Gig Harbor’s history is a rich tapestry of fishing boats, saw mills, farms, steamboats and ferries, bridges, and people looking for opportunity.
Gig Harbor got its name during the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes. In 1841
one of the expedition’s ships, the Vincennes, arrived in southern Puget Sound to chart the local waters and document the flora, fauna, and native inhabitants of the surrounding area. The longboat, or captain's gig, from the Vincennes was used to locate and chart the small bays. Later, "Gig Harbor" was written on Lt. Wilkes' map -- giving the name we use today for our sheltered bay.
In 1867, fisherman Sam Jerisich became one of the first three white people to settle on the shores of Gig Harbor. Jerisich was from Kotor, Montenegro. Other settlers soon arrived from throughout the United States and Europe, especially Norway, Sweden, and Croatia. The first settlers lived side by side with the Native American people who had lived on the harbor’s shore for thousands of years. Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin were the most prominent bands to live in this area from the S'Homamish people of the Pacific Northwest. The Indians lived along the waters of the Gig Harbor Peninsula. They followed the salmon runs, hunted the deer, and gathered berries and grasses. Their camp in Gig Harbor was located at today's Donkey Creek, near the mouth of the creek. Even up through 1915, the longhouse built by these early inhabitants still stood, and was used in the late 1880s as the first harbor school.
Many of the Croatians that settled in Gig Harbor became fishermen. Commercial fishing and related industries, like boatbuilding, dominated the local economy and the rhythm of life in the community for more than 100 years. More than 140 wooden vessels, mostly fishing boats, were built in Gig Harbor between 1912 and 1930.
Like most of the Pacific Northwest, the Gig Harbor Peninsula was timber rich and extensively logged before settlement. Several different sawmills operated in Gig Harbor from the 1880s through the 1950s. Small but successful farms and dairies were scattered across the peninsula. Berries, poultry, holly, and eggs made their way to markets in Tacoma and across the country.
One of the early settlers, Dr. A.M. Burnham, saw the potential of the harbor and, in 1888, platted the town of Gig Harbor at the north end of the bay by Donkey Creek. Other settlers established two additional towns on the bay – Millville (considered today's 'downtown') and Artena (encompassing today's Finholm District) .Eventually the city of Gig Harbor would grow to include both of these other towns.The city incorporated in 1947.
The settlers established churches and schools that became the center of social activities. Veterans of the Civil War formed a local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic and their wives formed the Women’s Relief Corps. Pioneer women also established the Fortnightly Club, a social and community service organization, in 1907. The club is still active today and is the oldest club on the peninsula. Picnics, swimming, and claming were favorite pastimes. C.E. Shaw entertained people with rooster races in the 1930s and ‘40s. In the 1950s, he introduced a Round Rock Contest which was reintroduced in 1998.
Small steamboats plied the water of Puget Sound throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The collection of boats was nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet. A local family, the Hunts, began building and operating steamboats to carry passengers and freight around the peninsula and to Tacoma in the 1880s. Car ferries began to transport automobiles between Gig Harbor and Tacoma in 1917. The ferries eventually replaced the small steamers.
The first Narrows Bridge, linking the peninsula to Tacoma, was completed in July of 1940. Known as Galloping Gertie, the bridge collapsed in a windstorm just four months after completion. The ferries, pulled out of service when the bridge opened, were put back to work. The existing bridge opened to traffic in 1950, ending all ferry service. In 2007, the third bridge to span the Narrows will open.
How to explore more of Gig Harbor’s history:
Pick up a copy of the "Gig Harbor Waterfront History Walk," available at the Chamber of Commerce, Gig Harbor Visitor Center, and at our museum.