A little over a mile long and a half mile wide, Herron Island lies across a narrow channel in Case Inlet about 3 miles west of Lakebay. Its history comes to us in fragments. The native Salish name, Tsxsa’dai, means “place where the tide goes out,” a description that today’s island residents can appreciate. As was the case with the rest of the Puget Sound, local tribes harvested island beaches and vegetation.
Lt. Peter Puget named the island Wednesday Island during the 1792 Vancouver expedition; the day was actually Tuesday locally, but the expedition was following British time. The island was resurveyed in 1841 during the U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Charles Wilkes and was renamed after Lewis Herron, the expedition’s barrel maker.
Herron Island has had several private owners over the decades since Washington became a territory and then a state in 1889. The line of owners and residents over time tells the story of the country’s immigrant past. The earliest land records show that parts of the island were granted to Swiss-born Anderson Island resident Charles E. Pack in 1873. Two decades later, in 1894, a patent for the unclaimed parts of the island was issued to Julius Sunde, a Norwegian immigrant who just a year earlier had been naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
In the early 1900s the island’s owners were Søren Kielland, also born in Norway, and his American wife Anna. Søren, a civil engineer and for several years the vice consul of Norway, lived in Buffalo and reportedly never set foot on the island. The Kiellands owned the entire island, so either they or Julius Sunde had bought the parcels owned by Charles Pack, who died in 1898. Even though the Kiellands never visited the island, Søren’s Norwegian-born nephew William Absalon Beyer and his wife Marie lived there, perhaps until the mid-1930s. From 1921 to 1925 William served as postmaster for the mainland town of Herron. The only house on the island, where the Beyers lived, doubled as a post office. In true mail carrier dedication, the Beyers would pick up the mail from the mail ship, sort it and deliver it by rowboat along the coast. Charlie Sehmel, who later lived in the Beyers’ house in the 1950s, remembers seeing mail-sorting pigeonholes in the basement. (See Herron Island: A Logger Remembers, Key Peninsula News, October 2018)
Søren and Anna Kielland died within a year of each other in the 1930s, and the island came up for sale. H. J. and Dorothy Green bought it in 1935. The Beyers left the island probably around that time and spent the rest of their lives in Lakebay; they are buried in Lakebay Cemetery.
In 1944 Dorothy Green, who by that time owned the island as her separate estate, sold it to George Murphy, a businessman from Hawaii, and his wife Blanche. The Murphys hired area residents Charlie and Emilie Minchau as live-in caretakers and tried to raise horses on the island, with limited success. In keeping with the immigrant theme, Charlie and Emilie Minchau were both born in Russia and were naturalized American citizens.
In 1951 the island went up for sale again, perhaps because of the limited success the Murphys had with their attempt to raise horses. It was bought by Bill Sehmel, who harvested its plentiful timber. The Minchaus moved to Home; Emilie died in 1978 and Charlie in 1982. Several local residents still remember them.
The Sehmel logging operation eventually wound down and in 1957 the island was sold to four developers, Richard A. Clifford and his wife Edith M. Clifford; Paul O’Reilly; and J. E. Swanson Jr., who incorporated it as a membership association, platted it, added infrastructure and transformed it into the community of almost 400 homeowners it has become.
In October 1958, 60 years ago this month, the first lots came on the market.
Herron Island is still private, but over the years it has been home to hundreds if not thousands of residents and vacationers, and has welcomed an even larger number of guests.