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orcas island - the jewel of the san juans

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Located off of the Pacific Northwest coast of the state of Washington, Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands. The land area of Orcas Island reaches approximately 57 miles and has a population of roughly 4,800 permanent residents, which nearly doubles during May through October. The island is shaped like a pair of saddlebags separated by East Sound's fjord. Massacre Bay is at the south end of the island, with Skull Island just off the coast.

The largest village on Orcas Island is Eastsound in the north (the second largest in the San Juan County). The highest point of the island is Mt. Constitution located in Moran State Park, with an elevation of 2,409 feet.

On Orcas Island you will find that the months of May through October offer a delightfully moderate climate, lots of clean, fresh air and abundant sunshine.  In May and June you will enjoy beautiful days in the 60s, then the temperature rises into the 70s through July and August with occasional days in the 80s, then back to the 60s to finish the season.

The History of Orcas

wildflowersAlthough some residents may have a different story, one version is that the island's name is a shortened version of Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo. "Orcas" (from Horcasitas), as we will call him, was the 2nd Count of Revillagigedo and the Viceroy of Mexico. In 1791, he initiated an expedition to the Pacific Northwest under the supervision of Francisco de Eliza. Eliza named a portion of the San Juan archipelago in honor of his benefactor, the Viceroy.

In 1847, Henry Kellett assigned the name Orcas to Orcas Island when he reorganized British Admiralty charts. Kellett, chose the Spanish explorers' namings for the island and it's geographical features over the patriotic American names given during the Charles Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, yet maintained Wilkes' naming of Mount Constitution in honor of "Old Ironsides" the USS Constitution. (back to top)


cascade lakeMoran State Park
Beautiful Mount Constitution rises above the island at over 2400 feet and is the apex of the San Juan Islands. By car, it's approximately a 15-minute drive (with the exception of winter when the park is closed) and offers a spectacular 360-degree marine view from its peak. The park spans over 5,000 acres of forest and is the home of several lakes to swim, fish and paddle-boat or kayak. Several waterfalls can be seen in the park and there are a tremendous number of walking, hiking and biking trails, as well as a campground. (back to top)

Flora & Fauna


deerThe Island's evergreen forests are made up of Cedar, Douglas fir, Hemlock and Yew, with large stands of deciduous Alders.

Walking about the island you will find lupine, foxglove, paintbrush, ferns and berries. Blankets of wildflowers can be seen throughout the island, some indigenous and some non-native. Their beauty is a great compliment to the overall Orcas Island experience and provides a beautiful landscape through which to hike, picnic, take in the scenery or relax with a good book. (back to top)


Orcas has the highest concentration of Bald Eagles in the continental United States.  There are active nests throughout the island.Over 200 species of birds reside at Orcas Island throughout the year, including swans, ducks, finches, blackbirds, pelicans and more.  You will also find several classes of butterflies on the island and may spot the Island Marble Butterfly during a trip through the parks.

Reptiles, bats, deer, terrestrial mammals and amphibians will be found on Orcas Island alongside the many species of fish and hundreds of marine invertebrates in the island's waters.  Whale Watching tours offer an exciting journey through the waters of the San Juan Islands with the opportunity to sight Minke and Orca whales. Whale migration season, between the months of May and October, is the best time for whale sightings.

Although the Red Fox, Norway rat and European rabbit are not native to the island (as they were transported to the island by humans) they are present and have become part of the intricate lifecycle on Orcas Island. (back to top)


Rosario History

The story of Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran and his Orcas Island Estate.
rosario mansionOriginally from New York City, Robert Moran arrived on the Seattle waterfront in 1875 with a dime in his pocket.  He became a ship's engineer and was fortunate to work on several of John Muir's Alaska expeditions.  Eventually joined in Seattle by his brothers, Moran formed The Moran Bros. Company, a small family ship repair business that grew into a supplier for the Yukon Gold Rush, then a major West Coast shipyard.  The Moran Bros. Company quickly became Seattle's largest employer when it won a naval contract to build the battleship USS Nebraska in 1902.

By 1904, the stress of business had taken a toll on Moran's health and he was given only a few years to live.  He purchased 7,000 acres on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Northern Puget Sound, an area originally used as transient hunting and fishing grounds for the Lummi Tribe of the Salish Nation. He began to build his retirement retreat “Rosario” with the same integrity as one of his ocean going vessels: massive and solid, yet elegant and gracious. Free from the pressures of his business, Moran recovered and lived until 1943!

The design of the Moran Mansion at Rosario was inspired not only by Moran's nautical background but also by the popular Arts and Crafts movement of the time. The movement had emerged as a revolt to the industrial revolution from a humanist perspective.  The shift of labor from man to machine had robbed craftsmen of the pleasure of seeing their work through from conception to completion, as the traditional values of quality and beauty were being replaced by economy and profit.  Moran saw this transpiring every day at his shipyard.  The Arts and Crafts movement offered a mindset being promoted in America by Gustav Stickley's “The Craftsman” Magazine – a devotion to the honesty of craftsmanship, simplicity of design, and the joys of nature.

Moran's dedication to the Arts and Crafts mindset is evident throughout the mansion with its rich mahogany paneling, earthen tone tiles, stain glass lighting, and unique fireplace hearths.  Centerpiece of the mansion is the Music Room, featuring a two story 1913 Aeolian pipe organ, 1900 Steinway grand piano, a Belgian stain-glass window picturing the harbor at Antwerp, and two mezzanine libraries overlooking a Tiffany chandelier, which depicts various performing arts.

Most importantly was Moran's love of nature as he created his estate. There were no pictures on the walls of the home for Moran felt that “at Rosario you view the outside beauties of nature.” He hired the leading landscape architectural firm of the day, the Olmsted Bros., to enhance the grounds with their trademark naturalistic landscapes, water features and paths – elements designed to encourage the exploration of nature.

In 1911, Moran offered Washington State thousands of acres to become one of Washington's first State Parks.  This donation was highly influenced by his early association with preservationist John Muir and by the conservation policies of President Roosevelt.  Today, the resort property borders one of the Washington's premier state parks, Moran State Park.

In 1938, Moran sold Rosario to Donald Rheem for $50,000.  Rheem was the founder of Rheem Manufacturing in the San Francisco Bay area, known today for their water heaters and heat pumps.  Rosario was Rheem's vacation home for 20 years, but his wife Alice ended up making it her permanent residence . . . literally.  Stories from employees and guests of her ghost still haunting the mansion make for a unique paranormal attraction.  Texan Ralph Curtain purchased Rosario from Rheem in 1958, but his dream of turning the estate into a resort quickly ended when his oil wells dried up.  He sold Rosario in 1960 for $225,000 – half the original purchase price– to Gil Geiser of Seattle.  Geiser sold a bowling alley and hardware store to open Rosario Resort on April 1, 1960.  Today, Rosario Resort is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (back to top)

Christopher Peacock
Rosario Historian, Composer & Musician
Visit Pure and Simple Music for CD recordings

Please visit:
Orcas Island Historical Museum 181 North Beach Rd., Eastsound, WA 98245, 360-376-4849 and
Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce 65 North Beach Rd, Eastsound, WA 98245 , 360-376-2273
for more fun facts about Orcas Island's heritage and culture past and present.




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