Anacortes history: W.T. Preston and a new maritime museum exhibit

W.T. Preston in AnacortesThe 125-year-old City of Anacortes is a mere 90 miles away from larger coastal cities like Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. You might be surprised to discover that this island community hosts public attractions that represent a treasure chest of Pacific Northwest maritime history.

Access to that treasure is available to all, as visionary community leaders have established accessible waterfront amenities ranging from public parks and beaches to marina and museum.While the city’s first museum is located in a former Carnegie Library building several blocks from the waterfront, visitors and residents alike can explore maritime history right on the city’s downtown shoreline.

No Anacortes adventure is complete without a tour of the stern-wheeler W.T. Preston, one of only two working snag boats left in the U.S. This eye-catching stern-wheeler once played a critical role in a water-based economy that depended on safe, consistent travel on the Puget Sound. The vessel was dry-docked in June 1983 next to Cap Sante Marina, owned by the Port of Anacortes. A nominal admission fee of $3-$5 provides opportunity to “Come aboard!” A climb to the top deck yields one of the best shoreline views! You can gaze on the downtown side of the popular Cap Sante viewpoint to the east.

“The W.T. Preston has national landmark status,” boasts Anacortes Museum Maritime and Education Curator Bret Lunsford. “It is an incredible maritime artifact, and we are proud to invite people aboard to share her story.”

Bret LunsfordThis summer, however, Lunsford is excited to introduce the treasures contained in the single story building adjacent to the stern-wheeler.

On a sneak peek tour before a Saturday, June 4 opening, Lunsford revealed elements of a new Maritime Museum exhibit titled: “Explore Anacortes Waterfront History.” Some features of the free exhibit were yet to find their place at the time of this pre-tour, but already it is clear the exhibit will yield extraordinary maritime gems.

It is impossible to miss the center stage prototype “Oracle,” winner of the 33rd America’s Cup. But then Lunsford directs his guest to look up and around the walls of the museum.

Visitors can enjoy new artifacts and priceless vintage movies that were filmed along the waterfront. Look for massive enlargements of photographs of the city’s cannery row and mill row – views from 100 years ago! Run your fingers across the face of a six-foot wooden wheel and telegraph that once served the state ferry “Vashon.”

In a modest space, this new exhibit meets the challenge of providing an overview of shoreline activities. Learn about boat building, mills and canneries, commercial and recreational boating, and shipping and transport over the seas.  From skiff to rigging, documents to photographs, the visitor can’t help but gain a sense of how the residents of this community scrapped their way to establish a home from work associated with the sea.

Among the displays, in fact, are interpretive panels telling the story of community publisher Wallie Funk’s eye-opening trip to Alaska with local fishermen. From the beginning, Lunsford notes, much of the city’s maritime industry involved the catch, canning or distribution of fish and crab from Alaska.  “There has always been an Alaska connection for Anacortes,” he said, “dating back to the Matheson cannery that processed cod from the Bering Sea.”  Consequently, that remains true today, as the city is home to a commercial fishing fleet (some boats local, some go north). There are also processing plants including Trident Seafoods, SeaBear, and Sugiyo.  “Core elements of our maritime displays will remain,” Lunsford said of the summer season. “We are excited to introduce the new exhibit, spotlighting collections that span the range of Pacific fishing.”

One could say the maritime museum curator has “turned the place inside out” in preparation for this exhibit. Those familiar with the building situated between the old railroad depot and the W.T. Preston will notice immediately a series of detailed interpretive panels posted on three of four exterior walls. In addition, historic tidbits are illustrated with a generous collection of photographs.

Anacortes Maritime Museum“I think it’s great that people today can literally walk through the areas once populated by mills, canneries and marinas,” said Lunsford. “From railroad depot to museum, W.T. Preston to Cap Sante Marina, our shoreline esplanade offers an experience that is unique to our city.”

As noted, admission to the new maritime exhibit is free, while guided tours of the W.T. Preston require a ticket. The Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center and W.T. Preston are located on the Anacortes waterfront at 703 “R” Avenue.

There is a seasonal six-days-a-week schedule at the maritime center and Preston. It runs in June, July and August, Tuesdays through Sundays (closed Mondays). For details, visit the city’s website.

by Steve Berentson

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