The town of Langley, tagged the Village by the Sea, is perched on a low bluff near the southern end of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Town founder Jacob Anthes first purchased land here at age 15, helped plat the town in 1891, and built a wharf.
As new families arrived, First Street filled with businesses and homes, and the town was incorporated in 1913. Fishing resorts sprang up, but when the passenger ferry service shifted from Langley to Clinton, the town languished. During the 1970s, an influx of young artists and hippies arrived with an appreciation of the areas unspoiled natural setting. Today, Langley offers a quiet, off-the-main-highway lifestyle with seaside beauty and the cultural stimuli of theater, art, and music.
The Langley Historic Preservation Committee has produced a comprehensive Langley History website at LangleyHistory.com
A permanent Snohomish tribal village once stood at Sandy Point, east of present downtown Langley. German settler Jacob Anthes and the Langley Land and Improvement Company platted the town in 1890 (filed 1891), naming it for Seattle Judge James Weston Langley (1836-1915), the company’s president. Incorporated as a fourth-class town in 1913, Langley was reclassified in 1975 as a Noncharter Code City and is the only incorporated city on South Whidbey Island. In its early years, the town was an important trade center on the island for agriculture, fishing and logging but, when these industries declined, South Whidbey became a recreation and vacation retreat for both visitors and island residents. The threat of large-scale development in the 1980s led Langley residents to grow their economy based on their best assets: the island’s natural beauty, its rural character, its heritage and the arts.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 drew homeseekers and adventurers west and the earliest non-Indian settlements on Whidbey Island date from that time. Whidbey Island’s first white settler was Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), who claimed land on the central part of the island in 1850. In the next decade, he was joined by other settlers near what became the town of Coupeville on the middle portion of the island. Central Whidbey offered an excellent cove, a stand of old growth trees, and open prairie land for farming. But the southern portion of the island, with its heavy forests and dense undergrowth, was settled more slowly. The earliest settlers on South Whidbey seem to have been reclusive loners or claimants who took land for the purpose of logging.
Jacob Anthes, who would pioneer Langley’s early development, left his home in Gross Gerau, Germany, in 1879, when he was 14, to avoid compulsory military conscription and begin life in a new land. Anthes and a friend, George Miller, arrived in New York and set out for Topeka, Kansas, to visit Miller’s mother. Anthes worked in the stockyards there for a short time but soon set out alone on the transcontinental railroad for San Francisco. From there he headed north, in 1880 arriving in Seattle where he met a businessman who had a homestead claim on South Whidbey Island. Anthes agreed to move onto the property in order to hold down the man’s claim. He occupied a rustic cabin built by a previous settler and began cutting trees to sell as cordwood to Mosquito Fleet steamboat operators. He is reported to have cut about 35 cords a day, with the help of loggers that he hired. Anthes also planted a large vegetable garden, with plenty of potatoes that he sold to loggers and other workers on the island. And he began exploring the southern portion of Whidbey Island on foot, writing diaries of his experiences.
In 1889 Anthes married Leafy Weeks, a woman from Seattle, and the following year he purchased a homestead tract on a bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage, built a house, and began planning a town. When Washington gained statehood in 1889, the establishment of townsites in the region reached a state of madness as entrepreneurs awaited the arrival of the Great Northern Railway and speculated where it would first touch West Coast tidewater. Anthes placed his hopes on South Whidbey Island’s location and resources and sought backing for town development. With financial support from Seattle Judge James Weston Langley, C.M. Sheafe, James Satterlee, A.P. Kirk, and Howard B. Slauson (1861-1933), Anthes formed the Langley Land and Improvement Company and deeded property to the company for development. The town plat of Langley — named for the judge — was drawn in November 1890 and officially recorded on April 9, 1891.
One of the company’s first projects was building a 999-foot dock (above), at a cost of $5,000. Anthes opened a general store and post office across the street from the dock. In the hard times following the financial Panic of 1893 most of the Improvement Company’s plans had to be set aside. In addition, the dock had been poorly located and fell victim to heavy tides and storms. When severe storms destroyed it in 1894, the company did not have the means to rebuild and, for a time, large vessels were unable to dock at Langley.
Klondike Gold Rush dollars and a national economic recovery renewed Langley’s prospects in the late 1890s. Anthes was granted a contract to supply brush needed for shoreline development in Everett and Seattle. In 1902 the Langley Land Company deeded land back to Anthes and he began building trails and roads to the interior of the island and a road to connect Langley with Clinton. He also constructed a new dock, a quarter of a mile east of the original wharf, in a partially protected cove. Langley became South Whidbey’s trading center for loggers, fishermen, and farmers, with steamers connecting to Everett, Seattle, Camano Island, and Whatcom (now part of Bellingham).
Having started with almost nothing, Anthes now owned the town’s general store, its water system, a post office, and a bunk house and cook house for workers. He was also becoming prosperous from his real estate holdings, not only on Whidbey Island but also in nearby Everett. Polk’s City Directory listings link Anthes to a hotel in Everett as early as 1904 and by 1908 the Anthes family had moved from Langley to the riverside of Everett. The directories list Anthes in Everett from 1908 to 1939, the year he died.
