Business

We've always attracted tourists

Whidbey Island has always been a scenic tourist destination. The first Native Americans used to spend summers and fall on Whidbey harvesting camas root, wild berries, and salmon. Their long houses were some of the first view condominiums in the territory; their canoes the first whale watching fleet. They were forced to move on when the warlike Haidas raided down from the Channel Islands of British Columbia. I suppose they then became Whidbey Island’s first snowbirds.

Early sea captains, ever vigilant in their quest for a good spar mast, found that Whidbey was not only a good port of call for long, tall timber, but a place ripe with game and other needed amenities to lade, before continuing their journey down the Sound. I think it was Thomas Coupe who built the first hotel and took on boarders at Coupeville, beginning the long history of the hospitality and tourism industry here in Island County. (Colonel Isaac Ebey lost his head over a hospitality issue in 1857). In fact, tourists became so plentiful that in 1897, Fort Casey was built, not only to keep the British out of Puget Sound, but also to hold the many lookey-loos at bay. It appears we didn’t want the secret of beautiful Whidbey to circulate too widely, yet.

Did you know that Fort Casey was the first Army installation to use electric motors, even though it was constructed with man and mule power; that our main concern at the time was the British, following the War of 1812, not the Prussians of WWI or the Japanese during WWII? The guns placed at the fort were the first in use by the U.S. Army to have rifled barrels and were shipped out during WWII and used at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines. That is why the breech plates are missing from the two guns currently displayed. Those plates are at the bottom of Manila Bay. They were sabotaged by their own crews when overrun by the Japanese Army. They didn’t want them to be able to be used against U.S. forces later. Now we put signs on them to keep them from being overrun by children and their parents.

The modern Fort Casey, instead of keeping tourists away, is used to welcome them. Many people enjoy learning of the history of the old fort. Camp Casey and Fort Casey Inn are used to lodge visitors to Whidbey in a historical setting. My own ancestor, Alonzo Wells, used to be a mule skinner in Coupeville operating his team between “New Chicago” (now Keystone) and Coupeville’s Front Street. He hauled lumber to help erect some of the first barns in the area and tourists to and from the ships. Today, I use a 15-passenger van that says Coachman Inn on its sides.

Deception Pass became a favorite spot for smugglers, pirates, and rum runners during prohibition. It was a favorite camping spot for my father and his family when he was just a boy (I’m not saying he was a pirate, but . . .) There used to be a hostel for those ne’er-do-wells on Goat Island. The operator’s wife would sit by a campfire on Pass Island. If the coast were clear from authorities she would sit on the far side of the fire. If the law was snooping around, she would sit on the near side, blocking it from view so that the ruffians would be notified and have time to flee from their ribald revelry.

Sometimes, we even attract tourists today that we would rather have stay home; maybe P.W. Murphy’s needs to work out some sort of signal fire arrangement.

How do we continue attracting tourists? Do we want to continue attracting tourists? Those and others are the questions being asked by the Island County Joint Committee on Tourism. A new tourism and marketing coordinator has been hired by the committee, RoseAnn Alspektor. She will be tasked with helping guide us through the upcoming year of tourism pitfalls in an attempt to increase tourist travel to Island County in the months when we need them, not when we don’t, and doing so in a cost effective manner. It’s a big job. I for one, wish her great success. After all, if she succeeds, so will I. I think you already know, it’s always all about me.

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