Indian Island

by Milt Lum, Staff Writer

Turning off Oak Bay Road onto State Route 116 leads one across the Portage Canal Bridge to Indian Island. Parallel to the road as it skirts the southwestern tip of the island is the Portage Canal, completed in 1915 for $73,330 and extending 4,800 feet into Oak Bay. On the other side of the road is a security chain-link fence topped with razor wire isolating the Naval Magazine Indian Island from the general public. However, the Navy grants limited access for community events such as a family fun run in August and guided tours by their environmental manager Bill Kalina. One of the more popular and less strenuous hikes by the Port Ludlow hiking club is their Indian Island hike. For those who have missed that opportunity, or anyone interested in what is behind that security fence, follow me.

British explorer Captain George Vancouver is credited with naming the island when he visited in 1792 during his exploration of Puget Sound. Coming ashore to a deserted seasonal village, he encountered a no-trespass warning consisting of two human heads atop two pikes. Oral history and archeological evidence at 14 excavation sites confirm that indigenous people from the Chemakum and S’Klallam tribes used the island for seasonal harvesting from the sea and land. The Boldt decision in 1974 affirmed the right of descendants of the S’Klallam tribe to continue their traditional harvesting on the island. The Navy has respected that right and access is granted to the tribe to harvest clams and other shellfish as well as cattails, stinging nettle, and cedar bark for traditional clothing, baskets, and medications. In addition, the remains discovered during archeological excavation have been repatriated to the SʻKlallam tribe. The Navy has granted permission for those ancestors to be interned on the island with a traditional ceremony.

The first recorded white settlers were Dennis and Susan Haight who acquired and farmed 150 acres of land in the southeast corner of the island. In 1878, they were mysteriously murdered. James and Maren Andersen purchased the Haight’s farm a year later and farmed it until the early 1900’s. Her grave marker and their apple orchard are the only remaining artifacts of these earlier settlers. In 1939, 90 landowners, descendants of the original homesteaders and members of the SʻKlallam tribe who had purchased land, were forced to sell when the Navy claimed eminent domain in the name of national security.

After two years of negotiations, the sale was concluded in 1941 for $1.3 million and the munitions storage site was commissioned on May 10 that year. Seven months later, the United States was thrust into World War II, and Indian Island became a major wartime munitions storage and manufacturing base.

It also produced underwater steel curtains. Large warehouses assembled steel netting which was loaded on tenders and distributed to strategic naval bases in Washington, Alaska, and the South Pacific. These nets were anchored on the sea bottom and kept afloat by metal buoys to prevent submarines from entering harbors that housed naval bases. To meet the wartime demands, 300 military and 200 civilians worked seven-day weeks in continuous shifts around the clock.

Following the war, the facility was downsized to a reduced operational status until 1973 when the Trident Submarine base was established at Bangor on the Kitsap Peninsula. Naval Magazine Indian Island became a conventional munitions facility employing 160 people including active and reserve military personnel, civilian contractors, and civilian personnel. Non-nuclear munitions are stored in concrete-enclosed bunkers located in the forested areas. It is the main supplier for ammunition for all vessels in the Pacific including aircraft carriers. From the bluff on Washington Street in Port Townsend one can view “Big Blue,” the large container crane, in action when it is loading ammo and ordnance on ships moored at the 1,650-foot-long pier.

Naval Magazine Indian Island will remain as long as competing national ideologies threaten our national security. However, the Navy has been sensitive to the unique history and environment of the island it inhabits. It has cleaned up all of the 19 polluted sites from its wartime activities. Access is afforded to the local S’Klallam tribes to resume traditional practices. Restricted development has allowed more than 70 percent of the unused land to become a wildlife refuge. As a member of a coalition of federal, state, and tribal agencies, the Navy has contributed to financing and aided in building the bridge that now connects Indian and Marrowstone islands. By removing the earthen roadway with its sediment-clogged culverts, the tidal channel between Oak Bay and Scow Bay has been restored creating an ecosystem in which salmon fry can thrive before heading out to the Pacific.

Interest piqued about what lies beyond that fence? Check the Port Ludlow Voice for the hiking club’s schedule for the Indian Island hike or check the Port Ludlow Leader for the annual Indian Island fun run in August.