity changed the port's plans to develop the harbor during this decade. Since assuming ownership in 1929, the port had periodically considered closing Steamboat Gap between the island and the adjacent shoreline. In 1973, it received a permit to fill in a seven-acre tract beginning at Preston Point on the mainland immediately across the harbor from the northern end of the island. There was already public concern about the possibility of industrial development on the island, and many felt the permit was the first step in the process. It was challenged in an appeal to the Shoreline Hearings Board, a state agency that hears appeals of local shoreline permit decisions. In a 1974 ruling, the board vacated the permit.
This did not end the dispute, and in an effort to find a solution, the issue went to an informal mediation overseen by the University of Washington Office of Environmental Mediation. The mediation lasted nearly a year before an agreement was reached in the autumn of 1977 between the port and a group of citizens representing the jetty, dubbed by some wags as the Jetty Set. Though the agreement did not completely prohibit industrial development on the island, the port agreed to emphasize development along the Everett waterfront first.
More than 40 years later, there still has been no industrial development on the island. However, there has been further physical development of the island itself. The Corps of Engineers deposited more than a quarter-million cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Snohomish River along the western side of the island in 1989, creating a distinctive peninsula with a half-mile-long berm on its western edge and a saltwater marsh between the peninsula and the rest of the island. Among other purposes, the land was added to help slow the erosion of the island and to create a spot for birds and small shore creatures.
In 1983, Everett's Evergreen Fourth of July Association began hosting an annual fireworks display on Jetty Island. Two years later, the show created a local sensation when a 24-inch, 150-pound shell -- dubbed "Thor" by promoters -- failed to launch and instead ignited on the ground, resulting in a dramatic explosion. Though there were no injuries, the flaming fizzle resulted in a fire that burned on the island for three days and burned a strip of grassland nearly half a mile long.
Jetty Island Today
It was also in 1985 that foot-ferry service resumed to the island, for a brief eight days that summer. A city questionnaire found that 4,000 people visited during just those eight days alone. This led to the creation of Jetty Island Days in 1986, when the Everett Parks and Recreation Department began offering free ferry rides to the island between July 5 and Labor Day. Sandcastle contests, "kite days," and other programs later followed on the island, but there also have been programs fitted to a unique, one-time occasion. For example, an osprey nest with chicks was found on the island in 2006, and a camera was set up near the nest with the feed relayed to a nearby "discovery hut" where visitors could watch the chicks. By the 2010s, the island was hosting 50,000 visitors a year.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of Jetty Island Days in 2020, but they resumed in the summer of 2021. For the first time, there was a fare to ride the ferry: $3 per person. This writer's trip to the island on an unusually cool, cloudy day late that summer was a three-minute, quarter-mile ride across the harbor to a small dock on the other side. (A seal put in a cameo appearance near the boat as it slipped into the dock.) Aside from a restroom on the dock, there were no services on the island. A quarter-mile walk west through trees and shrubs -- surprisingly dense in the island's middle -- led to the main beach. To the north lay the island's highest point and quiet grasslands, while to the south the island eventually tapered off to a narrow, rocky jetty more than half a mile long. There were a few trails, but it was easier to walk along the broad, brown beach on the island's western shore.
The 186-acre Jetty Island supports more than 45 bird species, including the marsh hawk, cormorants, eagles, and dunlin, a bird similar to a sandpiper. Other animals on the island include deer mice and meadow voles. Deer and coyotes also visit the island, but they are not permanent residents there; deer will sometimes swim to the island during high tide, while coyotes prefer to sneak across the shallows between the mainland and the island during low tide. There's a sprinkling of cottonwood trees along the northern two-thirds of the island, along with dune ryegrass -- a tall grass with a complex root system which helps prevent erosion -- and the beach pea, a vine of sorts that sports bright purple flowers.