Roche Harbor: From Lime Kilns to Sailboats

A limestone quarry turned history-rich resort town resides at the northwestern tip of San Juan island.

Some mystery remains around who first discovered limestone at Roche Harbor. While evidence remains of nearby quarries, no documentation remains to trace the Roche Harbor quarry's roots.

The northwestern tip of San Juan Island formed part of the Whelaalk territory of a Coast Salish Lhaq'temish, or Lummi, community until its occupation by British and American settlers in the 1800s.

In its early days of settlement, the harbor formed the northern reach of the Belle Vue Sheep Farm. The Hudson Bay Company, a commercial arm of the British Empire, sent Charles Griffin as an envoy to the island to establish a settlement there. A perceived breach of his farm’s territory in 1859 catalyzed the Pig War, which resulted in a 12-year joint occupation by British and U.S. forces.

By 1860, change was coming at what would soon be dubbed Roche Harbor: British troops had begun to extract limestone nearby, and an American entrepreneur attempted to do the same until dissuaded by the U.S. military, who wished to avoid conflict with the British.

During that time, the location traded hands from homesteader Joseph Ruff to several subsequent owners. Under John Stafford McMillin’s ownership, the Tacoma & Roche Harbor Lime Company, incorporated in 1886, dominated the West Coast lime market until the 1930’s. The company town housed 250 residents at its peak.

Hotel de Haro, built by McMillin in 1886 to board visiting Lime Company customers, remains operational today in what has since become a resort town. In addition to the hotel’s original rooms, former dwellings for married Lime Company employees now comprise cottage rooms at the hotel. The harbor faces Haro Strait—and both the strait and the hotel were named for Spanish explorer Gonzalo López de Haro who conducted a Pacific Northwest survey in 1788.

McMillin also constructed a Methodist chapel and mausoleum at Roche Harbor.

Visitors to what is now called Roche Harbor Resort can explore a sculpture park, the Haro Hotel, what is now the Our Lady of Good Voyage chapel—the only privately-owned Catholic church in the U.S.—and the haunting McMillin family mausoleum. The more likely attractions, however, are the natural surroundings, including remote hiking trails, ocean kayaking, and whale-watching.