Curtain obscures Oak Harbor Tavern entrance

Rafael Soto of Strider Construction monitors digging on SE Pioneer Way. The black enclosure went back up this week but could be down again soon, this time for good.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Rafael Soto of Strider Construction monitors digging on SE Pioneer Way. The black enclosure went back up this week but could be down again soon, this time for good.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

It’s back.

The black fencing that hid the archaeological site on SE Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor for months has been resurrected after a three-week hiatus. Only this time it’s much smaller and in what used to be the northern lane of the now one-way road.

According to the city’s weekly construction alert, the new enclosure was erected to shield from view a small triangular area that still needs to be excavated by hand. It could not be included in the original dig site “for the simple reason that it was underneath or just outside the fence,” the alert said.

While the new fenced area is much smaller than the first, which stretched about one block from SE Ireland to Ilwaco streets, it’s unfortunately located right in front of Oak Harbor Tavern’s main entrance.

“If you’re driving by, you’d never know the place is open,” bar manager Kelly Beedle said.

The $7.6 million Pioneer Way Improvement Project has been a trial for many downtown businesses, but it’s been particularly hard on the historic tavern, which was built in 1859 by city pioneer Capt. Edward Barrington. Mike’s Mini Mart has also been severely affected.

Both businesses are on the block where Native American remains were found this past June. At the request of affected tribes, a black-fenced enclosure went up along the block and remained in place for nearly five months before being taken down in November.

Beedle said seeing the ominous-looking fencing back up again, this time just feet from her front door, was saddening. However, she was encouraged by the fact that city officials are trying to limit its impact. For example, the enclosure will be taken down for the weekend so it doesn’t mar Saturday’s tree lighting ceremony.

“We don’t want it up for the holiday festivities,” said Larry Cort, the city’s project manager.

However, the work has to be finished and it will go back up again next week. If nothing is found, Cort said it shouldn’t take more than a day or two to wrap up. But there is a possibility additional archaeology would need to be done.

Under the city’s original emergency archeological permit with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, a much larger area was supposed to be hand excavated in the norther lane. But city officials applied for a change last month that may allow the work to be avoided.

The plan is to build an elevated parking area about six inches higher than the existing roadway because it would not require workers to dig so deep that it might encounter additional human remains.

The city’s request requires tribal input so there is no certainty the permit change will be approved. City Engineer Eric Johnston said conversations with tribal members have left him optimistic of a positive result.

Strider Construction, the project contractor, arrived back in Oak Harbor this week and began work on the unfinished street. If the permit change is approved, and the weather cooperates, work on that block could finish up soon.

“Under perfect conditions, we’d be done before Christmas,” Johnston said.

On the other hand, if the permit change is rejected and the city is forced to undergo a similar hand excavation effort in the north lane, work on that block could be delayed considerably. And, of course, it would mean the black-fenced enclosure would be up for much longer.


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