Gig Harbor -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/29/2012
  • Essay 10271

Gig Harbor is a city in Pierce County located on a picturesque Puget Sound bay -- also called Gig Harbor -- across Tacoma Narrows from Tacoma. For centuries, the Twa-Wal-Kut band of the Puyallup Tribe had a longhouse and permanent camp at the head of the harbor. Explorers from the Wilkes Expedition discovered the harbor's well-hidden opening in 1841 and named it Gig Harbor because they had entered the bay in a small captain's gig. In 1867, three white fishermen entered the harbor and decided to make it their home. Over the next few decades, Gig Harbor grew into a bustling fishing village with distinctive Croatian and Scandinavian communities. Lumber mills and boat-building yards also sprang up. Boats and ferries continued to be the most practical form of transportation in Gig Harbor until the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge connected the Gig Harbor Peninsula to Tacoma in 1950. Gig Harbor incorporated as a town in 1946 with a population of around 800, but because of its proximity to Tacoma it grew steadily. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 7,126. Tourism has replaced fishing as a main Gig Harbor industry, but the city's fishing heritage is preserved in the 17 historic netsheds that line the waterfront.

Fish, Shellfish, and Berries

The region's tribes, including the Puyallup, Nisqually, Suquamish and Squaxin, have long inhabited the small Puget Sound bay known today as Gig Harbor. Bands from the northern and southern parts of Puget Sound often camped on its shores as they roamed the sound in pursuit of fish, shellfish, berries, and roots. One band, called the Twa-Wal-Kut, established its permanent camp near the rich shellfish beds at the head of the bay where Donkey Creek enters Puget Sound. The Twa-Wal-Kut village consisted of a 100-foot longhouse and several smaller cedar huts. According to the band's "dimly remembered" oral tradition, they were once part of a Puyallup band that had canoed over from Commencement Bay (Eckrom, p. 15). An 1879 Indian census counted 46 members of what it called the "Gig Harbor Band."

Non-Native explorers made their first appearance on the Gig Harbor Peninsula in 1792. Lieutenant Peter Puget (1765-1822) led a charting expedition, which sailed past the hard-to-spot entrance to Gig Harbor but entered Wollochet Bay on the western shore of the peninsula. Then in 1833, the Indians began trading at a fortified trading post called Fort Nisqually, which was only 15 miles by canoe across the sound from Twa-Wal-Kut.

Finding a Hidden Harbor

It was not until May 15, 1841, that explorers finally found this hidden harbor. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) had led several ships on an exploring expedition around the world. He sent one of his ships, the Porpoise, to probe deep into the southern reaches of Puget Sound on a surveying expedition. Lt. George Sinclair, the ship's sailing master, dispatched a longboat with Midshipman Joseph Sandford (sometimes spelled Sanford) to check out the shoreline north of Tacoma Narrows. Sandford later noted that he had come across a "pretty little bay that is concealed from the Sound" and which was guarded by a sand spit (Morgan, Puget's, p. 51). He maneuvered around the spit and found a "passage about 10 or 15 yards wide and it gradually widens to a circular basin" (Morgan, Puget's, p. 51).

Lt. Sinclair decided to go have a look for himself in his small boat -- the captain's gig. In his journal, Sinclair famously described the harbor as "an excellent little bay" (Morgan, Puget's, p. 51-52). He also said that he found some Indians cooking salmon on the beach by "sticking sticks into it and letting it hang over the fire" (Eckrom, p. 21). Sinclair named the little bay Gig Harbor after the boat he had rowed in on. The name also had the practical purpose of indicating the size of boat best suited for entering such a small channel.

Neither Sinclair nor Sandford engaged the Indians and the Twa-Wal-Kut were left mostly alone over the next two decades. Nevertheless, catastrophe struck during that time. European diseases swept through all the tribes on the sound, decimating their populations. Then, in 1854, the Puyallups and other tribes signed a treaty requiring them to move to reservations. Some of Twa-Wal-Kut moved to the Puyallup Reservation but others remained on their little bay, still untouched by outside settlers.

