University of Washington, Tacoma
The Effects of Settlers on Gig Harbor’s Landscape
Copyright Ó 2000 by Katie M. Hunt
For more information, contact Katie Hunt at
Forest History 439
May 31, 2000
“Rich in promise and free for the taking, the Oregon country drew immigrant home seekers by the thousands, who came to shape the land in their own image. As harbingers of civilization, women, children and farmers drove the taproot of family life deep into the soil and staked for America an irrevocable claim to the Northwest. They were followed by miners, fishermen, loggers, and rail barons who helped to build a broad-based and freestanding economy. Theirs was a migration of dreams, made real in a toil of optimism.” 
Many settlers came to the west for promise of a new life and new hopes. A noteworthy place that was part of the discovery of the west lies in the upper northwest area of Washington State known as Gig Harbor. Many books describe the area where Gig Harbor is located a “paradise” of sorts. Lush forests covered the land; the trunks of trees measured a diameter of 16 feet. The land was plentiful and fertile. Wild animals roamed freely and in large numbers. It has been said there was an eight-foot cougar living in these parts some 100-150 years ago. If you have visited Gig Harbor today, you look around at the marina, the stores, the houses, and other businesses, it can be difficult to compare the landscape that is, to the landscape that was. Today the trees average 1-2 feet in diameter, and a cougar sighting would be rare and even considered dangerous. The area labeled paradise then, is now labeled paradise in an entirely different sense. In the eyes of the waterfront property owners, the businesses with ample parking space, or the boat owner who brings his 40 foot Bayliner into the marina for docking and storage. It is questionable as to whether or not this land as we see it today is some how better that it was. Unfortunately, as Gig Harbor continues to expand and develop, the landscape sinks away. This is not a paper trying to point the finger at anyone in particular for destroying the environment, or to go on and on about what we should not or should have done. Rather this is a paper describing some of the first settlers who came into this paradise, what they saw, and what they did to change the landscape. The period of focus is the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s, when much of the settlement of gig Harbor occurred. You, the reader, are free to form your own opinions of what you will learn.
Gig Harbor is located north west of Tacoma, in an area known as the Puget Sound. The water of the West Passage and the Narrows borders the land to the East of the Harbor and Henderson Bay borders the land on the west. The main area of Gig Harbor is shaped like a horseshoe. An exploration fleet belonging to Captain Charles Wilkes in 1841 was caught in one of the areas infamous storms. The men found the Harbor and were able to steer their men to safety. The ship that first entered the harbor was called the Captains Gig, so the area became known as Gig Harbor. Wilkes crew was journeying around the world exploring and mapping areas of the coast. They also were charting the migration of whales. His crew was composed of two ships and had traveled down the Straights of Juan de Fuca. His first ship was called the Vincennes, under his own command, and the second was called the Porpoise under Lt. Cadwalader Ringgold. Ringgold’s crew was responsible for naming the area and leading the ships to safety during the storm. They had been using the Fort Nisqually area as a base camp. Fort Nisqually is located directly across the West passage near Tacoma. Not much else is written of Wilkes and his crews’ exploration in the Gig Harbor area.
You may be asking, “Why the Puget Sound area?” The author of Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, Ezra Meeker writes, “It is an American instinct to want to better one’s condition; we may say that it is a world wide instinct that pervades the human breast…” Many of the settlers not only of American heritage but from other countries came to escape poverty. Man is always searching for something it seems and the area of Gig Harbor was one of those wonderful discoveries. The next exploration of the Gig Harbor area occurred years later in 1867. Three fishermen, sought shelter in the night, and came upon Gig Harbor accidentally. The men were composed of two Slavonions, Samuel Jerisich and Peter Goldsmith, and Portugal John Farrague. The men rested there overnight. Out of the three men, Jerisich decided to stay. Jerisich was born in Kotor in 1833, and was a Dalmatian sailor turned fisherman. Before any settlers had come to Gig Harbor, there was a tribe of Puyallup-Nisqually Indians living by a small creek at the head of the bay. The rest of the area of land was a military reserve. In 1875, Jerisich and Farrague applied for a hundred acre claim that was granted years later but now many others have taken up land space. The two men sold land in quantities of 10 acres to those who promised to make improvements on the land. The white settlers were concerned the Indians posed a threat the area, thus boundaries were set up between the white man and the Indians. With the Indians out of the way, more and more settlers began swarming to the Gig Harbor area. However, not for a period of about 16 years after the Jerisich family had settled there.
