On November 25, 1879, George Stillman Richardson (ca. 1847-1915) receives his official land patent from the United States government for his property on the south end of Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. Although Richardson and his family will live on the land for only a few more years, a thriving community bearing his name will soon grow in the area. The town of Richardson, with the islands' nearest deepwater port to mainland markets, will be a major shipping point for island produce, fish, and other goods, and one of the main economic hubs of San Juan County for many years, before dwindling in the later years of the twentieth century.
Securing property in the islands took longer than it did in other areas of the United States because for many years the San Juan Islands were the center of a boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain, which was not settled until October 21, 1872. So while the rest of the western United States was open to land ownership under the Homestead Act of 1862, those who had settled in the San Juan Islands were forced to wait for the arbitration resolution favoring the United States before they could take advantage of any of the government land use opportunities.
George Stillman Richardson was born in 1847 or 1848 on Mt. Desert Island, Maine. According to a story that was shared with the curator of the Lopez Island Historical Museum by family members, he left Maine in his teens and sailed to the Puget Sound area, where he met his future wife, Ellen Bishop, who was working as a housemaid in Port Townsend. They married on May 13, 1871, moved to Whidbey Island, and then settled on the south end of Lopez Island between Davis Bay and Jones Bay around 1874. In 1881, just two years after receiving the land patent, Richardson and his family left the island, but the settlement in the area of their claim continued to be known as Richardson. George Richardson died in Jefferson County on June 19, 1915.
Building a Community
The Richardson property passed through a few hands before Irish immigrant William Graham (1842-1928) moved to Lopez from Estherville, Iowa, and purchased the land. This investment proved to be a significant turning point for the community. Graham understood the importance of Richardson's geographical position and went to work maximizing its potential. The area was located on the shore of the southernmost deepwater port of the San Juan Islands, making it the closest to the mainland markets of Seattle and Bellingham. In addition, the farmers and fishermen of Lopez Island could transport their products to the site by either road or water. Graham visualized tremendous economic possibilities for the area and he went to work transforming those possibilities into reality.
Graham established a post office in 1887 where his stepson, Thomas Hodgson, eventually became the postmaster. Following that project was the 1889 completion of a wharf allowing steamships to carry people and goods back and forth between Richardson and the mainland. A warehouse was added and in 1890 Graham helped newcomer Robert Kindleyside construct a store that opened on May 20, 1890, the same day as the first shipment of goods arrived. This original Richardson store became the center of the community, not only as a place to purchase goods but also as a social center.
Kindleyside moved and in 1899, after passing through the hands of another owner, the store was purchased by Graham and his stepson and business partner Norman Hodgson (1868-1934). Hodgson served as proprietor. According to the 1901 Supplement to the San Juan Islander, the store was brimming with "a well-assorted stock of dry goods and notions, boots and shoes, ladies' and gents' furnishings, tin ware, glassware ... fancy and staple groceries ... flour, food, fruit, candles, tobacco, cigars ... and all goods of a general nature" (Images of America, Lopez Island, 47). It also stocked firewood to sell to the steamers for fuel. Graham and Hodgson kept the business until 1916 when they sold it (and a cannery) to Ira (1868-?) and Mary (1870-?) Lundy from Seattle.
Hamilton Carr (1844-?) opened a hotel in 1890; it became known as the Ridley Hotel after Albion and Lizzie Ridley bought it in 1902. In 1897, the entire community (again with Graham's support) came together to build a 40-by-80-foot hall to serve as a school, church, social center, and place to hold public meetings. Besides donating labor and materials, community members purchased shares in the building. Graham himself spent $600 for 50 shares. The first town supper and dance at the hall took place on February 4, 1897, and people from all of parts of Lopez as well as from other islands came to celebrate. The area continued to grow and by 1913 a bakery, slaughterhouse, barbershop, creamery, pool hall, and various boarding houses all contributed to the vitality of Richardson. The town even had its own baseball team, the Richardson Tigers, practicing and playing on one of the seven ball fields on the island.
Farms and Steamers
During the early years the primary ways people made their living was through farming and fishing. The fertile soil and moderate climate of Lopez was ideal for farming of all sorts: fruits (plums, cherries, apples, pears), vegetables, grains, dairy, and livestock. Anything not needed at home for survival could be sold on the mainland. Although there were other communities on the island, including Lopez Village and Port Stanley, Richardson became the primary port for shipping those goods. The abundance of fish and fruit in those years is illustrated by a quotation from an article by descendants of Lopez settler Philip Fagerholm (1867-1954): "Philip raised beautiful strawberries he would take by rowboat to Richardson from Huggins Bay. He worried that the sockeye would jump into the boat and ruin his strawberries!" ("The Fagerholms").
Steamships provided continuity and connection with the mainland. Since Richardson was the closest port to the mainland it was at times the busiest port in the San Juan Islands. Steamships operated all over Puget Sound from the mid-1800s until the 1930s. These ships were known collectively as the "Mosquito Fleet" because there were so many of them. Among the steamers that served the San Juans were the Mohawk, Utopia, Lydia Thompson, Chickawana, Puget, and Kingston. The steamship Rosalie was captained by Sam Barlow (1870-1936), son of one of the first Richardson settlers.
For a time steamers made two daily trips to and from the mainland transporting goods and passengers. As steamers and other boats came into the port, sailors and visitors would write their names along with the date and name of the boat on the walls of the Richardson store and warehouse as a record of the visit. In 1951, the Washington State Ferry system took over most water transportation responsibilities, and on Lopez Island the terminal was established on the north end of the island, far from Richardson.
