A Lime Town Earns the Limelight

From trading post to company town, Roche Harbor now has the west coast's premier resorts.

  Roche Harbor Resort (RocheHarbor.com), on San Juan Island, has come a long way from its beginnings when Hudson’s Bay Co. built a trading post at the head of Roche Harbor in 1845. Joe Ruff homesteaded the property after the British abandoned it, and in 1881 the Scurr brothers, Robert and Richard, bought the property with intentions to launch the area’s lime industry.

In the mid-1880s, John McMillin bought out the Scurr brothers and formed the Roche Harbor Lime Co., and Roche Harbor became a full-fledged company town. At the height of its glory, the town was home to about 800 people.

McMillin died in 1936 and his youngest son, Paul, managed the company until he sold it and all the land in 1956 to Reuben Tarte. At the time the lime had run out and the village was dilapidated, but Tarte envisioned making Roche Harbor the best marina and resort on the West Coast. The facilities today are the direct result of the Tarte family’s efforts.

The entire Tarte family had a hand in transforming the lime works into a resort and marina. Every structure on the grounds at Roche Harbor has a story. Clara Tarte, Reuben’s wife, brought the resort’s famous flower gardens back to life and had the little church on the hill consecrated as Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel. Today, the chapel’s carillon call provides calm over the harbor. The family rebuilt the Hotel de Haro, converted the McMillin home into a restaurant and bar, and built the tennis courts, pool and airstrip. They also installed underground wiring to serve the resort and marina.

The Tarte family sold Roche Harbor in 1989 to a partnership, and the facility has continued to grow and improve as the years have gone by.

There’s more to this resort than just history, however. The staff make you feel like you are a guest at a world-class resort. If you need something just ask — it’s that kind of place. There are few other locations where boaters are greeted so enthusiastically or pampered so completely as they are at Roche Harbor.

Arriving at your assigned slip, you are greeted by ever-attentive uniformed dock staff standing by to assist. These cheerful young people greet arriving boaters, catch mooring lines, assist as needed in the docking process and answer any questions.

Roche Harbor has all the amenities a visiting boater could need: fuel, propane, water, power (30, 50 and 100 amp), water hookups, showers, laundry, a post office, Wi-Fi and on-dock garbage service. A complimentary mobile pumpout barge named M.V. Phecal Phreak with the motto “We take crap from anyone” and a pumpout station are also available at the end of the fuel dock.

For boaters arriving from Canada, Roche Harbor is a U.S. Customs port of entry. During the summer months it can be very busy, and it’s not uncommon to wait a while for the opportunity to dock and be processed through.

Upland, the grounds are beautiful and groomed. There is espresso, ice cream, arts and crafts kiosks, gift shops, a boutique, the Afterglow Spa, a well-stocked General Store, the Lime Kiln Café, Madrona Bar & Grill and McMillin’s Dining Room. Guests of the resort are invited to take advantage of the swimming pool and tennis courts at no additional charge. Activities such as kayaking, fishing and whale-watching tours can be booked at the head of the guest dock, and moped rentals from Susie’s Mopeds allow visitors to explore the island.

The Roche Harbor Amphitheater is a venue for live entertainment. Westcott Bay Sculpture Park is located at the entrance of the village, on what was once McMillin’s Bellevue Farm.

Roche Harbor’s cemetery and the McMillin family mausoleum are silent reminders of the people who contributed to local life during the lime-company era. Visitors can pick up a trail map at the hotel that will lead them through the forest to the lime company rock quarries or to a lookout that provides views of Garrison and Westcott bays.

Just before sunset the flags of Roche Harbor, Washington state, Great Britain, Canada and the United States are retired. The dock staff lower the flags while the tunes of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Washington Post March,” “God Save the Queen,” “Oh Canada,” and “Star Spangled Banner” each take a turn filling the evening air. To end the ceremony, a cannon is fired and the boats in the harbor blow their horn in salute.

One thought on “A Lime Town Earns the Limelight

  1. Deane,
    We loved your article highlighting Roche Harbor’s colorful history! And for history lovers it’s right near the English Camp Unit of the San Juan Island National Historical Park. Boats can anchor in Garrison Bay and dinghy to the convenient dinghy dock to learn about the bloodless “Pig War,” a territorial standoff between Great Britain and the U.S. 1859-1872.

    Both Roche Harbor and English Camp have extensive trails for every skill level.


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