The Story of McMicken Island

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McMicken Island, a few hundred feet from Harstine Island to the west of the Key Peninsula, is a favorite destination for area boaters and kayakers. One of about 40 marine state parks in Washington, it features almost 3,000 feet of unspoiled saltwater shoreline and a thick, virgin stand of cedar, fir, hemlock and madronas over a lush and often impenetrable understory of salal, ferns and huckleberries. A short trail winds through the woods, treating hikers to unexpected views of Mount Rainier peeking over the hills of the peninsula to the southeast.

Near the south end of the island the land dips towards the water and the woods give way to a partly-cleared field. A weathered cedar fence on the east side of the clearing encloses a narrow strip of land along the low bank, with an aging house, an unfinished cabin and a large, unused outbuilding.

That compound, owned by the same family for over 100 years, is a link to the island’s past.

McMicken Island was named after William McMicken, surveyor general for Washington Territory, possibly following his retirement in 1886. Its settlement history in modern times begins in the 1890s, when Tacoma resident Charles Lundquist, a recent Swedish immigrant, claimed it as a homestead. An 1894 survey undertaken in connection with Lundquist’s claim shows that 2 acres at the south end of the island had been cleared in preparation for cultivation, perhaps by Lundquist himself. That area corresponds roughly to the field that remains cleared today. The survey also mentions that Lundquist had started a well and had built a 14-by-20-foot cabin, where he would eventually live with his wife Amanda and their young daughter Ellen. The Lundquists moved to the island in September 1895, an occurrence duly reported in the weekly Mason County Journal by the paper’s Harstine Island correspondent.

Lundquist, a bricklayer by trade, was evidently not cut out to be a farmer, however; by 1901 the family had retreated back to Tacoma, and in 1907 they sold the island to Harstine farmer Peter Peterson and his wife Margaret for $200. Once again the diminutive 2-acre farm must have failed to live up to expectations, because in 1914 the Petersons in turn sold McMicken Island to Tacoma attorney Arthur R. Warren, who was looking for a weekend and vacation getaway.

Warren died at 59 in 1925, but the island remained in the family until 1974, when it was purchased by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission from his daughter, Winnifred Carson, and her children, Warren Carson and Gayle Carson Riggs. Under an agreement with the commission, the Carson and Riggs families were allowed to retain for their private use the fenced tract along the southeast side and a stretch of beach at the bottom of the low bank. The families continue to visit, keeping a watchful eye on the island and acting as surrogate stewards and protectors of its safety and natural beauty. Several members of the family still own land and live on nearby Harstine Island.

Arthur Warren’s granddaughter, Gayle Riggs, 83, along with her children and their families, were there in August. Riggs, who grew up and lives in California, remembered regular summer trips to McMicken. “I’ve been coming here since I was a baby,” she said. “In fact they said I had a whooping cough before you could have shots so they brought me up here.”

In the early years the family stayed in an old cabin, originally built by Peter Peterson or perhaps even by Charles Lundquist himself. “We missed a summer during the (second world) war,” Riggs recalls. “We didn’t come back until 1946 and ’47, and we were in the old cabin, which was leaking; the weather was dreadful those years. My dad said we needed to build a new house, so we spent the summer of ’48 clearing the site.” The house, still standing today, was built by Hugo Glaser, a Dalmatian farmer nearby on Harstine, with bricks made using sand from his own beach.

The old cabin deteriorated over time and was finally taken down by the state a few years ago; a replica was built in its place, unfinished but still useable as a shelter when the weather turns.

The house, and a shop built later, remain off the grid. During the long days of summer, windows and open doors let daylight and long shadows into the large interior space. The great room serves as kitchen, complete with a still-operational 1920s wood-burning cook stove; a large, hand-made picnic table built by Kit Carson, and a sitting area with a daybed by the window; a Franklin stove in the far corner and a large fireplace in the opposite wall; and aging furniture, much of it brought over on the mailboat from Tacoma in the mid-1920s and delivered to the post office at the village of Ballow, a few hundred feet down the beach from McMicken.

At the end of August, McCarthy’s children and grandchildren were due to arrive. One hundred and sixteen years after Arthur Warren signed the deed, the grandchildren would be the sixth generation of his descendants to visit McMicken Island.