Intro to Anacortes History

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By Bret Lunsford, Anacortes Museum Education Curator. Excerpted from the book Images of America: Anacortes, 2009

Located on the north shore of Fidalgo Island in Washington State's Puget Sound, Anacortes was founded in 1879 by railroad surveyor Amos Bowman and named in honor of his wife, Anne Curtis. Bowman promoted Anacortes as the "New York of the West," ultimately failing to establish the urban center he envisioned. But those who were drawn to Anacortes established a vital and unique small town that progressed to All-America City status by 1962.

Prior to the boom and bust of the 1890s, Fidalgo Island was home to the Samish and the Swinomish people for thousands of years. Old-growth cedar and Douglas fir trees dominated the landscape from seashore to lake shore. Members of the Samish tribe lived in cedar longhouses measuring over 1,000 feet; their Guemes Island longhouse stood into the 20th century. These Coast Salish tribes oriented their villages toward the abundance of the sea, and built a wealthy and sophisticated culture based on harvesting salmon and shellfish, fashioning clothing and basketry from natural materials, while plying the waters in canoes for trade, harvest and occasional raids.

Spanish and British explorers arrived in the late 1700s to map and name many of the surrounding islands and waterways: Rosario Strait, Guemes Channel, Padilla Bay, and the San Juan Islands. White pioneers began arriving on Fidalgo Island in the 1850s, and were drawn to the meadow lands of March's Point for their settlements – now the site of two oil refineries – because the land was already clear for farming. The settlement of Anacortes required the removal of mammoth trees, and the abundance of wood supplied early lumber mills, providing the materials for Anacortes' homes, stores, wharves, even the planking for streets.

Early settlers initially lived as neighbors to the Samish and Swinomish people. Yet as echoed throughout the American continent, this early cooperation did not endure. The 1929 edition of the high school yearbook states the matter plainly: “About 1860 the first settlers began dispossessing the Indians of Ship Harbor, as Anacortes was first called.” Once these Native Americans’ land was taken, following the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, many moved to the Swinomish Reservation on southeast Fidalgo Island, or made homestead claims on their own homelands on Guemes or other islands. Thus, the land around Anacortes was opened to homesteaders and downtown investment schemes.

Real estate speculation, linked to railroad rumors, sparked the rapid growth of the budding city in early 1890. Although the first train arrived later that year, it never became the promised major terminus, so Anacortes' urban ambitions went into hibernation. Investors big and small suffered major losses when the real estate bubble burst in late 1891, triggered by a lack of money at the Oregon Improvement Company, which was unable to complete tracks over the Cascade Range. Owners defaulted on Anacortes property, and pages of the Anacortes American were full of Fidalgo Island property tax citation notices.

Those who fled the Anacortes “bust,” which foreshadowed the nationwide Panic of 1893, were replaced on Fidalgo Island by fishermen, more farmers, cannery workers, lumberjacks, shingle weavers, shipwrights, carpenters, ferrymen, barkeepers, ministers, hoteliers, and others with a more grounded vision of the town's future. Anacortes was promoted as the "City of Smokestacks" in the 1920s, with timber mills lining its eastern shore, salmon canneries lining its northern shore, and taverns lining its main street – P Avenue – which was changed to the less vulgar Commercial Avenue in 1902.

The fishing tradition depicted in television’s The Deadliest Catch began in the 1890s as Anacortes men ventured to Alaskan waters for months of danger at sea. The town’s early fishing industry was based on schooners like Lizzie Colby and Wawona that sailed from Anacortes to the Bering Sea and brought back tons of salted cod, which was then dried on racks, then packaged and shipped internationally. Mechanized salmon processing began in 1894 at the Fidalgo Island Canning Company, and expanded to eleven seafood canneries operating along the swift-moving Guemes Channel, allowing Anacortes to boast of being "the Salmon Canning Capital of the World." The salmon fishery attracted immigrants: fishermen from Scandinavia and Croatia, cannery workers from Japan, and Chinese men, who sometimes arrived illegally on the boat of Smuggler Kelly, a Confederate veteran who occasionally eluded the authorities with cargoes of opium; and Chinese workers brought from Canada.

Smugglers, bootleggers, sailors, fishermen, lumberjacks and other adventurers created an atmosphere of a frontier town, which would remain a part of Anacortes for decades to come. This was balanced by teachers, ministers, boosters and laborers who, thanks to hard work in a land rich in resources, survived periodic hard times and a rowdy past to succeed in becoming a proper city.

The early Anacortes waterfront buzzed with the "mosquito fleet," a flurry of big and small steamships and little gas launches that connected Puget Sound's communities during an era when roads were inferior to water travel. International and inter-island travelers depended on these passenger boats, and later the car ferries of the Black Ball Line evolved to become the current state ferry system. As a maritime hub, Anacortes was able to bring in boatloads of revelers; having a more relaxed attitude about temperance attracted celebrants from the drier parts of Skagit County. This tradition of celebration extended to the Marineer's Pageant, a summertime water festival that included floats on parade, water skiers pulled by airplane, canoe and hydroplane races, and tours of visiting naval vessels. This pageant established Anacortes as a tourist destination, attracting throngs from the 1930s to 1950s, and is regarded as the precursor of Seattle's Seafair.

Of the more than 700 sons and daughters of Anacortes who served their country in World War II, many came back home. Wallie Funk, whose grandparents arrived in the 1890s, purchased the local Anacortes American newspaper in 1950. Sensing economic stagnation, Funk became a catalyst for both change and preservation of history. Inspired by Dr. Richard Poston’s book, Democracy Is You, Funk and others pursued a “do-it-yourself” community development program involving more than 1,200 Anacortes citizens.

Meanwhile on March's Point meadows, land was being quietly acquired by Shell Oil as a site for a refinery which promised to fill gaps in the economy left by closure of several mills. The arrival of Shell in 1953 and Texaco in 1957 created jobs for locals and brought in a wave of newcomers to the community. Old and new ideas and problems challenged the community’s past identities, requiring arguments, compromise, and sacrifice. New schools replaced old, gravel streets were paved, flood-prone creeks were routed into underground pipes, and whole neighborhoods were condemned.

At the dawn of the 1960s, when Anacortes became an All-America City, the lumber and fishing industries held onto some vitality before diminishing rapidly in the following decades. Anacortes weathered the rapid changes of the 20th century and entered into the new century with many of its traditions intact: good schools, preservation of nature balanced with working-class jobs, encouragement of artists and adventurers, and open arms for celebrants and visitors.