Friday Harbor -- Thumbnail History

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 10/12/2010
  • Essay 9610
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Friday Harbor is the seat of San Juan County and the county's only incorporated town. Its population in 2010 was 2,260 residents living on 1.01 square miles (685 acres) of land on central San Juan Island's east shoreline. The town sits on a sheltered body of water which was named Friday Harbor after a Hawaiian sheepherder who went by the name Friday. Town founder Edward Warbass (1825-1906), who spearheaded the creation of San Juan County, claimed 160 acres of government land there in the early 1870s to be developed as the official county seat, but the town of Friday Harbor did not grow significantly until the 1890s. Fishing, farming, agriculture, lime quarrying, and shipbuilding were the cornerstones of its early economy, which is today based on tourism, real estate, and construction. With its strong sense of community and heritage, Friday Harbor has preserved many of its older homes and buildings. The San Juan County Historical Museum archives and displays photos, artifacts, and oral histories of early residents. Friday Harbor can be reached by water and air only, but the transportation routes remain some of the most scenic in the United States, drawing visitors from around the world.

Early Days 

Geologically the San Juan Islands are mountain-tops exposed some 13,000 years ago following the last Ice Age. In the ancient past, water levels have risen and fallen; the present shoreline is considered to be roughly 5,000 years old.

Prehistoric tools found on the islands show early human habitation. Here the kale’gamis people, Northern Straits Salish (primarily Lummi, Cowichan, and Songish) built permanent villages and temporary camps and thrived until Europeans introduced smallpox and other diseases in the late eighteenth century.

The Pig War

San Juan Island’s earliest non-Native settlers arrived in the 1850s, taking land in disputed territory. An 1846 resolution had finalized ownership in Oregon Territory, setting a mainland border at the 49th parallel, designating Vancouver Island as British and the remaining territory as United States' land. The resolution, however, did not address ownership of the San Juan Islands.

The British Hudson’s Bay Company established Belle Vue Sheep Farm in 1853 on the southern end of San Juan Island. American settlers and military soon arrived and island residents lived under two flags. From 1860 to 1872 the two countries mutually occupied the island, the American Army at American Camp and the Royal Marines at English Camp on the island’s western coast. Most settlers took native wives and today there are San Juan Island families who can trace their ancestry back to these unions.

In 1859 an American, Lyman Cutler, shot a British pig, thus setting off a long standoff in which no one but the pig was killed. In 1872 a decision was reached ruling that the land belonged to the United States, and San Juan Island became part of Whatcom County.

Naming and Settling 

The Hudson's Bay Company hired Hawaiians, often called "Kanakas," to tend sheep on the Belle Vue Sheep Farm. In the 1850s one of these sheepherders, who was listed in company records as "Friday," ran a sheep station about six miles north of the farm on the island's eastern shore. A British surveyor scouting the region in 1859 was first to map the harbor indenting that shore as "Friday's Bay." Although many accounts through the years have referred to the namesake of harbor and town as "Joe Friday," more recent research shows that the sheepherder, whose Hawaiian name was recorded as "Poalie" (it may well have been "Poalima," which means "Friday" in Hawaiian) did not use any first name until taking the name Peter when he converted to Catholicism in 1870. Peter Friday did have a son named Joe who lived with him on the harbor that came to bear their name, but Joe Friday would have been a child at the time the name was bestowed.

Edward Warbass, who came west for the California gold rush, worked as a merchant in California, Oregon, and then Washington, and first came to San Juan Island as a sutler (storekeeper) for the U.S. Army in 1859 during the Pig War stand-off, saw potential in the protected deep-water harbor. It was Warbass who in 1873 organized a petition to the territorial legislature that resulted in passage of legislation creating San Juan County, thus freeing the islanders from rule by Whatcom County, into which the islands had been placed after the boundary dispute was resolved the year before. Elected county auditor, Warbass decided that the then-uninhabited lands on Friday Harbor would make a better county seat than San Juan Town, an unruly settlement composed largely of saloons and brothels that had sprung up near American Camp at the southern end of the island during the U.S. Army's occupation there.

Warbass claimed 160 acres of land on the harbor not for himself but to serve as the town site for the county seat, with the idea that settlers buying town lots on the attractive harbor would help fund the nascent county government. He had a 16- by 24-foot shack built to serve as a county courthouse, as well as his auditor's office and residence. But while Warbass, on behalf of the county, attempted to sell lots at the townsite nobody was buying, because land elsewhere on the island could easily be claimed for free under the 1860 Homestead Act.

