Big Rock for sale: Giant stone goes with Coupeville apartments

Clinton resident Terry Swanson, a professor of earth and space sciences at University of Washington, talks about glacial migrations and how the Big Rock came to Coupeville about 15,000 years ago. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Clinton resident Terry Swanson, a professor of earth and space sciences at University of Washington, talks about glacial migrations and how the Big Rock came to Coupeville about 15,000 years ago.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

A Central Whidbey landmark and arguably Coupeville’s very first tourist attraction has been put up for sale.

The massive rock, commonly known as Big Rock, went on the market last month along with the 28-unit apartment building complex behind Coupeville Coffee and Bistro on South Main Street.

Owner Michael Johnson is selling the entire development, which includes six two-story buildings, a one-story triplex and an old rental house that’s about 100 years old. He bought the property in 1999 and, in 12 years of ownership, he said it remains a successful venture despite the sluggish economy.

He is selling the property solely for personal health reasons.

Johnson is well aware that any potential sale would include much more than just apartments. The enormous rock has been long thought to hold the title as the largest of its kind in Western Washington and has attracted crowds for about 100 years.

“It was kinda a local landmark,” Johnson said.

Long history

Over the years, the mysterious colossus has lured everyone from curious sightseers to scientists. It was so well visited that wooden steps were built so people had access to the summit, said Rick Castellano, executive director for the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville.

Historical photos, which refer to the geological titan as the “Rock of Ages,” date back to the early 1900s, he said. One shows a woman with two children standing at the top and looking south with binoculars or possibly taking a picture.

“It was quite a tourist attraction,” Castellano said.

While it’s not clear when the stairs disappeared, Coupeville resident Lillian Dean Huffstetler confirms they did exist. She knows because she says she scaled them as a youth in the 1930s, something she wishes she could do again.

“It was neat because I never would have crawled up there,” she laughed.

Big Rock made headlines in recent years when it became embroiled in controversy over the development of Miriam’s Espresso, the coffee shop that is now the bistro and sits directly in front of the huge rock. The Oh Oh group, composed of Coupeville residents, wanted the property turned into a park.

People still visit the rock today but most are scientists and students and no one is allowed to climb to the top. While it may have been OK years ago, “they didn’t have so many lawyers then” and the possibility of getting sued is just too great, Johnson said.

It’s been largely encased in ivy since he bought the property and at one time he did consider having the vines removed to make the rock more visible but the cost was not affordable.

“I had always hoped that if we took the ivy off we’d find the 10 commandments,” Johnson joked.

Tip of the ice berg

While biblical inscriptions are not very plausible, the rock is certainly old enough. It’s what’s known as a glacial erratic, an object that is plucked up by a moving glacier and then deposited in another location.

In this case, it was dropped off in Coupeville about 15,000 years ago by the ice sheet known as the Puget Lobe, according to Clinton resident Terry Swanson, a professor of earth and space sciences at University of Washington.

About one mile thick in places, the glacier stretched from the Olympic to the Cascade mountain ranges and covered most of Puget Sound. Big Rock, which is greenstone, likely came from Mount Erie on Fidalgo Island, Swanson said.

Despite long-held and popular belief, it appears it is not the largest glacial erratic in Washington. No quantitative measurements have been taken, but Swanson said larger glacial erratics are thought to exist.

“It’s big but it’s not the biggest,” Swanson said.

In fact, it may not even be the largest on Whidbey Island. The Waterman Erratic, located in the Saratoga Woods Preserve northwest of Langley, is believed by some to be slightly larger and another in Lake Stevens that was discovered this summer may surpass both.

But it’s difficult to say which is really the king of orphaned boulders as measurements are taken from above ground. As Johnson put it, there could be much more of the Big Rock hidden below the surface.

“It could be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Public ownership?

Johnson said he has yet to get any nibbles from interested buyers of Big Rock Apartments, but Coupeville resident Ken Pickard said he might be interested in purchasing just the rock. He spearheaded the Oh Oh group’s efforts to turn the Miriam property into a park. While that possibility is long gone, he described the rock as still pretty “cool.”

“It’s an awesome geological feature,” Pickard said.

Johnson said he was unsure whether the rock could be sold separately from the rest of the property, saying that’s a decision that would be up to the bank. However, he said he’s been open in the past to consider offers that would put it public hands.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said there are no plans on the town’s behalf to buy the rock. Both it and the old house are on a separate parcel zoned for high-density residential and she isn’t aware of any ordinances protecting Big Rock, but Conard isn’t worried that the local oddity is in any danger.

It’s possible that a new owner could try to remove or destroy the rock, but the idea of jackhammers and dynamite seems like a remote possibility, she said. It would be like trying to reroute a river, she said.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Conard said. “Whoever buys this gets the rock as a bonus.”

Others are less certain. Huffstetler agrees the possibility of a new owner threatening the rock is highly unlikely but she also said, “You never can tell with people.” Also, even if its mammoth size does offer it total protection from destruction, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of public ownership.

She said the town missed its opportunity to turn the area in front of Big Rock into a park and preserve the goliath’s unobstructed view from South Main Street during the coffee shop controversy, but history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

“It’s something unique and should be kept,” Huffstetler said.


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