Fish Traps and Canneries
The profusion of migrating salmon in the waters near Richardson offered a variety of methods for people to make a living. Reef-netting had been practiced by Indians in the San Juan Islands for many years and continued to be a valued fishing method. Fishing boats (purse seiners, gill netters) covered the waters. However, it was not until 1894, when fish traps came to the island, that the fishing industry really exploded. Fish traps were created by pounding poles into the water using a steam driver and putting netting material between them. The traps were able to capture more fish than any other method. A later historian, describing the years around the turn of the twentieth century, wrote, "In an average season forty or fifty outfits, employing more than 400 men, filled the entire bay off the southern coast of Lopez with every conceivable type of craft and took a million to a million and a half fish from the sea" (Richardson, 63).
During the season (which closed in October) the fishermen usually slept in dormitories, boarding houses, tents, and small shelters along the shoreline. Women who worked in the canneries stayed at an establishment named the Wander Inn, and Chinese cannery workers had their own segregated dormitory. Many fishermen did not live full-time on the island, but those who did spent the winter repairing gear and getting ready for the upcoming season.
Along with their other endeavors, Hodgson and Graham decided to get into the fish-processing business and began with a salt-and-barrel fish-packing operation. They eventually added their own full-fledged cannery. Five fish traps, four canneries (including a floating cannery), and up to 5,000 people were part of the fishing life of Richardson by 1913, including 400 cannery workers.
In spite of such abundance there were unanticipated difficulties. In 1901 more than a million salmon were caught but many could not be utilized due to processing problems. There was a significant lack of fresh water for the canneries and it was impossible to supply enough salt and barrels. The industry reached a peak in 1913 but then an economic shift began to take place. The Hell's Gate Landslide blocked the Fraser River in British Columbia, causing a dramatic reduction of the salmon run that traveled through the waters around Richardson.
Disaster and Rebuilding
Disaster struck in 1916, shortly after the Lundys took ownership of the business from Graham and Hodgson, when a leaking fuel ship exploded and destroyed the wharf, warehouse, and purse seiner Saga. This led to the creation of a new wharf with a two-story elevator and warehouse and, eventually, a new general store that was completed in the 1920s. This second store was built on a pier over the water, unlike the first store, which had been built completely on land. Many of the building materials from the first store were used in the construction of the second one. Around 1921 the Salmon Banks Cannery burned to the ground and the vacant land was subsequently planted with loganberry bushes. Reflecting the troubles in the rest of the country, the effects of the Great Depression also resonated through the economic life of the islands.
In 1934, Washington voters approved Initiative 77, which banned fish traps, radically reducing the yearly catch. Markets for Lopez Island produce were greatly reduced when irrigation came to Eastern Washington on a large scale with the Columbia Basin project beginning in the 1930s and improved roads and railroads meant those products could be more easily transported to the Seattle area than could island goods coming by boat from Richardson.
Over time, as the demand for services diminished, businesses closed until only the Richardson General Store and the fuel tanks remained. Even the post office closed in 1953. New residents who were interested in revitalizing the old homesteads and trying their luck with fishing and farming began filtering in by the 1970s. As in the past, but meeting modern demands, most everything that was needed by community members, tourists, and boaters could be found in the store -- including its famous oversized ice cream cones. According to a Seattle Times reminiscence by Linda Shaw, her parents, store owners Ken and Sue Shaw, "got to know their customers' needs and ordered canning supplies, salt licks, wine-making supplies -- even red dye for the islanders who followed the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and therefore wore red clothing. The store's 'closed' sign never meant 'closed,' if someone really needed something" ("Closing Up Shop ...").
End of an Era
Then on the Saturday night of October 27, 1990, the Richardson General Store and Warehouse (which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985) was completely destroyed by fire. The blaze was reported at 8:55 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, the volunteer fire department arrived only to see the store totally enveloped in flame. However, with 30-mile-per-hour winds pushing the fire toward nearby fuel tanks, firefighters had no time to mourn the historic building. According to Lopez Island Fire Chief Larry Schulze:
"The sky was glowing red five miles away. We had real trouble on our hands. The winds were pushing the flames right up against the fuel tanks. Our first priority was to throw up a wall of water, cool those tanks and drive back the fire. I knew if we didn't get that situation under control fast, those tanks would blow and take off the south end of this island" ("Fire Destroys ...").
The volunteer department was able to keep the tanks from burning and exploding, but the two-and-half-story Richardson store itself was not so lucky. The building was reduced to ashes and, for various reasons, was not rebuilt. An electrical problem was later determined to be the cause of the blaze.
Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire; even Lucky, the store cat, escaped. To the Shaws it meant the end of a business and their way of life. To many Lopez residents and past visitors, losing the store was like losing an old friend. Along with the loss of the scrawled record of names of the steam ships and sailors that visited Richardson, the destruction of the store was a devastating blow to the once-dynamic economic community of earlier times.
In 2013 Richardson is a quiet spot overlooking the water at the end of Richardson Road. Views from that spot include something very old recently recognized in a new way: Richardson Rocks, Davis Rocks, and Unnamed Rocks are all part of the San Juan Islands National Monument proclaimed by Barack Obama (b. 1961) on March 25, 2013. Many of the areas in the national monument are on the south end of Lopez Island near Richardson. The proclamation reads in part:
"The protection of these lands in the San Juan Islands will maintain their historical and cultural significance and enhance their unique and varied natural and scientific resources, for the benefit of all Americans" ("Presidential Proclamation").