Blake Island: Solving the Trimble Mansion Fire 60 Years Later!

The main house of the Trimble Estate on Blake Island featured a large veranda, lush gardens, and a rustic feel. It was built about 1918 and burned — mysteriously — in the late 1940’s. Now, the Yukon Harbor Historical Society has helped solve the cause of that fire. Photo from the Washington State Parks Collection.

What started the blaze that took the Trimble Mansion? Native Americans trying to evict the Whites? Arsonists wanting to scare off developers? The US Navy, hoping to clear the land so it could become a military base? The Yukon Harbor Historical has gotten to the bottom of this mystery.

By Russell Neyman.

The cause of the fire that destroyed Blake Island’s most prominent structure has been a mystery for nearly six decades, but a Manchester man has come forward to take responsibility for the blaze. Don Winslow, now almost 80, built a 16-foot boat in wood shop class at South Kitsap High School in the 1940’s, and mounted a used five-horsepower outboard motor on it. The temperamental engine was the indirect cause of the Trimble Mansion fire.

About 1948, on one of the boat’s inaugural voyages, Winslow and his friend, Keith Williams, decided to motor over to Blake Island to explore.

“It was a very, very cold and windy day, but we finally neared the shore,” Winslow recalls. “At some point, a wave surge soaked us and our engine, and we couldn’t get it started again. We were tired and cold, so  Keith and I decided to go into the abandoned Trimble Mansion to get warm. It was wide open. There were lots of old shake shingles and other wood, so we put some of it in the large fireplace and built a fire. We stayed there several hours.”

The sprawling mansion, at that point, had been deteriorating and vandalized over the course of decades of neglect. Many of the doors and windows were broken or gone, and it was quite common for campers and squatters to take shelter there. Winslow noted that the stairs were rotting and there was plenty of debris around the place.

“After getting warm, we decided to head back to the mainland. The motor still wouldn’t work, so we got a couple of boards and used them as oars and headed over toward South Colby [Harper], since it was the nearest point of land. About the time we reached shore, we looked back toward the island and saw a glow and smoke over where the Mansion was.  ‘Holy heck,’ we said. ‘Did we do that?’ We were scared and worried, figuring that an ember from our fire started the blaze.

“We agreed right there and then that we wouldn’t tell anyone.

“The next day,” Winslow recalls, “the newspapers told all about the ‘mystery’ fire, hinting that it might have been arson. Through the years, we occasionally heard other stories about the mansion and the fire, and I always thought back to that cold day and what happened. Neither Keith nor I said a word to anybody.”

The South Kitsap High School graduate went on to a successful career, first working in the Bremerton Shipyard, then as owner-operator of gasoline service stations. He also served on the Manchester Water District. Today, he is retired. Keith Williams died in an automobile accident about ten years ago, according to people who knew him.

In subsequent years, all sorts of theories about who started the fire and why it was burned were offered, ranging from squatters to a deliberate effort by the United States Navy to render the island uninhabitable. There was also talk that the building was destroyed to discourage developers or by Native Americans who wanted the Whites to leave.

A view of Blake, looking westward, with Harper, Colby and Manchester in the distance.

Originally called High Island by the Native Americans and, later, Smugglers Island by homesteaders, the 574-acre island is situated between Manchester and Southworth. The island has very little clean drinking water, so it has never proven to be a suitable place for permanent homes. It was a traditional camping ground for the Suquamish Tribe and folklore has it that it was the birthplace of Chief Sealth, from whom Seattle took its name.

It was first observed by British explorer George Vancouver in 1792 but was not given its current name until the United States Exploring Expedition visited again in 1841. It was logged completely by the 1880’s, making the property virtually worthless for about a decade. However, as the timber regenerated, Seattle millionaire William Pitt Trimble took note of the isolated but picturesque property, purchasing it just after the turn of the century. In an effort to put his own name on the property, he established an “technical” post office,  naming it “Trimble Island.” Of course, this did not change the name of the island itself, though Trimble hope that would be the case. He and his wife, Cannie, built a magnificent estate – complete with the expansive mansion, huge dock, horse stables, orchards, warehouse structure, and beautiful manicured gardens – that they occupied from 1917 through 1929.

 
William Pitt Trimble, from THE SEATTLE TIMES Archives.
 
