There (um) Was a Tavern In the Town

OC and Quilly are taking a vacation from Hawai‘i – yes, yes, we know, we know – and are spending some time back on our other island home, in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, and at various other locations in mainland USA. In this space, miscellaneous impressions of our first significant travel since the onset of COVID, almost exactly two years ago as this is written.

One of the tools that OC has used, to keep tabs on things in the San Juan Islands while in Hawai‘i, is the “Travel Alerts Bulletin” page of the Washington State Ferries (WSF) website – the activities, or lack thereof, of WSF being a key component of life in Friday Harbor, there being few other ways to get on, or off, the island. It’s been high on the list of “somethings else” that he has been in the habit of doing instead of what he was supposed to be doing.

Now that he and Quilly are on San Juan Island, following the WSF Travel Alerts is a thing, not a procrastination tool. Not least because, thanks to COVID and its economic and social fallout, the ferry system is running fewer boats and fewer sailings – and, a lot of the time, can’t even keep up with the reduced schedule. Which brings weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from afflicted citizens who, in their next breath, demand that somebody do something about global warming – other than stopping the exhaust from the ferry that they were supposed to be on.

Which is how come OC was on the Travel Alerts webpage early one fine morning to discover that the first ferry run to Friday Harbor had been cancelled.

To bring fire-fighting crews to Friday Harbor.

That got OC’s attention. “Fire!” is a word that grabs the attention of every resident of the San Juan Islands generally, and the town of Friday Harbor in particular. The San Juan Islands are small islands, with limited options for leaving in an emergency. Small islands with big forests. Big conifer forests. During the summer months especially, big dry conifer forests. Big wildfire in a mainland forest is a calamity. Big wildfire in a San Juan Island forest is an existential crisis. And every islander knows it.

So where the [deleted] is the fire?

IMG_1227The answer was soon forthcoming, via social media. The fire was not in a forest, but in Friday Harbor’s town center.

A town center of crowded wooden buildings, some of them dating to the early 19th century. Historic and quaint and memorable and, um, fire code? What fire code?!? OC’s thoughts quickly flashed back to when one of the two grocery stores in town burned to the ground in 2002, and was never replaced. The other one was/is right across the street. “Gonna be a whole lot of hungry people if that’s what’s burning now”.

It was soon revealed that the fire was one block away from the food market. By the time the last ember was quenched, some twelve hours after the first alarm was sounded, the blaze had extinguished a kayak rental establishment, a real estate office (in the town’s oldest building), a coffee shop.

herbs-cornerAnd Herb’s Tavern. The town’s one watering hole since 1946. A hole in the ground since 7 April 2022. “We will rebuild”, proclaims the owner, and rebuilding will probably happen. But new structures don’t often conserve old memories, which can be a shame.

Or it can be just as well.

In 1975, when OC first stepped foot in Friday Harbor, Herb’s Tavern could be a dodgy place to be. OC was teetotal at the time (no longer strictly true), and seriously risk-averse (still, alas, very true), so he never set foot in the place during the 1970s. But he heard stories. Especially about fights between the townspeople and the Labbies, students at the marine biological field station of the University of Washington. The Friday Harbor Laboratories are older than Herb’s Tavern, but not by a whole lot. And the original site of the “Puget Sound Biological Station” was just south of town, next to the salmon cannery that, in 1975, still stood on the town dock.


Friday Harbor in 1975 was a town in transition, and not too happy about it. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the San Juan Islanders made their livings by farming and fishing. Crops grown in the islands supplied the marketplaces of Seattle for decades. Then, in the 1930s, the great dams appeared on the Columbia River, opening eastern Washington to agriculture. The small farms, orchards, and ranches on the islands were quickly buried by cheap produce from the irrigated plains on the other side of the Cascades.

Oh well, there was still fishing.

But the mainstay, the salmon fishery, was shrinking. More and more effort was needed to catch what, already in the 1960s, was fewer and fewer fish.

And then, in 1974, the US Government decided that the massive effort was in violation of 19th century treaties with the first peoples of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. At the stroke of a judge’s pen, the share of the available catch allocated to non-“Indian” fish catchers was Screen+Shot+2020-11-29+at+5.06.00+PMreduced from the de facto 90% to the de jure 50%. Which, despite lawsuits and physical violence, was stringently and effectively enforced by federal agents, who ensured compliance when state agents could, or would, not.

Abruptly, fishing had joined farming as a way to not make a living in the San Juan Islands. And here come these prissy clueless kids from the goddamned Labs who could afford to sit around and play with starfish while the banks were foreclosing on everything that real people owned.

No wonder there were fights. No wonder we still have Donald Trump.

Screen Shot 2022-04-17 at 11.41.08 AMAs Friday Harbor and the San Juan Islands slowly pivoted to the only remaining profitable option – tourism – there were efforts to open a tavern to compete with the old-timers holdout, Herb’s. In 1977, the new place was called the “Electric Company”. It was located down the street from (and within sight of) Herb’s, and closer to the ferry landing. It lasted a few years, then closed. A succession of taverns, restaurants, and other businesses followed. The site is currently occupied by an eatery plus bike rental shop that appears to be a cheap imitation of a cheap Hawaiian barbecue chain, open Fridays through Mondays, presumably to catch the unwary tourist crowd waiting for ferry boats that may or may not show up on time, or at all. OC has never seen anyone in there, and he doubts that it will last long.

Herb’s itself changed with the times. OC and Quilly had visited, with friends, during their residency in Friday Harbor a decade ago, and found the pub food good, the people friendly and not inclined to pick fights.

Screen Shot 2022-04-17 at 12.05.27 PMOC has been told that the new owners had cleaned up the place considerably, possibly (for example) removing the decades of cigarette smoke buildup on the wood paneling around the bar and the pool table.

Only to have the whole place go up in smoke.

“We will rebuild”. OC supposes that there could be no better day than Easter Sunday to reflect on resurrection.

And perhaps no place more likely than a watering hole to experience resurrection. With popular acclaim. Even from prissy clueless Labbies.

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