Oak Harbor, located on Whidbey Island in Island County, existed for 90 years as a quiet, almost isolated, agricultural community from the arrival of the first American and Irish settlers in the 1850s through the influx of Dutch farmers from Michigan in the 1890s. Residents reached the rest of the world by canoe, then steamer, then car ferry. In 1935, the Deception Pass Bridge connected Whidbey Island to the mainland by road. On the eve of World War II, the U.S. Navy arrived to build air bases and Naval Air Station Whidbey became the defining feature of the city.
Bands of the Skagit tribe originally occupied the area between Bellingham Bay and the middle of Whidbey Island. They called Oak Harbor Kla-tole-tsche in the Salish language. Crescent Harbor was Stole-sun and Maylor’s (Forbes) Point was Tschole-tup. Like most of the other Puget Sound peoples, the Skagits lived in cedar long-house settlements during winters and followed food sources in the warmer seasons, finding shelter in portable woven reed huts. They ate camas roots, clams, salmon, venison, smelt, and berries and practiced plural marriage and kept slaves. Fur trappers introduced the potato to the region beginning in the 1810s and many tribes were cultivating the “Indian potatoes” (Kelogg, 37) when Americans arrived in the 1840s.
For the most part, the Puget Sound tribes lived in harmony with one another. They spoke the Salish language and through the practice of exogamy – marriage outside the tribe — kinships remained strong between groups. All the Puget Sound tribes suffered from periodic raids from Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Sound tribes such as the Cowichans and Haidas. These Northern Indians paddled large canoes south to Puget Sound, killing, burning, stealing, and seizing slaves. Early explorers noted stockade-type defenses constructed by Whidbey Island natives against these enemies and historian Dorothy Neil describes remnants of Indian trenches still overlooking beaches in the 1980s. European diseases reduced populations dramatically by the time of settlement in the 1850s.
Under the Oregon Donation Land Law passed by Congress in 1850, settlers could file claim to 320 acres of land of their choosing. Norwegian shoemaker Zakarias Martin Taftezon (1821-1901), Swiss Ulrich Freund, and New Englander Clement W. “Charlie” Sumner did not find their fortunes in the California Gold Rush and took a sloop north to the Oregon Territory in 1850. They traveled by Indian canoe north to Whidbey Island in search of land and made their way up Saratoga Passage. Because the Tulalips and Skagits were having a war that day, the Indian canoers would not enter Oak Harbor. The paddlers deposited the white men on the beach on the western shore of Crescent Harbor at a campsite the Indians called Big Spring.
The three men set up tents and soon staked out claims on the prairie between the hillside on the east (where years later the Navy Victory Homes would go up) to Freund’s Hill on the west; Toftezen on the east, Sumner in the middle, and Freund on the west. They picked the prairie because it was the easiest to farm. Land records date the claims at Oak Harbor from January 4, 1851.
When Toftezen returned from Olympia by canoe with salt pork and nails he found a Dr. Lansdale trying to jump the claim. Toftezen prevailed on the physician to reconsider and Lansdale moved on to Penn’s Cove. Before he left, Lansdale named Oak Harbor for the Garry oaks there and he named Crescent Harbor for its shape.
In 1852, Irish immigrant Thomas Maylor Sr., and his brother Samuel canoed down Puget Sound and examined what would be called Alki Point. They kept paddling because there were too many Indians there. The Maylors pushed on to Oak Harbor where they bought land on the peninsula that separated Oak Harbor from Crescent Harbor. This became Maylor’s, and later Forbes, Point.
Charlie Sumner stayed only a few years, but he did manage to serve in the Territorial volunteers during the Indian wars of 1855-1856. Freund also served in the volunteers and on his return from service found that his cabin had been burned and all his stock stolen. So he started over. Freund never married, but his niece and nephew joined him from Switzerland in 1872.
William Wallace filed his claim on Crescent Harbor in the summer of 1851 and his daughter Mary “Polowna” Wallace is credited as the first white child born on Whidbey Island. Wallace also brought the first horses to the island. The first settlers on the island had to cope with wolves that preyed on stock, particularly calves. The settlers learned to dose deer carcasses with strychnine and the wolves eventually became extinct on Whidbey Island.
Community and Conflict
The settlers generally got along well with the rightful owners of their claims except when cultures clashed. The Skagits did not comprehend American customs of privacy and possession and minor conflicts arose when Skagits helped themselves to cultivated potatoes or invited themselves into settler cabins. The Skagits were instrumental in the settlers’ survival by providing them with food, shelter, and transportation to other settlements. Some Irishmen took Skagit wives. In 1854, under the Treat of Point Elliott with the U.S. government, the Skagits relinquished their title to Whidbey Island and other lands in exchange for reservations. Settlers frequently employed Indians as laborers and servants and they remained familiar, if impoverished, residents of Oak Harbor into the twentieth century.
The Maylors were the first of many Irish immigrants to settle around Oak Harbor, some by way of the East Coast like the Maylors and some by way of Australia.
