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Oak Harbor pioneer’s Irish roots chronicled
On St Patrick’s Day of 1855, in County Wicklow, near Dublin, Ireland, Laurence Paul Byrne was born. L.P. was destined for life as a pioneer in a small town named Oak Harbor on an island far from home.
Upon his death in June of 1913, the Oak Harbor News reported, “An honored pioneer citizen and business man who has been intimately connected with every progressive step in the history of Oak Harbor and whose influence in business affairs will assuredly be missed by all.”
Byrne learned to be a dry goods salesman as a youth in Dublin. He came to New York as a young man where he worked in a large department store. He came to Seattle in 1887, then to Whidbey Island to Oak Harbor the same year.
L.P. purchased waterfront land and built a large warehouse and long wharf. The first high school classes in Oak Harbor took place at this warehouse. Town meetings and dances were also held there. There were many Irish families pioneering in Oak Harbor at the time, including the large McCrohan, Barrington, O’Leary, Nunan, Maylor and Ely clans, and more. Byrne did his best to put Oak Harbor on the map by building a plush hotel, store and saloon.
He advertised in big newspapers, “Indoor plumbing, lounge, candy and cigars,” as well as a “horse motor car” which would pick up the guests arriving by ship to the end of his quarter mile long dock. This modern establishment was on the corner of present day Pioneer Way and Midway Blvd. Byrne also brought the first telephone service to Oak Harbor.
In 1891 Byrne married beautiful young Irish lassie Katy Nunan, one of the daughters of pioneers Thomas Nunan and Elizabeth McCrohan. Byrne had a mansion built for himself and his bride. Their home still stands to the north of Smith Park.
Katy was a soprano soloist and a pianist. She was in high demand for weddings, funerals and dances. She also played the organ at the theater for the silent films. She never missed performing on St. Patrick’s day, even into old age.
L.P. died in 1913, seven years before the great 1920 fire which claimed the Byrne store as well as many other buildings in East Oak Harbor. The wharf was left to decay as the newer Maylor dock was then in use. Katy married Elmer Jackson the town butcher; sold her large home and had a small bungalow built next door. There she lived out her life to 90 years with her daughter Pauline next door and her grandson Paul Allen nearby.
Peggy Townsdin, a local historian and author, lives in the San de Fuca area.