Before we delve into the names found around Yukon Harbor, it should be understood how, exactly, towns are named. As a community sprouted and grew, travelers and locals needed a way to describe a location, so a name would become popularized through everyday use. It might be named after a point of land or geographical feature, but it was also common to use the name of a family or business. So if a farmer named Johnson built at a spit of land, it was understandable that this might be known as “Johnson’s Point,” or if businesses sprouted near a ferry crossing owned by someone named Smith, it could be referred to “Smith’s Ferry.”
The only official designation that really mattered for a town in the United States was the named assigned by the United States Postal Service. This often created a small crisis, either because the townspeople were in disagreement or because the proposed name was already taken by another town. Notable local examples of these transactions are the back-and-forth between the towns of Charlestown and Sidney, both claiming the “Port Orchard” designation at the same time around 1890. Also, Silverdale was once known as Goldendale, but there was another town using the latter, so the townspeople downgraded to a lesser precious metal.
No Debate: How Colby got its name.
Almost all American towns have names that are completely logical and easy to trace but the origin of “Colby” isn’t without a bit of debate. Many historical accounts offer the theory that the Colby got its name from the fact that coal was discovered nearby in the late 19th Century, and in the early goings the area was referred to as “Coal Bay.” Earl Whitner, who was raised in Colby in the 1930’s shares this anecdote:
“Old Man Locker who has a road named after him, always claimed that at one time there was a coal mine up the hill somewhere and that’s how Colby got its name. From Coal Bay to Colby. He would stand in front of Grant’s store and tell this story to anyone who would listen and when he talked you could hear him at our house a quarter mile up the beach. This eventually was shortened to ‘Colby,’ as the story goes.”
With all due respect to the late Mr Locker, that version isn’t given any credence. There isn’t any coal in the region, and the event never happened except within the context of his odd sense of humor. We are prone to believe that even Luban Locker would laugh that his tall tale is given credence.
The more likely origin — one that we’ve been able to document through various sources and which is noted in Book Five of the Kitsap County Historical record — says that the town was indirectly named after a local Native American, Chief Colby.
There are accounts that the Curley Creek estuary was an annual gathering place for local Skokomish tribes, and the following description of that town can be found in local Native American records:
“boo-COHL-bee (‘people gathered together from various places’) — Suquamish. [the village was located on] Kitsap Peninsula opposite Blake Island and near the present day village of Colby. ‘One or two large buildings besides four small ones…’ According to another report there was one small house.”
So it’s possible the local settlers picked up the name from the Native American description, or from the name of a local Indian, or both. A local resident of the Harper area, Capt R.M. Creswell (sometimes spelled Cresswell) owned several small steamships, and one of them was the COLBY. Following the concept that the mouth of the creek was named “Boo-Chol-Bee” and chief who lent his name to Creswell’s boat might have been named Curley Colby, giving a name to both the creek and the boat. One way or another, the name is likely connected to a Native American name or word.
The businessman who would become the first postmaster, William Morgan, apparently realized that the then-informal collection of businesses and houses — a mill, store, etc — needed a formal name, and brought up the discussion with Capt Creswell. The captain owned several steamers, one of them being the COLBY (pictured below). It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to realize the politics of the transaction. It was, clearly, in Morgan’s and Grant’s best interests to be on good terms with the captain — they needed steamers to frequent the area because it promoted commerce and brought customers. One thing led to another, presumably, and Morgan and the townspeople adopted the name of the steamer that had taken its name from the chief. A little practical flattery went a long way to promote the fledgling town. Colby was the name submitted to and approved by the Post Office in 1885.
There are some references to the town of Colby as “Idylwilde” hinting that the townspeople may have considered changing the name at a later date. A recent photograph shows a sign with that name (click on thumbnail, left) above a narrow roadway, probably located just North of Curley Creek.
Yukon Harbor, nee Barron’s Bay.
The area now known as Yukon Harbor was originally designated as “Barron’s Bay” by the United States Expedition of Exploration of 1841. It was sometime later that it was changed to its present name. A book by James W. Phillips, Washington State Place Names (University of Washington Press, 1985), gives a somewhat convoluted account of how Lieutenant Charles Wilkes came up with it:
“In accordance with his custom of assigning associated names to adjacent geographic points, Wilkes linked together two comrades-in-arms of the Tripolitan War of 1805 — He named the bay after Commodore Samuel Butler and the Island to the north after Capt. William Bainbridge. The bay’s name was later changed locally [to Yukon Harbor] as a reminiscent to a tie-in to the Alaska-Yukon gold rush.”