Anthes continued to own a large amount of property in Langley as the 1900s began but the town had grown and diversified. In 1910 the U.S. Census listed 142 families in town.
One was that of Ed and Clara Howard, who arrived in 1901 and soon rivaled Anthes for town dominance. Harris built a store across from the Anthes store and began other businesses as well. The coup was complete when Howard was chosen postmaster in 1904, supplanting Anthes. The rivalry continued, perhaps due to different visions for the new town. One oldtimer recalled that Anthes did not want buildings on the Saratoga Passage side of First Street, in order to maximize the water view.
In 1911, the Anthes store was burned under suspicious circumstances. Three weeks later, the Howard store was burned, under equally suspicious circumstances.
The young town’s governing body was Island County, with the county seat at Coupeville. Given the small population of all of South Whidbey at the time, Langley’s needs were a low priority for county officials, and Langley citizens began discussing incorporation as the way to control and develop their town. An attempt to incorporate in 1910 was unsuccessful, but three years later the issue was placed on the ballot. Citizens voted to incorporate Langley as a fourth-class town on Tuesday, January 28, 1913, and the incorporation order was filed with the Secretary of State on February 26, 1913.
Langley gained national attention in 1920 when an effort to clean up city hall, and following passage of the nation’s women’s suffrage act, led the community to elect of all-female administration, making Langley the second town in the U.S. to do so. (The first was Kanab, Utah, in 1911).
The 1902-built Langley dock supported a small shingle mill, as well as two lumber mills and the Whidbey Island Canning Company. In 1912 the Jensen family purchased the dock and kept it until 1926, when it was sold to Willis Nearhoff (1879-?).
From 1911, the Island Transportation Company ran passenger ferry service from points on South Whidbey Island to the mainland and in 1919 it added car ferry service. From 1919 to 1923, Nearhoff operated his own ferry from Clinton to Everett and for a time had much of the ferry business. But to the delight of Langley residents, in 1923 the Island Transportation Company put in a new ferry, the Whidbey II, which made a ferry stop at Langley, and Nearhoff began losing business. He purchased the dock in 1926 in order to control the road leading to it and angered the town when he tried to close access to the road. A bitter fight began which continued in public hearings until May 9, 1928, when Nearhoff sold his holdings to the Puget Sound Navigation Company (the Black Ball Line) which was purchased by Washington State Ferries when the state agency was formed in 1951.
Artists and Land-clearing
Whidbey Island’s natural beauty and island remoteness have appealed to artists for decades and Langley has a long history of supporting the arts. Two artists of special early prominence were Peter Camfferman (1890-1957) and his wife Margaret Gove Camfferman (1881-1964), nationally known painters in the modernist tradition. The couple met at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, married in 1914 and continued their art studies. Margaret attended the New York School of Applied Arts & Design and both she and Peter studied with Andre L’hote in Paris. Margaret was the niece of Helen Coe, mayor of Langley in 1920 and the Langley librarian. The Camffermans moved to the Coe property, off of Saratoga Road in Langley, and built an artists’ colony called Brackenwood with cabins for visiting artists. The colony was active through the 1930s and 1940s under the Camffermans, who dedicated their lives to painting and teaching. There are Camfferman paintings today in major art collections. Locally, the Langley Library has several. A Langley gallery (at 302 First Street) continues the Brackenwood name.
By the 1920s, about two thirds to three quarters of land in Island County had been logged, leaving behind a waste of slash and stumps. This land was unproductive and tax revenue stagnant. The logging business suffered as the supply diminished and island farmers began losing the competition with mainland growers due to the cost of transportation to and from the island. Over the decades that followed, much logged-off or formerly farmed land was sold for development. Housing and business blocks were built and, by the 1970s, large development corporations threatened the rural lifestyle of Whidbey Island residents.
Port of Langley/Port of South Whidbey
In 1961 voters in the Langley area approved formation of a public port district. The port district included Langley and portions of the rural precincts of Sandy Point, Saratoga, and Useless Bay. By this time Langley was no longer a working port due to the cost of transporting goods to the mainland. The new Port of Langley emphasized building a 400-slip small-boat marina that would serve all of South Whidbey Island.
Beginning in 1965, the Port began planning the proposed marina at the base of Anthes Street and secured a tentative commitment from the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the harbor and build a breakwater. However the Port could not provide the required 80-percent occupancy at the marina and plans were put on hold. To increase its tax base, South Whidbey voters on November 5, 1968, approved the Port’s expansion to encompass most of the southern third of the island. Although it now covered a much greater area, the Port retained the Langley name until 1979 when it officially became the Port of South Whidbey.
