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A Weekend of History on San Juan Island

Step back in time on an island rich with stories and historically significant sites

San Juan Island is located within an archipelago of islands in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. The town of Friday Harbor is one square mile worth of picturesque turn-of-the-century wood-frame buildings and a popular harbor. Surprisingly, many visitors never wander much beyond the ferry terminal to discover an island rich with history, beautiful countryside and jaw dropping views. Without much effort it is easy to take a step back in time and experience island life as it was over a century ago by staying at or dining in historical structures, viewing interesting exhibits and spending time at historical places. In one weekend, you can easily satisfy a history buff, a foodie and a nature lover in one trip to San Juan Island. 
 

In 1859, Great Britain and the United States agreed to a joint occupation of San Juan Island until the water boundary between the two nations could be settled. During this time it was decided the two camps would be located on opposite ends of the island and have remained this way every since. A visit to San Juan Island's English Camp may include watching a historical reenactment, strolling the gardens, walking up the trail to Mount Young and viewing the historic structures left over from the Royal British Marines occupation during the Pig War.

 A visit to American Camp in the San Juan Island National Historical Park may include hiking through the grassy prairies down to South Beach, the longest public beach on the island. From American Camp you can enjoy views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains, or head up Mount Finlayson for views of Cattle Point Lighthouse and then down to 4th of July Beach. It is fascinating to learn more about the fourteen years of American military presence on the island and envision how it would have looked during its height of occupation. American Camp is home to a hundreds of migratory birds, an abundance of red foxes, bunnies and even home to several bald eagles. Something which always strikes me every time I visit San Juan Island is how little effort is required to get away from the crowds. More often than not a fifteen minute drive either north or south of Friday Harbor will provide you with glorious spots all to yourself. 

A little over a mile up from the ferry terminal, the San Juan Historical Society & Museum is a good place to stop and learn more about how Friday Harbor has been the commercial hub of the San Juan Islands since the 1890s. Located on the grounds of the former James King Farm, the San Juan Historical Society consist of eight buildings. I spent a quiet Saturday morning touring the property with local historian, Kevin Loftus, and was able to see the carriage house, root cellar, mile house a log cabin and the 1894 farmhouse. Most exhilarating, I was able to get a sneak peek of the new museum which is currently under construction. Friday Harbor's economy was driven by San Juan County's thriving agriculture and industries like timber and lime will soon be featured in the new interactive museum the historical society is working hard to finish. For example, during my visit I learned that lime has been identified as being shipped to foreign markets as far away as Brazil from Friday Harbor's waterfront. I also was able to see the first jail in San Juan County and hear how even though it was eventually shut down because of its sub-par living conditions, inmates were often passed sandwiches from loved ones through the windows bars, and were given the opportunity to sit outside for periods of time in the sunshine. 

During my visit I was able to stay at Tucker House Inn, one of the handful of historic accommodations located on the island. Tucker House was built in 1898, and was owned by the Inn’s namesake, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence M. Tucker. Mr. Tucker came to San Juan Island to build and operate a grist mill. The mill struggled to stay in business, but Tucker served as County Treasurer and worked at the San Juan County Bank as a clerk. The upper Tucker House, the building located on ‘C’ Street was built about 10 years later by the Joy Family, whose descendants still reside in Washington State. Other historic properties on the island include Roche Harbor Resort, Bird Rock Hotel, Driftwood Farm Cottage and Etta's Place Suites. If dining at historic properties peaks your interest, I suggest dining at McMillin's in Roche Harbor or Cynthia's in Friday Harbor. 

In fifty-five square miles you can spend time in a charming seaport, walk the streets of a historic town, and get glimpses into what life would have been like hundreds of years ago as you visit historic sites and even sleep surrounded by history at a historical property. 

 

SPACE

Tucker House, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Sleep in History

Orcas, Lopez and San Juan Island have many historical inns, bed & breakfasts and other lodging options. Find your favorite and learn their stories.