Seattle Now & Then: Neah Bay Salmon Fleet, 1910

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Neah Bay’s active harbor circa 1910. The “salmon fleet” portrayed by Wischmeyer includes vessels of every shape and size. Many also would have sought the more highly prized halibut in the open ocean. (Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW 1: From the roof of Brian Parker’s Dia’ht Hill home, the view of Neah Bay is largely unobstructed. The original location of the Spanish fort is center left, at the shoreline surrounded by flags. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 15, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Sept. 18, 2022)

Philip Wischmeyer’s stunning panoramic view of Neah Bay circa 1910 features the Makah fishing fleet at its most active, comprising more than 200 hard-working vessels.

And while today’s protected harbor at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula is much less busy, particularly after two years of pandemic quarantine, the Makah reservation reopened to visitors on March 15, 2022.

For Brian Parker, who graciously provided access from his Dia’ht Hill rooftop to repeat this week’s “Then” photo, the isolation was difficult but necessary to protect his community. Nevertheless, he welcomes the surge of vacationers who snapped up all summer lodgings in and around the bay.

Two-hundred-and-thirty years ago, this natural harbor, home to the Makah for millennia, briefly hosted another group of outsiders. Geopolitical competition among colonial rivals England, Spain and America to map and claim possession of the sketchily charted Pacific Northwest coast approached a high-water mark.

On April 29, 1792, English naval Capt. George Vancouver guided his vessel HMS Discovery into the strait of Juan de Fuca, beginning his mission to survey the inland waters of today’s Salish Sea.

Just two weeks later, on May 11, American merchant ship Capt. Robert Gray’s Columbia Rediviva negotiated the treacherous sandbars of a huge river and sailed into its estuary. After conducting initial surveys, Gray named the river Columbia after his ship.

On May 29, the Spanish naval frigate Princesa offloaded 70 seamen, 13 soldiers, 4 officers and a chaplain at Neah Bay. The settlers cleared land and built Fort Núñez Gaona, the first non-Native American structure in the future state of Washington.

NOW 2: Dedicated in 2008, the combined Fort Núñez Gaona/Diah Veterans Park commemorates the first non-Native American structures in the continental Pacific Northwest and honors Makah military veterans. (Noel Sherrard)

Just across a stream from the Makah village of Diah, these modest barracks, storehouses, and a bakery — as well as palisades with gun mounts — promised a significant Spanish toehold at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But unanticipated hurdles proved difficult to overcome.

The bay itself was too shallow to accommodate larger vessels. What’s more, says Makah Museum Executive Director Janine Ledford, the native residents of Diah, upon returning from annual spring fishing and whaling camps on Tatoosh Island, began to actively resist the invaders.

NOW 3: A view from the re-opened Cape Flattery trail, looking west towards Tatoosh Island. Its historic lighthouse (1854), decommissioned and crumbling, stands on land sacred to the Makah. (Jean Sherrard)

On Sept. 29, after the volatile summer, the fort was abandoned and the Spanish returned to their home port at Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound, never to return.

At this year’s annual Makah Days festival on Aug. 26-29, the first held since 2019, guests were welcome to celebrate the reinvigorated culture, community and health of these proud people. And the Makah choice to isolate during the pandemic proved wise. Not a single tribal member died during the quarantine.

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