Thursday, October 11, 2012

The History of Raft Island

Did you happen to notice the little news article in The Gateway about Phase II Bridge Replacement Project for Raft Island?

Well, I did and so I thought I would check out a little history of Raft Island and refresh our memories of this small island. Andy Buffington wrote a delightful little pamphlet on its history and I will use the information contained therein. Those of you who live on the island, or have in the past lived there, can perhaps add your comments to this as well.

Early view of Raft Island

Lieutenant Peter Puget of the Vancouver Expedition [led by Captain George Vancouver, arriving here in 1792] was the first recorded person that we know of to have landed on what we call today Raft Island. Murray Morgan wrote in his book Puget Sound, University of Washington Press 1979, that Puget noted in his journal that a large number of crows on the island “voiced objection.”

Later, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, named the island Allshouse Island after one of his crewmembers on the “U.S.S. Vincennes.” Allshouse Island was renamed Raft Island on the maps because people thought the island resembled a raft. However others say that the name comes from the shipment of log ‘rafts’ to the mainland. Logging though, didn’t start until long after Raft Island was so named.

In 1889, the Stevens brothers claimed the entire island and they are recorded as its first settlers. F. Stevens held 27 acres on the western end of the island and his brother Jacob claimed the remaining 133 acres. Ownership, however, was recorded under Jacob Steven’s name and held by the brothers until 1900.

It was in the first part of 1900 that the Rosedale settlers started logging operations on the island. And by 1915 the island was divided into 14 lots each with a different owner. None lived permanently on the island. By the early 1920s some farmers came, cleared land, and planted apples and strawberries. 

The farmers left behind what became known as Raft Island’s haunted house. It stood directly to the left of where the bridge is now. Children from Rosedale would walk across the beach at low tide to visit and inspect the haunted house.

It was also during the 1920s and prohibition that bootleggers used Raft Island for their operations. A Mexican mining company had purchased Raft Island trees to shore up their mines. When the boats returned to the Puget Sound for more logs, there were bottles of illegal whiskey stored in their oil tanks. 

McMaster family and friends at their "Camp Gaylie" on Raft Island, circa 1915

By 1928 George O. Noble, a wealthy mining engineer from California bought the island. He used it strictly as a recreational estate. He built a house and hired a caretaker on site which later became the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp, the forerunner of All Saints Center. Noble was also responsible for bringing electricity to the island. The camp site and electricity were his major contributions and by 1932 he left the island for good, although he continued to own it until Jess Kuhns purchased it in 1942.

Jess Kuhns paid $30,000 for Raft Island. He renamed the island Kuhns’ Raft Island and in 1946 created his own restrictions for all future residents. Those same restrictions were still in effect in 1998 with the exception of residency based upon race. 

In the mid 1950s, Kuhns decide to have an auction and sell the lots on the island. Norman and Eva Anderson bought one lot and the CYO bought 17 lots. Because the lots were selling for such low amounts, Kuhns decided to stop the auction and find a single buyer for all the remaining lots. The person who purchased those lots was Robert L. Healy of Tacoma and a group of associates. Healy applied for a permit to build the bridge in 1956.  By March 1957, Healy sold his rights to the island and the bridge to Archie L. Matthew from Tacoma. 

Exactly two years after he had purchased the island, Matthews sold the island to Graham & Blodwyn McDonald and Merritt and Alta Parish for $348,000. They are responsible for the development of the water system and the roads. Eventually, Raft Island Water Company was owned by Walt Powlowski and Mary Morrison. Ownership has changed since then.

The McDonald and Parish families founded Raft Island Improvement Association with the purpose to “foster and promote recreational and cultural activities among the residents of Raft Island, Pierce County; to provide for the improvement and beautification of said Raft Island; to own and operate for the use and benefit of the residents of said Raft Island, a playground, recreational areas, and private beaches, and to maintain the private, dedicated roads of Raft Island, access roads, and bridge,” (Blodwyn McDonald, History of the Raft Island Improvement Association).

So, one can look back from the Stevens brothers through today and understand that everyone who has lived on Raft Island has had a part in shaping its independent character.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. Michael & MaryannApril 3, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    Wonderful are those who take the time and do all the work to compile histories like this. Many thanks.
    Michael & Maryann OBrien