But not for long. In 1867, a rowboat containing three fishermen -- Samuel Jerisich (d. 1905), Peter Goldsmith and John Farrague (1825-1895) (sometimes spelled Farragutt or Farrago) -- came gliding past the sand spit into the bay. The three men had rowed from Vancouver Island. According to some accounts, they slipped into the bay to spend the night. By other accounts, they were blown in by a storm. In any case, they liked it so much they decided to stay. Those three fishermen were the white founders of what would become the City of Gig Harbor.

Calling Gig Harbor Home

Jerisich and Goldsmith were Croatian, the first of many Croatians to call Gig Harbor home. Goldsmith and the Spanish-born Farrague remained at their primitive camp on Gig Harbor while Jerisich, 34, rowed back to Vancouver Island to fetch his Indian wife, Anna Willets, and their daughter Caroline. He built a cabin for his family near the sand spit entrance to the bay, but he soon discovered that this was government-owned land. Large chunks of land surrounding Tacoma Narrows had been set aside as military reservations under the recommendation of Wilkes, in case Puget Sound had to be fortified against invaders.

All three fisherman -- Jerisich. Goldsmith and Farrague -- then filed claims near Donkey Creek close to the ancient village of Twa-Wal-Kut. Jerisich "brought milled lumber from Olympia to build a cabin, dock, and smokehouse for salmon" (Andrews, p. 3). Fishing was their main occupation -- as it had been in Croatia. They found the bay to be uncommonly fruitful. Anna Jerisich could "dip a pail in the water and come up with enough smelt or herring for a meal" (Along, p. 5). Jerisich also bought a machine from an Oregon ironworks for pressing "dogfish oil" from a common kind of Puget Sound shark which was in demand as a sawmill lubricant and lamp oil.

Other Croatian and Slavic settlers -- drawn no doubt by their countrymen -- arrived. Goldsmith acquired a young Croatian wife. Other families arrived and filed claims on the west side of the harbor. Still, as of 1879, the 46 residents of Twa-Wal-Kut probably still outnumbered the white settlers. Relations between the two cultures were "harmonious," and sometimes more than harmonious -- marriages between male settlers and Indian women were common (Andrews, p. 5).

Both tribal members and white newcomers made their living by fishing. The Croatians mainly fished with big nets -- they had perfected the art of purse seining. That consisted of laying out a huge net and drawing it closed at the bottom with a huge drawstring, like a coin purse. This method required at least two rowboats and several strong backs to haul the nets into the boat. They fished for salmon in season, of course, but also ling cod, red snapper, flounder, and eel.

Purse seining required plenty of room to dry and store the enormous nets, which is why, for many decades, houses in Gig Harbor were often separated by a vacant lot. In these lots "men and boys mended their large cotton seine nets, then dipped them in tar for waterproofing, and spread them out to dry … in the off season, the nets were stored in the netshed" (Andrews. p. 7).

Scandinavian immigrants, along with American settlers from Minnesota, also began to arrive in the 1880s and 1890s. They were often farmers who cleared plots overlooking the north end of the bay and into the Crescent Valley area on the north side of the harbor. They grew berries, fruits, and vegetables and rowed them across to market in Steilacoom or Tacoma. Travel by land was still so difficult and muddy, "you either rowed or stayed home," in the words of one old-timer (Eckrom, p. 26).

A Cluster of Communities

By 1888, Tacoma was booming and some were convinced that the nearby village of Gig Harbor might boom as well. Dr. Alfred Burnham (1824-1896), who had arrived with his family from Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1886, filed a plat for the City of Gig Harbor in 1888 on the north end of the bay, on land purchased from the three founding fishermen. Burnham, who owned the first general store, laid out a grid of streets and planted a stone monument with a cross "at the center of Front and Harbor Streets" (Eckrom, p. 50). He convinced some of his former Albert Lea neighbors to settle in Gig Harbor by, as the story goes, offering a free lot to anyone "who would build a house and paint it white" (Andrews. p. 5).

