Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company

The History of Roche Harbor Village
Formerly the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company

This information is provided courtesy of Deborah Hopkins, Marketing Director of Roche Harbor Village. All photos are provided by Roche Harbor Village.

The story of Roche Harbor began nearly 200 years ago in 1787 when Captain de Haro and his crew became the first Europeans to sail among the forested San Juan Islands. The Haro Strait, which divides the United States from Vancouver Island, derives its name from this Spanish explorer.

In 1845, four years before the California Gold Rush, the Hudson's Bay Company posted a notice of possession on San Juan Island and built a log trading post at the head of Roche Harbor on the northwest shoulder of the island. The British traders and settlers were not the only people interested in the San Juan Islands; American settlers moving west were also in search of land.

By 1857, three years before Civil War, both the United States and Britain were claiming the San Juan Islands and a dispute arose over the western end of the boundary between British and American territory. The dispute lay dormant during the Civil War, but by 1871 the United States and Great Britain selected Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm to arbitrate the dispute. In 1872 Wilhelm awarded possession of the San Juan Islands to the United States.

During the dispute, known as the "Pig War," and joint occupancy by both American and British soldiers, lime deposits were discovered along the ridge above the harbor. In predictable military fashion, Lieutenant Roche, commander of the Royal Marines, and in whose honor the harbor was named, sought to keep his garrison troops busy by having them quarry and burn the limestone. Lime was a major necessity in the production of steel, plaster, cement and paper, and was shipped worldwide from Roche Harbor.

After the war ended peacefully, and a few days after the British withdrawal, a man named Joe Ruff took out a pre-emption claim on the land around Roche Harbor, but did nothing with it in the way of extracting lime. In 1881 two brothers, Robert and Richard Scurr, bought Roche Harbor and started the islands' lime industry. There was no town at Roche Harbor until John S. McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, discovered the richest and largest deposit of lime in the Northwest and began negotiations for their claims and property in 1884. By 1886 the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company was incorporated and becoming a large-scale American business.

McMillin built the 20-room Hotel de Haro in 1886 around the original Hudson's Bay Post. By 1890 a company town had grown up around the magnificent hotel. It consisted of a completely modern lime factory, a barrel works, warehouse, docks, ships, piers, offices, company store, church, school, barns and homes. The homes were for both the owner and workers, all neatly painted and kept in good condition as property of the company.

At its peak, Roche Harbor boasted about 800 residents with single men being barracked in large bunkhouses along the hillside beside the church and families housed in the rows of one and two-story cottages lining the slope from schoolhouse to the beach. The town was completely independent with autonomous power, water and telephone systems. The workers at Roche Harbor were paid in scrip -- good only at the company store and was still in use when the town was sold in 1956 -- but they could draw their wages in currency when they desired.

In 1956 Reuben J. Tarte, a Seattle businessman, purchased all 4,000 acres of Roche Harbor which included 12 miles of coastline. Tarte and his family set about restoring the hotel and warehouse, scouring the site for scattered hotel furniture and remnants. Roche Harbor then became a resort for boating families. Tarte's son Neil Tarte and his wife, Margaret, continued running the hotel and marina after Reuben's death, the area has since become a popular place for boaters and vacationers.

In 1988 the Tartes sold Roche Harbor Resort to partners Verne Howard and Rich Komen. After Verne Howard decided to pursue other ventures, Rich Komen now owns half in partnership with Saltchuk Resources of Seattle, a maritime holding company.

Under the guidance of General Manager, Brent Snow, the resort has taken on more of a village feel. Since 1992 Roche Harbor has actively pursued the process of site planning and design with the primary focus of creating a sense of place and community. The primary objective will be to maintain the principle that a town must have a center and an edge that takes no more than five minutes to travel by foot.

The center of the Village will include basic goods necessary to service the needs of the townspeople on a daily basis. These will include grocery, hardware, bakery, bookstore, coffee, etc. Additionally, for guests and residents alike, lodging, restaurants, galleries, conference, marina, laundry and other elements will be available. Radiating from the center of the Village will be homes built on the hill behind the Hotel de Haro, the ridge top above the town core, and along the road above the kilns. The design of these homes will be compatible with the architectural context that has been long established by the original town buildings. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2004.