Anacortes: The Perfect Port

The land drew white settlers to the place that would be called Anacortes. Good, rich, free, plentiful land…to own, to live on and to farm. Enoch Compton and William Munks and Hiram March arrived around 1860...

Anacortes, The Perfect Port, John Sabella's new documentary, begins with the arrival of the first white settlers at this historic Washington townsite as it emerges from the coastal forest and experiences cycles of growth, decline and rebirth. The program ranges back and forth through millennia, from the age of ice when glaciers shaped the Pacific Northwest landscape, through the centuries when the Samish and Swinomish were the unchallenged Salmon People of the Pacific Northwest, through generations of European settlement that produced dynamic fishing and timber industries, to the retirement community of the present day.

The Boomers

Boomers like Amos and Anne Curtis Bowman began arriving in the 1870s. Amos, railroad man and romantic, surveyed the waterfront. He liked what he saw: on examining the harbor for terminal purposes, which was the first work I did here, I was agreeably surprised to find every condition around ‘Anacortes place’ nearly perfect, and in the spring of 1877, I purchased it from Miss Maud Stevens, of Boston, a sister of General Hazard Stevens, for the sum of one thousand dollars. He visualized a town carved from the forest, a big town.

Says newspaper publisher and historian Wallie Funk, Amos Bowman described it as the New York of the West. And when they laid out the city, they laid it out to be the same size as the city of Boston.

If he was a visionary, he was also a romantic. He named the town of his dreams after the woman he loved, Anne (pronounced Annie) Curtis. There are conflicting stories about how it came to be called Anacortes. According to historian Eunice Darvill, Amos deliberately corrupted the name to conform to the Spanish influence in the region that had yielded names like Rosario Strait and Fidalgo Island. Funk suggests that perhaps it had been a typo that occurred when Bowman attempted to register his new community with the postal department in far-off Washington, D.C., sending the name Anniecurtis eastward only have postal authorities re-christen the community Anacortes. Whatever the truth, says Darvill, old timers still referred to the place as Anniecortes when she arrived on the scene.

The Tribes

The newcomers to the Northwest Coast needed a little help from the locals.

At first when the white man come out here, he was pretty helpless, says Salish historian Larry Campbell. He didn’t know the ways of the Northwest.

One of the outstanding aspects of the people here in the Northwest is wanting to be good neighbors, we’re a peaceful people. So we supplied the salmon for the early settlers so that they could survive the winter. And we showed them how to live here. We helped each other out. We were grateful for the goods that they brought out, especially iron.

Anacortes was an ideal destination for the sailing ships that rode the prevailing westerlies the length of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the deep, protected waters of the Guemes Channel. Bowman visualized a world-class port where sail met rail, on land he just happened to own.

He was a surveyor for the Canadian Railroad, as well as a mining engineer and newspaper man. He was very versatile, says Darvill, and apparently very charismatic. According to Funk, he encouraged the rumors which suggested that because of it's seaport, Anacortes was a leading candidate to become the terminus of the trans-continental railroad.

The Promoter

Bowman took advantage of the power of the press to promote his grandiloquent vision of the New York of the West, the Manhattan of the Pacific. He established the town's first newspaper, The Northwest Enterprise, and used it to sell the promise of Anacortes to power brokers throughout the nation. One of his most celebrated journalistic feats was the publication of a map.

He made an incredible map and that was circulated through the media of his newspaper all around the country, Funk says, any place where he thought there might be someone interested in Anacortes as a…a site for an industry or a rail line.

Says Darvill, Amos was able to convince all these people that this was just the most perfect location for everything.

Bowman offered half his land to any person or business that would pursue his vision. In 1888, the Oregon Improvement Company accepted his proposal and announced plans to build a railroad. By 1890, the public had bought Bowman's dream.

In January of 1890 there were only about 30 or 40 people in Anacortes, says historian Terry Slotemaker. By March there were probably about 3,000 people here, based on the speculation that this was going to become the terminus for the transcontinental railroad. And the railroad was built to this place, and in August of 1890 the first train came.

The local boosters worked overtime to sell their imagined city. Every day, steamships from Seattle and Tacoma deposited new customers on Bowman’s wharf. People came in, came up by boat, bought their land, stayed for 10 or 12 hours and went back, Darvil says.

Two of the principle forms of business enterprise in town were real estate offices and saloons, says Funk, and both were active.

The first order of business was to clear the dense forests that covered the prospective town site. The saying was, according to Funk, that you could see the fires of the trees that were being burnt here as far north as Bellingham and as far south as Everett.

To a writer who visited Anacortes in March of 1890, it was a hellish scene.

Thousands of burning stumps sent forth great clouds of smoke that floated far over the straits. At night these fires were constantly watched and attended by hundreds of laborers. This scene presented a curious picture. The landscape seemed a lake of fire through which the figures of men were constantly moving, reminding one of the scenes in the Inferno.

