To Island County
Welcome to Whidbey Island, the largest island in Washington state and one of the nine Puget Sound islands that make up the county. Camano Island is the second-largest island inside the county line, followed by the smaller Baby, Ben Ure, Deception, Kalamut, Minor, Smith and Strawberry islands. The county is more liquid than solid: 309 square miles of water vs. 208 square miles of land, says the U.S. Census. By land area, it’s Washington’s next-to-smallest county, eclipsing only San Juan County, a similar island fastness to the north, but one having only 174 square miles of land.
Whidbey Island forms the northern border of Puget Sound and lies about 30 miles north of Seattle, between the Olympic Peninsula and the Seattle-Metro corridor. Deception Pass is its northern boundary; Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage are to the east, and Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are to the west. It’s about 55 miles long and 1.5 to 12 miles wide, though its eccentric shape produces arguable measurements. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is a little over 5 miles north of Oak Harbor, the island’s largest city with almost 22,700 residents; Oak Harbor is on the eastern coast; the base is on the sunset side. Coupeville, 11 miles south of Oak Harbor and with a population of 1,887, is the county seat. Residents call themselves either “Northenders” or “Southenders,” depending on which end of the island they live on. In 2015, census population estimates totaled 80,593.
In addition to Oak Harbor and Coupeville, Whidbey Island communities include Langley, Freeland, Greenbank, Clinton and Bayview, though only Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley are incorporated. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is the county’s economic driver, but timber, farming and fishing traditions persist and thrive. The island’s ease of access, mild climate, beaches, woodland terrain splashed each spring with wild rhododendrons, trails, parks and reserves, year-round festivals, artists’ colonies, nine sites on the National Register of Historic Places, the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, sea lions, seals, orcas and the reliable gray whale spring migration between Whidbey and Camano islands draw ever-increasing numbers of tourists.
A few annual events include the Island Shakespeare Festival, the Tour de Whidbey bike race, September’s Whidbey Island Kite Festival, and Langley’s Mystery Weekend, for which the town of Langley transforms itself into the setting for a fictional murder mystery romp.
Island County’s original inhabitants were members of the Coast Salish tribes — Skagit, Snohomish and a scattering of Clallam — who lived in communal longhouses and practiced a subsistence lifestyle, dining on fish, shellfish, wild game, roots and berries. Diseases brought by European and American explorers from the late 1700s to the early 1800s decimated this indigenous population (it’s estimated that in some areas diphtheria, smallpox and measles killed 90 percent of them), and by the time settlers came pushing in from the east, the tribes were too depleted to resist.
British sea Capt. George Vancouver, commander of HMS Discovery, ventured into what would become Island County during a 1792 exploratory voyage, along with surveyor and naval engineer Joseph Whidbey. Whidbey circumnavigated the island through Deception Pass, proving to Vancouver that the land to the south was indeed an island. Vancouver, in response, named it after his shipmate.
A Catholic missionary touched shore in 1840, and by 1841 there was a small Catholic mission with a two-acre garden at Penn Cove. The first settler, farmer Thomas W. Glasgow, arrived in 1848. He and wife Julia, daughter of the Snohomish tribe’s chief, selected land for their home and farm, but while Glasgow was filing his land claim in Olympia, about 8,000 Indians from Pacific Northwest tribes gathered at nearby Penn Cove to discuss what to do about settlers seizing their hunting and fishing grounds. By the time Glasgow got home, feelings were running so high that his wife urged him to leave immediately. She joined him in Olympia, where they settled and raised their family, never to return to Whidbey Island.
Two years later, lawyer Isaac Neff Ebey became Whidbey Island’s first known white settler by claiming 640 acres of fertile prairie and shoreline on Admiralty Inlet to grow potatoes, wheat, carrots, peas and other crops. He sent for his wife, two sons and eight other family members to join him on Ebey’s Prairie, where he build a blockhouse to shelter against hostile Native Americans and a commercial dock on the shore for Puget Sound trade. He was named postmaster of Port Townsend, Washington, across the inlet, and rowed to work there every day. He was active in the region’s government and judiciary and was colonel in command of a 100-man unit of the new Washington Territorial Volunteer Militia in 1855. Such was Ebey’s fortune and success that other would-be settlers, hearing about it, flocked to take possession of more Native American lands, to Ebey’s undoing. In 1857, a Native American war party seeking revenge for a Haida chief’s slaying by Americans came looking for the most important American they could find for a proxy killing: Ebey. When he answered the knock at his door, the war party shot him dead, scalped and beheaded him, and escaped by sea.
