Island Experience

Friday Harbor’s Haunted Past and Present

What small town doesn’t have a good ghost story or two? Friday Harbor certainly does.

Written by:

Robin Jacobson

As one of the few west coast seaports to have never lost its pioneer core to a fire, Friday Harbor is graced with many buildings dating back to the 1880s and 1890s. Buildings made not only of wood and nails, but also stories of long ago … and sometimes, as some say, spirits of an unearthly sort. These buildings invite us to hear their stories, and although not always historical recollections, important for a town’s folklore, nonetheless.

Would you like to hear a few of them?  Let’s start on A Street, just above the ferry lanes.

View of Friday Harbor waterfront, San Juan Island
Serendipity Books, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

 

Serendipity Used Books / Old Presbyterian Manse 1892

223 A Street

“I know what I saw.”

This charming shop was built in 1892 as a private residence and became the Presbyterian Manse in 1903. Many years later, it was sold and reverted to a private residence before finally becoming the eclectic book shop we enjoy today. It has a quite recent ghost story. One morning, when the shopkeeper arrived to open up the shop, she saw a woman gazing out from the window seat by the front door. She thought the woman must be a guest of the bookshop’s other owner. While turning her key in the front door lock, she saw the figure stand up from the window seat. She noticed that her attire was a black duster style coat, such as was the fashion in the 1950s. The woman had a “strong demeanor,” accentuated by upswept black hair. Once inside the shop, she realized the woman was nowhere to be seen. She called to her, but there was no response.

Later that day, the shopkeeper mentioned this odd experience to a friend. Before long, word had spread through the town. Members of a family who had lived in the home in the 1940s and 1950s came to the shop, carrying an old photo album. Could the guest have been the spirit of one of their relatives, they wondered? Page after was page was turned, but with no recognition. Until one startling photo appeared to match the woman seen in the window seat. A previous homeowner who had passed away in 1957 was easily identified as the proper lady in black. Although the shopkeeper describes herself as someone who “does not do woo-woo or even have feminine intuition,” she stands by her statement that “I know what I saw.” When you visit to browse Serendipity’s vast collection of books, glance a time or two at the window seat. A properly attired lady in a duster coat may appear. For just a brief moment.

The Bay View Inn, circa 1890, now houses Windermere Real Estate, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Spring Street, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

 

Windermere Realty / San Juan Inn c1880

50 Spring Street

“Walter sits in the parlor.”

The main and most active street in Friday Harbor has always been Spring Street, rising up from the waterfront. For most of its existence, the 1880s building now home to Windermere Realty served as a popular inn. So popular, it appears, that one guest who checked in, never checked out. He has been described as “a short, pudgy fellow with a smile and a mustache, dressed in a grey flannel suit and hat.”  This is Walter.

One of the stories goes like this: On an October morning, an innkeeper was serving breakfast in the parlor when a guest sat in Walter’s favorite pink, over-stuffed wingback chair. Suddenly, there was a loud clatter. The guest exclaimed “Do you have ghosts? I just saw a cream cheese knife levitate and slam down on the floor.” It was assumed by the innkeeper that Walter wanted his favorite chair back, and was a little short-tempered after a busy summer season. It’s probably a good thing that the building is now a realty office. Walter’s favorite chair has been replaced with swanky modern furniture, but some think it could be interesting to have one pink over-stuffed chair in the corner. And to see what happens.

The Whale Museum, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
The Whale Museum, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

 

The Whale Museum / Odd Fellows Hall 1892

62 First Street

“The verdict of murder in the first degree was returned shortly after the midnight hour…there was a weird and ghostly appearance to the scene.” –1895 court reporter

In 1895, a Blakely Island schoolteacher named Richard Straub went on trial for killing his neighbor’s brother in a gun fight. The Courthouse at the time was too small to hold the expected crowd of spectators and reporters and so the trial was held at the large Odd Fellows Hall up the street. Straub was convicted of murder and his case was appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, where the verdict was upheld. Straub was hanged in 1897 at the corner of First and Spring Streets, the location of the Courthouse and jail. To this day, there are reports of ghostly experiences in the building now known as The Whale Museum, the site of the murder trial.

Most of the stories take place in the second floor exhibit hall, where the newspaper reported in 1897 that people gathered around the windows with a view of the hanging down the street. Whale Museum staff members throughout the years have reported seeing a tall, thin man in that area after the museum has closed for the day. This matches a description of Richard Straub. He has also been seen on the first floor, the location of the trial. Sometimes, at night, an unseen presence is felt, or steps are heard from the floor above. When you visit The Whale Museum, have no fear. Richard does not seem to favor daylight hours. Perhaps it is because his fate was sealed with a verdict returned “shortly after the midnight hour.”

San Juan County Court House, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
San Juan County Court House, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

 

San Juan County Courthouse 1906

350 Court Street

“The Judge and The Teacher”

Across from The Whale Museum is the present day San Juan County Courthouse, a stately brick structure with an old section and a new section. And a ghost for each section. Those who work in the Courthouse refer to two ghosts in particular; one a judge who prefers the old and one a teacher who prefers the new. Although not specifically identified, the most likely candidate for the judge is the Honorable John R. Winn, the trial judge in the Straub murder case. Although this Courthouse was built in 1906, after Judge Winn had moved on to Alaska to make his fortune as a lawyer litigating mining claims, it is still thought his spirit would have the most compelling reason of any judge from yesteryear to hang out in a Friday Harbor courtroom where a male spectre has been seen. Just sitting silently in an empty courtroom after hours. The earthly Winn enjoyed a more social existence in his later years, having relocated to an up-and-coming place in California called Venice Beach, where he invested in oceanfront commercial property.

A spirit called “Mary the teacher” seems to like a second floor women’s restroom in the newer section of the Courthouse. This was built on the location of the old high school that was demolished years ago. A remarkable teacher named Carrie Busby was once a principal of the old high school and went on to become superintendent of schools here. At one time, she lived in a home across the street from the high school. This house is now part of the County collection of offices. It would appear that Carrie could be the “Mary” who is thought to be the teacher in the ghost stories here. She doesn’t seem to be a scary teacher, at all. Like so many other spirits in unearthly tales, she seems to be comfortable where she is and is not ready to move on.

Shadows and ethereal figures can frighten us if we let them, but they mostly just invite us to discover more about the past and their earthly time in this place. As you stroll around Friday Harbor, what do you see?

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Robin Jacobson is a local history researcher, an endeavor which sometimes reveals ghost stories. She is currently on the board of the San Juan Historical Society and Museum and occasionally leads the Friday Harbor Ghost Walk guided tours.