Seacaptain Edward Barrington and Charlie Phillips opened a trading post at Oak Harbor in the early 1850s because he did not want to paddle a canoe two days to Olympia for supplies. Barrington became an important intermediary between whites and Indians when disputes arose. Local legend holds that Barrington, a large man with red hair and beard, confronted a group of raiding Northern Indians. Barrington showed the invaders his fear of no one by destroying a nearby Skagit burial canoe and placing a skull on a stick. He then began to dance and then rushed the raiders. They fled in panic and Barrington saved himself and local Skagits from death and enslavement. Northern Indians never again bothered Oak Harbor.
In the early years, residents around Oak Harbor had closer ties to Camano Island and Port Townsend than to the communities around Penn’s Cove on Whidbey. It was easier to paddle a canoe across Saratoga Passage or Admiralty Passage than trudge through the wilderness to Coveland on Penn’s Cove.
The first public services to impact what would become Oak Harbor was in the form of Island County School District Number Three which organized in the fall of 1859. Twenty “Schollars” (Kellogg, 77) showed up that first day. In 1864, Oak Harbor parents petitioned for their own district to be called Number Six. By 1870 the Superintendent of Schools asserted that the Oak Harbor schoolhouse was the best in the county, with 36 pupils in attendance. Teachers’ salaries and expenses were met by taxes, court fines, and individual contributions.
Oak Harbor’s Chinese Residents
During the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese immigrants made up a large proportion of the workforce on farms, in industrial operations, and in towns. Racist feelings bubbled up to mob action against the Chinese, called Celestials, in populated areas including Oak Harbor. Business groups organized boycotts of Chinese businesses and prohibitions against employing Chinese. Farmers and businessmen who refused to sign pledges against the Chinese were threatened with violence. Oak Harbor residents dynamited Chinese potato patches.
Farmers, on the other hand, relied on the cheap labor and had no desire to remove what they regarded as reliable employees and responsible tenants. In 1882 Federal law prohibited Chinese immigration and smuggling Chinese laborers from Asia and Canada became a profitable business. After violent rioters expelled the Chinese in Tacoma in 1885, many Chinese left Whidbey Island, but a few individuals remained protected by landlords and employers.
Logging and Land
The steam mechanization of logging in the 1880s allowed lumbermen to harvest stands of timber back from the water’s edge and logging companies worked on the forests that had blocked agriculture. As the loggers moved on, the farmers moved in. The Northern Pacific Railroad reached Puget Sound in the 1880s and the Great Northern Railway pushed through in 1893.
The Northern Pacific acquired public land through grants from the U.S. government or by purchase at $1.25 and acre. The railroad sold off large tracts to land companies, which embarked on various schemes to attract farmers too late for free homesteads. This opened the floodgates of migration spurred by land speculators selling logged-off land and the railroads selling their own lands and tickets.
The Coming of the Dutch
In 1894, John “R.E.” Werkman acquired the right to market land around Oak Harbor for one of the land companies and he visited Holland, Michigan, near Grand Rapids. He placed ads in the Dutch language to attract buyers and he displayed foot-long potatoes to impress farmers.
This resulted in the arrival of the steamer Idaho at San de Fuca on Penn’s Cove on March 17, 1895 with 18 Hollanders plus an expert cheesemaker direct from The Netherlands. More colonists stepped off the boat the following November. Within two years a community of 200 Hollanders had made their homes at the north end of Whidbey Island where they planted orchards and built dairy farms. Many settled in Clover Valley to the north of Oak Harbor along Crescent Harbor, in Swantown, and San de Fuca, and they quickly earned recognition for their thrift and industry. The influx of these energetic citizens helped the area recover from the Panic of 1893, the worst economic downturn in U.S. history before the Great Depression.
A Quiet Market Town
When Harvey T. Hill arrived in Oak Harbor in 1889, the settlement consisted of about 20 residents, Maylor’s Dock, and L. P. Byrne’s and the Maylor Brothers’ general stores. Through the 1890s, Oak Harbor grew with “middle pioneers” (Neil, 177) aided by daily steamship service to other Whidbey Island destinations, Everett, Edmonds, and Seattle. What had been a one- or two-week trip by canoe to Seattle and Olympia could be accomplished in seven hours.
Union Army veteran Jerome Ely and L. P. Byrne became important boosters of the small community. Ely focused on farming and real estate and Byrne’s expertise was in retail, shipping, and a hotel. On October 11, 1911, the Oak Harbor News, also called the Island County Farm Bureau News, printed its first issue from offices in Oak Harbor. Publisher H. L. Bowmer helped set the type by hand until 1914 when fortunes permitted him to buy a linotype machine.
Investors from Everett opened a bank in 1910 and in 1915, Oak Harbor, population 401, incorporated as a city with Jerome Ely as mayor. But Oak Harbor remained a quiet market town, where local farmers came weekly to market and ship their products and to purchase and trade for supplies. A ferry from Strawberry Point to Utsalady on Camano Island in 1915 and one at Deception Pass helped tie the city to the mainland. In 1916, with the automobile gaining in popularity, the County built a road from Oak Harbor 38 miles to Langley.