Jerisich and other Croatian settlers filed another plat, named Millville, in 1888, near a sawmill on the harbor's western shore. This became the center of the Croatian community. Two other plats were filed in 1890 on the north end of the bay, just east of the original City of Gig Harbor plat. All these neighborhoods, within a mile of each other, amounted to one still-tiny village. In fact, the ancient Twa-Wal-Kut village had not yet been totally squeezed out. Well into the 1890s, it "maintained its tradition of hosting community gatherings and potlatches" for neighboring Puget Sound tribes (Andrews, p. 4). The longhouse itself survived until 1915.

Even some Indians who had technically joined the Puyallup Reservation, including one well-known character called Gig Harbor Joe, still wandered through the familiar inlets and coves. Gig Harbor Joe "roamed about with his wife by canoe from bay to bay" (Arledge, p. 22). The white population remained tiny -- the 1900 census counted only 124 in the district, which also included Rosedale, on the west side of the peninsula. The 1911-1912 Polk Directory to Pierce County listed 50 residents of Gig Harbor (Andrews, p. 9).

Two Burgeoning Industries

However, the traditional life in Gig Harbor was soon to be swamped by two burgeoning industries -- lumbering and boat building -- which would join fishing as the village's chief occupations. The settlers realized early that a wealth of trees began right at their back doors. In fact, Donkey Creek acquired its name from the steam "donkey engine" used for logging that area. In 1888, the Gig Harbor Mill Company was built at the foot of present-day Rosedale Street. The sprawling mill had a 450-foot-wharf and sent milled lumber around the world. Some cedar-shingle mills also sprang up in the area. All these mills closed after the financial panic of 1893, but lumbering returned to Gig Harbor in 1909 with the opening of the C. O. Austin Mill, which for the next 43 years, produced "cedar planks for boat builders, fruit boxes, and shingles" (Andrews, p. 8).

Gig Harbor remained almost entirely dependent on boats for transportation. Fishermen and farmers rowed their goods to market -- or had their boats towed by steamboats. Gig Harbor Peninsula resident Emmett Hunt got his start rowing mail from Steilacoom to Gig Harbor. With the blisters on his rowing hands as an incentive, he started building his own small steamboats, and by the age of 25, in 1883, he had three: Alice, Baby Mine, and the Gypsy Queen. His steamboats became an important part of Puget Sound's "Mosquito Fleet" and he went on to start a Hunt family steamboat industry.

Still, a typical turn-of-the-century date "might consist of a couple rowing to Tacoma for a soda fountain sundae and rowing back the same evening" (Along, p. 12-15). So it was natural that boat building soon became one of Gig Harbor's main industries. Around 1902, a Dalmatian immigrant fisherman named Peter Skansie saw some Ballard fishermen on the sound with a gasoline-engine-powered boat. He immediately installed an engine on his 30-foot oar-powered boat. Before long, he and his brothers started building small powerboats in their Gig Harbor boatyard. The boatyard grew to massive proportions and in 1912 they launched the Skansie Shipbuilding Company. Between 1912 and 1930, "Skansie produced more than 100 highly-rated vessels, most of them purse seiners" (Andrews, p. 10). Other boat building operations also sprang up in Gig Harbor. One local small-boat builder, Harry Malone, estimated that he had "turned out about 600" during the course of his life (Eckrom, p. 93). The Skansie company would later expand into producing ferryboats, including the Vashonia and the Skansonia, both of which would serve Gig Harbor.

Ferries would become a key part of life. Beginning in 1918, the City of Tacoma ferry made "seven runs a day, seven days a week, between Point Defiance, Vashon Island and the ferry dock at the head of Gig Harbor" (Eckrom, p. 115 and 116). In earlier days, regular steamboat service filled a similar role, with a daily mail and passenger service. Residents of the Gig Harbor peninsula would simply stand on the shoreline and signal the passing steamboat, which would then send a rowboat over to pick them up.

