Photos courtesy City of Gig Harbor
With boats dotting the calm surface of the harbor and thick forest creeping nearly to its edge, a trip to Gig Harbor, Washington, feels like stepping into a postcard of a picturesque fishing village. On clear days, when the blue of the sky is nearly as deep as the water, the postcard includes a view of Mount Rainier on the horizon.
“It’s a very quaint town,” said Sue Loiland, executive director of the Harbor History Museum at the time of this interview. “It still looks like a little fishing village; but we have some terrific shopping, great dining, great things to do on the water and great walking trails. You get the quaintness of a small town with some unexpected amenities.”
A narrow entrance on the east side of the Key Peninsula secludes Gig Harbor from Puget Sound. Until the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built in 1940 — it famously collapsed five months later — steamship was the primary way to get to Gig Harbor from Tacoma, which sits about 10 miles east across the sound.
“We are a smaller group destination,” said Laureen Lund, marketing director for the city of Gig Harbor. “It makes for a nice, quaint kind of visit because we don’t have cruise ships dropping off thousands of people.”
A Fishing Community
With about 7,000 residents, Gig Harbor is still a working fishing village, although the city probably pulls in as many tourists as fish these days. Fewer than 20 commercial fishing vessels work out of the harbor today, down from several dozen in its heyday.
“But the community is all about this heritage and this maritime history,” Lund said.
Visitors need only follow Harborview Drive, which winds along the harbor’s western shoreline, to see evidence of that: The city is rescuing the century-old Skansie Brothers Netshed from rot, the Gig Harbor BoatShop is preserving the city’s working waterfront, and volunteers at the Harbor History Museum are restoring an 88-year-old wooden fishing boat that was once part of the harbor’s commercial fleet.
Many of Gig Harbor’s early settlers were Croatian fishermen who built sheds on the waterfront to store their nets and fishing gear. The harbor’s first net sheds were built as early as 1910, but most have been torn down over the years. Only 17 remain along Gig Harbor’s western shore, the largest collection of historic net sheds in Puget Sound, according to a city historical survey, and the city is restoring one of the oldest, the Skansie Brothers Netshed.
The first Skansie brother, Peter, immigrated to Gig Harbor from Croatia in 1886 and eventually convinced his brothers Mitchell, Joseph and Andrew to join him. Andrew Skansie built a waterfront home on Harborview Drive in 1908 and the net shed in 1910.
The property stayed in the Skansie family until the city of Gig Harbor bought it in 2002 and began developing it into a historic attraction and park. Today, Skansie Brothers Park is a venue for concerts, festivals, farmers markets and outdoor movies.