Blakely Island history: The airstrip

Blakely Island history: Spencer Cabin

Thatcher’s legacy

From schoolhouses to school districts

Exploring Blakely Island’s schoolhouse, education opportunities in San Juan Islands

Scroll through this gallery to see photos of the inside of the Blakely Island schoolhouse

Brief History of the Blakely Island Schoolhouse:

A small boat rocks on the clear, cold waters of the Salish Sea. Inside, a wife and husband lookout to the forest-covered island ahead, hoping to capitalize on the growing novelty of the logging industry. Here, they will create a family, build their home and with others establish a community that will remain on Blakely Island for generations.  

In 2024, Blakely Island and the Seattle Pacific University Field Station may appear to tell a single educational story – college students traveling to a remote laboratory to engage in hands-on, practical research and collaboration. But the history of learning started with some of the island’s first homesteaders.

Bruce Congdon, professor emeritus of biology and former director of the Blakely Island Field Station from 1995 to 2002, believes that while managing, teaching and investigating the island, he discovered objects of the island’s hidden history, including the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

“I found a car out there that had been abandoned with trees growing out of the windows. It was just decrepit. I never saw it again, but it hid amongst the trees,” Congdon said. “Items like these help us understand who lived here first and what was most important to them. The schoolhouse is one of the few things spared from being overtaken by the trees and decay.”

Harrison Coffelt built the schoolhouse and it began operations in 1889 to serve the children of loggers.

“When you see those big, old stumps with that notch in them, it means that tree was felled during the period of the first homesteaders. They had to use that notch to help them cut down the trees to haul down to the Thatcher Bay,” Congdon said. “The schoolhouse was built for that population and was meant to serve them and their families as they worked those long hours.”

The exterior of the refurbished schoolhouse on a sunny day, surrounded by thick trees and green grass (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

The first teacher at the schoolhouse was Richard Straub, who taught a classroom of about 15 students. The children typically enrolled in the school ranged from about one year to around elementary school age. When students reached high school, they had to travel to nearby islands to continue their education.

A view of the inside of the Spencer School through the viewing bars, including the original children’s desks, teacher’s desk, chalkboards and furnace (Isabella Tranello).

The school served the children for 61 years before closing in 1950. A teacher identified as S. Newcome taught the last class, with only four children enrolled, ages one, two and four. After the school’s closure, preschoolers and elementary-age children began traveling off the island to attend school. By 1987, about 10 to 12 children traveled to Orcas Island for school.

Despite dedicated efforts to refurbish the one-room schoolhouse, it remains unused and closed to public entry. SPU students visiting the Field Station can see the schoolhouse but can only go as far as the porch and the roughly two-foot square viewing area inside.

Educational Opportunities in the San Juan Islands:

Unlike other islands in the San Juan Islands, which have school districts and schoolhouses, the closing of the schoolhouse on Blakely Island meant the disappearance of an official educational institution. Luckily, the full-time residents on the island, many of whom are retired, do not have children, so there is no need to have a functioning school system. But other islands do, such as Orcas and Lopez Island. While they both have official schools for all grade levels, they also have unique opportunities for extended learning.

One is the Port Stanley Schoolhouse on Lopez Island. SPU students or general visitors of Blakely Island who wish to walk through a functional and preserved schoolhouse, the Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum might be worth a trip.

It is not a one-room schoolhouse like the Blakely Island schoolhouse; instead, it has three rooms. Although slightly different, it is also essential to the history of Lopez Island. Executive Director of the Lopez Island Historical Museum Amy Frost recalls the community’s deep passion for restoring this significant historical structure, reminiscent of the call to restore the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

A side view of the exterior of the Port Stanely Schoolhouse at the Lopez Island Historical Museum looking out on the water (Courtesy of Amy Frost).

“They saw it as an opportunity for the community to restore it, to have another building that reflected the history and was available for public use,” Frost said. “When it was restored, there were still many people here who went to school there. In the mid-1990s, some people were only in their 70s and had gone to school there.”

For a place like Lopez Island with a present population of children, a schoolhouse that can be rented out for classes allows them to meet the educational standards of their class while also engaging with the island’s history. The schoolhouse is available for rent for parties, art classes, general visits and full-time usage when needed.

Some islands even have preschools, such as Kaleidoscope Preschool on Orcas Island. The preschool primarily serves children and families on Orcas Island who aspire to find a quality childcare program and start their children’s learning early. Director Amber Paulsen believes their center is exceptionally unique and offers learning opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

“I think the most unique component of our program is our outdoor nature-based program. We have a very supportive family group committed to outdoor education,” Paulsen said. “We’re finding great benefit from this unique style of early learning. And the more time I spend in the forest with the kids and my teachers, the more I believe that the world would be better if every human could spend a year in the forest.”

While young children no longer learn in the small schoolhouse amongst the forestry of Blakely Island, education persists at the Field Station. Like the first homesteaders, SPU students sail across the Salish Sea and plant their feet on the beautiful shores of Blakely Island.

