Iconic Boats of
Roche Harbor’s Past
Roche Harbor is known as a premier Northwest resort community and boating destination on San Juan Island. What’s more, when you sail or motor into this deep, protected harbor on the island-studded, U.S.-Canada border, you enter a maritime tradition that is historic, ambitious, and colorful. Here are some of Roche Harbor’s most famous vessels.
These waters are the ancestral marine highways of several Coast Salish peoples who traveled to and from Whelaalk (Wh’lehl-kluh)—Roche Harbor’s historic name—for commerce, to visit families, and to fish salmon-rich waters. When John S. McMillin established Tacoma & Roche Harbor Lime Co. here in 1886, there were Coast Salish communities at Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, at Open Bay on Henry Island, at the entrance to San Juan Island’s Mitchell Bay, and northeast of Roche Harbor opposite Spieden Island. Coast Salish people worked for the lime company and their descendants still fish these waters and work to protect habitat and cultural resources here.
Coast Salish canoes returned to Roche Harbor in 2004 and 2008 as part of the Canoe Journey, the annual gathering of Northwest Coast indigenous nations. And in 2016, the Lummi Nation dedicated a story pole depicting a reefnet fisherman and two accompanying salmon story boards at a village site on nearby Garrison Bay. Coast Salish families were displaced from the village by British troops during the territory dispute with the United States between 1859-1872.
Lutie Hillaire, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were born at Whelaalk, said in an earlier interview, “We were here yesterday. We are here today. We will be here tomorrow.”
McMillin (1855-1936) made a noted voyage to Princess Louisa Inlet in 1908 aboard his new yacht, Calcite, which was built on Lopez Island. One of the guests, photographer John A. McCormick, documented the journey in a cruise album that was published posthumously in book form in 1973 (Cruise of the Calcite, B & E Enterprises). The party consisted of McMillin; his son, Fred; R.P. Butchart of the Vancouver Portland Cement Company, whose quarry would become Butchart Gardens; McCormick, official cruise photographer; Henry Horst, first officer; Guy Wheeler, chief engineer; and Jim Nagaoka, chief steward.
“Quite a spiffy yacht for her day, the 50-foot Calcite provided all the comforts of home,” McCormick wrote. Calcite had sleeping accommodations for 10 guests; electric heat and lights; running water; and space beneath the afterdeck for stowing of all baggage and equipment.
Calcite departed Roche Harbor on Sept. 9, 1908, visiting Victoria, Chemainus, Campbell River, Powell River, Egmont and Hotham Sound before arriving at Princess Louisa Inlet on September 22. The party fished for salmon, hunted bear, and explored inlets and streams and falls. They returned to Roche Harbor on September 25 via Brandon, Vancouver, Maine Harbor, and Tod Inlet.
Calcite was later converted to a tug and doubled as pleasure craft and working boat. McMillin’s son, Paul, sold Calcite – to someone in Port Townsend, according to his daughter, Mary – around the time he sold Roche Harbor to the Tarte family. From there, Calcite’s fate is unclear. It may have ended up in Pelican, Alaska.
“Sometime in the early to mid ’80s a young man came to Pelican in an old tug by the name of the Calcite,” a resident wrote. “It was left in the harbor in Pelican, and the city of Pelican — due to lack of paying harbor fees and, I think, having no contact with the owner — put the boat on the beach and burned it. The prop and anchor winch were around here for years but I think the prop went to the scrap yard. As for the anchor winch, it may still be in town.”
Roche Harbor was well equipped to transport its lime products to West Coast ports for agriculture, construction and industrial uses. Over the years, its fleet included the three-masted barks Archer and Star of Chile, the three-masted brig William G. Irwin, and the tug Roche Harbor.
The Archer figures prominently among merchant vessels of her era. The 900-ton ship was built in 1876 at Sunderland, England, and had the capacity for 800,000 feet of lumber or about 1,000 tons of general cargo. She was dismasted and thrown on her beam ends on March 16, 1894, in a gale off Cape Flattery; three crewmen drowned. Archer was found by the steamer Maude and ultimately towed to Port Blakely, where she was converted to a barkentine for Capt. Rufus Calhoun of Port Townsend.
Roche Harbor Lime Transport bought Archer in 1906 and placed her into service freighting lime to San Francisco, California, which was rebuilding after the devastating fire and earthquake. Archer made history as the first commercial vessel on the West Coast to be outfitted with wireless radio.
Archer was sold in 1915 to Swayne & Hoyt, who installed an oil engine and operated her as a power schooner. She wrecked in 1936 off the Philippine Islands.
Reuben J. Tarte (1901-1968) was quite accomplished by the time he bought Roche Harbor in 1956 from Paul McMillin. He had founded Transport Storage and Distributing; invented the piggyback flatcar, which improved the delivery of automobiles by rail; and served as a Navy officer during World War II, patrolling Puget Sound to help protect cities and area military bases.
Tarte and his wife, the former Clara Diaz, became active boaters in 1936, sailing Northwest waters in their cruiser, the Clareu. When Clareu was called into wartime patrol service by the Navy, Tarte was commissioned a lieutenant commander so he could stay at her helm.
It wasn’t the first time U.S. yachtsmen had come to the nation’s aid in wartime. “During the American Civil War, private American yachts were loaned or leased to the U.S. Navy,” according to C. Kay Larson, national historian of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. The 1916 Naval Reserve Act provided for enrollment of civilian boats and crews “suitable for naval purposes in the naval defense of the coast.”
During the Great War, the U.S. Naval Reserve organized yacht clubs into submarine watches “to ease fear along the coast and raise morale by giving everyone a greater piece of the action,” Larson wrote.
In the 1920s, the Chris Craft Company introduced the mass manufacture of recreational boats. “By 1936, the family cruiser had become the backbone of the U.S. motorboat industry,” Larson wrote. “These cruisers would become the backbone of the [nation’s] small-boat fleet.” Without them, “America would not have been able to provide the vessels that protected its coasts during World War II.”
Eleven years after the war’s end, Lt. Cmdr. Tarte and Clareu had a new homeport: Roche Harbor.
Actor John Wayne (1907-1979) frequently visited Roche Harbor on his yacht, Wild Goose, in the 1960s and ’70s. Like its owner, Wild Goose was one of a kind.
She was built for the U.S. Navy in 1943 in Ballard (Seattle, Washington) as a mine sweeper and commissioned USS YMS-328. She patrolled out of Adak and swept minefields at Attu and Kiska in Alaska. Post-war, she was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register and became a private yacht, and at one point traveled to Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Hawaii.
Wayne bought the former minesweeper in 1962, renovated her and changed her name to Wild Goose. She was featured in the 1967 film, The President’s Analyst, and the 1968 film Skidoo. You can catch up with Wild Goose in Newport Beach, California; she is owned by Hornblower Cruises and provides dinner cruises. She’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.