The History of Anacortes, and the Early History of Fidalgo Island
In many ways, Fidalgo Island struggles for its rightful place among romantic histories of the region. Fidalgo, so named for Spanish explorer Lt. Salvador Fidalgo, gets far less romantic press than neighboring islands including Whidbey and San Juan. The reality is that many people who arrive here via Deception Pass or Duane Berentson bridges are unaware they are on an island at all.
Too many Northwest neighbors think of Fidalgo Island as nothing more than home to a state ferry terminal and a stretch of twisting highway that connects Whidbey Island to the mainland. A glance at the history books,however, reveals a rich history – and recent census figures provide ample evidence that Fidalgo Island is anything but old news.
The island’s status in the story of the white man’s settlement of this region is told in part in “History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties,” a book compiled by the Interstate Publishing Company at the turn of the century:
“It was after the Fraser River excitement (gold rush of 1858) began its influence … that the first permanent settler commenced the task of home-building in what is now the county of Skagit,” reported the authors. “In a land where the sound of the locomotive’s whistle had never yet been heard, where roads of any kind were not in existence and where waterways were practically the only means of travel, it is not surprising that an island should be chosen as the site of early settlement.
“Furthermore, on Fidalgo was one very potent attraction to those who would follow husbandry (farming) in a densely timbered country. At the head of Fidalgo Bay was a fern-covered prairie of considerable area, a prairie which is said had been a favorite camping-ground with the Indian tribes for unknown ages.”
This book tells of a decision by adventurer Charles W. Beale, his cousin Robert and a party of four others to build a cabin on what is now known as March Point. Among those in the Beale party was Lt. Robert H. Davis, nephew of the man who would be come president of the Confederacy.
According to this history book, Davis “gave up his wild ways,” returning home to fight in the Civil War. His place in the Northwest was filled by William Bonner, who sold his property rights in December 1869 to William Munks. Many settlers followed. Almina Richards Griffin, wife of John T. Griffin, is credited with being the first white woman to live on the island. She and her husband arrived from Whatcom in the late 1860s. By the early Seventies, settlement on the island was permanent.
“Practically all the government land was taken by 1873,” reported the History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties. “The inhabitants were enjoying semi-weekly communication by steamer with the outside world, while in their own settlement they had two stores, two blacksmith shops, a wheelwright’s shop, a post office and a good public school.”
Much of the development of the Seventies was due to speculation that the island would be selected as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Extensive holdings along the shore of Ship Harbor were secured by Hazard Stephens, son of Governor Isaac I. Stevens.
“It remained the property of the Stevens family until 1877,” reports the History, “when the clouds became so thick over the Northern Pacific Railway project that it seemed the road would never be completed.”
This is where most histories of the island begin. A slightly corrupted version of Anna Curtis Bowman’s name was taken for the island’s ‘capital’ city – Anacortes. This city ultimately would be the only incorporated community on the island.
Among those reputed to be the first permanent settlers on the neighboring mainland of Skagit County was Samuel Calhoun. Already the Swinomish Channel that defines Fidalgo’s east shore had the reputation as a formidable body of water. Neighboring farmers and Swinomish tribal leaders alike scoffed when Calhoun began to dike a farm adjacent to the Slough – but the diking succeeded and Calhoun soon brought in bumper crops.
Let there be no mistake. Fidalgo – home of lakes, forests, beaches and harbors – is an island steeped in history.