Cannie Trimble, from the SEATTLE POST-INTELLINGENCER Archives.
Not many photographs or documents relating to the Trimble Estate or early Blake Island have survived. The Yukon Harbor Historical Society welcomes contributions relating to this subject – photographs, anecdotes, old newspaper clippings – that might help tell the complete story of Blake Island. Contact information is noted in the right-hand column.

The Trimble “mansion” was a rambling two-story house of 12 rooms, with five fireplaces on the main floor.  The huge living room was 35 by 40 feet, with large Douglas fir ceiling beams. Winslow described the windows, doors, and millwork as “impressive” even in it’s deteriorated state when he and Williams were there.

A GoogleEarth view of Yukon Harbor, with Blake Island, right. Click to view.

Across the front of the house was a broad verandah that overlooked the large front lawn and extensive formal gardens sloping gently toward the water.  The estate also had a vegetable garden, a large pasture for horses,  a cement tennis court, and a wooden swimming pool.  Three caretakers maintained Trimble Island all year-round. Mrs. Trimble forbid firearms of any kind on the island, so deer and other wildlife flourished. Visitors marveled and the beautiful estate and the natural setting. Designing the house and grounds became a passion with her, and Cannie’s name became synonymous with the island.

The glory years for the island came to a tumbling end in 1929 for Trimble, first with the infamous stock market crash and then with the tragic death of Cannie in a freak automobile accident. Trimble was devastated and heartbroken. He abandoned the place and went into seclusion, eventually selling it to an investment company in 1936. It came to be known, once again, as Blake Island.

During World War II, the United States Army garrisoned a coastal artillery unit there, and portions of it were reportedly used to store munitions, since that would isolate them from the nearby Bremerton Ship Yard and Manchester Ship Fueling Facilities in event of air attack. The Army’s intentions for the island have always been viewed with suspicion.

Other things have changed through the decades, but Blake Island (shown here in this watercolor rendering by the author) looks the same as ever.

After the war and for decades to follow, the island’s future was in doubt, with several developers and public officials debating varied uses but none came to fruition. There was even talk of rebuilding the mansion, but those plans ended with the now-solved mystery blaze.  Eventually, Blake Island was designated as a state park and Native American historical site, with camping, hiking, and boating facilities. Today, 100,000 visitors use the State Park for outdoor recreation each year.  There are 12 miles of hiking trails on the island, mostly old service roads.  The longest trail, 4.5 miles, circumnavigates the island on the bluffs above the beach.  Located on a trail behind Tillicum Village, the foundations of the Trimble family home, and a few other remnants of the estate, can still be seen.

While it is primarily a tourist attraction, it is also a favorite haunt for local residents. Generations of Puget Sounders from Port Orchard, Harper, Colby and the mainland have come to the island on weekends in small boats — including teenagers Don Winslow and his friend, Keith Williams — to enjoy the natural scenery, camp, and fish.  Tales of youngsters swimming and canoeing over and exploring are commonplace. For those who grew up around Yukon Harbor, the subject of Blake Island triggers plenty of memories.

“We caused that blaze and burned the house down, no doubt,” Winslow says. “I think the statute of limitations has long since past, but I might still see a fire department investigator show up on my doorstep one day.”

Copyright Russell Neyman, Yukon Harbor Historical Society – July, 2008 and January 2009.)

This photo, taken from a feature article that appeared on the 1951 Seattle Times Society page, is one of the few view on record.

===============================================

(See the related essay, “Strolling Through Colby, Summer 1942″ by JoAnn Grant Lorden and a second essay, “A Boy’s Recollections of Blake Island” by a former caretaker’s son in the right-hand column. These features contain additional anecdotes about Blake Island.)

____________________________________________________

Update (July 12, 2012)– We have received additional emails and input about the Trimble Mansion and fire, including an email from Cassandra Trimble, granddaughter of William and Cannie Ford Trimble. The third-generation Trimble woman disagrees with the accounts of a deteriorated estate, but with respect to her family’s insights and family folklore, we have had confirming stories to that effect. Jay Blackburn, who lived in South Colby in the 1940’s and 50’s, says he frequented the estate immediately following the war (and just before the place burned down) and says the fireplaces had collapsed, the stairs were completely fallen, and the doors and windows were missing. Blackburn recalls the news of the fire, but never heard any stories as to the cause. Other individuals who have memories of Blake Island have forwarded their notes, as well, and those remarks are scattered throughout this website.

