Published in The Seattle Times online on March 23, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on March 26, 2023
The ‘happy airs’ of Orcas waft from Robert Moran’s Rosario Resort
By Clay Eals
Early on a Sunday 102 years ago, “strains of wonderful music” awoke newspaper writer Dolly Madison as she stayed at the Orcas Island mansion of retired Seattle mayor, shipbuilder and philanthropist Robert Moran.
“Hazy visions of heaven, with its choirs of sweet singers and golden harps, arose,” she wrote. “Near and nearer the sound traveled. The faint notes of a pipe organ became discernible. The music grew louder; then louder. Phrases were recognized. Suddenly an avalanche of sound pealed forth; low, deep notes; the warbling of birds; then the snatches of happy airs.”
Her senses didn’t deceive her. Routinely, Moran manipulated player rolls to create sunrise sounds on his 1,972-pipe German organ — an Aeolian (after the god of wind). The 1913 instrument still weaves magic in the five-floor, 117-year-old “Shangri-La” that Moran named Rosario, for the nearby strait.
Expanded and run as a resort under several owners since 1960, it’s again for sale. The Barto family of Anacortes seeks an entity to implement a 10-year, Seabrook/Suncadia-like redevelopment while retaining Moran’s vision and integrity.
Moran (1857-1943) forged an impressive if improbable existence. Born in New York slums, he arrived at Yesler’s wharf in Seattle at age 17 with only a dime. Seven years hence, the entrepreneurial machinist founded Moran Brothers drydock, which over two decades built steamers, barges and the USS Nebraska, a battleship active from 1904 to 1923.
Along the way, Moran won two one-year terms as Seattle mayor, straddling the city’s devastating Great Fire in 1889. Though lauded for swift recovery measures, Moran later deflected such praise:
“The fire simply cleared the ground and made it possible to build what is today one of the most beautiful cities in the United States,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1909. “It did more than that, however. As the electrical engineer would say, it put the ‘peak’ load on its citizens, morally and physically.”
Moran was facing his own challenge of destiny. Told by doctors at age 47 that he had six months to live, he left his Seattle empire and in 1906 decamped to peaceful Orcas, “the gem of the San Juans.” There, he bought thousands of acres and carefully built his waterfront Rosario estate in the new landscape amid family and frequent guests, living to age 86.
Guiding him were the hand-hewn Arts & Crafts movement, his long-held shipbuilding sensibilities and a deep respect for nature, which inspired his donation of what became next-door Moran State Park, including the breathtaking 2,400-foot Mount Constitution.
Who will carry on Moran’s life-enhancing showpiece? Perhaps they only will need to experience its music.
Special thanks to Patty Johnson,Scott Cameron, Meg Eals and especially Christopher Peacock for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Clay Eals’ 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.