1905 Photo of Spring Street, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Spring Street 1905

The San Juan Islands were inhabited by the Northern Straits Salish people for at least 9,000 years prior to European arrival. Other first nation people inhabited the islands seasonally, preserving food in summer for winters spent elsewhere. All were drawn to the islands by the rich abundance of food and materials found here.

The  Spanish arrived in the late 18th century with key mapping expeditions occurring in 1791 and 1792 by Captain Francisco de Eliza.

A British expedition led by Captain George Vancouver arrived in 1792. The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the northwest boundary between Canada and the US as the 49th parallel, except in the San Juans, were mapping inaccuracies would later result in conflict between the U.S. and British governments.

Hudson’s Bay Company

The Salish followed the salmon from the ocean into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, toward San Juan Island. So too, did the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which by the mid-1800s was one of the world’s first international business conglomerates trading in raw materials.

In 1853, British Chief Factor, James Douglas (from Fort Victoria, BC), and HBC employees imported over 1,300 sheep to graze on an expanse of prairie on the southern tip of San Juan Island.

While this area was ideal for agriculture and livestock, Douglas’s primary purpose was political. The presence of British agricultural interests would solidify Great Britain’s claim to the island, which had been in dispute with the United States since the two nations signed the Treaty of Oregon in 1846.

Early Friday Harbor

One Hawaiian sheep herder and Hudson Bay employee, known as “Friday”, settled the area of what is now the town of Friday Harbor. This caused many to refer to the place as “Friday’s Harbor”. (Another town naming story has a ship’s captain shouting to shore “what bay is this?” heard the reply of “Friday” in response to the misheard question “what day is this?”)

Friday Harbor had the right natural attributes—a protected harbor and good anchorage—and by the 1870’s, a handful of farsighted promoters had built the town’s first general stores, hotels, and saloons. In 1873, Friday Harbor was named the county seat of the islands.

Friday Harbor Grows

By 1900, though, Friday Harbor had become a busy seaport with a thriving commercial center, and a population of three or four hundred. On February 9, 1909, Friday Harbor was officially incorporated as a Town. There were five general stores, foremost among them Churchill’s Store, a bank, U.S. Customs, a printing and stationery store, a weekly newspaper, drug store, jewelry store, theatre, livery stable, milliner, blacksmith, barber, three hotels, three saloons, a grade school, the Odd Fellows Hall, a sawmill, creamery, a large salmon cannery, and encircling the Town, a ring of residential neighborhoods and small farms and orchards.

Sailing ships, and later, steamships came in and out of the harbor on a regular basis, hauling passengers, mail and freight. They took the island’s bounty: apples, pears, cherries, strawberries, peas, cream, eggs, chicken, sheep, grain, lime, timber and salmon “down Sound.”  San Juan Island’s commercial products were shipped to domestic and foreign markets from Friday Harbor’s waterfront, where large warehouses accommodated the steamships of the “mosquito fleet.”

Supply and Demand

Friday Harbor’s economy was driven by San Juan County’s thriving agriculture, and community leaders saw many indicators of continuing prosperity. By 1912, they believed that economic development and growth would outpace available water supplies. “The future of Friday Harbor depends on good water and sewage systems,” town officials declared. Following the recommendations of an engineer, with approval from the voters, construction began on a dam at Trout Lake and a wood pipeline to transport water by a gravity flow system 12 miles into town through Beaverton Valley.

Friday Harbor did not fulfill its early promise and its economic well-being began to decline as the islands’ traditional industries collapsed over a 30-year period. Even so, the Town elected to improve the water supply system. In the early 1950s a new main transmission line, along San Juan Valley Road, replaced the wood pipeline. In 1958, the system was again upgraded and the dam raised. Since then, the town’s water system has been steadily updated to meet the demands of a growing population.

Friday Harbor Today

Friday Harbor today is busy and prosperous, its economy fueled by tourism, retirement, real estate, and construction. The town encompasses one square mile, or 640 acres, with over 50% of the town’s area developed. Town officials are yet again considering the future economic and social well-being of Friday Harbor as they grapple with issues related not only to the water supply system, but also to the Town’s entire infrastructure.