Two Downtowns

Two separate business districts developed in Gig Harbor. The north side business district, at the head of the bay, began to boom in the 1920s, helped by the fact that it was near the new Union High School, built in 1921, and near the steam-ferry landing. It "became the nucleus of Gig Harbor's first 'downtown'" (Andrews, p. 12).

The other "downtown" was on the west side of the bay, near the area that began as Millville, not far from the sand spit opening. It had grocery stores, gas stations, and taverns. In 1923, the ferry landing was moved over to this side of the harbor, at the foot of Pioneer Way. That spurred new growth, including the Novak Hotel, the Peninsula Hotel, The Empress movie theater (later renamed the Roxy) and the First National Bank of Gig Harbor, established in 1927. Residential growth soon filled in the areas between these two "downtowns."

The Goodman Sisters 

Before Union High School opened in 1921, students had to row across to Tacoma to attend high school. However, primary schools in Gig Harbor dated back to 1885 and were closely associated with the family of early settler Joseph Goodman. Goodman's daughter Anna, 17, opened the first school that year -- in the picturesque if somewhat drafty setting of the Twa-Wal-Kut longhouse. Indian children were welcome, as stipulated in the agreement with the tribe, but five of her 10 students were named Jerisich. The children sat on cedar-plank benches and the longhouse was heated by a mud-and-stick fireplace.

The school closed after four months when the money ran out. Then in 1887, prominent citizens donated land near Donkey Creek and built a community schoolhouse. The teacher was Anna's sister, Lucy Goodman (1869-1964). This launched Lucy Goodman's amazing career as a teacher. She had learned her craft by rowing to high school in Tacoma and then attending the University of Washington and the Ellensburg Normal School. She taught in public schoolhouses in Gig Harbor and vicinity until she retired in 1927, after 41 years of teaching.

But Lucy Goodman wasn't finished yet. She went on to start her own private kindergarten where she was a beloved fixture in Gig Harbor for another 35 years, until she retired in 1962 at age 93. Her 76-year teaching career is "generally considered to be the longest in U.S. history" (Eckrom, p. 218).

Gig Harbor Takes Shape Then Takes A Hit

Farming had long been an important industry in the logged-off areas overlooking the harbor. Immigrant farmers, many of them from Sweden, grew berries and vegetables  and raised dairy cows. In the 1910s, Philip H. Peyran planted 685 holly trees, developed a preservative that kept the clippings fresh and green, and was selling holly all over the country. He became known as "The Holly King" and started a burgeoning local holly industry (Eckrom, p. 136-137).

Yet as the 1920s came and went, fishing remained Gig Harbor's most important industry. The mostly Croatian and Slavonic fishing fleet was not content to merely fish local waters -- they went on long fishing excursions south to California and north to the Bering Sea. In some ways, Gig Harbor remained divided into two separate ethnic communities: there was a mostly Slavonic cemetery, the Artondale Cemetery, and a mostly Scandinavian cemetery, the Gig Harbor Cemetery. Yet members of the two communities went to school together, attended community events together and did business together. By the 1930s, the communities were beginning to merge through intermarriage and because most people now, essentially, had a common heritage -- growing up in Gig Harbor.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Gig Harbor hard. The town's bank was liquidated in 1933. Yet many Gig Harbor residents could catch or grow their own food. And there were a number of bright spots. A phone cable across the bottom of Tacoma Narrows connected Gig Harbor to Tacoma. The C. O. Austin Mill created a popular style of log construction and continued to thrive. The Skansie boatyards were churning out purse seiners.

