The early 1950s were an uncharacteristically busy time on Herron Island. Until then an out-of-the-way, rarely visited private island, for a few years starting in 1951 it was the site of a logging operation that would ultimately make possible its transformation into the residential community it has since become.
The history of those years might have remained untold and forgotten had it not been for a document that recently surfaced in the island archives. Dated Jan. 16, 1957, the document is a real estate agreement between William H. Sehmel, island owner, and Thomas Morris from Purdy Realty to sell “all of Herron Island, including tidelands abutting thereon.” The property included a four-bedroom main house and a two-bedroom guesthouse, and offered “finest deer hunting, clams, gueoduck (sic), oysters, (and) finest beach anywhere.” Of the 286 acres on the island, 200 were described as partially cleared.
According to Pierce County records William (Bill) Sehmel and his wife Gyda bought the island from George Murphy, a Seattle businessman, in April 1951. Bill Sehmel died in 1976 at age 89; Gyda died in 1980. Their son Charlie Sehmel, now in his 80s, still lives in the area. Bill Sehmel was born in the family homestead in Rosedale in 1894, according to Charlie. “Dad was an amazing guy,” he said. “At the end of third grade he ran away from home and went up to Allyn to work in the oyster farms. Some of the last horse logging was going on in that area, so he thought he’d rather log than pick oysters. He went up to the logging camp and ended up wrangling a job carrying a 5-gallon bucket of grease and a paint brush on a stick; he’d go up into the woods and smear the skid logs. As he grew older, bigger and tougher he moved right up into the logging part of it. And so he logged all his life.”
Sehmel eventually worked for himself as a contract logger using his bulldozer and pickup truck. It was sometime in the late 1940s, Charlie said he thinks Sehmel started thinking about logging the heavily wooded Herron Island, which apparently had never been logged. He went off to Alaska for several months to learn more about island logging, an undertaking fraught with challenges that often ended in financial ruin.
In 1951 Sehmel was ready to put his plan into action. He secured his first-ever loan and bought the island for $100,000 (almost $1,000,000 in 2018 dollars). The purchase was an enormous risk, but Sehmel was convinced he could turn a profit. Gyda was worried. “What’s your father going to do with an island?” she said the first time she visited the island with Charlie, then 19. “Just look at that tree,” Charlie marveled, pointing at a giant fir. “That’s $5,000 you’re looking at. I know exactly what he’s going to do with it!”
Work started immediately. A raft had to be built to get two bulldozers and a logging arch across to the island from the mainland beach where the current island ferry landing is located, a distance under half a mile. Using heavy cable, the men linked together cedar logs and snags that Sehmel had been saving, two or three deep in places. After a couple of harrowing tries a seaworthy raft was built, the machinery loaded and the rig successfully towed to the island using their two 5-horsepower boats. “These were people with very little education, but the things they could do, it’s unbelievable,” Charlie said.
Logging got underway. In later years Sehmel introduced chainsaws (relatively new technology in the 1950s), but at first trees were felled the traditional way, using two-man crosscut saws and axes. Logs were dragged to the logging rafts at the beach, where boom workers carefully floated and arranged them into the raft, sorting them by length to ensure a tight fit. To prevent the rafts from floating away with tidal currents, Sehmel drove pilings into the sand on the outside of the raft enclosure. The pilings were still shown on topographic maps and nautical charts as late as the mid-1990s.
Sehmel concentrated on high-quality logs first. A few weeks into the operation their first raft was ready to tow. “We had the scaling bureau come out to measure the logs in the raft,” Charlie said. “We took the scale sheet to the mill and got paid; our first little raft brought in more than we expected by far, and we were on our way.”
Charlie operated the equipment but he was also assigned the manual job of clearing the brush that grew in trees with an ax. At first the island wasn’t where he wanted to be, he said, since it lacked the type of entertainment that a 19-year-old prefers. He almost welcomed his tour in the Korean War, but on his return the place grew on him. “I felt like Robinson Crusoe. What a wonderful thing for a kid,” he said. “Ducks, pigeons, and even a beached killer whale once. And the deer? We estimated there were 60 or 70 deer on the island when we started, and there were 60 or 70 when we sold it.” He added. “And that doesn’t include the ones I shot!”
By 1956 most commercially valuable timber had run out. The island was becoming a liability. Bill Sehmel considered several options, including raising sheep on the island, but in the end decided to sell it.
In January 1957 Sehmel signed the sale and commission agreement with Purdy Realty. In May of that year the island was sold on contract to a group of Seattle-based developers. Surveying, subdivision and infrastructure work got underway, and as soon as the balance of the contract was paid off in October 1958 sale of lots began.
“Every lot has a water view” was how the properties were described.
Bill Sehmel would have known how the views came about, and he would have smiled, Charlie said.
See also A Short History of Herron Island, Key Peninsula News, October 2018