The name change, now official on your pocket ferry schedule, turned the Port Townsend-Keystone ferry run into Port Townsend-Coupeville. Not a huge deal to most people. But a major burr in the saddle, it turns out, to some Keystone old-timers.

Share story

In his new column, Ron Judd, a third-generation Washingtonian, invites you to come along as he scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons.

KEYSTONE, Whidbey Island —

It happened in broad daylight.

Nobody in the tiny, unincorporated hamlet of Keystone, a belt buckle on the slim waist of Whidbey Island, was paying much attention this summer when a gavel fell in Olympia, and the heist was complete.

The tourism-obsessed “downtowners” in nearby Coupeville had hijacked the Keystone Ferry Terminal. Boosted it. Stole it, fair and square.

They didn’t actually take the ferry slip, where a state ferry plies the unruly waters of Admiralty Inlet to reach Port Townsend to the west. Too messy, all that creosote and all.

So they absconded with its name, which had clung like a barnacle to the little harbor for a century.

The name change, now official on your pocket ferry schedule, turned the Port Townsend-Keystone ferry run into Port Townsend-Coupeville. Not a huge deal to most people. But a major burr in the saddle, it turns out, to some Keystone old-timers — as well as sticklers for cartographic accuracy — for one simple reason:

The newly christened Coupeville Ferry Terminal is not in Coupeville. Not even close, really. It’s safe to say not even eagle-eyed Sarah Palin could see one place from the other.

Coupeville, which fancies itself a burgeoning tourist destination, is about 4.5 miles away from the ferry terminal, using the shortest road route. Using the longer one — the route on which the state Department of Transportation sends the ill-informed exiting the boat from Port Townsend — it’s 8.5 miles.

“By that route,” says native Bill Engle, rolling his eyes over the name theft recently at the Keystone Cafe, “Greenbank is just as close, or closer, than Coupeville.”

But close-to-the-mark counts in ferry-route naming. So decreed the state Transportation Commission, which was lobbied by Coupeville businesses and politicians to fudge things just enough to put 1,765-resident Coupeville squarely on the ferry map, making it more visible to Google- and Bing-searching tourists.

One commissioner said proximity was fine in these matters, citing as a precedent the fact that “Sea-Tac” airport lies within neither Seattle nor Tacoma. (Apparently it failed to occur to the commission that the name was logical precisely because the site is between two major communities.)

Locals probably will adjust fine to the name change, which is all about tourism, says Paula Hammond, the state transportation secretary.

“The tourists — the people with all the money in their pockets — are the ones [Coupeville] wants to trick into coming into town,” she says.

But the real reason the state went along, she says, “is that there was no real opposition.”

That’s not really true. The ferry system’s Keystone-Port Townsend ferry advisory committee came out strongly against the idea, citing what Chairwoman Julia Hodson called “virtually unanimous” opposition by her group, which worried that the name change would be confusing.

But that dissent was bowled over by Coupeville’s mayor, its Chamber of Commerce and a handful of local state legislators. Two Coupeville City Council hearings drew zero opponents, Mayor Nancy Conrad says.

“It’s in the Coupeville ZIP code,” she points out. “There is no town of Keystone.”

True enough. But that’s precisely the sort of logic that could lead to a run on names of other constituency-challenged places. Should Oak Harbor now lobby to put its name on the Deception Pass Bridge? At what point does Langley make a run at the lightly defended Clinton terminal?

And should Washington State Ferries be trusted to name anything at all? This is the agency, after all, that recently christened its new, 64-car ferries the wholly unpronounceable “Kwa-di Tabil” class — and one of those boats “Kennewick,” a native word that means, among other things, “grassy slope.”

Given that Coupeville secured a federal grant to cover the roughly $40,000 needed to change Keystone road signs, the erasure of Keystone was a victimless crime, in bureaucratic eyes.

But some regular people still care deeply about truth, honesty and geographic integrity. Engle, a third-generation resident whose granddad was one of the co-founders of the former Keystone Sand and Gravel, which brought the “Keystone” name here, says Coupeville’s touristy tea shops and bed-and-breakfast joints seem to be doing just fine on their own.

“It makes me kind of mad,” he says of the name-jacking. “I fail to see what was wrong with leaving it the way it was. It’s been that way for more than 100 years.”

He is backed up by one of Keystone’s few actual residents, Ray Kellison, who along with his wife, Christy, runs the Keystone Cafe, adjacent to the terminal.

“It’s just going to be a mix-up for people,” he says. Tourists already have arrived from Port Townsend as ferry walk-ons, thinking they could stroll through historic downtown Coupeville. Christy gave them a ride all the way into town.

Kellison also finds it ironic that the entire area lies within the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, and historic preservation is the local mantra — even in “Historic Downtown Coupeville.”

Some history, no doubt, will be lost with the name change, concedes Roger Sherman, a local historian. The name dates to Seattle’s 1909 Alaska-Yukon Exposition, where Whidbey leaders smartly pitched their island as “the Keystone to Puget Sound.” The gravel operation adopted the name, which spread to the local spit and harbor.

Place names are vital links to the past. And while acknowledging they should have spoken sooner, some islanders say wiping Keystone off the map is just another example of government putting visions of dollar signs ahead of people — and common sense.

As new ferry schedules are printed and maps are altered, even Sherman, who signed on to the renaming, signals a touch of buyer’s remorse.

“Mainly because of all the pressure, I came out for it,” he says. “But as a historian, I don’t like name changes. It confuses the history.”

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280