John Bowman of Orcas Island replaced Warbass as county auditor in 1876. He and Orcas storeowner Joseph Sweeney (1841-1920), who opened a store at Friday Harbor, planned to buy up the town lots cheaply and sell them at a personal profit, enraging Warbass. But it took another 10 years, and the opening of a second store with a saloon in back, before settlers began buying lots, at greatly reduced prices, and Friday Harbor began to grow. In the late 1880s and the 1890s it grew quickly, with the building of Saloon Best, the Tourist's Hotel, L. B. Carter's Blue Front general store, the first sawmill, and a lumber mill established by the Jensen brothers -- Albert (who would later found the Albert Jensen & Sons Shipyard on the harbor south of town), Joe, Frank, and Pete.

A major boost to the Friday Harbor economy came in 1894, when the Island Packing Company (IPC) opened a fish cannery on the waterfront. The Pacific American Fisheries bought IPC five years later and build a large new cannery that operated for many years as the Friday Harbor Packing Company. When the the Jensen brothers opened their mill in 1904, plans included a power plant that could also provide electricity to the town, but it was not until 1907, after the brothers had sold their interest, that Friday Harbor's first street light was lit. The lumber mill power plant provided power intermittently at best until 1911, when it burned down, leaving the town without an electric system for several more years.

Water, Electricity, and Incorporation

This quick growth brought problems and opportunities for Friday Harbor in the beginning years of the twentieth century. The community needed both reliable electric power and a safe and dependable water supply, and some residents suggested that incorporating as a town with its own local government, rather than relying on the county, was the best way to provide for such community services. Support for incorporation was far from universal, but an incorporation measure was put to public vote on February 2, 1909.

Anti-Saloon League members objected to Saloon Best's proprietor John Douglas (1859-?) serving on the steering committee that drafted the incorporation initiative, but Douglas prevailed and went on to win a town council seat in the same election that approved the initiative. The incorporation measure passed by a fairly narrow vote of 70 to 55. Gene Gould (1879-1957), a young bank president, was chosen mayor, and those elected as council members, in addition to Douglas, were merchants L. B. Carter (b. 1858) and Norman E. Churchill (1852-1915), creamery owner Sam Bugge (1870-1939), and dentist C. L. McGinnis (d. 1928).

Among the council's top priorities was assuring a safe water supply. A polluted well in town caused an outbreak of typhoid fever, and the town's new officials focused on healing their sick and preventing further water-borne illness. Friday Harbor was booming with new homes and businesses, and, along with health concerns, this growth and the needs of the town's salmon cannery -- which used 15,000 gallons of water daily in the summer months -- led the town council to approve a gravity-fed water system originating at Trout Lake. The system was online and operating by 1913.

After the 1911 fire that destroyed the light plant providing the town's electricity, the town purchased the surviving equipment and the poles and wires serving the town, but taxpayers were reluctant to fund a municipal electric system. In 1915, the town council granted Roy Burghardt (1884-1936) a franchise to operate a light plant, and his system, which went into operation that fall, finally provided the growing community with reliable electricity.

Farms and Fish

Friday Harbor’s primary economy was based on farming, fishing, logging, and lime quarrying. County agriculture flourished, and apples, pears, plums, peas, and other vegetables were shipped out to both domestic and foreign markets. Salmon was an abundant and lucrative resource; by 1912 the Friday Harbor Packing Company ranked fifth out of 19 canneries in the Puget Sound/Northern Straits region.

This economy sustained the islanders even through the hard times of the Great Depression, when they had to live mainly as a self-sufficient community, often bartering for crops and services. In the years that followed, each of the early industries on which the town had relied died out, and residents needed to find a new future.

Friday Harbor Laboratories

In 1904 the University of Washington established a new marine-biology field station in Friday Harbor under the direction of Professors Trevor Kincaid and T. C. Frye, who set up shop in a small cabin south of the town. Thus began a relationship with Friday Harbor that has endured for more than a century. Despite the remoteness of the location, the Friday Harbor facility offered great natural diversity for study. The professors held classes there, bringing students and educators to the town for summer sessions. In 1909 they set up two large aquaria at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, afterwards moving them to the Friday Harbor station.

