By Carl T. Engle as told
to Jim Power
To look back over the 100 year history of Whidbey Island
and especially that part which centers around Coupeville is to recall scenes
of tragedy and humor, hardships and blessings, and continual progress and
change. We who have spent our lives on the island have seen the big
and little events happen or heard of them from our fathers and mothers.
They are not dull pages from history to us, but personal memories.
So, too, shall this short history of Coupeville and the surrounding area
be a series of personal recollections aimed at giving life and breath to
yellowing pages of records and books.
Living on Whidbey Island in the early days was pioneering in a very real
sense. Much of what we took for granted then seems like almost unbearable
hardship today. There were no roads, the county was wild and the
Indians a constant threat, mail service was erratic, and provisions were
often scarce. It was said in those days that at San de Fuca they
ate salmon and potatoes, at Coupeville venison and no potatoes.
It was not uncommon for a family or settlement to be without flour for
months at a time.
The history of Coupeville as a town properly begins in 1854 when Captain
Thomas Coupe built the first frame house there. He had previously
filed a claim on the site on November 20, 1852 after his first voyage to
that area. My father, William B. Engle, who came with him on the
first trip staked out his claim on Ebey's Prairie and built a frame house
there in 1853. His trip to pick up bricks for the chimney made the
first wagon tracks across the future township. Previously, supplies
had been put ashore at Davis' landing some distance to the north.
My father's claim adjoined that of Col. Isaac N. Ebey who filed in 1850
and is generally regarded as the first permanent white settler on the island
and one of its most honored pioneers. The murder of Colonel Ebey
by a group of Haidah Indians on August 12, 1857 is one of the most tragic
episodes in the island's history. Colonel Ebey and his family were
then living in what they affectionately called "The Cabins" not far from
Ebey's Landing. There had been considerable trouble with the Haidahs
for several months which occasionally flared into open warfare. On
the afternoon of the murder, a group of Indians had come to the Ebey house
but had left without causing undue alarm. At the time, United States
Marshall George W. Corliss and his wife were visiting the Ebey's before
returning to Olympia. Several hours after the family and their friends
retired, the Indians attacked. Mrs. Corliss jumped from a window
and ran to my father's place and then to the home of Colonel Ebey's parents
to give the alarm. All of the group staying at "The Cabins" escaped
except Colonel Ebey. He went outside at the first sound from the
Indians and was shot down and beheaded without warning. The news
of his death shocked not only people of the island but those on the mainland
as well. John Crockett made the coffin for Colonel Ebey, and my father
dug the grave. The murderers were never caught.
Not all the events were tragic, however, and one does not dwell on them
too much when looking back. We made most of our amusement, and much
of it was in the spirit of horseplay. On one occasion a group got
together to shivaree (or charivari) a pair of newlyweds. When the
couple refused to open the door, the group opened a window and pushed a
pig through. This brought the door open in short order. Pigs
at one time were so numerous on the island as to be a nuisance. They
sprang from domestic ones which had escaped and gone wild, multiplying
rapidly. As boys, we used to sit in trees at night at the edge of
gardens and shoot them to prevent them from destroying the produce.
Many of the settlers built traps to catch them. The last ones were
killed or trapped around 1885 or 1886.
Coupeville's growth throughout the years was fairy steady if not spectacular.
New businesses and stores were located in the town from time to time.
The establishment of the Puget Sound Academy (see photo) in the late 1880's
made Coupeville an educational center for the northern Sound area.
Students came to it from all over the surrounding area and even from as
far as Oregon. There were two of us in the graduating class of 1894,
Spurgeon H. Calhoun and myself. The town experienced two booms in
its time, but unlike some of the hopeful metropolises started in the same
time, it managed to survive. The first one came about 1890 when the
whole area had a building hysteria. A rash of new townsites sprang
up all over the island, but most of these died aborning. The second
Coupeville boom came in 1902 at the time Fort Casey was built.
There were several factors that contributed to Coupeville's permanence.
One of these was the productivity of the prairies which made the town a
shipping point for apples, potatoes, wheat, oats, wool, and lumber.
Being the county seat also contributed to stability as did the presence
of a bank in town. It was never much of a manufacturing center due
to shipping problems, but many industries were started, some of which thrived
for a time. A sawmill built by Luther Clark and operated by the Lovejoy
brothers, survived for many years. These same brothers also built
four steamboats at Coupeville. One of these went to the Yukon and
operated there. The other three plied the Sound for many years.
A potato dryer was built during the Alaska gold rush and operated successfully
for several years. Attempts were made to establish a cannery, but
this venture was never a success. Three different tries were made
to get a railroad on the island. The first was by Jay Cook, the New
York financier. If Cook had not gone bankrupt, the island might have
had rail service. Another was proposed about 1890 but failed.
The last proposal was made in 1910 when promoters came in and sold stock.
After collecting several thousand dollars from investors, the promoters
vanished leaving island people without a railroad or the money they had
Today, Coupeville has forgotten the delusions of grandeur that occasionally
swept over it in earlier days. It remains the county seat, a pleasant
home for its people, and the trading area for the rich prairies stretching
out behind the town. Good roads link it with other parts of the island,
and the bridge at Deception Pass to the north and regular ferry service
to the south give easy access to the mainland. To many of us, however,
it still remains a place beloved in memory and rich in history where the
pioneer spirit is never far away.
Island County || ALHN
about 1888, showing Main Street on the left. Dr. Chaffee's office
is second building on right side of the street. Third building was
old Good Templars lodge which was later used as the Court House.
Building on the hill at far right was old Puget Sound Academy, later destroyed