Fun Ways to Explore San Juan Islands History
May is National Historic Preservation Month, but history lives here all year round in the San Juans
With three island historical museums, the San Juan Island National Historical Park and 18 National Historic Registry sites, there are dozens of additional attractions for the history buff or the merely curious to explore. The month of May is a great time to plan a visit, during History Lives Here: National Historic Preservation Month.
Lopez Island History
A visit to the Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum provides an overview of the rich and varied past of Lopez Island. Here you can learn how Lopez Island’s relatively flat landscape, abundant fishing, mild weather and fertile land was a draw for coastal tribes for thousands of years, and how the first non-Native settler came to Lopez around 1850, and settled in what is now Lopez Village. Hiram E. Hutchinson married a Tlingit woman, Mary. Hiram's sister, Irene Weeks, arrived in 1873 and became the first postmaster. In 1870, just 70 people lived on Lopez; by 1930, 134 farms were growing apples, cherries, apricots, plums and vegetables, as well as sheep and cattle. One hundred forty years later, a community of about 2,400 people call Lopez home.
At the Lopez Island Library, you can feel island history envelop you as you walk through the doors of the former Little Red Schoolhouse. The library began its life at the end of World War II, when Otis and Nan Perkins created Lopez Island Memorial Library in their home to honor their son, Warren, who died in the war. By the 1970s, it needed a new home, and the Lopez Library League raised money and found a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, then moved the building to its present location and renovated it. The library opened its doors in 1986, and has been the center of Lopez intellectual life ever since.
Orcas Island History
The Orcas Island Historical Museum is the only object-based, interpretive heritage facility for Orcas Island, with a permanent collection comprised of approximately 6,000 objects, paper documents and photographs. In the 1950s and 1960s, various island families donated six original homestead cabins, built during the 1870s and the 1890s, to the Society. Volunteers disassembled the structures at their original sites, then moved, reconstructed and linked the structures together to create the museum.
The Crow Valley School at the foot of Turtleback Mountain was built in 1888, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was painstakingly restored by previous owners Richard Schneider and Bud McBride who spent hundreds of hours researching and carefully rehabilitating the wooden structure.
A Tradition of Island Artisanship
A treasured Orcas Island destination for visitors and locals alike, the Orcas Island Artworks in Olga offers one of the finest selections of local art and crafts in the San Juan Islands. The co-op represents forty-five Orcas Island artists and craftspeople, working in pottery, sculpture, jewelry, glass, wood, paintings, prints, wearable art, fiber and more. As the gallery is owned and operated by the artists themselves, there is the unique opportunity to meet one or more of them on any given day.
San Juan Island History - Historic Friday Harbor
Enjoy the waterfront walk down to the Port of Friday Harbor, appreciating the dramatic Coast Salish house posts that stand in Jack Fairweather Park to welcome visitors and the many boats from around the world. The piece is titled "Interaction" and was created by Salish Coast artist Susan Point, a member of the Musqueum Tribe, as a symbol of friendship and an acknowledgement of the Native presence in the San Juan Islands. "Interaction" is also dedicated to welcoming all to work together in the stewardship of our precious marine ecosystem. Take a self-guided tour through Historic Friday Harbor.
Housed in an 1892 Odd Fellows Hall overlooking Friday Harbor, The Whale Museum is the local center for Salish Sea stewardship and research since 1979. Many early notable events took place at the Hall, including the year-long murder trial of Richard Straub, the only person ever executed in San Juan County. The courthouse also hosted the fiery orator, Billy Sunday, a proponent of prohibition; the day after his speech, the county council approved prohibition for San Juan County, previous to national passage of the 21st Amendment. Now you can see a young orca skeleton, watch free videos, and find treasures in the museum gift shop. Upstairs, visit the Gallery of Whales and learn about how you can Adopt an Orca to support the 80 Southern Resident orca whales that call Northwest waters home.
Restored in 2013, the Brickworks is now a center for cultural life in Friday Harbor, with a large hall and outdoor plaza for concerts and community gatherings. Visit on a Saturday, and you’ll find fresh local produce at the San Juan Island Farmers’ Market. On Fridays in the summertime, local artists sell their creations at the Friday Harbor Art Market.
About a mile up from the ferry terminal, on the grounds of the former 445-acre James King farm, the San Juan Islands Historical Society & Museum consists of eight buildings, four from the original farm: the 1894 farmhouse, carriage house, root cellar and milk house. The original San Juan County Jail, a barn, a log cabin and resource center round out the remaining structures. Stroll the grounds, enjoy a picnic and step back in time.
Also known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park is a 36-acre day-use park with an iconic lighthouse set on the west side of San Juan Island. The park is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. The shoreline viewpoint is about a 300-yard walk from the parking lot, restrooms, and seasonal interpretive center. Orca whales are common in the waters off Lime Kiln. The park, which features a richly diverse environment, includes the remnants and landscapes of a history filled with change, along the rocky shoreline and through the wooded uplands. Minke whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters and bald eagles also cruise the shoreline. The lighthouse was built in 1919 and still serves as a navigational beacon for ships in the Haro Strait. Interpretive programs, an interpretive center with gift shop and lighthouse tours are available during the summer months.
Sleep in History
Historic hotels, quaint bed & breakfast inns, or what's-old-is-new-again glamping - you can find all sorts of options for fun accommodations on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan Islands.