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Boathouse and Resort Era Revival Restores a Sense of Peace and Place

July 31, 2012

By John Dean, CWB Board Member

Hundreds of west coast families are rediscovering the magic of vacations the way they used to be in the Pacific Northwest at an historic Puget Sound boathouse and resort on Camano Island. CWB at Cama Beach State Park is a treasured relic of a slower way of life where families play on boats and beaches without TV and cars. Many call it their Special Place and return to “their” cabin year after year.

CWB wins grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to gather information about the hundreds of beach resorts that once dotted Washington State waters

Between 1890 and the late 1950s, small boat rental operations and fishing resorts in Washington were as common as ferries and seafood restaurants. They ranged from rowboat rentals at the Thea Foss livery on Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, to motorboats at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle.

1957 Fishing Guide to ResortsThe rise of these and “auto courts” of the 1920s and 1930s represented a way of recreation different from steamboat and locomotive travel of earlier periods and predated the long road trips and jet travel of the latter half of the 20th century. A few of the operations, with cabins for rent around boathouses and recreation halls, lasted all the way into the 1970s.

Cama Beach State Park and its partner, Center for Wooden Boats (CWB), continue the tradition today on Camano Island north of Seattle, providing a place people can squirrel away in shoreline forest cabins, stroll around an old wood livery full of custom wood boats for rent, read a book or play a game around a huge stone fireplace in a cavernous lodge, even buy ice cream, toys, and candy at the old resort store.

It all started in 1933 when Leroy Stradley, a Seattle hotel operator, began building the resort on an old logging campsite along Saratoga Passage on the western side of Camano Island, looking out at Whidbey Island and the Olympic Mountains. An antique horse-powered road grader remains an on-site monument to that achievement. Within several years, Cama Beach Resort was one of the island’s most popular vacation destinations, and antique gravity-fed gas pumps are still a reminder of the long trek motorists made before freeways and, in some cases, paved county roads.

Cama Then - 1930s - Credit Stanwood Area Historical Society

Cama Beach Resort 1930’s, Photo Courtesy Stanwood Area Historical Society

Cama Beach Resort was one of nearly 200 private boathouse and resort operations on Puget Sound back in those days and one of 23 on Camano Island. Together they offered unique recreational opportunities from Olympia to the Canadian border, drawing people from throughout the region.

But these special places go back even farther. The 1890s saw the rise of the Boathouse Era when Thea Foss rented her first rowboat on the Tacoma waterfront. The popularity of rowboat liveries and, later small outboard-powered boat rental operations, grew quickly.

Cama Beach State Park today boasts one of the best preserved resort boathouses. Located about 70 miles north of downtown Seattle, visitors both in the 1930s and today drive over a short bridge about seven miles west of I-5 to reach Camano Island and the park.

Skyway Neighborhood

Cama Beach State Park Today, photo by Greg Gilbert

Elsewhere around Puget Sound, however, little remains of the flourishing recreational boathouse industry. A few scattered operations are still open, but nearly all of the traditional boathouses are closed, most of the structures and fleets have disappeared, and the vast majority of boat rentals on Puget Sound and adjacent waterways today are limited to non-traditional paddle boats and kayaks. That’s why Center for Wooden Boats members and staff say it’s so important to keep places like Cama Beach and the Center’s south Lake Union home alive.

The story of Puget Sound boathouses is not just about wooden boats and the liveries they’re stored in. It’s also about economics, the environment, and recreation of the healing kind.

Post-war prosperity created a boom in recreational boating, but it also led to innovation that put a gaping hole in traditional boathouse industries and their art forms. Cheaper methods allowed mass production of small boats. Larger automobiles allowed people to trailer their own boats. And airline travel made vacations to warmer climates more accessible. All of these combined to sink dozens of family operated boathouses. Leading to the decline in traditional boat rental operations was the decline of salmon populations. Fishing became less rewarding after dams, urban and suburban development and environmental pollution took their toll on the sensitive species of Pacific Salmon.

Other organizations tell the story of the tall ships and steamers that built Puget Sound towns while private owners preserve classic Northwest yachts and traditionally-built fishing boats still earn their keep. As their biggest champion, the Center for Wooden Boats preserves and teaches all ages the “under-appreciated” yet significant aspects of Northwest maritime history and culture.

“At Cama Beach, CWB wishes to not just tell the story of the historic resort, but to tell the story of the Puget Sound Boathouse Era,” Center for Wooden Boats’ Cama Beach site manager Andrew Washburn explains.

“Innumerable times our staff at the boathouse at Cama Beach has encountered people who stop at the door, and as they look around at the boats, they say, ‘You know, I’ve never been here before, but this reminds me of a place my parents took me as a kid in Edmonds or Mukilteo, or Tacoma, or on Hood Canal, or in West Seattle.’”

Washburn says the structure and story of Cama Beach is significant in itself, but the fact that it is one of the last boat houses in operation and the only one operating from original buildings makes it significant on a regional level. The National Trust for Historic Preservation thinks so, too.

A grant from the Trust’s Johanna Favrot Fund will fund half of a new boathouse project to preserve both the history of Cama Beach, but also the broader history of the “Boathouse Era” on Puget Sound. In historian jargon, it’s called “creating context.”

Washburn says the goal is to enhance “the sense of place” at Cama Beach State Parks boathouse by helping visitors understand the historic value of the antique resort boats on display and for rent as well as the craftsmanship of new ones built from old designs.

The first step is gathering historic photos, old posters and advertisements, oral histories, home movies, and historic boats from across the region.

The next step is getting all of us, caught in our modern-day worlds, out of our homes and offices for a trip to the beach.

People with personal histories or items useful in telling the story of Puget Sound’s Boathouse Era are encouraged to contact project manager Andrew Washburn, awashburn@cwb.org For more information about Center for Wooden Boats and Cama Beach State Park, visit www.cwb.org and www.parks.wa.gov/camabeach/

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