Opinion

Ruins, perhaps, but they’re still our treasures | Guest Column | March 13

Two decades ago, we started a serious inventory of the island’s historic resources. We found a rich collection of landmarks, sites, cemeteries, archaeological remains, markers, rare natural features, buildings, structures, folk art, “hysterical” Frog Rock. In other words, ruins.

Typical responses: “Ruins on Bainbridge? In the middle of our bursting, manicured new suburbia? Heaven forbid! We’d better knock ‘em down, bury them, clean up the place! Ruins? We can’t have that! Why would we want a `ruin’ in the middle of our cul-de-sac or park?”

John Kvapil, a bright historic preservationist architect who lived across the street from the entrance to today’s Strawberry Plant Park provided trustees of the Bainbridge Island Historical Society with an impassioned rationale for the preservation of our ruins. “They, too,” he said, “were potentially rich and valuable cultural resources.” Kvapil also helped with the plans to save Camp Hopkins (Yeomalt Cabin) and Battle Point’s Transmitter Building. That was in 1988.

State Parks know the value of Bainbridge ruins. The state agency published a book on how to preserve them. It helps public and private stewards of what, at first discovery, seem like ancient Mayan ruins! These remarkable post Spanish-American War era remnants – including hidden cannon emplacements, casements and lookouts – allow us to recall our nation’s history. You can read about them in Ivan Lee’s book on Fort Ward.

On Bean’s Point tidelands stand two mysterious ruins – timbered structures filled with giant boulders that once anchored World War II anti-submarine nets.

On Rockaway Beach, a cave-like concrete structure used to be a favorite of rainy-day beachcombers. It was once part of a mining operation – not for copper or gold, but for high-quality sand used to make glass.

At Battle Point Park, south of the Ed Ritchie Astronomical Observatory (itself a historic building featured in Lee’s book), stands a tall, concrete, ivy-covered obelisk that bears a Kiwanis Memorial plaque. Four two-inch diameter bolts protrude through the ivy on top. Nearby sits a large, round, solid ceramic object with four bolt holes in its base. Upon this high-fired clay insulator and the obelisk, once rested much of the weight of the “free world” – hundreds of tons of concrete that formed the U.S. Navy’s powerful WWII Pacific radio transmitter tower. It was 300 feet taller than the Space Needle.

Island forests and farms have their ruins, too. We’ve seen root cellars, dynamite storage bunkers, beehive brick smoke houses, fireplaces and chimneys, steamboat sounding-board foundations, even missile silos. They are often found “in the middle of nowhere,” but they are clues to yesterday’s somewheres.

Beach ruins tell tales of shoreline changes, trading posts, boat building, lumber ship ballast, Moran School’s parade grounds, steamboat landings, ship ways, ship wrecks and... what is that thing in Murden Cove?

Now our city and park officials, enticed by funds set aside by the Wyckoff Company to make amends for damages to the environment, have created a long list of “mitigation” projects here. They have not included the island’s most toxic hot spot (within the Superfund area), the ferry terminal dock where the run-off from two million cars per year runs into Eagle Harbor unrestricted. Nor will they clean up the debris found on the state-owned beach between the ferry terminal and WSF’s maintenance yard “because it contains the historic ruins of the Winslow Shipyard.”

Instead, they have placed as the highest priority the excavation and destruction of all historic vestiges of the non-polluting Winslow Berry Growers’ Association operation at Strawberry Cannery Park (1930-42) and “the largest lumber mill in the world” at Blakely Harbor Park.

Island families and cultural tourists are knowledgeable about this historic ground. The ruins provide what no book or photo can – an element of scale, context and a sense of place that reaches across a bay, an island, state, nation and planet. And time!

Gerald Elfendahl is an island historian.

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