After the Oregon Territory Legislature carved out Washington Territory’s Island County from the territorial Thurston County on Dec. 22, 1852, more settlers moved in, mostly farmers but lumberjacks as well (ships used wood from the plentiful oak trees for decks and planking, and the tall, straight Douglas firs were ideal for masts and spars), and communities began to dot the pastoral setting.
Coupeville, county seat and oldest town on the island, was founded in the early 1850s by Capt. Thomas Coupe, the only man known to have taken a square-rigged sailing ship through treacherous Deception Pass, and looks today much as it did in the 19th century. Only an hour from downtown Seattle, Coupeville takes pride in its active-life opportunities, such as hiking, biking, kayaking and sailing. The Admiralty Lighthouse is here, as are the Coupeville Arts Center, Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, the Island County Historical Society Museum, art galleries and antique shops, wineries, heritage farms and farmers markets.
Oak Harbor, 10 miles north of Coupeville, was established in the early 1850s as well, by Dr. Richard Landsdale, who named the small bay fringed by Garry oaks after the abundant trees. The Irish moved in within the decade, and in the 1890s, the Dutch followed; the Dutch influence is still visible more than 125 years later, with windmills, Dutch architecture and many, many tulips. The town incorporated in hope in 1915, but was almost wiped out in July 1920 by the “Oak Harbor Fire.” The farming community struggled against the double whammy of business losses and the Great Depression until January 1941, when the U.S. Navy selected a site north of town for a seaplane base to rearm and refuel PBY Catalinas for defending Puget Sound. By November, the Navy’s plans had expanded to include an airport for land-based aircraft, strategically located to guard the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the entrance to Puget Sound, and the military remains a major resource for the island to this day.
Little Freeland, 17 miles south of Coupeville, was platted in 1900 between Holmes Harbor and Mutiny Bay as Whidbey Island’s sole utopian community by a group of South Dakota socialists, the Free Land Association. Their plan was to give away land to members who then would all work together for the common good, but in 1920, the group went bankrupt. Now, Freeland is the banking center for South Whidbey Island as well as the home of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, the Island’s largest private employer. Residents there numbered 1,486 in 2014.
These days often called “Puget Sound’s Largest Artist’s Colony,” Langley, on a South Whidbey Island bluff overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage and the Cascade Mountains, was laid out in 1890, had a post office by 1891 and incorporated in 1913. It served as central supplier for outlying farmers (then, it styled itself “Hub of the Island”) and was the western terminus for the steamer Camano, which took passengers and goods to Everett and Seattle. By the 1900s, South Whidbey Island had become a popular summertime destination, and a good many Langley households took in summer boarders. Truck farming was common, and fruits and berries were so abundant that a large commercial cannery was built in Langley to supply the whole region. Since 1924, the Island County Fair (now known as the Whidbey Island Fair) has been held in Langley every August. In more recent years, artists have colonized Langley and its environs — painters, sculptors, glass artists, wood and metal workers, photographers, authors, poets, actors and musicians.
The southern end of the island has become a commuter bedroom community for Seattle and for Everett, where Boeing’s Everett Production Facility is located; workers travel to and from their jobs on Washington State Ferries.
Weather and Climate
The Pacific Northwest is known for its warm, dry summers and cool, stormy winters.
