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.

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Blakely Peak post sunset. (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.

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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 (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.

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. Otherwise, Seattle Pacific University runs a 967-acre field station that includes a laboratory on the island.

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Blakely Island Marina. By: Jenn Tran

In 1976, Thomas B. Crowley donated 967 acres of wilderness land on Blakely Island to SPU.

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 and a dining area for faculty and students.

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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.

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. 

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.”

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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.

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.