OIC also supports a water system as well as dock and mooring facilities to insure access to the Island. Information about water, docks, and utilities is available under Services.
History Obstruction Island was named in 1841 by Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, the first major American initiative to chart Pacific waters. Wilkes thought the island obstructed what would otherwise have been a fair passage for large ships off the southeast end of Orcas.
Wilkes’ survey of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands would lend support to American claims to territories south of the 49th parallel in a boundary dispute with Great Britain unresolved until 1848. Whether the San Juan Islands themselves were to be British or American remained in dispute until 1872.
The first recorded transactions of land exchange on the island date from 1892. The modern history of the island as real estate post-dates World War II, with Russell and Corrine Lindsay buying the island from a Mr. Flodin in 1954 for $30,000. The Lindsays selectively logged the island and considered building on the south point but were discouraged by the lack of ready access to fresh water. After selling to Miles Tippery (one of the founders of Tektronics) for $45,000 in 1959, they built on Orcas where “Lindsay Way,” the entry road to Orcas Highlands off the Olga Road, is named for them.
Miles Tippery, in turn, sold the island in the early 1960s to Bob Anderson and Gil Johnston, Seattle high school teachers. The two approached Tippery about buying the south point. When he refused to partition the island but offered the whole for $180,000, the teachers formed an investment group of friends and neighbors to purchase and subdivide the island.
Anderson, Johnston, and their fellow purchasers were a visionary group whose early decisions shaped the special character of Obstruction Island. During the post-war scramble to convert San Juan acreage for recreational properties, land secured by developers was hastily being subdivided into postage-stamp lots, often with only 75-100 feet of frontage. Resisting this trend, Obstruction Islanders resolved to create lots with up to 400 feet of waterfront and to retain the island’s interior as common land rather than further subdividing it into inland lots. They hired E.M. Graham, a retired San Juan County Engineer from Shaw Island, to survey and plat Obstruction Island. The 86-year old surveyor worked from a canoe with the assistance of an 11-year old boy. Graham’s survey was registered with the County Commissioners on October 1, 1965 as the official plat.
The Covenants, drafted in 1966, were also forward looking in describing residential guidelines for island properties that would help preserve their rustic, natural character. At that time, development in the islands was relatively unregulated. When three decades later San Juan County set out to integrate land-use principles with its codes, the resulting Comprehensive Plan would closely mirror values the Covenants had expressed from the outset.
The Covenants also outline the terms for the easements, water system, utilities, moorages and other elements of infrastructure essential to the island’s development. The first well was drilled in June 1969 and is still active. The second productive well (out of nine attempts) is about 300’ from the first well and taps into a separate aquifer distinguished by a slight sulfur odor. This dissipates readily to provide usable water. The first mooring structure, the South Dock, was built around 1970, the North Dock a few years later.
The underground utilities—the electric, phone, and water systems—were installed in 1976. In 2003, the water system was enhanced with a 58,000 gallon tank. The latest addition to infrastructure was the coordinated building of the West Dock and a desalinization plant in 2007. The West Dock offers easier access than its predecessors; the South and North Docks require substantial stair climbs.
The desalinization plant draws salt water and discharges the brine residue at the West Dock float. The fresh water from the reverse-osmosis process supplements well water during periods of heavy use. Thus, the plant takes pressure off island wells that face the threat of overuse leading to salt-water intrusion. The new resource the plant provides has also expanded the availability of water certificates to the point that any lot should be a viable building site for the foreseeable future.
The first cabin was a pre-fabricated A-frame, built on Lot 35, for John and June Harbaugh in the mid 70s. The builder had guaranteed installation of his product “anywhere, anytime” for the low price pre-fabs then commanded. After encountering the challenge of building on the island, he quickly dropped his advertising campaign. The story provides a backdrop for the many tales of obstacles overcome in building here that the island has engendered through the years. Of the forty-eight lots, thirty five currently have structures ranging from residences to camping cabins.
Weather is a central issue in island living. Obstruction Island lies on the edge of a rain shadow from the capture by the Olympic Range of heavy precipitation off the Pacific Ocean . As a result, the northeastern Olympic Peninsula, southern Vancouver Island and Victoria, and the San Juans tend to be drier than the mainland further east where the influence of the Cascade Mountains comes into play. Thus, the most accurate weather forecasts bearing on Obstruction Island are likely to be based on weather stations in the islands, like San Juan County NOAA on-line forecast, or on radio, the Victoria CBC stations, 88.1 and 90.5 FM.
The marine environment moderates the extreme high and low temperatures that might occur on the mainland. Summer highs tend to be in the seventies. Winters usually see few freezes and only occasional snow. Average winter temperatures are in the forties.
The island is subject to winds from all directions: southeast up Rosario Strait, westerlies in off the ocean and up the Straits of Juan de Fuca that blow as southwesters here, northwest down Eastsound, and the occasional northeasterlies off the Frasier River valley in BC that can bring cold arctic air.
Marine weather forecasts specific to the northern inland waters and San Juans are available on-line, or on weather radio at 162.425 Mhz. Information on current conditions (wind direction, velocity, and temperature) on Rosario Strait and Lopez Sound is reported regularly by the Washington State Ferries.
Emergency services are scarce in the outer islands, but over the past decade San Juan County has encouraged emergency response initiatives for outer islands. In 2004 an island committee developed an emergency response plan submitted to the County and distributed to all local agencies likely to involved: the San Juan County Sheriff, Orcas Fire, the Department of Natural Resources, and County Department of Emergency Management. The plan included a map of the island and information regarding evacuation and landing sites.
In 2009 the San Juan County Department of Public Works completed a GPS survey of the island to locate structures and access routes off the easements. The resulting map assigned 911 addresses to island residences. The map was distributed among the relevant local agencies and copies have been posted at each of the island’s community docks.
In addition, the 2004 plan has been updated to include both the 911 addresses and the West Dock, completed in 2007, among the prospective evacuation sites. This revised emergency response plan incorporates information about the island designed to contribute to an effective and timely emergency operation.