February 25, 2022
‘Most special place’ for salmon, native culture gains protection with San Juan land bank purchase
Gretchen K. Wing

Acquisition of a property along the southeast corner of Lopez Island comes as “an incredible relief” to San Juan County Land Bank leaders. The conservation organization will take ownership of what has been known as the Higgins property, which affords this view of  Watmough Bay, providing protection of a site valuable for salmon recovery as well rich in history. (Photo courtesy Peggy Bill / San Juan County Land Bank)

February 25, 2022
‘Most special place’ for salmon, native culture gains protection with San Juan land bank purchase
Gretchen K. Wing

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Late in January, 11½ acres and a third of a mile of pristine Lopez Island waterfront neared purchase, securing it a place as another jewel in the crown of public lands on the island’s south shore.

The San Juan County Commission accepted the deed for the historic Higgins property extending south from the mouth of Watmough Bay to abut Bureau of Land Management property. Other properties in public ownership in the area include Point Colville and Iceberg Point and islands in the San Juan Islands National Monument.

Council action allowed the San Juan County Land Bank, a county-funded preservation commission, to complete purchase of the property for $2,255,000.

“An incredible relief” is the way land bank director Lincoln Bormann described the acquisition, which he described as having been a land bank conservation priority for many years.

The property surrounding Watmough Bay is publicly owned by the federal government and the land bank, and private development of the Higgins property would have had a major negative impact to the area. 

In May 2021, land bank staff learned the property was to be listed for sale and began negotiations with the seller. “A bit of a roller coaster ride,” is how Bormann described negotiations until an agreement on price was reached over the course of many months. 

“We’ve been working on protecting the bight for 20 years,” said Bormann. “The property’s value can’t be overstated for salmon recovery, cultural and historical resources, and just as open space. It is one of the most special places in the entire archipelago.” 

The Higgins property sits at the outer edge of Watmough Bay, adjacent to other public lands. (Courtesy San Juan County Land Bank)

“We are very grateful to the Higgins family for working with us,” he said. “They actually turned down a higher private offer.”

Land and waters deep in Indigenous culture

“The principal value of the property is cultural,” Russel Barsh, director of Kwiaht, a local nonprofit conservation biology laboratory, said via email. The area was part of the Watmough reef net and seabird-netting complex that is estimated to date back at least 3,000 years and was still in use by Coast Salish when Euro-Americans settled at Watmough Head 160 years ago.

“Watmough Bay was an important summer reef net camp for at least 1,800 years, based on evidence from the 2004 archaeological work,” Barsh said. He named Harry Samish and Edwards Ciyu, who were associated with the permanent villages at Samish Island and Guemes Island, as the traditional owners of the Watmough reef nets. 

“Their present-day descendants identify as Samish and include the Edwards-Day family at Swinomish, and the family of Ken Hansen, the founder of Kwiaht, who was Samish tribal chairman for many years,” he said.

About the area’s biology, Barsh said: “Most of the biological diversity and significance of this corner of Lopez is beneath the tides, in shallow kelp meadows at Watmough Bay that provide nursery habitat for endangered chinook salmon as well as Pacific cod and ling cod; and deeper kelp canopy forest from Watmough Head to Colville that provides foraging and nesting habitat for rockfishes, greenlings, and ling cod. But neither the [San Juan Islands National] Monument nor the land bank acquisition includes subtidal habitat, which continues to be owned by the state.”

Sampson Chadwick’s claim

Across from the Higgins property on the opposite side of Watmough Bay looms Chadwick Hill; on the Higgins property itself is the Chadwick House, built by Sampson Chadwick and occupied continuously for 150 years.

In a Chadwick family history written by Sampson’s daughter Addie, her father was born in 1847 in Ontario, Canada. At 17, he joined the Union Army and participated in Gen. William Sherman’s Civil War campaigns. After the war he ended up sheep farming on San Juan Island. But, his daughter wrote, “He was curious to see Lopez Island, so he crossed from San Juan in a canoe, and decided to make Lopez his home.”

Sampson Chadwick with his grandchildren at the Chadwick House around 1916 (Lopez Island Historical Society) 

Addie Chadwick said her mother, Adelia Bradshaw, was “born at Dungeness … the daughter of a lawyer and judge at Port Townsend.” A Washington State Historic Property Inventory Form lists Adelia’s mother as “a Callam [probably S’Klallam] Indian.” Adelia and Sampson met and married in 1870s and had six children, two of whom died in infancy and a third in his 20s. The inventory also notes that Sampson first built the part of his house that is now the kitchen and continued to add to it as his family grew.

According to Larry Higgins, his grandmother Eva Higgins inherited the property in 1975 from Dan Hume who with his brother Kenneth had inherited the property from their grandfather Sampson Chadwick.

Larry said his family’s story is that his grandparents helped the Hume brothers during the Great Depression. Lopez Historical Society director Amy Frost said that, according to neighbor Tex Gieling, Sampson Chadwick’s grandson Kenneth “willed the property to Eva Higgins because her husband had given them a tractor during the Depression to help with the farming.”

“I came across correspondence my grandmother had with the land trust in 1975 in which she was told the funds weren’t available to purchase the property” said Larry. “I believe that is how my parents ended up buying the property.”

What next for this jewel?

As to the property’s future, Bormann said it is too early to say. 

“Our general goal is to protect the resources on the property: ecological, cultural, and historic. One of the things that we’re wrestling with is this question of how we’ll keep an eye on it, because it’s pretty much the most remote location on Lopez,’ he said. Live-in caretakers bring their own issues, he noted, because of maintaining housing upkeep.

“When we purchase property, we usually take a year to make assessments before we make a decision,” Bormann he said. “There’s a lot that’s up in the air.”

For Kwiaht’s Barsh, including Indigenous knowledge in protecting the ecological, cultural and historic resources of the property is essential.

“Local sources for the cultural history of Watmough Bay include Swinomish senator Eric Day, and Samish cultural educator Rosie Cayou-James, both of whom visit Lopez often … Rosie is currently also on Kwiaht’s professional staff as our food-security specialist,” said Barsh.

“Without the advice of tribal cultural people with family ties to Watmough, neither the land bank nor BLM (Bureau of Land Management) will have a complete picture of the importance of the Higgins parcel culturally and historically.”

For now, the former Higgins property will not be accessible to the public, though people are free to continue admiring its beauty from the water, knowing that its future is secure.

— Reported by Gretchen W. Wing

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