Thursday, January 21, 2016

McNeil Island

The Map described below as gifted to Harbor History Museum
The Harbor History Museum was very fortunate a couple weeks ago when they were gifted a copy of McNeil Island that was drawn sometime around 1936 showing everything on the island from property owners to schools to the territorial cell house.

And it got me to thinking that few of us know very little about its history;  most people know about the federal penitentiary and  its closure in 2011.  But how many of us realize how intertwined the history of McNeil Island, Anderson Island, Eagle Island and Steilacoom?  I didn’t.  Betsey John Cammon, born in 1886 on Anderson Island, known as Wallace Island in the 1870-1880s expressed the connection this way that following her wedding to Oscar Cammon in July, 1906:  “Coming to McNeil to live, where Oscar and his brother Martin had, several years earlier, butlt their bachelor home, wasn’t like coming to a strange land.  McNeil and Anderson Island people had been and were at this time close neighbors…..We moved to our newly-built home on Anderson Island in 1916.”  So other than those short ten years, and her time teaching at Kapowsin, she lived her entire life on Anderson Island.

The island was originally charted in 1841 by Captain Charles Wilkes specifically during his exploration of Puget Sound.  As was his want, Captain Wilkes named the island.  He chose, as put it, “On a rampage, he even saluted the British with Anderson Island for the chief trade at Fort Nisqually, Alexander Canfield Anderson, and McNeil Island for a Hudson’s Bay “chief factor” named William Henry McNeill.”  However when naming the island, Captain Wilkes dropped one ‘l’ and so, McNeil Island it became.

William Henry McNeill was captain of a Boston built brig Llama which he sailed from Boston to the Pacific Northwest on a fur trading expedition in 1830.  Two years later while in Honolulu Roderick Finlayson, Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor for the Pacific Northwest, purchased the brig and retained Captain McNeill as Captain.  But by doing so, the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to make an exception to their ‘all British employees’ and for the first time had a ship commanded by someone very familiar with the west coast.  By 1836, steamship started replacing the brigs, and Captain McNeill took over command of the S. S. Beaver, and later the Una.

The earliest days of settlement did not start until, in 1850, the United States Donation Land Claim Act was enacted by the U. S. Congress.

In 1853 we find Ezra Meeker settling on McNeil Island and he is thought to have been the first white settler on McNeill.  His proportion which he never filed the paperwork for his claim, later became the the territorial cell house, and then the federal penitentiary.  After building a log cabins for  his wife and child to live in, he and his brother Oliver left to guide their parents and their party across the Cascade mountain range.   I know most of us always associate Ezra Meeker with Puyallup after he left his home in Ohio and came west.  But before he moved to Puyallup in 1862, he owned a farm and built a home on McNeil Island.  Just one interesting fact about Erza Meeker that doesn’t belong in this blog about McNeil Island but I thought should be shared is:  “He found another kind of success when he began his efforts to mark the route of the Oregon Trail that he and Eliza Jane had taken west in 1852. Now in his 70's but still hale and hearty, Meeker crossed the continent with his replica covered wagon, raising funds to erect memorials along the route and eventually meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D. C. Meeker became a splendid publicist, issuing booklets and postcards, inspiring newspaper and magazine articles about his efforts. Before his death in 1928, just a few days shy of his 98th birthday, Ezra Meeker had not only walked the Oregon Trail several times, he'd ridden along it in an automobile and aboard a train, and flown over it in an airplane: he'd come a long way, and for many his story symbolized the opportunities that had been available on the frontier. 

The map gifted to the museum, dated ca. 1920-1936, is quite important because it shows all the various property owners including the federal cell house that was built originally in 1873, ownership placed under the direction of the United States Marshall in November 1874 and changed to a ‘territorial’ prison. As mentioned earlier, this was the property which Ezra Meeker originally claimed but when he left for Puyallup was turned over or sold to J. W. McCarthy, Jr. and then purchased by Jay Emmons Smith.  Smith then sold it, all 27 acres,  to the territorial government for $100 in 1870.   When it opened in 1875 it housed nine prisoners.  In 1889 when Washington was admitted to the Union, and afterwards, in 1893, the prison received its first warden, Gilbert L. Palmer and a custodial force of seven guards.