Twenties and Thirties
Calamity struck Oak Harbor just after noon on July 7, 1920, when a spark from Gil Kennedy’s forge fell into the basement where horses were kept. The resulting fire quickly spread to adjacent buildings. Residents from Oak Harbor and as far away as Coupeville formed a bucket brigade with 10-gallon milk cans. The blaze spread in the summer heat and eventually consumed the Byrne Hotel, the Byrne Store, the Byrne warehouse, Kennedy’s blacksmith shop, the vacant co-op creamery, a garage, and a home. The fire truck and crew from Fort Casey showed up just as the fire came under control.
The creamery had just moved across the street, but the other businesses never rebuilt. The vacant lots became residences as the business district shifted west. The disaster led to organization of a fire department and municipal purchase of a hand-drawn hose cart connecting to a pump that drew water from the slough.
The population of Oak Harbor hovered at around 400 through the 1920s and 1930s. As farm prices plummeted beginning in the mid 1920s, so did the fortunes of Oak Harbor. Relief projects by the Works Progress Administration such as construction of a new high school and the Deception Pass Bridge (1935) and park, new roads, and street grading helped put people back to work and put food on the table. The bridge also connected Whidbey Island to the mainland by road and ended the reliance of Oak Harbor residents and area farmers on ferries.
The Navy Lands
In January 1941, the U.S. Navy began searching for a base to rearm and refuel Catalina flying boats — the navy’s principal anti-submarine and patrol plane — from Sand Point Naval Air Station to help defend Puget Sound. Within 10 days, navy officers examined Indian Island, Lake Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula, and Keystone Harbor and Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, but found the locations lacking because of mountains, sea bluffs, no beaches, and prevailing winds.
Seaplanes and flying boats landed on water and taxied to docks or onto the shore. The officers found that Forbes Point on Crescent Harbor and Saratoga Passage on the west side of Whidbey Island to be suitable. The navy needed a spot where pilots could land relying on flight instruments, but for the most part, weather there was good and seldom foggy. The government purchased the land from the descendants of pioneer Samuel Maylor. Part of the construction involved removal of Indian graves from Crooked Spit for an auxiliary air field that was never built.
Within months, tiny Oak Harbor was flooded with construction workers building roads, laying utility lines, and pouring concrete. In November 1941, the navy decided it wanted an airport as well and on December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked U.S. Forces in Hawaii and the Philippines, three surveyors began marking out a 4,325-acre reservation northwest of town. Soon the navy would spend $3.79 million in Oak Harbor, an astronomical amount in comparison to the city’s existing economy.
Clover Valley just to the north was ideal for the airfield. It was flat and airplanes could approach from almost any direction. It was also distant enough from populated areas for practice bombing. Twenty farmers sold out to the government and some lifelong residents were uprooted. Construction started on March 1, 1942, and more construction workers and then sailors inundated Oak Harbor. Trailer parks and housing tracts sprouted to house the newcomers. The Japanese seizure of two Aleutian islands, shelling of a fort in Oregon, and torpedoing of ships off the Washington coast underlined the urgent need for the base.
The Watch Was Set
On September 21, 1942, Captain Cyril Thomas Simard stood on the steps of the brand new Building 12 and read orders officially commissioning Naval Air Station Whidbey and, in navy parlance, “the watch was set.” (NAS Whidbey website). A year later, the airport was named Ault Field after Commander William B. Ault, missing in action at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.
The seaplane base saw its first Catalina in December 1942 and Ault Field became a training base for crews of Wildcat and Hellcat fighters, Ventura patrol bombers, and Dauntless dive bombers. Catalina and Mariner flying boats flew out of the seaplane base. The population of Oak Harbor tripled in six years.
With victory in 1945, most of the sailors went home and NAS Whidbey slipped into reduced operations. Like so many other wartime facilities, Ault Field and the seaplane base appeared marked for surplus, but in 1949, the navy found that NAS Sand Point in Seattle could not be expanded so they chose NAS Whidbey as its replacement.
Whidbey Island became the navy’s only all-weather field north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. During the 1950s, the Korean War and the Cold War established the navy as a permanent and dominant feature of the Oak Harbor community. A new, 8,000-foot runway expanded the base’s capabilities. In the 1960s, the last Marlin flying boat lifted off Crescent Harbor and the seaplane base became Maylor’s Capehart Housing for navy families.
During the last half of the twentieth century, NAS Whidbey only got busier as other, older operations in Guam, Hawaii, and California phased out and their aircraft and personnel were transferred to the Pacific Northwest. The stationing of aircraft carriers at Naval Station Everett in 1994 added more planes, crews, and families to the Oak Harbor base while the huge ships were in port.
In 1973, the Oak Harbor City Council voted to retain its mayor-city council form of government with the State of Washington classification of Noncharter Code City. A City Administrator coordinates the activities of municipal departments. In 2006, the estimated population of Oak Harbor is over 22,700, a growth of more than 14 percent since 2000.
This essay made possible by:
The State of Washington and Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation
Thanks to HistoryLink.org for the essay.
Thanks to Scott Hornung, Peggy Darst, and Ron Hancock for the photos.