Arts and a Sustainable Economy
In the 1960s and 1970s artists and counter-culture folks discovered South Whidbey. Many were ecologically minded and, while they met the resistance of some long-term residents, they were welcomed by others who wished to to preserve the island’s remaining forests, waterfront, and prairies and, in general, keep Langley’s natural assets. But South Whidbey Island also drew developers who planned large-scale housing subdivisions and malls. A Langley-based group calling itself the Whidbey Environmental Action Network successfully fended off a large development project in the late 1980s and continues to work on environmental issues that impact Whidbey Island.
In 2012 Langley continues to support its arts organizations, craftspeople, performing arts venues, galleries, studios, musicians, video/filmmakers, bookstores, specialty shops, ecologists, educators, and architects. Each year artists open their studios to the public for tours and sales. Choochokam, the Langley Festival of the Arts, is an annual event held in July on First Street. The Clyde Theatre, a movie house built in 1937, continues to operate after more than 75 years, offering movies and live performances, and Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA), begun in 1996, presents plays, readings and musical performers and events. Djangofest Northwest is a popular annual WICA production that draws musicians from around the world who perform jazz music in the style of legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Langley is the home of several architecture and design firms that have been recognized nationally and internationally. These include Ralph Chapin Architects, Island Design, Flat Rock Productions, and Hemperly & Babbage Designs. Most work in contemporary design, applying green construction methods.
Hedgebrook (2197 Millman Road) is a women writers’ retreat with an international reputation and Langley’s closeness to Clinton connects it with the Whidbey Institute at Chinook and the Whidbey Island Waldorf School. In the 1980s and 1990s South Whidbey was an important location for speaker forums on ecology and environmental issues, bringing speakers of world importance to the island.
Preserving Langley’s History
The South Whidbey Historical Society incorporated in 1981 and gained nonprofit status two years later. The group was first affiliated with the Island County Historical Society in Coupeville but became independent in 1991, allowing it to focus on South Whidbey history. The society first set up displays in the old Langley High School but soon outgrew the space. The donation of the historic Anthes brush cutters’ bunkhouse in Langley gave the society a permanent home. Utilizing volunteer help, the building was refurbished and turned into a museum. The historical society operates the museum, conducts educational programming with the South Whidbey School District, and also maintains several historic buildings that are now on the Island County Fairgrounds: the McLeod Cabin, the Brooks Hill Log House, and the Ray Gabelein Sr. Barn. The museum draws more than 1,000 visitors each year, most from off-island.
The City of Langley has a Historic Preservation Commission whose duties include surveying and listing the town’s historic properties. Langley’s famous Dog House Tavern (vacant in 2012) is a National Register property and the Langley Register of Historic Places lists the following: Langley City Hall, 112 Second Street (1948); Langley Library, 104 Second Street (1923); Langley-Woodmen Cemetery, 1109 Al Anderson Avenue (1902); South Whidbey Historical Museum, 312 Second Street (1902?); Wylie Hospital/Birthing House, 321 Edgecliff Drive (1910); Pole Building, Island County Fair Grounds, 819 Camano Avenue (1936-1937); and the Beachum house/Lovejoy house, 402 Anthes Avenue (1908).
A big boost to preservation was the establishment in June 2011 of the Historic Downtown Langley Main Street Association, formed by town merchants to keep and promote Langley’s small town heritage. The group is modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program, which was designed to protect and revitalize historic downtown commercial districts.
Richard White, Land Use, Environment and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Dorothy Neil and Lee Brainard, By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came: A History of Whidbey’s Island (Oak Harbor: Spindrift Publishing Company, 1989); William Amelius McGinnis,The Langleyites of Whidbey Island, 1899-1924 (Willits, California: W. A. McGinnis, 1986); South Whidbey and Its People, Vol. 1 ed. by Lorna Cherry (Langley: South Whidbey Historical Society, 1983); Lorna Cherry, Langley: The Village by the Sea(Langley: South Whidbey Historical Society, 1986); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Island County — Thumbnail History” (by Daryl McClary) and “Voters approve Langley Port District, later to become Port of South Whidbey, on August 29, 1961” (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 3, 2012); Tom Dailey, Coast Salish Villages of Puget Sound website accessed August 17, 2012 (www.coastsalishmap.org); “A Brief History of the Island County Fair,” Whidbey Island Fair website accessed September 8, 2012 (www.whidbeyislandfair.com/documents/29.html); “Modern Arts Colonists’ Story Is Preserved for History,” May 15, 2009, South Whidbey Record website accessed October 3, 2012(http://www.southwhidbeyrecord.com/entertainment/45171402.html); Justin Burnett, “Downtown Langley Project Boosted by Big Bucks,” March 9, 2012, South Whidbey Record website accessed October 3, 2012(http://www.southwhidbeyrecord.com/business/142126433.html); “Agreement for the Participation in the Main Street Program Between the City of Langley and the Langley Main Street Association,” City of Langley website accessed October 12, 2012 (http://www.langleywa.org/documents/mainstreet_proposed_contract.pdf).
Note: This essay was corrected on February 21, 2013, and on May 7, 2014.