The Jerisich family made great use of the wonderful land and resources Gig Harbor had to offer. He married a 15-year-old Canadian Indian named Annie (Willet). They lived on the east side of the bay in a one-room cabin made entirely out of split cedar boards. The supplies needed to build the home were bought from Olympia, via boat. Supplies were also purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company Store at Fort Nisqually and were transported by rowboat to Gig Harbor. The family lived on fish they caught and vegetables grown on their small farm. In example of the area being labeled as a paradise, Mrs. Jerisich was able to take her bucket out into the water and in one swoop of the pail an overflowing bucket of fish. The prominent species of fish in the area was smelt and herring. Any necessary supplies the family needed had to come by rowboat into the area from Olympia or Steilacoom. The family totaled ten, and seemed to manage for their time period. Samuel did most of the fishing while his wife took care of tasks such as sewing fishing nets, spinning and knitting yarn, and shot deer and bears, and took part in fishing also.
The next family to settle in the area was Joseph Goodman’s family in 1883. They were brought to the harbor by steamship. They made their home in a small cabin also on the east side of the Harbor. Their house was built out of cedar. They later built another house in Crescent Valley, just north of Gig Harbor. Many of the settlers that followed were of Yugoslavian, German, Scandinavian, and European heritage. As mentioned earlier the settlers came for a better life filled with promise and hope. The Jerisich’s rowboat used for fishing served as the areas transportation to the surrounding areas. A majority of the settlement of Gig Harbor occurred through word of mouth. Many of the new settlers to the area would write back home and tell their friends and relatives about the prospects of the Puget Sound area. Among the names of the families that first arrived in the area were Joseph Dorotich, John Novak, John Jurich, John Fargo, Lee Makovich, Nick Janovich, Peter Skansie, and the Ross brothers. Some came to work in the sawmills and others came for the fishing.
The true development of the Harbor began in 1884. Dr. Alfred M. Burnham and his family from Minnesota, who were said to have rowed in on a boat with a cow and all their belongings, perched on the stern. He was the town’s first doctor and opened the first general store. Dr. Burnham also helped settle the area by word of mouth. Burnham’s claim of land was labeled the first town site of Gig Harbor on April 28, 1888. The plots of land he had, were given to anyone for no charge so long as they promised to build a house on the land and paint it white. In addition to Dr. Burnham spreading the information about the area to prospective settlers, the acts of Frank Hall, A.S. Prentice, and James Parker also brought a great amount of settlers to the area. They were responsible for building the first sawmill in 1889, known as the Gig Harbor Sawmill. This development led to over 15 sailing vessels and steamers to come to the area for massive cargos of lumber. The mill was located on the west side of the harbor presently where the town of Rosedale is located today. Unfortunately, the mill did not last due to a revolution in Chile and other miscellaneous incidents. Another individual responsible for the settlement of the area was Frank Hall. Hall was president of the Gig Harbor Mill Company. The forest in the area was so thick in places that it was impossible to have any space to build. He cut down the trees on each side of the Harbor and clear cut the land into two ten-acre tracts and opened them up for settlement.