In 1923 the labs were moved to their current location at Point Caution just north of Friday Harbor, and in 1930 they came under the directorship of the University of Washington’s new Oceanography Department and became known as the Washington Oceanographic Laboratories. Educators, researchers, and scientists from several disciplines have trained there over the decades, and many went on to become well known. Among these was former Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), who joined the UW Department of Zoology in 1945 as a researcher and teacher. In 1951 the facilities received their final name change, and are now known as the Friday Harbor Laboratories

Port and Airport

The Port of Friday Harbor District was created by public vote in 1950, and the district owns and operates the Friday Harbor Airport, the Friday Harbor Marina, Spring Street Landing, Jackson’s Beach, and Jack Fairweather Park (Marina Park). It manages business tenants at both the marina and airport.

The port’s marina has 500 slips and an international seaplane base and is a U.S. Customs Port of Entry. The Friday Harbor Airport serves commercial passengers and general aviation, provides medical evacuation and aerial charter tours, and is the sixth busiest airport in the state in terms of landings and takeoffs.

Opportunities for Death

In 2009 a Friday Harbor historian wrote:

“Friday Harbor is a town that would not die. That is not to say there were not ample opportunities. With the rise of the automobile, hard-surface roads and then interstate highways across the country, all of the island’s extraction industries -- from fruit to lime, canned salmon to peas -- collapsed one by one as the island marched into the twentieth century. Freight costs of waterborne transportation priced Friday Harbor produce out of the market, and the fishing industry sagged as well. First the fish traps were outlawed in 1934 and then the resource itself dwindled as more vessels plied the waters and shipping costs soared. It was much easier to can or freeze or ship from the mainland” (Vouri, 113).

When the salmon cannery finally closed in 1966, the town was in danger of dying. A photo of the waterfront in 1970 shows a nearly abandoned cannery but, in the background, vacation homes can be seen along the shoreline -- signs of a new economy.

One Great Family on a Little Island

Shifting its focus, Friday Harbor (and most of San Juan Island) took stock of its potential for tourism and today attracts visitors from all over the world, drawn to the peacefulness and beauty of the San Juan Islands and the national parks that operate at what were, before the Pig War, the English and American camps. Much of the experience for tourists, however, is in the journey to the San Juans by ferry or airplane. By either means, the route is beautiful and draws visitors during all seasons.

The town of Friday Harbor celebrated its centennial throughout 2009 with festive community events, published histories, arts displays, and a celebration by the Lummi Nation. Not only was it a chance to recognize and share the city’s roots and accomplishments but, as expressed in a tourist brochure, an opportunity to:

"honor the sense of community in Friday Harbor which continues to enable residents to laugh, to argue, to love, and to share the warmth of a small group of individuals in one great family, on a little island, who care about each other and their town" (Discover Historic Friday Harbor, 2009).


Jo Bailey-Cummings and Al Cummings, San Juan: the Powder-Keg Island (Friday Harbor: Beach Combers, Inc., 1987); Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, Friday Harbor (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2009); F. H. Van Cleve, Friday Harbor: Then and Now (Friday Harbor: Long House Print Crafters and Publishers, 1979); "Historic Home Tour" San Juan Historical Museum website accessed September 24, 2010 (; Claudia E. Mills and Colin O. Hermans, "Historical Centennial Timeline for the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories," 1903-2005, University of Washington faculty website accessed September 24, 2010 (; Sharon Kivisto, "Voluntarily Preserving Friday Harbor’s History," posted February 22, 2000, San Juan website accessed September 25, 2010 (; "Discover Historic Friday Harbor, Then and Now, 1909-2009 Centennial, San Juan Island, Washington," tour map accessed September 20, 1010 (; Elizabeth O'Brien and Brenda Pratt, "Who Was the Real Joe Friday?" San Juan Historical Museum newsletter, Fall 2000, p. 1; Brenda Pratt, "Thank God It's Still Friday!" San Juan Historical Museum newsletter, Spring 2003, p. 2; HistoryLink.Org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (Kit Oldham), "Friday Harbor Waterfront" (by Boyd C. Pratt), "Warbass, Edward (1825-1906)" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg) and "Friday Harbor goes dark when the light plant burns on July 14, 1911" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), (accessed September 8, 2017).
Note: This essay was revised and updated on June 24, 2013, and corrected and revised on November 4, 2016, and on September 8, 2017.

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