Whidbey Changes – A Short Sketch Of History

Some things never change – except that they almost always do, eventually. Visit, and things don’t seem to change much. Live here long enough, and you get to bemoan the way things aren’t the way they used to be. Look back to what the island was like before you got here, and it can be a lot different – and yet make sense.

Let’s make stereotypes about stereotypes. The north end of the island is the military. The south end is for hippies. The middle gets to shake its head at both. There’s much more than that. 

(BTW This is a post to inspire further learning. Fortunately, Washington State has the Rural Heritage database, HistoryLink.org is the “Free Encyclopedia of Washington State History”, and the island has the Island County Historical Museum, the South Whidbey Historical Society, and other resources – and lots of local folklore. Ask around. There are plenty of stories out there.)

The real history starts back thousands of years ago, as the glaciers retreated. Unfortunately, there aren’t any written records from back then. 


Skip forward to the mid-1800s when the establishment of Coupeville signaled a new era.

Fishing And Forestry

The earliest immigrants were here for fishing and forestry. Someone had to feed all those people coming through the area for various gold rushes, and the original forests supplied the masts for the tall ships that sailed around the world.

Not much military presence or hippies (but check out the Pig War on San Juan Island that was critical in defining the area.)


First the prairies, then as the trees came down, the land was cleared and farming grew. Because the trees were so tall, those farmers had to clear thirty-foot stumps from the fields.


It was a rough time, or a time for rough living. Or at least that’s what some of the women said because when they started to show up, things started to quiet down and get cleaned up. Langley even got to become one of the first places in the United States with an all-women government. One reason there are so many dance halls on the island is because the women wanted something else to do besides the bars and the brawls.


Even back then, artists were poor; so some were drawn to the island so they could be creative and still be able to afford a place to stay. 


Fort Casey started things off at the start of the 1900s as a defense against naval attacks and invasions. It was part of an impressive set of forts throughout the area. Technology changed and forts closed as new ones were built. World War Two saw the more permanent presence we’re more familiar with. 


Bridges and ferries may seem like they’ve been here forever, but they had to start some time. 

The Bridge was built between the world wars, partly as a way to increase tourism. Some even thought the island could be Seattle’s version of the Hamptons, a resort area that was close enough yet far away at the same time. 

For decades the easiest way to get to the island was by boat. (Still amazed at postmasters who delivered the mail by rowing to and from Port Townsend.) Boats were sailed onto the beaches, ramps were dropped, and the tides required expedient turn-around times.

The ferries go back to before the bridge, but didn’t become part of the Washington State System until after World War Two. 


Boeing’s Everett Plant meant thousands of people moving to Everett, and at least some portion of them who decided that the (usually) short ride made life a bit better. Then, the Seattle area boomed and so did the need for housing, and schools, and infrastructure.


Now? Within the last few years the Navy’s operations have changed, again. Within the last two years, work from home has become much more common. Whidbey is seen as a sweet place to have a second (or third, or fourth, or…) home. Delivery services mean there’s less need to go of-island. Shop Local also encourages services that are more personal than the mainland’s malls. 

This is a ridiculously thin description of the last century or two (#MassiveUnderstatement, hence the need for museums), but sometimes it is handy to think about how things change and consider what might change, next. 

Look around and see the history that is here. Nature has changed from a place for glaciers to a place for mammoths to a place for preserves and sanctuaries. Forts and barracks become parks and seminar centers. Mutiny Bay, Smuggler’s Cove, and Honeymoon Bay have their histories even though there are fewer mutinies and smugglers – though honeymooners are still common and welcome. 

What’s next? Predicting the future is more of a game than anything productive; but, at least looking at history can give hints about the one thing for certain about the future: the only constant is change. Enjoy the ride!

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