Winter weather on Whidbey Island is dominated by the Olympic Mountains a mere 30 miles to the southwest, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Olympics “intercept” incoming Pacific storms, generate tremendous lift and torrential rain on their windward side, and create a huge downdraft to their lee, over Whidbey Island. This lee trough is often seen as a small, swirling area of slightly lower pressure that simultaneously inhibits rainfall (NAS Whidbey Island receives less than half the annual rainfall of Seattle) and produces consistent near-gale-force winds out of the southeast. Thus, the same storm system that produces light winds and steady rain over much of the Puget Sound region typically yields only a light, windblown drizzle at NAS Whidbey Island.
Of course it does rain, and there are plenty of storms that come from due west or south that are not affected by the Olympic Mountains. In fact, NAS Whidbey Island is a favored rendezvous for cold British Columbian air and warm Pacific moisture, resulting in occasionally heavy snowfalls. The warm air always wins, however, so the snow is never around for long. Expect winter temperatures predominantly in the 40s, though brief cold snaps in the 15 to 25 degree range are not uncommon.
With weeks on end of dry, sunny weather, cool winds and as much as 17 hours of daylight, Whidbey Island summers are worth the wait, even if you have to wait till mid-July. Fog is common in the morning hours but almost always gives way to bright sun by the afternoon and temperatures in the low 70s, making summer the favorite time of year to explore the mountains, waterways, forests and beaches of this Pacific Northwest gem.
Every second counts in a disaster, so planning and preparation can be lifesavers.
Two good local resources for emergency preparation are the Island County Department of Emergency Management (https://islandcountywa.gov/DEM) and City of Oak Harbor Disaster Preparedness (www.oakharbor.org/page.cfm?pageId=98).
The websites give residents, communities, public safety professionals, businesses and schools valuable information and resources on how to deal with potential emergencies. The following are considered significant hazards in Island County.
Whidbey Islanders live with earthquake risk. The Seattle fault, a zone of east-west thrust faults, lies under Puget Sound and Seattle. The Cascadia fault runs along the coast; natural records tell geologists that the Cascadia fault ruptures every 500 to 600 years in powerful 8- to 9-magnitude earthquakes; its last one was Jan. 26, 1700. Scientists projected that a 6.7 earthquake along the Seattle fault could injure and kill thousands, cut all major highways for months due to collapsed bridges, sever utility service, collapse or damage buildings to the point that they are unusable, and cripple port facilities. Besides the shaking, collateral effects can include landslides, surface fault ruptures and soil liquefaction, all of which can cause injury or property damage. Contact your local city or county government for information on how to be prepared. More information and ideas on how to stay safe and to secure the contents of your home can be found at www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Earthquake.aspx.
Only the very north part of Whidbey Island is bedrock, and most of its bluff slopes are layers of unconsolidated sediment from glacial or interglacial periods that can break loose due to wave action, heavy rainfall, removal of vegetation and earthquakes. Of Whidbey Island’s 221 miles of shoreline, or 57 percent, or 112 miles is considered unstable. Where landslides have occurred in the past, they probably will occur in the future, and generous building setbacks from Whidbey Island bluff edges are wise. Go to www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Landslide.aspx for more information.
The Pacific Coast, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and large lakes are all at risk from tsunamis, trains of powerful earthquake-triggered waves that threaten people and property along shorelines. Everything in low-lying areas can be swept away in moments by a tsunami, so residents should work out escape routes to high ground for themselves and their families in advance and pay immediate heed to warnings and directives from authorities. To familiarize yourself with Island County’s tsunami evacuation routes and the tsunami hazard map, go to www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Maps.aspx.
The threat of wildfire is very real for those living near wildlands or enjoying wilderness recreation in Island County. All dwellings should be designed and landscaped with wildfire safety in mind — for example, maintain a 30-foot fire break around your home, keep roof and gutters clean, and clear flammable vegetation from around and under your structures. For more information, visit www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Wildfire.aspx.
Washington has experienced violent wind storms in the past that have killed and injured people, destroyed homes and businesses, knocked out public utilities and left thousands of people without power, sometimes for 10 or more days. More such storms are likely. Have a disaster plan and a disaster supplies kit, do not go outside or drive in such high winds, avoid windows and have a corded telephone available: When the power is out, cordless phones don’t work. For more information, visit www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Windstorm.aspx.