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A place in the wilderness for SPU: Blakely Island

If it hadn’t been for donating 1,000 acres of Blakely Island wilderness in 1976, the reality of having a field station and laboratory in the San Juan Islands for Seattle Pacific University students may have never come to fruition.

The process of attaining the land on Blakely Island occurred after Thomas B. Crowley Sr., the head of the shipping conglomerate Crowley Maritime Corporation, bought 4,400 acres of land on Blakely. The land purchased by Crowley Sr. is situated on the upper part of the island, which was previously owned by a logging company. This specific parcel of land included Blakely Peak and the land surrounding Spencer Lake.

Crowley’s land donation to SPU included Blakely Peak, as seen here. (Jenna Dennison)

For Crowley, it was especially important to purchase land on Blakely, as talk had circulated that heavy condominium development would occur on the land. The Crowley family also had preexisting ties to the island, as they owned a summer home on Blakely.

In purchasing the land on Blakely, Crowley Sr. wanted to gift 1,000 acres of the land for conservation easement. Originally, he approached the Nature Conservancy and the University of Washington about donating the property, but both organizations were not able to process the donation fast enough. However, SPU was able to handle Crowley Sr.’s donation within the designated time frame.

In donating the land to the university, Crowley Sr. also agreed to construct the island’s field station. Construction took place from 1979–1983, according to Thomas B. Crowley Jr., Crowley Sr.’s son and current CEO of Crowley Maritime Corporation.

The field station itself was finished in February 1984 and dedicated on May 5, 1984. In addition, an endowment was established by the Crowley family and a group of other donors in order to pay for field station operations.

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Blakely Island Field Station’s dormitory, shortly after construction, wrapped in 1984. (Courtesy Adrienne Meier, SPU Archivist)

“The new Crowley Laboratory is dedicated to the preservation of Blakely Island’s beauty and the environmental education of students,” said SPU Vice President Joe Constance at the time of the dedication.

A November 1984 copy of Response magazine also follows the arrival of Dr. Ross Shaw, the first director for the new field station. Shaw was directly involved in creating academic programs for the island, planning for increased student programming on Blakely in summer and completing his own research on Blakely Island’s lake, forest, and marsh ecosystems.

Students from Dr. Tim Nelson’s Plant Identification and Taxonomy class working in the Crowley Laboratory. (Jenna Dennison)

In fact, SPU’s 1984–1985 class catalog was the first time specific summer classes at Blakely Island were listed.

“We wanted to create a place where students could have a place to learn,” said Crowley Jr.

Blakely Island’s history and architecture

Blakely Island, located within Puget Sound in Washington State, is approximately seven square miles in area and includes two freshwater lakes: Horseshoe Lake and Spencer Lake. Spencer Creek, a freshwater creek, flows from Spencer Lake into Thatcher Bay. The island has a high point of approximately 1,000 feet and is accessible through a short hike to Blakely Peak.

Blakely Peak post sunset. By: Peg Achterman

The land surrounding the island consists of kelp forests, seagrass, and habitats that are part of the neritic zone. These habitats lie below the low-tide mark but are still shallow and close to shore. They support a variety of seaweed, marine mammals, invertebrates, and fish.

The forests and bodies of water on the island are home to river otters, bats, kingfisher birds, bald eagles, and many kinds of plants.  

Blakely Island was named by Charles Wilkes during his exploratory expedition of 1838–1842. Wilkes’ group explored the Pacific Northwest coast, including Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, in 1841. The island was named after Johnston Blakely, an American officer who served in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He is considered one of the most successful American naval officers of that period.

Thatcher Bay, on the island’s east coast, was the location of seasonal Samish Tribal villages. Native Samish people regularly camped at the southern edge of the island. When settlers arrived in the late 1800s, they founded the sawmill town of Thatcher near Spencer Lake. During the territorial period, it was considered the “mill town” of Thatcher. The town declined in residency in the 1950s, resulting in most of the island being sold to private individuals. The individuals built a private marina and airstrip for private use. Land in the central and southern parts of the island was purchased by Thomas Crowley.

Thatcher Bay on Blakely Island. Photo taken from Inter-Island Propane.

In 2014, toxic pilings of carbonaceous chemicals formed by distilling various tars and pyrolysis of plant-derived material (ex, wood or fossil fuel) left over from earlier periods were removed from the waters of Thatcher Bay. Thatcher Bay is separated from Cypress Island, the westernmost part of Skagit County, approximately halfway between the mainland and San Juan County to the east by Rosario Strait. Thatcher Bay’s population was approximately 56 persons.

There is no public access or ferry service to Blakely Island. The only way to access the island is to arrive at the marina by boat or by private plane, which is available exclusively to property owners. The only service available on Blakely Island is a general store, which is located at the marina upon arrival and is only open seasonally. Seattle Pacific University runs a 967-acre field station that includes a laboratory on the island.

