A Brief History
Bainbridge Island was formed during the last ice age 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, when the 3,000-foot thick Vashon Glacier scraped out the Puget Sound and Hood Canal basins. For thousands of years after the glacier disappeared, the island was part of the territory of the Suquamish people. (The Suquamish ceded Bainbridge Island to the Americans as part of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.)
British Captain George Vancouver was the first European leader to set foot on the island. In 1792, Vancouver was mapping the area while searching for the mythical Northwest Passage. He used Blakely Harbor to make repairs on two of his ships, Discovery and Chatham. And he met a group of Suquamish Indians along with their leader, Chief Kitsap, on the southeast tip of the island. Since the meeting occurred on the anniversary of the return of Charles II to the English throne, Vancouver called this part of the island Restoration Point.
Naming The Island
Vancouver named many places in and around Puget Sound. But it was an American surveying Puget Sound, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (eventually, Captain Wilkes), who named Bainbridge Island.
In 1841, Wilkes named it after U.S. Navy Commodore William Bainbridge. During the commodore’s career, Bainbridge spent years at sea protecting American ships from attack by Barbary pirates and by British and French forces. He commanded many ships, including the frigate George Washington and the 44-gun Philadelphia. But he’s best known as the commander of the frigate Constitution—“Old Ironsides”—during the War of 1812.
Wilkes also named Port Blakely after another naval hero, Agate Passage after an expedition artist, and Port Madison after President Madison. By the way, today Port Madison is a quiet residential community. In the mid-19th century, however, Port Madison was a thriving commercial center. It had a major sawmill, and it was Kitsap County’s first county seat. To put things in perspective, an Eastern geography book published in 1850 described Seattle as a “flourishing milltown across Puget Sound from Port Madison.”
Port Blakely—A Genuine Boom Town
When white settlers came to the island, Bainbridge was covered with trees. Western red cedars were considered particularly valuable because they were strong, straight, long lasting, abundant, accessible, and relatively easy to work with. So they were ideal for the masts of the tall ships of the day.
In 1864, Captain William Renton built a sawmill in Port Blakely. By the 1880s, it had become the world’s largest sawmill. Port Blakely also had Hall Brothers Shipyard, known for its West Coast Schooners. These ships were specifically designed for hauling lumber; they could be loaded through both the bow and stern, as well as from the deck.
The Strawberry Story
The thriving business from the mill and shipyard drew workers from around the globe. The first generation of Japanese immigrants, the Issei, came in 1883. Eventually, Japanese, Hawaiian and Filipino communities were all within walking distance of the Port Blakely mill.
After loggers had cut most of Bainbridge Island’s trees, they moved on. Port Madison’s sawmill closed in 1893. Port Blakely’s operated until 1924. But many Japanese and Filipino immigrants who had worked in the sawmills stayed on the island. Some of them helped settlers clear their farms of trees. As payment, the Asians were frequently given part of the farmland for their own use—not ownership, just use. Since strawberries grow well on Bainbridge and require little capital to get started, many of the Asian families grew strawberries.
So traditionally, one of Bainbridge Island’s most notable crops, strawberries, has been grown by Japanese- and Filipino-American farmers. By 1940, island canneries were processing nearly two million pounds of berries per year.
World War II And The Internment
On December 7,1941, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the United States declared war. Some three months later, in late March of 1942, the U.S. Army rounded up all 227 Japanese-Americans living on Bainbridge Island. These men, women and children made up the first group in the country to be interned during World War II. They were probably the first because of their proximity to the Bremerton Naval Yard and other military installations.
Altogether, some 110,000 Japanese-Americans were sent from the West Coast to 10 inland internment camps. The internees from Bainbridge were first sent to Manzanar, near California’s Mojave Desert. Later in the war, they were sent to Minidoka, Idaho.
Many people on Bainbridge, while sympathetic to the war effort, thought that their Japanese-American friends and neighbors were badly and unjustly mistreated. They were, after all, American citizens. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the end of the war that the internees were free to return to the island. Ultimately, about half of the Japanese-American residents did come back to Bainbridge Island. Farming never returned to its pre-war levels.
The Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial project began in 2000. Located on Taylor Avenue in Eagledale at original location of the ferry dock where the island's Japanese-American population was taken away in 1942, the Memorial has been designated a National Historic Monument as a satellite of the Minidoka National Historic Site. In 2011 the wood and stone Story Wall was completed. There will also be a pier in the place of the old ferry dock and a visitor interpretive center.
In Defense Of Our Country
The U.S. military had a significant presence on Bainbridge for more than 60 years. In 1890, the Army established Fort Ward (originally known as Beans Point) on Rich Passage along the southern shore of the island. It was one of several Coastal Artillery Corps installations that included Fort Casey, Fort Flagler and Fort Worden. Fort Ward’s primary mission was to protect the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton.
The Army virtually abandoned Fort Ward by 1928. But in 1938, with the threat of a second world war looming, the U.S. Navy took over Fort Ward and enlarged it by confiscating surrounding properties. Tests soon showed that the fort was an outstanding location for eavesdropping on radio transmissions from the Far East, especially from Japan. So the Navy built antenna fields and a top-secret military listening post.
It was at Fort Ward that the United States cracked the wartime code of the Japanese forces. This had an enormous influence on the course of the war, and undoubtedly helped save thousands of American lives. Fort Ward became a state park in 1960, and was taken over by the Bainbridge Island Metro Park Department in 2011. Several of the concrete gun emplacements can still be seen along the hiking trail today.
At what is now Battle Point Park, on the northwest part of the island, the Navy also built a radio transmitter more than 300 feet high. The building that remains today houses the Battle Point Astronomical Association along with its large telescope and observatory.
Shipbuilding—The Island’s Biggest Industry
In 1902, the Hall Brothers Shipyard had outgrown the land it held in Port Blakely. In order to expand its operations, the company moved the shipyard to Eagle Harbor. Altogether, it obtained 77 acres in Madrone, the small town on the north side of the harbor. In no time at all, Madrone was renamed Winslow to honor Winslow Hall, who had died just before the shipyard moved. Some say the renaming was an inducement to get Henry Hall to bring the shipyard to Eagle Harbor. Others say that Hall renamed the town just because he could. At any rate, the name Winslow stuck.
For many decades, the Hall Brothers Shipyard was the largest industry on Bainbridge. In its early years, it built 88 four- and five-masted schooners. The company started building steel-hulled ships in 1939. At its wartime high, the shipyard employed 2,300 people who created minesweepers and repaired damaged ships. The shipyard closed in 1959, and the property was turned into a marina and a Washington State Ferries maintenance dock.
Winslow—The Heart of Bainbridge
The town of Winslow wasn’t formally incorporated as a city until 1947. As early as 1963, there was a movement to incorporate the entire island under one governing body. In 1969, a bid for incorporating everyplace outside of Winslow was voted down. But in 1990, the City of Winslow went on record as favoring annexation of the rest of the island. In a very close vote, islanders approved the measure, and in 1991, voters went on to change Winslow’s name to the City of Bainbridge Island. So officially, the entire land mass is now the City of Bainbridge Island. But practically everyone still calls the island’s only town “Winslow.” Quirky? Possibly. Confusing? Probably. Typical of island life? Absolutely.
Across the Sound
Ron Konzak and Mickey Molnaire, Wind Harp Press, Copyright 2004
Bainbridge Island (Winslow)—Thumbnail History
The State of Washington
Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation
Article obtained through HistoryLink.org
History of Bainbridge Island
Molly Neary and Joanie Ransom, Windemere Real Estate, Bainbridge Island
William Bainbridge: America’s Unlucky Sea Captain
Excerpt published in Eagle Harbor Reporter, March-May 2008
For a more detailed history of Bainbridge Island, visit the Bainbridge Chamber of Commerce.
The Bainbridge Island Historical Society also has a new exhibit at its museum called An Island Story: A Voyage through Bainbridge History.