Gig Harbor's new Harbor History Museum, plus efforts to preserve the Eddon boatyard, old net sheds and other initiatives, help spotlight the town's maritime heritage.

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GIG HARBOR — You can’t visit this town without yearning for a boat. Chic neon kayaks beckon from storefronts; sleek wooden cruisers barely ripple the water; sailboats glisten, alert for wind; and the town’s 25-strong fishing fleet presides over the mile-long bay, working monuments to what was once the largest flotilla of its kind in the Northwest.

In the early 1900s, more than 140 wooden vessels were built here, most of them fishing boats. Even the name “gig” refers to the long, light rowboat launched by the U.S. Exploring Expedition’s ship, the Vincennes, to chart these waters in 1841.

Rather than relegate its past to plaques and statues, Gig Harbor has chosen to celebrate its water-bound history with an impressive array of public heritage projects, capped off by last month’s opening of the Harbor History Museum. It’s an ideal place to learn about Northwest lifestyles before the invention of laptops and lattes.

“We wanted the emphasis to be on peninsula history, but we realized that we’re a representative community in the Pacific Northwest,” said Jennifer Kilmer, museum director. “We have a rich agricultural, timber, fishing and boatbuilding past. So in terms of those major industries, we’re a great example of a Northwest coastal town and what those communities were like in the early 1900s.”

Boats and beyond

While maritime heritage is a major thrust of museum exhibits, each of the city’s overlapping histories is brought to life in the five galleries, which feature hands-on activities as well as artifacts and historical photos. In addition to hoisting fishing nets and sails, visitors can try their hand at everything from egg-candling to squeezing tunes out of a concertina or weaving Native American baskets.

“The idea is to be a community center with historical, cultural and environmental elements,” Kilmer said. “We want to immerse people in peninsula history and to do that we created experiences that appeal to all of the senses and work for different learning styles.”

One example is a Twulshootseed touch-screen designed by the Puyallup tribe, where people can read about the language, see its written alphabet and choose words to hear spoken aloud. “I think that the combination of all these elements really helps bring the language and culture to life,” Kilmer said. “A lot of our exhibits are designed for adults to do with children, to foster interactivity between generations.”

Another sensory immersion occurs as visitors step through the cloakroom into Midway School, a local schoolhouse built nearby in 1893. Used as a storage shed for years, Midway retains its original blackboard, woodstove, desks and the “how to be a successful farmer” chart that hangs on the wall. It even smells of inkwells and slate. Programs plunge young students into the past where a “school marm” oversees them as they write on slates, practice recitation and handwriting exercises, and play pioneer-era recess games.

Boatwright for a day

But you’re never far from the water in Gig Harbor, and the museum does not disappoint when it comes to boats.

In the outdoor marine gallery, aspiring skippers can sign up to work alongside a master boatwright as apprentice-for-a-day, restoring the 65-foot purse seiner Shenandoah. Just off its bow, sailboat aficionados are thrilled to find Thunderbird Hull No. 1. First launched in 1958, this sleek craft was the result of a contest sponsored by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association calling for the design of a competitive sailboat made of plywood.

In partnership with a Seattle naval architect, Gig Harbor boat-builder Ed Hoppen came up with the winning design, which effectively bridged the gap between rich and poor in sailboat racing. A racing wannabe could pay $2 for boat plans, buy some plywood, build a Thunderbird and challenge sailors with much more cash sunk into their hulls.

Ed Hoppen’s son, Guy, a Gig Harbor cultural-heritage advocate who works summers on his tender boat in Alaska, said his dad, who died in 1985, would have been “quietly pleased” to see the Thunderbird on display. “It’s a boat that’s known in sailing circles throughout the world and it’s important history for the harbor,” he said.

Living history

A founding director of the Gig Harbor BoatShop at Eddon Boatyard, Guy Hoppen grew up on the harbor. His parents owned and operated Eddon for more than 25 years, and today it’s one of the last working wooden boatbuilding operations on Puget Sound. His devotion to the preservation of the harbor’s historical working waterfront is reflected in BoatShop programming: family boatbuilding, oar-making and on-the-water skills.

“The Harbor History Museum is the place to go to be educated about our history and the various contributors to our early development, and then you can go out and walk Harborview Drive and actually see what’s left of our early development, which is pretty substantial for our size,” said Lita Dawn Stanton, historic preservation coordinator for the city of Gig Harbor. “These are not just artifacts, but actual sites.”

Within the past decade, citizens have rallied around a number of heritage projects, including a tax measure to save Eddon Boatyard from the wrecking ball. This vote for public access preserves 300 feet of waterfront where a pier currently under construction will serve BoatShop students and other area nonprofits.

The city also recently received a $100,000 grant to renovate the Skansie Netshed, a prominent historical structure on the Gig Harbor waterfront, and develop a walking tour of 17 remaining fishing netsheds, several still serving their original purpose. And next year will see completion of the first phase of a public pier for kayak launching, and where the public may view commercial fishermen preparing their vessels for sea.

Other heritage projects look beyond boats: Nearby Wilkinson Farm, known for its dairy barn built in 1915, has been transformed into a 17-acre public park and community garden. Donkey Creek and Austin Estuary, a former Native American settlement and early lumber mill site adjacent to the museum, will soon undergo a “daylighting” project to release the salmon-bearing waterway from more than 300 feet of buried pipe.

“These heritage projects help retain diversity outside of the mainstream development norm of recreational marinas and condominiums,” said Hoppen. “This community is hyper-aware of what’s at stake, and the museum is a great part of supporting our waterfront diversity.”

Kathryn True is a freelance writer based on Vashon Island.