History of Gig Harbor

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History of Gig Harbor

Gig Harbor is known to be “the gateway to the Olympic Peninsula.” Due to its close access to several state and city parks, and historic waterfront that includes boutiques and fine dining, it has become a very popular tourist destination. Gig Harbor is located along State Route 16, about six miles (10 km) from its origin at Interstate 5, over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. A 1.2 billion dollar project to add a second span to the bridge was recently completed. During off-peak traffic times, Tacoma can be reached in five minutes and Seattle in just under an hour.

During a heavy storm in 1840, Captain Charles Wilkes brought the Captain’s gig (small boat) into the harbor for protection. Later, with the publication of Wilkes 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory, he named the sheltered bay Gig Harbor. 1867 brought fisherman Samuel Jerisich to the Gig Harbor area, along with many other immigrants from Sweden, Norway, and Croatia. The town was platted in 1888 by Alfred M. Burnham.

Gig Harbor was officially incorporated on July 12, 1946. Commercial fishing, boat building, and logging dominated the economy until the construction of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. Until then, the primary method of transportation between Gig Harbor and the economic center of nearby Tacoma was by steamship. Starting in 1836 steamships started plying the waters of Puget Sound and quickly developed into what was eventually dubbed “The Mosquito Fleet.” Gig Harbor, isolated from Tacoma and Seattle by Puget Sound and the Tacoma Narrows, could not be reached by automobile or horseback except via
a very long and arduous trip south around Puget Sound and Hammersly Inlet.

Unfortunately, the boom was to be short lived as the first bridge collapsed just months after it was completed. The resource demands of World War II prevented another bridge from being built until 1950. Between the time when the first bridge collapsed and when the second bridge was completed, a state run ferry service delivered drivers directly into downtown Gig Harbor. Remains of the ferry dock can still be seen just outside the mouth of the harbor at the Southeast end of Harborview Drive. The area has been turned into a small park where the public can see a panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains, Pt.Defiance, and Mt. Rainier. After the completion of the replacement bridge in 1950, Gig Harbor and the surrounding area quickly began to develop as a suburb of neighboring Tacoma. First the area saw substantial residential development as families retreated from Tacoma in favor of the tree-lined neighborhoods and waterfront lots available on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. What had once been summer cabins became primary residences for people who commuted daily over the bridge to Tacoma. Medium sized housing development sprang up across the peninsula.

The 1980s and 1990s saw substantial retail development near State Route 16 to service the growing residential population, shifting the economic center of Gig Harbor out of downtown. For some time, city leaders were unsure how to handle the growth while maintaining the character of the city. Ultimately, the city decided to aggressively annex the surrounding rural areas and convert them into high-density commercial and housing districts, forever changing the rural character of the area but assuring that little new development happens in the historic downtown area, preserving its history and charm. By the 1970s, local merchants had begun actively promoting the downtown area for its historic value, and tourism became prominent on the list of economic engines in Gig Harbor.

Today, downtown Gig Harbor is a very active place for tourists with shopping, dining, and recreation on every block. The last large swath of undeveloped waterfront property at the South end of downtown was recently developed into the headquarters of the Russell Foundation, named for George Russell, founder of Russell Financial.

Today, despite a long history of boat building, very little manufacturing exists in Gig Harbor. The only remaining boatbuilder in Gig Harbor is Gig Harbor Boatworks, which builds rowing and sailing dinghies in classic style using modern materials. Until recently, Tiderunner Boats maintained a manufacturing facility at the North end of the bay. The historic Skansie boatyard is now primarily a maintenance facility for yachts and pleasure craft. The Glein/Eddon/Gig Harbor boatyard was recently purchased by the city after spending many years sitting idle. The city intends to use it as a working waterfront museum.

Commercial fishing is still of great cultural, if somewhat lesser economic, importance to Gig Harbor, and many commercial fishing boats make Gig Harbor their home port. Most, however, do not rely on Puget Sound to gather their catch, rather, finding it more profitable to venture north to Alaska to fish in the Summer. Gig Harbor’s fishing fleet still gathers the first weekend in June (during the Maritime Gig Festival) in the center of the bay for the annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony. In recent years, due to the dwindling number of remaining fishing boats, pleasure craft have been allowed to participate in the ceremony, somewhat lessening its authenticity, but increasing its visibility and participation.

A new Tacoma Narrows Bridge has been built alongside the existing bridge and opened July 2007, doubling past capacity. With it will come new economic challenges and benefits for the city of Gig Harbor and the surrounding community.

Learn More at the Harbor History Museum: http://www.harborhistorymuseum.org/