Rooster-Racing Puts Gig Harbor On The Map

Meanwhile, in 1935, a Gig Harbor entrepreneur named Clarence E. Shaw created a new and whimsical sporting event -- rooster races. He remembered how the chickens would come running when his mother banged on a feed pan in the farmyard and he decided that a Rooster Race would put Gig Harbor on the map. The first race was appropriately comical -- one of seven contestants skedaddled from the start line and was not found for days. But the crowd loved it and "there was enough press coverage to convince Shaw he had a winning idea" (Eckrom, p. 152).

He built an 80-foot racetrack, lined with a miniature village called Roosterville. He put "jockey shirts" on the roosters for easy identification and hired pretty local girls to be be Roosterettes (Eckrom, p. 152). The Rooster Races made national news and in 1938, Shaw and his roosters were whisked to New York to race in Madison Square Garden. The Rooster Races continued to be a Gig Harbor tradition until the novelty finally wore off in 1948.

Galloping Gertie

One characteristic had always set Gig Harbor apart from a typical American small town: The boat, not the car, was how people got around. That was about to change with the construction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, linking Tacoma and the Gig Harbor peninsula, in 1940. It was the third largest suspension bridge in the world and "hailed as a turning point for the peninsula" (Andrews, p. 15). The drive to Tacoma would drop from about 90 miles to seven miles. The $6.4 million toll bridge opened on July 1, 1940, but already people were grumbling about a "peculiar oscillating movement" of the road deck when the wind blew (Eckrom, p. 166). During stiff gales, "the bridge bucked like a wild animal" and drivers noticed with alarm that the tail lights of cars ahead would "dip out of sight and then pop up again" (Eckrom, p. 169). Some wags began calling it Galloping Gertie, and the name stuck.

Then, on November 7, 1940, only about four months after it opened, Galloping Gertie added a new, frightening twist to its rodeo-horse repertoire. On that windy day, it wasn't merely bucking up and down. It was twisting from side to side so that "drivers on the world's most expensive roller coaster found themselves looking down at the water on one side and then the other" (Eckrom, p. 170-171). A bakery delivery truck tipped on its side in the middle of the roadway.

By this time, drivers knew they needed to get off the bridge, even if they had to abandon their vehicles and go on foot -- or on hands and knees. When the concrete finally began to crack and the cables to snap, everyone was off the bridge. After one final furious gallop, Gertie "produced the largest splash anyone on Puget Sound ever saw" (Eckrom, p. 174). It was one of the most dramatic bridge collapses of all time, captured on movie film and seen the world over. A few vehicles and a dog went with it, but no people. The collapse of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge became a textbook example in the engineering profession of how not to build a suspension bridge. 

Not everyone was upset. Bill Skansie of Skansie Shipbuilding said to his wife, "What are you crying for? We're back in business" (Eckrom, p. 174). By the next day, the Skansie-built ferries Skansonia and Vashonia were back on multiple daily runs from Gig Harbor to Tacoma's Point Defiance. The bridge would eventually be rebuilt in a much more stable design, but not until after World War II.


World War II changed life in Gig Harbor in significant ways. Young men went overseas, fishing boats were requisitioned as Navy patrol boats, and a 30-foot spotting tower was erected on Stinson Hill to watch for enemy aircraft, which never came. By 1945, life on the harbor was returning to normal and people's thoughts returned to an issue that had been simmering for a while: incorporation.

Gig Harbor was now nearly 80 years old, but still was not an official municipality. Many community leaders felt the time had come, for three main reasons: a reliable water supply, a sewer system, and fire protection. A drought had dried up many residential wells, causing people to ponder the advantages of a municipal water system. Fire protection was a particularly urgent issue after a serious fire burned several businesses in early 1945. A bucket brigade of mostly high school boys tried to battle the blaze, but only the Coast Guard's more modern equipment saved the town.

Not everyone believed incorporation was the solution. Shaw, the rooster-racing magnate, said, "Why should we spoil a wonderful place to live by voting more taxes, laws, regulations, restrictions and petty graft ...?" (Eckrom, p. 205-206).