Education for the children of the settlers was also hard to come by. The only school was located on the other side of the Sound in Steilacoom in the 1860’s. In 1878 came the first school of the peninsula at the head of Wollochet Bay. Less than 20 students were enrolled and Emmett Hunt was the first schoolteacher in that school. This was before he had become interested in steamships. The Jerisich family children walked four miles to school every day…up a hill in the snow with no shoes on, oops wrong story. Anyhow, the townspeople of Gig Harbor felt they needed to have a school located directly in the Harbor so in 1886 one was established. The first schoolhouse was loaned by the Indians and was called the “Potlatch House.” School was held for a four-month term starting in January and ending in April. Indian as well as white children were enrolled and the number of students totaled ten. An interesting bit of information about the school was that it was located near a logging camp, and on one particular day a giant log broke loose from the skid, which is a ramp of sorts used to transport logs easily, and rammed right through the schoolhouse. It almost slid the schoolhouse right into the bay. A new schoolhouse had to be built because of the increase in enrollment so another schoolhouse was built in 1887. Once students completed eighth grade they were required to take a test and then could be admitted to high school, which at the time was located at Tacoma in Stadium High School, which still stands and operates as a high school. Later in 1903, Vaughn High School was built in Gig Harbor, and much later, the present Peninsula High School was built in 1947.
The main problem for the new settlers was transportation. If you have been over the Narrows Bridge today, you know it is still a problem for current residents. Many settlers used boats as the main form of transportation. To combat the problem with transportation, a boat service was established and the cost to access this was one dollar. Fisherman and farmers had to use boats to get their fish and produce to Tacoma and other surrounding cities. A typical date consisted of a couple taking a boat over to Tacoma for a soda fountain sundae, and then returning home that same evening. Before floats or docks were built people would gather and camp on the shore and motion for the boats as they passed by hoping to receive any mail or to transport them or their goods. Other methods of transportation included walking the long journey around the peninsula, but that generally took days, and was nearly impossible to try to transport large bundles of items that were too heavy or bulky. Traveling by buggy was also common, although the roads were very rough and narrow. If you happened to come across another buggy on the road, you would have to unhitch one of the wagons, tip it on its side, and let the other pass. Around the same time as the settlement began to increase the business of steamships was well on its way to becoming a large part of the history in Gig Harbor. The Hunt’s, started the very first business of building and operating steamships in the Gig Harbor area. Emmett Hunt was dissatisfied with the current methods of travel. In his journal entries, he complained bitterly of the lovely northwest elements that he had to battle against in a tiny rowboat. He began working on building a steamship with the help of his brother Arthur. The boat was finished on January 27, 1882 and was named Alice, after his girlfriend Alice Strome. His next boats included the Baby Mine, Susie, and Gypsy Queen. He built five boats in all. His steamships brought a completely new meaning to traveling by boat to the settlers. The transportation required little if any manual labor and was faster than other methods of transportation like rowing and walking.
In 1912 the Hales Pass-Wollochet Bay Navigation Company was started in an effort to help farmers get their produce to the other towns and cities faster. The Crest, another one of the Hunt’s boats, was purchased from them to assist them in their endeavor. The main concern with the farmers was freshness. Before it would take days to get produce to Tacoma, now with the Crest it took overnight and the farmers were pleased with its efficiency and speed. The Lorenz family also owned and operated various boats on the sound. Their boats were responsible for transporting mail to the various communities. Other families also participated in the boating industry of the Sound. The Skansie brothers were the first to start a shipbuilding business on the Harbor called Skansie Shipbuilding Company in 1912. They built several boats in a season building primarily fishing boats and ferries. Today the shipbuilding areas are gone but fishing remains an important industry.
There were three docks constructed inside the Harbor due to the increased ship traffic. One is located at the head of the bay, currently the site of the Peninsula Yacht Basin. The other was on the east side as was known as Union Dock, or Young’s Landing. The third dock was built at the present site of Tide’s Tavern known as People’s Dock. The docks were used for people transport as well as freight landings until they were replaced by a ferry and a landing outside the northern area of the Harbor.
Besides fishing and shipbuilding, farming was also very important to the settlers of Gig Harbor. The Pacific Northwest has prime conditions for growing crops. The soil is fertile and the weather moderate. Early farmers in the area were called stump ranchers because they used to grow crops in, around, and among the stumps left by the early loggers. This is particularly interesting because it seems after the loggers cut down many of the stumps the other settlers adapted to the landscape that was left. It was a completely new twist in nurse logs, which act in the same way but for plants such as ferns and young trees. Fruit and berries were very plentiful in the area. One of the earliest farmers, Joseph Hoots Sr. grew strawberries and loganberries. Individual families were responsible for providing their own food through farming. A booming agricultural industry was in holly growing. The largest holly growing area was over 20 acres located at the Hollycraft Gardens in 1914, started by P.H. Peyran.