We don’t have a clue what this means and can make no sense of it. (See the comment added by Dick Blumenthal in the Comments, below.) Perhaps it is just poor editing, and the book fails to explain the “Baron’s Bay” name completely. If Butler was a baron, Wilkes spelled the word incorrectly.
There is a more probable Wilkes connection that would explain it, and that’s with Commodore James Barron, who was commander of the Navy Yard at Philadelphia when the store ship RELIEF was constructed to participate in the major exploration of 1838-1842 led by Wilkes. We have not previously seen this theory published, but our own research has uncovered the link between the two men, James Phillips’ book notwithstanding.
At some point the name was changed to Yukon Harbor. A popular theory holds that the switch was inspired by the Alaskan Gold Rush doesn’t hold water simply because maps show the new moniker as early as 1889, and gold wasn’t discovered until the mid-1890’s. It could have been that the locals were merely promoting settlement (rather than gold) in the Yukon Territory, and it was quite common for businesses here to advertise in Eastern newspapers, offering to provide provisions and passage from Puget Sound to the Northern Territories. Or, it could be that it just sounded pretty cool.
Our belief is that the founding fathers of Colby — William Morgan, Joseph Squire Grant, and John Anspaugh — simply began calling it Yukon Harbor when the town was established in 1885. It just makes sense. Everything else in the area was virgin and not-yet-named and in need of an identity, so why not the harbor itself? Maps of the region were virtually non-existent, and for many people the notion that Capt. Wilkes put the names of his friends and crewmates on every creek, island, and point of land did not sit well. Besides, with the seemingly unexplainable moniker of “Barron’s Bay” they might have wanted something more logical and memorable.
Stay tuned. We’re still digging into this. Your thoughts are welcome.
Manchester, nee Brooklyn.
The town that was originally designated as Brooklyn changed its name to Manchester in 1891, and there are several possible reasons. One, is that the townsfolk were decidedly English-born, and Manchester was a noted British seaport and shipbuilding center. Two, it could have been that the United States Postal Service simply would not approve of the original name. Three, the town’s principals might have hoped that the inference that they were potential site for a major shipbuilding town would draw the attention of the United States Navy, who were looking for a location for the new Puget Sound Navy Yard at that time.
South Colby, suburb.
This is a no-brainer. Colby was the original center of commerce for the entire South Kitsap region, and the Cornell Family grew tired of the exclusive use of the pier past the Anspaugh and Grant stores. So, a second community was started across Curley Creek, officially designated as “an annex” to Colby.
We are amazed at the number of locals who, when hearing mention of the historic town of Old Colby, think that it is referencing South Colby. They are two distinct communities.
Harper, which should have been Harmon’s Landing.
There is a firsthand account in the letters and notes of Miriam Grant in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that tells how this town got its name. Tales of how former State Senator Frederick Harper founded the town and initiated the effort to establish an independent post office in the area knows as Harmon’s Landing, the name was picked during a rather informal conversation between George Harmon, Jr., and his Native American mother, Jennie Harmon. George Senior had homesteaded the area for many years before starting a family, and had maintained a crude rock jetty to facilitate visiting steamers.
Mail was sent through Colby’s post office, which certainly was inconvenient. So, George Junior sent for an application for a new Post Office and, reaching the all-important blank that asked, “what name will the PO employ,” asked his mother if the popular name used at the time, “Harmon’s Landing” would be appropriate.
Jennie, who had adopted many Victorian ways from her White husband, said that she thought that “would be immodest” of the Harmon family to do that, so George thought for a minute, considered that it might flatter a neighbor who was helping to build a new brick factory there, and suggested the name, “Harper.”
We believe this is a derivation of a Native American word or name. Many maps show it as “Gurley Creek.” See the article, “The Seventh Span” elsewhere on this website.
Blake Island, aka Trimble Island.
Capt Wilkes of the United States Expedition of Exploration assigned names to virtually every place and every thing around Puget Sound, honoring countless friends, sailors, and crew members. The island, which had been called High Island by the natives, was re-designated Blake after George Smith Blake, commanding officer of the United States Coastal Survey, 1837-48.
When William Pitt Trimble purchased the island around 1910, he sought to have it re-named Trimble Island. He did, for a time, maintain a post office by that name, but the designation dropped off of the map when the office closed in 1929.
Extensive information about the island’s history, the Trimbles, and life there are included in other featured articles on this website.
Colchester, the Non-Town.
Sorry, folks, there isn’t a town of Colchester and there never has been. No post office, no main street, no stores. That community, which is located halfway between the old townsites of Colby and Manchester, was actually merely a real estate development initiated along the waterfront property in the mid-1920’s. The name is actually a hybrid of the two: Col-chester.
A related article:
Kitsap Sun Article about Colchester, etc.