Friday, November 1, 2019

The Hotel that Lime Built

When I was up on San Juan Island in the spring, I visited Roche Harbor for the first time. The sheltered bay on the north end of the island is home to the Roche Harbor Resort, but the history goes back into the nineteenth century.

The harbor itself is named after Richard Roche, a British lieutenant stationed at nearby English Camp during the Pig War. After the British departed in 1872, the area ended up in the possession of the Scurr brothers, who started producing lime from the limestone ridge above the harbor. Kilned limestone was a hot commodity at the time for use in making steel, plaster, cement, and paper. The Scurr brothers quarried the limestone on the island and transported it to kilns not far from the water’s edge for easy shipment.

In 1886, Joseph McMillin bought the property and opened the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company. He then set about building a town for his workers to live and shop in. He built a new lime factory, a barrel works, warehouse, docks, offices, company store, a Methodist Church which served as a school on weekdays, post office, doctor’s office, barns and homes. Some of the quaint little cottages still remain, as does the company store. Roche Harbor had its own power, water, and telephone systems. It even had its own monetary system, as the workers were paid in script that could be used at the store.

The town was surprisingly multiethnic, with workers from Scandinavia, Russia, and Japan. Two dozen young Japanese men worked at Roche Harbor in the late 1800s. The story goes that they sent away to Japan for brides.

Besides the kilns, another old building stood on the property—a log cabin originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1845. McMillin used it as the foundation for a grand hotel to accommodate important customers and visiting dignitaries. The Hotel de Haro featured nineteen elegantly appointed rooms, sweeping balconies overlooking the harbor, and a full dining room. McMillin got his wish as to famous visitors as well. Both President Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft stayed at the hotel during their terms of office.

Mrs. McMillin surrounded the hotel with beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, said to rival those of Mrs. Butchart across the water in Victoria. (Butchart Gardens, anyone?) She also built an arbor running from the dock up to the hotel. Each crossbeam held a saying that was only visible as guests left for the harbor and home. These included “Fare thee well and if forever still forever fare thee well” and “Your coming gives us pleasure. Your going gives us pain.”

The hotel and company felt their own pain during the Depression and World War I. In 1923, fire destroyed the warehouses, store, and wharf, but production gradually ceased as more modern and cost-effective ways to produce lime were developed.

But that’s not the end of the story. McMillin’s son sold the property to the Tarte family in 1956. The Tartes set about making Roche Harbor the premiere yachting destination. They restored the hotel to its former grandeur, reopening it in 1960, where it has since welcomed the rich and famous, including actor John Wayne. They enhanced the harbor with a marina and turned the McMillan’s old home along the water into a restaurant. They also built an airstrip nearby. New homes and condominiums line the bluffs behind the hotel. New shops are open along the waterfront. They were preparing to host a massive wedding when I visited in May.

The Hotel de Haro claims to be the longest continually operating hotel in Washington. From what I can see, it will keep that claim for some time to come.

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