Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

by | Feb 8, 2022

Friday Harbor is a community at the head of a protected embayment on the eastern coast of San Juan Island, the second-largest island after Orcas Island and most populous in the San Juan archipelago, about 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Victoria and 18 miles (29 km) west of Anacortes, Washington. Friday Harbor was named after Joseph Poalie Friday, a Hawaiian who tended sheep for the Hudson’s Bay Company around 1861. He had a cabin on the land overlooking the harbor that became a landmark for mariners navigating into ‘Friday’s Harbor’. The harbor is part of a highly crenulated coastline formed by the unique geology and glaciation of the archipelago. The San Juan Islands represent the western portion of a series of metamorphic nappes that make up the Northwest Cascades orogen. In geology, an orogen develops when a continental plate crumples and is uplifted to form one or more mountain ranges. A nappe is a large but thin body of rock that has been moved more than 1.2 miles (2 km) above a thrust fault from its original position. Nappes form in compressional tectonic settings when a mass of rock is forced over another rock mass, typically on a low-angle fault plane. The Northwest Cascades orogen represents a boundary zone between the Insular superterrane to the west and the Intermontane superterrane to the east. The entire boundary zone extends for approximately 746 miles (1,200 km) from southern Southeast Alaska to northern Washington. The San Juan Islands nappe underwent a fairly rapid period of thrusting and uplift between 100-84 million years ago. Most of the eastern part of San Juan Island is composed of rocks called the Constitution Formation that represent a sequence from bottom to top of Late Mesozoic sandstone composed of broken bits of volcanic rock, black mudstone, ribbon chert, green tuff, and minor pillow lava. The San Juan Islands are part of the northern Puget Lowland, an extensive topographic trough bounded to the west by Vancouver Island and to the east by the Cascade Mountains. During the Pleistocene, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet advanced into and retreated from western Washington at least six times, and the Puget Lowland was covered by an ice sheet called the Puget Lobe. The last ice advance was the Fraser Glaciation, and when this ice retreated about 11,000 years ago, the entire area was uplifted by post-glacial rebound creating most of the present-day topography and allowing settlement by the Coast Salish people.

The San Juan and Gulf Islands are part of an archipelago of over 400 islands in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the Washington and British Columbia coasts. They lie within the Gulf of Georgia culture area which
also encompasses the Lower Fraser River, the Strait of Georgia, northern Puget Sound, and southeastern Vancouver Island. This is within the traditional territories of Coast Salish people including the Lummi, Samish, Swinomish, Klallam, Songhees, and Saanich. During prehistoric times, inhabitants hunted terrestrial and marine mammals and relied heavily on abundant fish and shellfish. Shell middens on San Juan Island are dominated by littleneck clams, butter clams, and blue mussels. The San Juan Islands in general offer a fishing advantage in that Pacific salmon, returning primarily to the Fraser River to spawn, must navigate through the narrow passages between the islands. The lack of freshwater, however, presented a challenge to long-term human inhabitants, and San Juan Island was used mostly on a seasonal basis. European explorations began in the late 18th century with the arrival of Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, who charted the islands in 1791 under the authority of the Viceroy of New Spain. In 1792, British Captain George Vancouver explored the islands and Puget Sound. In 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes mapped much of Puget Sound. At that time San Juan Island and Puget Sound were considered part of the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Victoria operation on Vancouver Island. The Hudson’s Bay Company employed many Hawaiian Islanders, known as Kanakas in the 19th century. At that time jobs were scarce in the Hawaiian Islands and commoners could not own land, so the Hudson’s Bay Company could easily recruit fishermen and sailors to work in the Pacific Northwest. Kanaka sailors were aboard many whalers, as well as exploration and trading ships. They also held jobs in many Hudson’s Bay Company forts in the Pacific Northwest including Fort Durham in Alaska, on Vancouver Island, and San Juan Island which led to Joseph Friday’s posting. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between British and U.S. territories but did not specify the boundary location through the San Juan Islands which resulted in an infamous dispute called the Pig War. On June 15, 1859, an American settler named Cutler shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The pig had escaped, not for the first time, and was rooting in Cutler’s garden. When the British discovered the dead pig they threatened to arrest Cutler. The Americans living on the island demanded military protection and in response, the American Brigadier General William S. Harney sent a company of U.S. infantry to San Juan Island. The British countered by sending three British warships and British Royal Marines. After a protracted diplomatic confrontation, the boundary was finally resolved through arbitration in 1872, with the San Juan Islands awarded to the United States. The fortified posts at English Camp and American Camp on San Juan Island are now the San Juan Island National Historical Park managed by the National Park Service. Since the 1890s, the community of Friday Harbor has been the commercial, social, and cultural hub for the island archipelago.

Following the peaceful settlement of the Pig War, the San Juan Islands become a separate county and Friday Harbor was named the county seat. Early settlers took advantage of the Homestead Act to claim land on San Juan Island but it was another ten to fifteen years before Friday Harbor became a busy commercial center. The first structures were built on pilings over the water and entrepreneurs built general stores and saloons, gradually removing the forest to make room along the waterfront. By the early 1900s, hotels and businesses lined the first block of the waterfront across from canneries, warehouses, a shipyard, lumber mill, and wharves that accommodated steamer traffic. Farming, fishing, logging, and lime quarrying helped to stabilize the local economy. Island orchards were enormously productive with apples, pears, plums, and cherries shipped out of Friday Harbor to both domestic and foreign markets. In 1904, the Puget Sound Biological Station was established in a single cabin by two professors from the University of Washington. In 1906, they moved to a cannery building where operations had been suspended for lack of sufficient water supply. In 1909, there was another move to a location on donated land, and in 1917, the University Board of Regents applied to the U.S. War Department for a land grant land at Point Caution, the headland north of Friday Harbor. In 1921, the land was granted when President Warren G. Harding signed House Resolution 1475, which stated that 484 acres (196 ha) of land on the east side of San Juan Island was for use by the University of Washington. In 1907, San Juan County Bank, the only banking institution in the islands, replaced its wood-frame building with a more ornate masonry structure at the busiest intersection in town. Shifts in American life during World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II contributed to the decline of island agriculture. These economic setbacks to agriculture on the islands kept Friday Harbor an economic backwater for most of the early 20th century. Gradually a kind of cultural and economic stasis took hold. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that an influx of new residents and businesses brought a revival to the Friday Harbor and island economy. Today Friday Harbor retains much of its original character, in part because the economy could not support growth and development. As a consequence, much of Friday Harbor’s history is still visible through its historic buildings and landmarks, and it remains a distinctive example of a Puget Sound waterfront town. Read more here and here. Explore more of Friday Harbor here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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