We have requested that Ms Trimble forward any photos and other accounts for our files, and are hopeful she will be able to assist us in piecing together the island’s history.

One additional note of interest is a comment received from Pat Aitken, another grandaughter of the Trimbles. She noted that Mrs. Trimble’s correct first name is NOT Cassandra (or Cassie) as reported in countless news and internet sources, but actually Cannie. we have amended our articles accordingly.

This article has created quite a stir since it was first posted on July 19th, 2008. The SEATTLE TIMES called our society and interviewed us, and published a front page feature piece. A few days later, the Associated Press picked it up, and accounts have been published in newspapers throughout Puget Sound, Olympia, and Portland. Needless to say, we’ve had literally thousands of visitors to our site since then.

We continue to search for more information regarding Blake Island, and feel that someone must have more detailed photographs of the Trimble Estate in its heyday or, perhaps, just good stories about visiting the island. Remember, not only has it been a vacation spot as well as a home to the Trimbles, but there were military personnel stationed there during the Second World War. 

Please contact us through the information listed in the right-hand column if you have anything to share.  –RN.


14 thoughts on “Blake Island: Solving the Trimble Mansion Fire 60 Years Later!

  1. I heard a rumour that the Pacific Fleet, as portions of it arrived back to Bremerton [at the close of World War II], were directed to dump all their portable heavy equipement like bulldozers etc. And that there is a big pile of it at the bottom of the Sound just before the entrance to Rich Passage. Ever hear this one? I believe the grandfather of my acquaintance witnessed some of the dumping.

  2. Since the old maps show Yukon Harbor as Barron’s Bay, no doubt named by one of the early explorers, why is that portion of the Sound named Yukon Harbor, when was it first called Yukon Harbor and who gave it the name?

    • We have figured out the origin of “Barron’s Bay” but can only speculate on the name change, which probably occurred about the town of Colby was established. See the discussion below and in the “Place Names” feature on this site.

  3. Should look for old veterans who were stationed on the island during the war that saw and knew what happened?

    • The origin of the Yukon Harbor name for the area of the Sound surrounding Curley has been a source of much discussion. During the days of the Alaska boom (late 1800’s) the area was a common jumping off point for gold-hungry prospectors heading north, so that’s a possible explanation, except for the fact that we have one pre-gold rush map that identifies it with the changed name. The town fathers were great entrepreneurs who knew the value of a good name (the town got it’s name from a steamship, COLBY, in hopes of coaxing more stops here) so the idea that it was to promote adventurers’ business makes sense. It was labeled “Barron’s Bay” in the mid-1800’s on many charts, and we have no maps prior to the gold rush that show it as Yukon Harbor. Stay tuned; we’re always looking for new answers.

  4. This is the most detailed and accurate history of the island I have read, and trust me, I LOVE Blake Island and have read everything there is about it. You are to be commended for your incredible research and for getting to the bottom of the fire mystery. I’m sure there are additional photos of the Trimble Estate and someone will come forward to complete your project.

    Thanks for supporting the history effort.

  5. Although some may not believe me, I am the last in the blood line of Trimbles. My mother is Karen Trimble and her father was Ford or possibly Frances Trimble. I have been trying to find out more of my families’ history and this article has made me very happy. I wish I had more knowledge of who was after my grandfather so if anyone knows or has a link to another website with more info, it would be greatly appreciated.

    On a side note, my great great great uncle is Supreme Court justice Robert Trimble if that helps at all.

    • Nate, wonderful to hear from you. Actually, we heard from Cassandra Trimble a couple of years ago, but have not gotten word back from her since. Also, we know that Webb Trimble passed away about a year ago, so your theory that you’re the last of the line makes sense. I’m sure you know that we are always looking for more information about the island, the estate, and the Trimble family.

  6. I am the granddaughter of Mrs. William Pitt Trimble. Her name was Cannie, not Cassie or Cassandra. In that respect the article is in error. I have her bitrh record as well as the original of her marriage certificate. She was born Cannie Webb Ford and died Cannie Ford Trimble. Her name was neither Cassandra or Cassie.

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