Another scribe called it the heroic age of Anacortes, but the glory was short lived. The train that appeared in August came north from Seattle, not west from New York. It sparked a celebration among the Anacortesans, but it wasn’t the transcontinental union of Amos Bowman’s imagination.

The Crash

Towards the end of, of 1890, says Funk, there was a panic and an accompanying crash, and several of the railroads went out of business. They were failures. And that was about November of 1890, and people began taking a look at their hole cards and wondering if Anacortes truly was the city of destiny.

The local railroad men had been endeavoring to lay railroad tracks to the east, toward the North Cascades. They managed to get about 33 miles from here and then the Oregon Improvement Company went bankrupt, Slotemaker says. They could not get the financing to continue this transcontinental dream, probably because the North Cascades were so formidable and everybody realized that no railroad would go across those mountains.

When the news broke that the transcontinental railroad would not terminate at Bowman’s wharf, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Virtually everybody who had the means to leave Anacortes did so. The Bowmans stayed on until 1894 when Amos died, believing himself a failure. Anna took it hard. She was absolutely grief-stricken and desolate, says Darvill. In a letter to her sister Sally, Sally Childs, she expresses her grief in 1901. He died in 1894. But the light had just gone out of her life. She was still mourning. And the unmarked grave bothered her a great deal. Because of course he didn’t leave a lot of cash, a lot of land. So she, she never really recovered from his death.

The Rebirth

Recovery from the crash was slow but sure. The first salmon cannery arrived in 1893, followed by mills that turned the old growth forests into lumber. By 1896, the town had achieved a sound financial footing based on the resources of the water and the land.

And Anacortes was starting to develop not as the New York of the West, but it became the Anacortes of the West, says Funk. In 1900 there were two codfish plants and six canneries along Guemes Channel. By 1915 eleven of the forty-one salmon canneries in operation between Blaine and Olympia were located in Anacortes.

We were the salmon packing capital of Puget Sound, says artist Bill Mitchell. We had more canneries than anyplace else. And that was because we were centrally located to the fishing grounds, there were fish to the south of us, there were fish to the west of us, there were fish in the north of us, we were right in the middle of the fish!

Essentially 25 percent of all the canneries in the Puget Sound Region, there were around 40-some canneries, 25 percent of them were in Anacortes, adds Slotemaker.

Well let’s see, says Mitchell, fumbling with his pipe as he strives to count on his fingers, …there was uh… Alaska Packers and Fidalgo Island Packers at Ship Harbor. Uh, there was uh Sebastian Stewart. Uh, there was Nackett. Course it wasn’t called Nackett at that time, I think it was called Sanitary. Um…there was Apex, there was PAF, that would be Pacific American Fisheries, uh…Loman’s, which was I think Coast or White Crest, it changed names several times because he refinanced. Uh, there was Fish Pack. And there was Booth and Western and I think that makes 10 or 11.

They claimed it was the largest fishing spot in the world, says Slotemaker, but other cities along the coast claimed the same thing. But it certainly was one of the most significant uh fishing areas in the world.

The white man’s success came at the expense of the region’s traditional fishermen. It become a business for the non-Indian people, says Campbell, so the tribes started getting pushed further and further away from the fishing industry until uh we caught just a small portion of the salmon. They wanted to make farmers out of us. We were described as the “Indian problem.” What are we going to do about the Indians?


It was a wild and woolly place in the early years. People from the little towns up the Skagit River came to Anacortes to party.

The towns up there had passed Prohibition laws prior to 1916, Slotemaker says, so Anacortes was an open town. They had Fourth of July celebrations where they offered free transportation by rail to Anacortes and they had some really wild celebrations in town here.

When the time come to shut down for the night, cannery historian Carl Wedlund adds, everybody would head for the bars and uh it was wide open, boy I’ll tell you! You’d never knew what was going to happen. Uh, I know it kept the police busy.

But there were the, the steady people in town, the communities of Scandinavians and Croatians which were steady people, family people, Slotemaker points out. And they had their kinds of celebrations too. And their communities which were tight-knit and very supportive of other people. There was a naughty side to Anacortes, says Funk, but they had hearts of gold.

The Codfish

Salmon wasn’t the only significant fishery. Codfish was another. In 1891 J.A. Matheson’s schooner Lizzie Colby sailed around the horn of South America enroute from Massachusetts to Anacortes. That same year, she made her first fishing trip to the Bering Sea, and returned to Anacortes laden with salted codfish. Matheson had constructed the first codfish curing plant on the West Coast at the foot of K street. As the Lizzie Colby off-loaded her cargo, the Puget Sound codfish industry was born. William Robinson came to Anacortes in 1897 and started another codfish company, relying on a quartet of schooners to capture his raw product: The Azalea, the Joseph Russ, the Wawona and the Alice. Former Wawona crewmember David Wright is one of the last living links to the age of working sail. Wright had never been to sea when he signed aboard the schooner. It took him a few days to get his sea legs.