In fact, the first attempt to incorporate, in September 1945, lost by 13 votes. Supporters blamed the loss on the fact that fishermen, who would have voted yes, were out on the fishing grounds. They put incorporation back on the ballot on June 29, 1946, and this time, it won by a vote of 141 to 115. On July 12, 1946, Gig Harbor officially became a fourth-class town. In 1981, it would upgrade to cityhood.

The fact that only 256 people voted makes it clear that the new town of Gig Harbor was still a small seaside village. In 1950, its first census as a town, it had only 803 residents. Yet growth was inevitable; on October 14, 1950, the new and improved, second Tacoma Narrows Bridge -- nicknamed Sturdy Gertie -- opened. This turned Gig Harbor instantly into an easy-to-access suburb of Tacoma. Commuters and retirees began to arrive. The town showed steady population growth over the ensuing decades: 1,094 in 1960; 1,657 in 1970; 2,429 in 1980; and 3,236 in 1990.

Fishing for Tourism

The Gig Harbor fishing industry underwent massive change in the 1970s after the 1974 decision by Federal Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) affirming the rights of tribes to half the annual catch. Many non-Indian fishermen found it hard to make ends meet. However, since a number of early Croatian fishermen had married native wives, some fishing families benefited from the new rules. Still, the Gig Harbor fishing fleet dwindled from about 70 fishing vessels in the early 1970s to "about 30" by 1988 (Evans, p. 7).

Tourism gradually took the place of fishing as one of Gig Harbor's main industries. In 1956, Skandia Gaard, a Scandinavian folk center, opened and offered gifts, displays, and an outdoor pavilion for Scandinavian folk dancing. In a nod to Gig Harbor's unique ethnic mix, Skandia Gaard also offered Croatian folk-dance lessons. Many other tourism-related businesses followed, centered on maritime themes.

Growing Up and Preserving The Past

The city of Gig Harbor experienced a particular boom in the 2000 census, doubling in population to 6,465. In 2010, it rose again to 7,126 and the city limits extended well north and south of the original harbor-hugging village. The working waterfront was mostly gone, but the shoreline still bustled with marinas and restaurants.

Gig Harbor has been particularly careful to preserve its past. The Harbor History Museum occupies the site of C. O. Austin's old mill, and the museum has installed many historical signs along the waterfront. The museum also offers a Gig Harbor Waterfront History Walk, used by strolling visitors. Seventeen of the harbor's historic netsheds -- those big sheds for storing nets and other fishing equipment -- have been preserved to become historic tourist attractions. Some are on land and some are on pilings over the water. A few are still in use by descendants of the Croatian fishermen who built them. The city's marketing motto is "Gig Harbor, The Maritime City."

The city's historic legacy is reflected in many place names. One city park is named Donkey Creek Park and another is named Skansie Brothers Park. Yet another is named Jerisich Dock, after one of the three founding fishermen who arrived in 1867. The city's middle school is named Goodman Middle School after beloved teacher Lucy Goodman whose portrait hangs proudly in the school's office. She lived to witness Gig Harbor's transformation from muddy, primitive fishing village in 1883 to bustling suburban tourist city at her death in 1964.

Sources: J. A. Eckrom, An Excellent Little Bay: A History of the Gig Harbor Peninsula (Gig Harbor: The Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society and Museum, 2004); Mildred Andrews, Andrews History Group, Survey Report: Intensive Level Survey of Historic Resources in Gig Harbor, WA, Appendix A, "Historical Overview," June 2009, City of Gig Harbor website accessed December 3, 2012, report available at (; Jack R. Evans, Little History of Gig Harbor, Washington (Seattle: SCW Publications, 1988); R. T. Arledge, Early Days of the Key Peninsula, (Vaughn, Washington: Key Peninsula Historical Society, 1998); Along the Waterfront: A History of the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula Areas, compiled and written by the students of Goodman Middle School, Gig Harbor, 1974-1975, Pierce County Library; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1979); Murray and Rosa Morgan, South On the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor Publications, 1984.

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