History of Gig Harbor
Gig Harbor got its name during an American expedition in 1841, when a member of Lt. Charles Wilkes’s crew rowed into the bay in a gig, or small narrow boat.
It’s possible other explorers came and went before that, but the tucked-away bay went largely unnoticed for a long time by all but the Native Americans, who knew it to be rich in abundant natural resources, especially salmon.
Twenty years later, three men rowed down from British Columbia and decided to put down roots.
One of the men, Samuel Jerisich, and his wife Anna are often remembered as the first settlers of Gig Harbor.
Others soon followed, though, when word spread of the area’s beauty and rich resources. Eager men and women from throughout the United States and Europe—particularly Norway, Sweden and Croatia—soon arrived in the area, looking for new opportunities.
The lives they found weren’t necessarily convenient or easy.
For one thing, the land was practically choked with trees and thick underbrush. Early roads were crude and often impassable in bad weather.
For another, water surrounded the bay on almost all sides, and to get to the mainland settlers had to cross The Narrows by rowboat.
Still, it was easier to travel by water, and small settlements with their own identities sprang up on different parts of the peninsula accessible by boat. Many of the early names given to those settlements still identify different parts of greater Gig Harbor today. Artondale, Rosedale, Fox Island, Cromwell and Crescent Valley are just a few examples.
As settlements grew up on the bay and in outlying areas, residents began demanding more services. In the 1880s, Emmett Hunt recognized the need for transportation and started a fleet of small steamships with the 26-foot Baby Mine.
Eventually, others would follow, and Gig Harbor’s Mosquito Fleet would operate into the next century, ferrying passengers and even animals back and forth across the Sound.
Improvements in transportation certainly spurred development in the area, but the abundant natural resources gave the early settlers a way to make a living.
Gig Harbor’s fishing industry took off from the start. The fleet was originally comprised of rowboats, but in 1905 a forward-thinking resident by the name of Peter Skansie built the first fishing vessel with a gas-powered engine. The Skansie name would become synonymous with boat building in the area. Many of the Skansie boats built in the early 20th Century are still working today.
Another big industry in the early days of Gig Harbor was timber. Several mills operated on the bay, and at one time one of the three distinct towns that dotted the bay was even named Millville. With the inevitable growth the bay experienced, those three towns eventually became one. Gig Harbor was incorporated in 1947.
Commercial fishing and logging were the area’s two main industries, in one form or another, well into the 20th Century, but the area also supported many working farms. At Gig Harbor’s Wilkinson Park, for instance, visitors can still see the remains of a turn-of-the-century dairy barn and holly orchard.
As early as the 1920s, dreamers began talking about a way to bridge The Narrows, connecting the peninsula to the mainland. In 1938, funding was secured for a bridge; construction began the next year. The first Narrows Bridge opened on July 1, 1940, to much fanfare. On July 4th, 5,500 cars and 5,000 pedestrians crossed the bridge and marveled at the technology.
Their fascination was short-lived. Even before its famous collapse, drivers crossing the bridge during a storm often watched as the road rolled and buckled in front of them. People began referring to the bridge as “Galloping Gertie.” On November 7, 1940, a particularly strong storm began twisting the bridge in new and frightening ways, eventually ripping apart the roadbed and sending much of it crashing into Puget Sound.
It was a disaster to everyone involved with the bridge, but an unexpected boon to the ferry operators, who were back in business for another ten years until the second Narrows Bridge opened in 1950. The easier and more convenient access to the mainland that the bridge provided meant that Gig Harbor would continue to grow and attract new people, who brought with them a variety of experiences and talents.
Although the natural resource-based economy of Gig Harbor and the surrounding area has changed and diversified over the years, Gig Harbor still employs a small commercial fishing fleet, a constant and visual reminder of the town’s rich maritime heritage.
(We wish to thank the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society for both the information and help provided putting together this section. Also helpful was a recently published book, “An Excellent Little Bay: A history of the Gig Harbor Peninsula” by Tacoma author J.A. Eckrom, available from the Historical Society Museum for those interested in a much more complete history of the area.)
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* Photos Courtesy of Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society