Other than an isolated settler here and there, it wasn’t until the 1880’s when settlers really populated the island.  Betsey Johnson Cammon writes in her book “Island Memoir” “An old map of McNeil made at this time (1880) by David White, a civil engineer, shows fifteen land owners.  They were:  J. Brown, J. Hawk, P. A. Berry, J. Holm, J. Smith, W.S. Label, F.A. McCarty, J. Swan, J. Ross, J.S. Ward,s. Shucker, G. E. Smith, E. J. Clendenen, Dilley Brackel, and A. Harrison.  (The only familiar names among the list are J. Holm and J. S. Ward.)  All but three of the above_named owned waterfront property.  By contrast, on the Anderson Island map made by David white at the same time we find twenty-eight landowners.

The largest property owners on our 1936 map included Clark and Hunt, A. B. Savage, H. Halverson and the school property.  Including the school and penitentiary property there were 207 property owners that I counted on the map.  Small farms were the general rule.  The first school was established in 1888 and remained until 1936 at which time everyone was forced to vacate the island except for prison employees and the school then was kept open to service the children of prison employees.  It closed permanently 1980.

McNeil Island eventually had three post offices the first in opened in the Benjamin F. McCain General Store in 1895.  The Meridian Post Office was originally opened on the mainland but moved to McNeil Island west side in 1915 opposite where it had been on the mainland.

The third post office was established in January 1900 inside Carl Johan Julin’s store which he had built in 1899 in Still Harbor. It carried the name Gertrude Post Office after the small island sitting in Still Bay.  (Gertrude Island housed St. Anne’s which was a home for unwedded girls.)  Julin served as postmaster 14 years until his death in 1922.  He originally settled on the island in 1884 and his family remained living on the island until forced out in 1936 by the federal government.  It is also interesting to discover his daughter, Nina Julin Ulsh was Wes Ulsh’s mother.  Julia worked at the Johnson Woodyard on Anderson Island rowing back and forth each day until he opened his store.  But all this time he continued to farm his land.  He and his wife, Ida, had five sons and four daughters.
iPhone picture of the Julin Family from Island Memoir by Betsey John Cammon

Like the greater Gig Harbor Peninsula and other surrounding areas, McNeil Island was heavily wooded.  Settlers had to remove the timber to build their homes and to cultivate their farms.  But they also discovered that if surplus timber was cut into cords, or kept in marketable logs, it could be sold for profit bringing in needed income.  There were several individuals logging as well as logging companies such as Meridian Logging Company.

Once the logs were available it was helpful to establish sawmills, and Betsey Johnson Cammon tells us there were several both large and small sawmills.  Joe Floyd on of the loggers had one on his property at Meridian.  His equipment was sold to Willis Thomas Parr & Norgren Bros. who built their own sawmill on the west side off Pitt Passage.  Parr bought his partners out in 1910, renamed the the sawmill Parr Manufacturing Company and besides producing cut lumber and shingles he also manufactured fruit boxes.  The mill was also known as the West End Mill.  It was destroyed by fire in 1926.

The largest mill was the Washington Lumber and Box Company started in 1908 by partners - Herbert Williams, the Cammon brothers and the Johnson brothers.  Within a short time, the partnership was bought out by Zech and Munson of Puyallup.  I’m not sure whether the operator Mr. Bach, also from Puyallup, was just an employee or new owner.  However the last owner was George A. Misener of Tacoma and retained ownership until 1936.

Being an island, boats were and remain as necessity for transportation to leave the island for any purpose.  The Hunt Bros. of Gig Harbor, the Lorenz Bros. of Lakebay, the Bay Island Producers Union were just a few of the folks providing transportation for people and goods on and off the island.  Even the Skansie brothers Washington Navigation Company provided service at one time.

But it was not all work and no play for the people living on McNeil Island.  Hagar Miller, a bachelor farmer, was active in forming the McNeil Island Library Association in 1909 and served as its first president.   The association was quite successful in raising funds to buy a lot, build a two story hall for meetings and library, dressing rooms, kitchen and dining room and nice entrance hall with the stairway to the second level.  but also, on the second floor have a stage for plays with a sizable auditorium.  He was also active as the manager and coach of the Still Harbor Baseball team.   When Miller married, he sold his farm to Albert and Selma Westrom and left the island.  

The folks on the south side of the island established the South Side Improvement Club and one of the first things it did was work with the Pierce County Commissioners to get a dock built.  The entire island benefited from it.  