The first year we left here, I got so seasick that I lay down on the front hatch, and one of the fishermen come up, and he says “I’ll fix you up kid.” So we had pork hanging in the rigging. Well he… [chuckles] run over and cut a piece of that pork off and give it to me and he thought it would make me sicker! But after I ate that piece of pork why I was all right, never got sick after that.

The Chinese

In the early years, the canneries employed Chinese labor.

According to Mitchell, When the Chinese exclusion act came up in 1882, there were a lot of Chinese coming in from Victoria…by smuggling. At that time there were 300,000 Chinese in the country and people were afraid that there was going to be a lot more of them. And it’s the first time, maybe the only time in American history that a group of people have been excluded from entering the United States. Larry Kelly was king of the smugglers in Puget Sound, partly because he got caught so many times. He was always in the newspaper. He was feared by the children of Anacortes because he was a…kind of a scruffy lookin’ fella. He was five-foot six, and a hundred and eighty pounds, he had a bushy, bushy beard, uh, was barefoot, wore coveralls, was a bit dirty. And the mothers in Anacortes would warn their children that if they weren’t good, Smuggler Kelly’d get ‘em!

In the early years, most of the harvest was conducted with fish traps. Controversial though they may be, fish traps have always had their proponents. You can’t get much fresher fish than ones that have been brailed right out of the water, thrown into a scow and then are taken right straight to the cannery, says Mitchell. There’s no bruises, no net marks, they’re, they’re beautiful, pristine fish. The fish traps had a big influence on the fish runs and also on native fisheries because they occupied the spots where native people had fished for, for centuries, according to Slotemaker. The fish traps really claimed their areas. And it also reduced the amount of commercial fishing that purse seiners and gill-netters could do. That is, white purse seiners and gill-netters. So almost everybody was in favor of uh…getting rid of the traps except for the cannery owners. In 1934, concerned that the traps posed a threat to the salmon resource, the people of the State of Washington passed an initiative making them illegal. The state legislature approved the measure in 1935 and the traps were history.

The Immigrants

Always, there was the cultural diversity. According to Slotemaker, many people from Norway and other Scandinavian countries, but primarily Norway, came here in the early years. Many of those were involved in the halibut industry. Also in the early years Croatian fishermen came. And most of these people were salmon fishermen. Most of them were purse seine salmon fishermen. And so we have a rather significant population of Croatian people in town.

And in those days there were fifty seiners tied up outside and maybe sixty gill-netters, says Croatian fisherman Vlakto Kolega. I understand sometimes there used to be over 5,000 fishermen in Anacortes, working the boats. They used to even have fisherman's nights and fisherman's dances and all sorts of things going on.

Sockeye salmon from the Frazier River were the sought after commodity. That was the big money, uh the sockeye salmon, says Wedlund.

The Modern Day

As early as the 1920s, however, the canners had begun shifting their operations to the vast, untapped waters of Alaska and although the Puget Sound salmon industry remained viable through the 1960s and 1970s, the inexorable march of civilization pushed the fishermen farther and farther away from Anacortes. Says Slotemaker, I think the last cannery was Shannon Point, which operated maybe as late as 1994 or ’96, something like that.

Anacortes in some regards has come full circle. It was a smoky, noisy industrial town a hundred years ago. Today, it’s a vacation town, a retirement town. I am very happy with Anacortes, Funk says. I look back on the good old days that...and I think of Amos Bowman and I think of my grandfather, and I think of, of those days, and I think if they could see it today, I think they would be delighted by what the New York of the West did not become, but it really is the Anacortes of the West, which I think is outstanding.

I’m sure that if Amos Bowman came back today he would be just thrilled to death to see all the development, Darvill continues. Not everybody who lives here now is that thrilled with it, but he...he had the developer’s mind! Yeah, let’s sell lots of real estate!

No matter how they feel about the present day, the old timers will never forget the fishing. I sure miss the days of the salmon fishing, says lifelong fisherman and Anacortes resident Jeff Hendricks. That’s the...the thing that I liked the most about Anacortes, the decade of the salmon fisherman and the salmon boats that were here, and all the families that were associated with that industry, it was a lot of fun.

Says Kolega, My captain once told me, he said, “No man is free if he is not master of himself,” and I think I quite understood that, because when you work for somebody else you are not master of yourself. Somebody else always dictates what you do. But once you are on those boats and you step on that bridge and and take that wheel in your hands and that ocean is front of you, the sky on top of you, and you go through that, it’s a special feeling of a human being, a special feeling in you, you’re proud of it.