In addition to farming, fishing, and boating, the lumber industry was booming during the late 1800’s. As mentioned earlier the first mill in Gig Harbor was established in 1887 in an area on the west side of the Harbor nicknamed “Millville.” It was called the Gig Harbor Mill Company. Next to the mill was a shingle mill known as Prentice Shingle Mill built around 1891. Millville consisted of a group of cabins where men who worked in the two mills would live. In 1909, C.O. Austin built a sawmill in Gig Harbor in the same location where Peninsula Light Company now stands. The types of lumber he manufactured included “moldings, timber for docks, ships’ timbers, fruit boxes, shingles, etc.” The wood products were moved by horse or wagon then on scows, which were flat bottom boats, or made into rafts and towed away by boats. Local people worked in the sawmills, as many as thirty at a time did. A new and improved way of rustic logging was developed by Mr. Austin in the 1930’s. He died in 1946, his widow sold his sawmill to John H. Galbraith who operated the mill, then sold it many more times, and it now exists as Borgen’s Building Supply, Inc. If the sawmill brought in that much labor and money, why would you want to sell? Well the obvious reason would be there was no more lumber to cut, thus no need for a sawmill.
Religion is and was an important part of early Gig Harbor life. The first church services were held in 1887 in the cabin of two steamer ships named Isabel and Alida. The ships were located in the middle of the Harbor. Settlers would row boats out to the ship, weather permitting to attend services. It was only after the two story, two room schoolhouses were built that the church moved from the Harbor waters to the land. In 1892, the Methodist Episcopal Church was built and in 1912, the Memorial Presbyterian Church was built. The first Catholic Church St. Nicholas was started in 1914 from money donated by the townspeople. A church hall was constructed in 1924.
The first pave road came to Gig Harbor in the 1920’s. Frank M. Scott in 1913 brought the first car to the Harbor and an improvement of the roads was needed. From 1922 until 1935, the area utilized bus transportation by bus from Gig Harbor to Tacoma. The bus service was owned and operated by Hubert Secor. With the introduction of paved roads, the Narrows Bridge formerly known as Galloping Gurdie would be built in 1942.
In 1946, Gig Harbor was named a formal fourth-class city. There was a need for water and sewer systems that triggered the movement towards the area being labeled as a city. The first city council members were made up of townspeople of all trades. Some worked in the sawmills while others were fishermen, grocery store owners, and sea captains. Harold Ryan became the first mayor of Gig Harbor in 1946 until 1955. He was the towns dentist, and knew many of the citizens because he had seen them in his office for a check-up and cleaning.
Throughout the changes the settlers made in Gig Harbor, the change that caused most of the lands impact was clearing of the forested lands. One of the old timers of the Harbor said that around the turn of the 1900’s there were no stumps left in the ground. It is as if the trees were burdensome to the settlers and they did anything to do away with them as quickly as possible. Because the population rose quickly, the land did not have time to settle from all the building. Today there are an array of paved roads, small shops, houses, and marinas. It is impossible to look at Gig Harbor as it stands today and picture a landscape rich in trees and vegetation. It is hard to go to the waterfront of Gig Harbor and dip in a bucket for fish, because it is guaranteed you wont catch a thing like what Annie Jerisich once did over 100 years ago. Well you may still be asking the “So What” question. The answer to that question is many of the old timers are almost gone in Gig Harbor. Many of them are in there 90’s and over. This paper helps to keep the history of a small place that seems unimportant to the whole scheme of the Pacific Northwest when rather it is just one of the spices in a mixture that makes this area worth writing about. Once the last remains of the old settlers are gone, we will still have our stories and our research to help rejuvenate the rich culture and history that surrounds Gig Harbor. Although we cannot bring back what is long gone, the information in this paper may help to preserve other areas of virgin land in hopes that the history will not be lost. And the natural landscape will be preserved.
