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'It will continue to live': Mid-1800s officers quarters returns to American Camp

Top photo: The Nichols Bros. truck eases forward, removing the Adam Brown House from the corner of West and First streets at about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 2, leaving soil there bare for the first time in 126 years. Second, third and fourth photos: The house turns from West Street onto Second Street, Second Street onto Spring Street, and Spring Street onto Argyle Avenue. Bottom photo: The house will be placed next to the officers quarters at American Camp where it, too, was an officers quarters from 1867-1875. Both officers quarters originated at Fort Bellingham in the 1850s. - Richard Walker
Top photo: The Nichols Bros. truck eases forward, removing the Adam Brown House from the corner of West and First streets at about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 2, leaving soil there bare for the first time in 126 years. Second, third and fourth photos: The house turns from West Street onto Second Street, Second Street onto Spring Street, and Spring Street onto Argyle Avenue. Bottom photo: The house will be placed next to the officers quarters at American Camp where it, too, was an officers quarters from 1867-1875. Both officers quarters originated at Fort Bellingham in the 1850s.
— image credit: Richard Walker

The truck eased forward, and the Adam Brown House was removed from the corner of West and First streets at about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 2, leaving soil there bare for the first time in 126 years.

Like a person retracing her steps, after a long absence, at the place of her youth, the old house paraded down the route it likely took when it was moved to Friday Harbor: Spring Street to Argyle Avenue to Cattle Point Road to American Camp.

And the building had stories to tell. Turns out, it weighs 60,000 pounds, according to Nickel Bros. House Moving. A shed addition that was demolished was relatively old, dating to the 1890s. On the First Street side, the building had been enlarged 3 feet to accommodate a smithy. Whitewash dating to the 1800s was visible under siding that covers the original board and batten.

Much has changed since the day this building was moved to Friday Harbor, sometime between 1875-1884. Cherished buildings we consider old today – The Whale Museum, the Grange Hall, the Tourist Hotel, The Corner Store — hadn’t been built yet. Argyle, a thriving little town then, is now a quiet little neighborhood. Cattle Point Road was likely a frontier road then, a former sheep run developed by the Hudson’s Bay Co. and Cowichan First Nation laborers.

The method of moving a building back then was far different too. In the 1880s, the house was likely moved by a team of dray horses. On Dec. 2, Nickel Bros. deftly maneuvered the old house past parked cars and tree branches – sometimes with only inches to spare. A forgotten cup of coffee left on the stoop of the old house was still there after the house turned onto Argyle Avenue. “It’ll be there at American Camp,” a worker said confidently.

National Park historian Mike Vouri, who has written books about Friday Harbor, the island, and the joint military occupation of 1859-1872, said he was thinking about “the reach of time” as he watched the Brown House embark on its journey back to American Camp.

“It has a lot of meaning,” Vouri said. “It symbolizes the peaceful resolution of the territory dispute. It symbolizes pioneer life and the birth of a town. It’s been at this site since the 1880s and now it’s leaving in a positive way, completing a wonderful circle of historical preservation. It will continue to live.”

The owners of Friday Harbor House, which owns the lot on the corner of West and First streets, donated the Brown House to the National Park.

“It was ID’d in 2006 as an American Camp structure, but it never got on an historic registry,” said Melissa Evans, who with her parents, Anne and Langdon Simons, owns Friday Harbor House.

“We hoped the National Park would get funding to move it and restore it. Our concern was more about the building’s age. It’s a health and safety issue. Now, it will get all the love it needs.”

Evans said the now-former Brown House site will become an herb garden to supply the hotel’s Bluff Restaurant. The siding on the hotel, which shows the outline of the old Brown House, will be redone.

As for the Brown House: It spent the night on the redoubt road, overlooking Griffin Bay, its likely point of entry onto the island in 1867. Nickel Bros. will complete the journey today, placing the house next to Historic Structure 11 on the site it occupied from 1867-1875.

The Brown House, now Historic Structure 10, or HS 10, will get a coat of whitewash, Vouri said, an interim measure until full restoration begins. Historical architects will survey the building and recommend how to return the building to its original condition. The restoration work will be done as funding is available, Vouri said.

The interior of HS 11 is expected to be refurbished within a year or two, Vouri said. Eventually, both buildings will be open for public tours.

HS 10 and HS 11 were originally officers quarters at Fort Bellingham in 1856. HS 11 was moved to American Camp first, HS 10 followed in 1867. HS 10 was auctioned off in 1875 and shows up on records in Friday Harbor in 1884. Its sister building, HS 11, stayed at American Camp as a private residence.

In its three lives, HS 10 witnessed the settlement era, the birth of Bellingham, the changes brought by the treaty with the region's First Nations, the resolution of a territory dispute between two world superpowers, the development of an island town, and now the efforts to preserve those pieces of the historical record.

In Friday Harbor, the house became known as the Brown House, after Adam Brown, believed to be the one who moved the house to West and First streets. He ran the first sawmill in Friday Harbor; thanks to electricity generated by the mill, electric lights were first turned on in town in 1894.

Photographs through the years show the house in its various commercial iterations in Friday Harbor — from blacksmith shop to art gallery. It was last occupied by the San Juan Islands Museum of Art.

Darlene Wahl of San Juan Island National Historical Park watched Dec. 1 as Nickel Bros. workers lifted the Brown House with hydraulic jacks and prepped it for moving. "American Camp has such a rich history. The addition of this building, next to the other officers quarters, will make it richer," she said. "I love the history of it. It's been a long process, and it's really cool."

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