A Short History of Herron Island

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Rare aerial photo of Herron Island dated August-September 1951 showing a logging raft almost a third full. The raft stretches about 800 feet along the east side of the island. Photo: USGS acquired via HistoricAerials.comA little over a mile long and a half mile wide, Herron Island lies across a narrow channel in Case Inlet about 3 miles west of Lakebay. Its history comes to us in fragments. The native name, Tsxsa’dai, means “place where the tide goes out,” a description that today’s island residents can appreciate. As was the case with the rest of the Puget Sound, local tribes harvested island beaches and vegetation.

Lt. Peter Puget, who surveyed the south Sound in May 1792 during the Vancouver expedition, referred to the island as Wednesday Island in his journal, after the day he and his crew had to spend on the island to avoid a powerful storm. The island was resurveyed in 1841 during the U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Charles Wilkes and was renamed after Lewis Herron, one of the expedition’s barrel makers.

Herron Island has had several private owners over the decades since Washington became a territory and then a state in 1889. The line of owners and residents over time tells the story of the country’s immigrant past. The earliest land records show that parts of the island were granted to Swiss-born Charles Emil Pack in 1873. Two decades later, in 1894, a patent for the unclaimed parts of the island was issued to Julius Sunde, a Norwegian immigrant who just a year earlier had been naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

By 1905 Søren Kielland, also born in Norway, and his American wife Anna had acquired the entire island. Søren, a civil engineer and for several years the vice consul of Norway, lived in Buffalo and reportedly never set foot on the island. Even though the Kiellands never visited the island, Søren’s nephew William Absalon Beyer and his wife Marie lived there, perhaps until the mid-1930s. From 1921 to 1925 William served as postmaster for the mainland town of Herron. The only house on the island, where the Beyers lived, doubled as a post office. In true mail carrier dedication, the Beyers would pick up the mail from the mail boat, sort it and deliver it by rowboat along the coast. Charlie Sehmel, who later lived in the Beyers’ house in the 1950s, remembers seeing mail-sorting pigeonholes in the basement. (See Herron Island: A Logger Remembers, Key Peninsula News, October 2018)

Søren and Anna Kielland died within a year of each other in the 1930s, and their estate sold it to Dr. H. J. Green and his wife Dorothy in 1935. The Beyers left the island probably around that time and spent the rest of their lives in Lakebay; they are buried in Lakebay Cemetery.

In 1944 the island was sold to George Murphy, a businessman from Hawaii, and his wife Blanche. The Murphys hired area residents Russian-born Charlie and Emilie Minchau as live-in caretakers and tried to raise horses on the island, with limited success. Murphy also contracted to have the island logged, but that project failed when he and the logger ended up in court over a contractual dispute..

In 1951 the Murphys put the island up for sale again, eventually selling it to area logger Bill Sehmel, who succeeded in harvesting its plentiful timber. The Minchaus moved to Home; Emilie died in 1978 and Charlie in 1982. Several local residents still remember them.

The Sehmel logging operation eventually wound down and in 1957 the island was sold to four developers, Richard A. Clifford and his wife Edith M. Clifford; Paul O’Reilly; and J. E. Swanson Jr., who incorporated it as a membership association, platted it, added infrastructure and transformed it into the community of almost 400 homeowners it has become.

In July 1958, a little over 60 years ago, the first lots came on the market.

Herron Island is still private, but over the years it has been home to hundreds if not thousands of residents and vacationers, and has welcomed an even larger number of guests.