From Stories of Boat Builders and Fishermen to Farmers and Ferry Operators

The Harbor History Museum celebrates 10 years in permanent home

By Stephanie Lile, Director, Harbor History Museum

The Harbor History Museum is nestled on the Gig Harbor waterfront where Donkey Creek meets the bay. Celebrating its 10th year of operation, the Harbor History Museum and its site have a much deeper history. Once home to a thriving community known as txʷaalqəł, meaning “where game is found” in Lushootseed, the site was later home to the C.O. Austin Mill, the Eve-Glo Art Studio, Peninsula Light Company, and the Beach Basket/Means Ornamental garden shop.


In 2009, one warehouse building was transformed into the iconic “red barn” museum building we know today. Large community artifacts such as the 1893 Midway Schoolhouse and the 1925 fishing boat, Shenandoah, were moved onto the museum campus for preservation and exhibition. On opening day September 18, 2010, visitors stepped through the museum’s front doors—surrounded by massive logs reminiscent of the trees that were once milled here—for the first time.


Today, the museum’s 7,500-square-foot permanent gallery takes you on a journey from the twisted remnants of “Galloping Gertie” (the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge) to the immigrant stories of boat builders, fishermen, farmers and ferry operators. Look closely, and you’ll find the first winners of Gig Harbor’s fabled Round Rock Contest and hear the clamor of the crowd as C.E. Shaw’s famous racing roosters take to the track. These roosters were so well-known they were invited to Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1938.


Fans of local boat building will delight in the Willits canoe, the giant wheel from the ferry Defiance, and a purse seiner’s power block—the 1950s invention that changed commercial fishing forever. Loved by many are the Norwegian and Croatian costumes on display from the days of Scandia Gaard, a local attraction born in the 1950s where Nordic heritage was celebrated through music, dance and folklore.


Outside, visitors marvel at the one-room schoolhouse, the last of its kind in the Gig Harbor area. Restored to its early 1900s days, the schoolhouse is home to the popular Pioneer School Experience field trip program for third- through fifth-grade students. During this program, costumed school teachers lead students through frontier lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.


The FV Shenandoah is 65 feet of wonder. Built at Skansie Brothers Shipyard in Gig Harbor and fished for some seven decades by local Croatian families, the boat is undergoing complete conservation and will eventually be open for public tours. The museum has launched a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the completion of the Maritime Gallery, enclosing the space for year-round use and creating new, interactive exhibits highlighting the stories of the fishing fleet, Thunderbird sailboats, and the maritime heritage so distinctive to the South Puget Sound.


Join us on September 18, 2021, as we celebrate a decade of the museum’s permanent home and reveal big plans for completing the Maritime Gallery at the 20th annual History Rocks fundraising event.


The Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society has come a long way from kitchen table club meetings in 1964 to opening its permanent museum home in 2010. We have 10 years to celebrate and 10 more years to toast.


For auction tickets and event details, visit HarborHistoryMuseum.org.

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