Arledge, R.T. Early Days of the Key Peninsula. Vaughn, Washington: Key Peninsula Historical Society, 1998.
Book detailing life and times on the Key Peninsula. Had a few details about Gig Harbor. Check out with permission at the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library Main Branch.
Bingham, Edwin R. and Glen A. Love, eds. Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon: University of Washington Press, 1979.
A comprehensive collection of essays written by northwest natives detailing rich Pacific Northwest towns and personal experiences.
Botkin, Daniel B. Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark. New York, New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1995.
Detailed book describing the journey of Lewis and Clark to the Oregon Country.
Evans, Jack R. Little History of Gig Harbor Washington. Seattle, Washington: SCW Publications, 1989.
A little book packed full with everything the novice would want to know about Gig Harbor Washington. Check out with permission at the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library Main Branch.
Frederick, Richard and Jeanne Engerman. Asahel Curtis: Photographs of the Great Northwest. Tacoma, Washington: Washington Historical Society, 1983, 1985.
Wonderful black and white photographs and information about the Pacific Northwest. I found some great logging pictures in here.
Goodman Middle School Students. Along the Waterfront: A History of the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula Areas. Gig Harbor, Washington: Clinton-Hull Printing Co., 1979.
One of the only existing books of its kind providing a detailed analysis of the history of Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula area.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson; Clyde A. Milner II; Charles E. Rankin, eds. Trails Toward a New Western History. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1991.
A very detailed book filled with personal essays that examine the settlement of the west, which includes California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
McDonald, Lucile. Early Gig Harbor Steamboats. Gig Harbor, Washington: Mostly Books, 1984.
Based on journals by Emmett E. Hunt, A look at the steamboats of Gig Harbor’s past. Small book but only one of its kind.
Meeker, Ezra. Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Seattle, Washington: Lowman & Hanford Stationary and Printing Co., 1980.
Personal depiction of a pioneer during the late 1800’s in the Pacific Northwest. Rather long and detailed although contains some interesting accounts.
Peninsula Historic Society Files, Key Peninsula Historical Society.
Located in Vaughn, Washington.
Petrich, Mary Ann and Barbara Roje. The Yugoslav in Washington State: Among the Early Settlers. Tacoma, Washington: Washington State Historical Society, 1984.
A history of the Yugoslav’s who were among the first who immigrated to the Pacific Northwest.
Schultz, Stewart. The Northwest Coast: A Natural History. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1990.
A scientific approach to describing the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Details everything from the deserts, to the mountains, to the beaches, and the inland areas.
The Editors of America West. The Great West Series, The Great Northwest: The Story of a Land and Its People. Palo Alto, California: American West Publishing Company, 1973.
A history of the settlement in the
entire western area of the United States. Very detailed but little pertained to
the Gig Harbor area.
 The Editors of America West, The Great West Series, The Great Northwest: The Story of a Land and Its People (Palo Alto, California: American West Publishing Company, 1973).
 Jack R. Evans, Little History of Gig Harbor Washington (Seattle, Washington: SCW Publications, 1988).
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, Along the Waterfront: A History of the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula Areas (Gig Harbor, Washington: Clinton-Hull Printing, 1979).
 Ezra Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound (Seattle, Washington: Lowman & Hanford Stationary and Printing Co., 1980).
 Mary Ann Petrich and Barbara Roje, The Yugoslav in Washington State: Among the Early Settlers (Tacoma, Washington: Washington State Historical Society, 1984).
 Petrich & Roje, 5.
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, 5-6.
 Petrich & Roje, 4.
 Evans, 2.
 Evans, 3.
 Evans, 4.
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, 10-11.
 Files of the Peninsula Historic Society, Key Peninsula Historical Society.
 Lucile McDonald, Early Gig Harbor Steamboats: Based on the Journals of Emmett E. Hunt (Gig Harbor, Washington: Mostly Books, 1984).
 Evans, 15-16.
 Evans, 16-17.
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, 21.
 Evans, 21.
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, 22.
 The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus American Edition (New York, Berkley Books, 1997).
 Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, 25.