Like all the other communities around, McNeil Island had a service organization, The Helping Hand Club.  Membership was made up by people from all over the island, and they lived up to their name.  Fifteen of their young meant serviced in the military during World War I; and three served in the Spanish-American War against Pancho Villa in 1916 in New Mexico.  They lost one soldier in each of the two wars.

And of course we mustn’t forget their church founded by the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Sunne Congregation of Anderson and McNeil Island.  Their first meeting was held at Carl Juliann’s home to decide where to build the church in 1896.  Edwin Iverson donated some of his property on McNeil Island, northwest of the south dock.  The church was used until the forced closure of McNeil Island by the federal government.  All of the existing history, articles of incorporation, membership information (births, confirmations, marriages, deaths) as well as two books of meetings, minutes, and reports, in Swedish are archived at Pacific Lutheran University along with letters of dismissal. 

Betsey Johnson Cammon’s earliest memory of Sunday School was in 1891, and although she lived on Anderson Island as did many of the church members, everyone attended church on McNeil Island.  First in Julin’s home and then in the school house until the church building was erected.

We learned a little about Carl Julin earlier in the discussion of the post office, his farm, and his store.  But I was unable to discover a lot about Mr. Iverson except Betsey Johnson Cammon’s description:  “Mr. Iverson was a retired gardener who had been in partnership in the nursery business with a Mr. Carlson in Tacoma.  He lived on his fifteen-acre tract just north of the South Side Dock.  There he delighted in growing things, giving to his neighbors generously.  He even came to Anderson Island.  I remember him making a lovely border of flowers for Mama Johnson.

Eric and Martha Nyberg, island pioneers, donated the land for the first cemetery. Charles Larsen, president, and James Ward, secretary, managed the cemetery and all the settlers helped to maintain it.  The first burial occurred in 1905 when Christian Tangen died, and the second occurred that same year when Carl Tangen was accidentally killed in a logging accident. When all residents were forced to leave in 1936 the cemetery was closed, the remains exhumed and reburied in cemeteries on the mainland.

Gradually the federal government started buy additional property, first for a prison garden, then for water rights so that by 1931 the federal government owned almost half of the island: 2,303.1 acres versus total island acreage of 4,445 acres.  Now, they were raising steers for beef and milking cows as well as pigs and vegetables with a few chickens thrown in the mix as well.

By 1936, the federal government was exercising their rights to eminent domain as well as the individual purchases and fee simple title granted to the U. S. Government for the entire island.  By 1940 the entire island was under federal control.

I found the following article in the October 8, 1979 Spokane Daily Chronicle:

Island Heirs Set Suit”
“TACOMA (AP) - About 100 former McNeil Island property owners and the heirs gathered here over the weekend to officially organize their effort to win back property confiscated by the government in 1936 for the federal penitentiary.
“The group members, called McNeil Island Heirs, intend to go to federal court to challenge a 1949 law which says former owners of federal land have no special rights to regain their land if the government declares it surplus.
“The government plans to close the century-old prison by January 1982 and turn the 4,400-acre island over to the General Services Administration for disposal.” 

The Appendix in Betsey Johnson Cammon’s book "Island Memoir”  states 
Land Owners in 1936
THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON in the matter of the petition of the United States of America to condemn, appropriate and take certain real estate and other property rights adjacent to the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island, and all of Gertrude Island and Pitt Island, all in Pierce County, State of Washington.

And this paragraph is followed by a list of all property owners at that time.

iPhone picture of 1936 McNeil Island Property Owners from Island Memoir by Betsey Johnson Cammon

  • Island Memoir, A Personal History of Anderson and McNeil Islands, by Betsey Johnson Cammon
  • Images of America Anderson Island by Elizabeth Galentine and the Anderson Island Historical Society
  • Wikipedia-McNeil History
  • Washington State McNeil History
  • Pacific Lutheran University Archives
  • Spokane Daily Chronicle, 10/8/1979

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. Tomi, are you sure Hagar Miller didn't sell his McNeil Island farm to Albert and Selma Westrom instead of "Albert and Selma Restroom"?

    1. Oops...autocorrect and yes, I missed it. My sincere apologies to everyone.

  2. FYI: Among other notables, Charles Manson did time at McNeil in the 1950s and learned to play guitar from Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, a member of Ma Barker's Depression-era gang.