Blakely Island Marina. By: Jenn Tran

1976 Thomas B. Crowley donated 967 acres of wilderness land on Blakely Island to Seattle Pacific University.

The Thomas B. Crowley laboratory is the main building on the SPU property, completed in February 1984. It was designed to blend in with its surrounding habitat. The building includes a laboratory space, residences, and a dining area for faculty and students.

Thomas B. Crowley laboratory. By: Peg Achterman

The building was named after Crowley, who donated the property and funds to be used to construct buildings on it. The Crowley family started an endowment, which has had other contributors donate to the operation of the Blakely Field Station today.

Crowley specified that the property would be used to provide students with an opportunity to study in an authentic wilderness environment. SPU agreed to his condition and formed a mission statement to honor it.

The mission statement reads: “To support excellence in education and research in field-based environmental and physical sciences while supporting the preservation and wise use of Blakely Island ecosystems.”

At the dedication service on May 5, 1984, SPU’s Vice President Joe Constance said, “The new Crowley Laboratory is dedicated to the preservation of Blakely Island’s beauty and the environmental education of the students.”

Thomas B. Crowley Memorial is located on Blakely Peak. By: Jenn Tran

In 1977, after the SPU was given the right of the land, it began hosting classes in the field station. These classes consisted of natural science and environmental studies courses.

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Thomas B. Crowley Laboratory in 1984. Photo taken from Seattle Pacific University archives.

The Thomas B. Crowley laboratory was designed with small class sizes and independent research studies in mind. The space was mainly meant for courses in marine biology, geology, and independent field studies by SPU faculty members and members of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities. 

Thomas B. Crowley laboratory in 2018. By: Peg Achterman

In 1978, a team of geologists from the University of Washington studied the composition of rocks on Blakely Island and various other islands within the San Juan region. They discovered plagiogranite—the result of fractional melting above a rapid subduction zone. (It is commonly produced in volcanic arcs and cordilleran mountain buildings) dating back 170 million years, fine-grained mudstone, and coarse-pebbled conglomerate. 

The Blakely Campus has been the setting for academic endeavors in fields other than sciences. In 1986, assistant professor of English Rose Reynoldson taught a unique writing course for adult learners on the island.

In 2018, a first for journalism, students were able to accompany biology professors Elena Brezynski, Eric Long, and Tim Nelson, who also serves as the director of the Blakely Island Field Station, Bruce Congdon, and Baine Craft, alongside biology and integrated studies students on the weekend field experiences.

Seattle Pacific University and Blakely Island
Island history goes beyond university presence

For over four decades Seattle Pacific University has created a presence on Blakely Island. However, Blakely Island’s history has been recognized well before SPU or the 20th century.

Before the arrival of foreign settlers, the land was taken care of by Native American tribes. These Tribes would congregate near Thatcher Bay to hunt, fish, and dry out plant harvests from the wind and rain of the fall and winter.

This would be the way of life for many tribes until the end of the 19th century. Eventually, Blakely would see the arrival of the first non-native settlers.

The island was originally named after U.S. Naval Officer, Johnston Blakely, who served during the war of 1812. The name was inspired by Charles Wilkes, during an 1838-1842 exploration of the Pacific Northwest.

While Blakely may be named after a navy officer, it was Captain George Vancouver who would be the first European to navigate most of Blakely and the San Juan Islands.

These explorations would pave a way for men and women looking for new land and new opportunity in the northwest. Soon settlers and families arrived from all over.

One of the first families, the Spencer family, would be one of the first groups to settle the island and live there for several generations.

Mini industries like fishing, lumber, and farming would be started creating a small local economy with a post office and local government. This economy and local government still stand to this day.

However, even with a sawmill economy, the 1950s through the 1970s would be a time of decay for Blakely. During these two decades, many parts of the island were auctioned off to private buyers.

This would be the case in 1976 when native islander Thomas Crowley donated 976 acres of wilderness land to SPU to build a science research facility.

Per SPU Historian, Adrienne Meier, the facility was not only meant to accommodate small classes and independent research in marine biology, geology, and ecological studies but was also meant to help preserve the islands pure wildlife.

Construction of SPU’s Crowley research lab was completed in 1984 and dedicated in 1985. The hope was that the lab would be surrounded by nature and would stand as a facility that was dedicated, “to the preservation of Blakely Island’s beauty & the environmental education of future students.”

The first resident director of SPU’s Blakely Island field station was longtime professor Dr. Ross Shaw, who assumed the position in 1977. In an article, Dr. Shaw hailed the field station as “one of the best opportunities in the United States for undergraduate field studies.”

Dr. Shaw would stay the resident director for many more years, helping to shape the physical land and the non-physical experience unique to the island and to Seattle Pacific University.

Currently, the island still serves as an educational resource for Seattle Pacific biology, ecology, psychology, and education students. SPU still holds true to the commitment to hold high-level undergraduate research experiences while maintaining a commitment to the islands natural wellbeing.


Dr. Ross Shaw was the first SPU Professor to oversee the building and education on the Island