Whidbey Island’s many miles of coastline are now included in a federally recognized district meant to foster collaboration among organizations promoting maritime culture, industry and history in Washington State.
The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area was designated by Congress in February 2019, and its management plan was approved by the Department of the Interior this past November. Now, the area is in the midst of a slow-rolling launch that will include the establishment of an official website, social media pages and a partnership network.
The area encompasses 3,000 miles of Washington’s saltwater shoreline from Grays Harbor County to the Canadian border, including the borders of Whidbey Island and numerous other islands within the Puget Sound region. The designated area extends one-quarter mile inland from the mean high tide line, though agencies located farther inland may still be considered part of the partnership network.
The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation manages the new maritime heritage area. Project Manager and Maritime Washington Captain Alex Gradwohl said the mission of the area is to connect partners and “increase collaboration so the whole region can better celebrate and preserve and share what makes our maritime heritage so special.”
There are already numerous organizations doing maritime-related preservation and interpretation work along Washington’s coastline, including government entities, tribes and nonprofits, Gradwohl said. The new heritage area wouldn’t regulate their activities; it would simply connect them to one another to share resources and expand their reach.
“I think what folks can look forward to is more connection,” she said.
There are three major interpretive themes when it comes to maritime heritage, Gradwohl said — people, movement and resources. The first explores the ways in which the natural environment influences people and cultures, including indigenous people and settlers. The second focuses on the ways in which water served as a highway for goods and ideas. The last centers on the abundant natural resources found in the water and how they impact economic development.
Gradwohl said Whidbey Island will feature heavily in some of the forthcoming materials from the area. The area’s website, for example, will showcase travel itineraries for Whidbey and highlight the interpretation already going on here.
Maritime activities and industry have had a major impact on Whidbey’s development and culture, according to staff from Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, one of the Whidbey-based anchor organizations for the heritage area. Coast Salish people traversed local waters in dugout canoes long before the arrival of European explorers or westward bound settlers, and ferried these newcomers throughout the Salish Sea upon their arrival.
The Washington Territorial Legislature authorized the first “sloop ferry” service between Ebey’s Landing and Port Townsend in 1860, around the same time that dugouts and sailboats began to be gradually replaced by steamboats.
“The boats became so plentiful, someone once commented, ‘They look like mosquitoes on a pond!’” Reserve Manager Marie Shimada wrote in an email on behalf of reserve staff. “Thereafter, this early fleet of passenger steamboats would be known as the ‘mosquito fleet.’”
The first car ferries began appearing in the early 1900s as automobile travel became more ingrained in American culture. Ferry traffic remains the Whidbey basin’s predominant maritime activity, with ferries transporting tourists and goods to and from the island. Recreational boating, yachting and fishing also remain popular.
Additionally, Central Whidbey’s annual Penn Cove Water Festival celebrates the impact of local waters and brings together members of several nearby tribes for canoe races, which historically date back to the 1930s.
Reserve staff said inclusion in the maritime heritage area will provide for a more inclusive way to share our history on the island and foster a sense of pride in our heritage.
“Highlighting our maritime heritage supercharges everyone’s efforts to promote more sustainable tourism solutions, provides a social backdrop to the historic building preservation efforts here, and creates even greater opportunity for the work of conservationists to interweave their efforts with other industries related to maritime heritage,” Shimada wrote.