Time & Again: Shore restoration, where historic business stood

What was once the Tahlequah Store is part of King County’s beach restoration efforts on the island.

By Bruce Haulman

and Terry Donnelly

For The Beachcomber

The former location of the Tahlequah Store, just to the west of the Tahlequah Ferry Dock, is the latest example of King County’s beach restoration efforts on Vashon and Maury Islands.

This beach restoration is a cooperative effort between King County, the Washington State Ferries (WSF) and the Washington State Department of Ecology. The long-range plan is to establish natural beaches to help restore salmon runs in Tahlequah Creek and to restore the creek to its original state.

The creek, which now passes through a bulkheaded and concrete flume, presents barriers to fish attempting to reach the spawning areas along the upper reaches of the creek. The beach surrounding the mouth of the creek, which was originally mudflats and marsh, is now heavily armored with bulkheads and backfill.

A long history

This area was originally named Qʷu?ali (place of gathering) by the sx̌ʷəbabš Native People of Vashon. The village here was a small village compared to the larger villages in Quartermaster Harbor, but it was a location rich in marine resources, with easy access to fishing and hunting sites, and close to the related villages in what is now Tacoma and Gig Harbor.

We do not know how long the village at Tahlequah was here, but Native People have inhabited Vashon for at least 4,000 to 6,000 years, with approximately a thousand residents at the time of the first European contact in 1792.

The first account we have of Clam Cove, now known as Tahlequah, comes from Lt. Georges Colvocoresses of the Wilkes American Exploring Expedition. His name was shortened to “Colvos” by his companions and Colvos passage is named after Colvocoresses.

On the evening of May 10, 1841, when the Expedition anchored at the south end of Vashon, Colvocoresses wrote: “At sunset, we came to under the western shore to wait for daylight. It was a rich treat to behold the sublime prospect around us through all its transitions of sunshine, purple hues, mellow twilight, and every shade, until there was nothing else to see but the dark loom of Mts Rainer and Olympus, uplifting themselves against the clear and starry skies of this region.”

American settlers named it Clam Cove because of the abundant clams found here and began to live here in the 1880s. In 1868, 633 acres at Dalco Point were declared a military reserve as part of a plan to build three defensive forts to protect the entrance to Southern Puget Sound at the Tacoma Narrows. The forts were never built and in 1921 the reserve was broken into 10-acre parcels and sold to the 52 squatters who had inhabited the land.

In 1918, Pierce County built a dock at Point Defiance for a proposed ferry to Gig Harbor and Vashon. Pierce County received a promise from the King County commissioners to build a dock and road to the south end within one year. On May 15, 1920, the Tahlequah-Point Defiance-Gig Harbor ferry service began with a celebration attended by 300 people. The ferry, City of Tacoma, was the first ferry and the fare was 5 cents.

The Tacoma Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest with a $50 prize to name the new terminal. The prize committee included M. F. Shaw of Shawnee, Mrs. Pankratz of Burton, and Fanny Sheffield of Southern Heights. They selected Ethel Whitfield, daughter of the owners of the Burton Store, as the winner for proposing the name “Tahlequah” after the Oklahoma city which was the Indian Territory capitol of the Cherokee Nation.

Whitfield thought the word “Tah-le-quah” meant “water view” or “pleasant water.” In actuality, the name more likely comes from the name “Chalequa” for the Cherokee Tribe, which is found on a 1597 map.

As Tahlequah developed, a store was built in June 1921 just west of the ferry dock serving the local grocery and dry goods needs of the neighborhood and serving meals to the ferry crews. On June 17 of that year, the Vashon Island News-Record reported that “We learn with interest that a store and dwelling of considerable proportions is in process of erection at Tahlequah.”

At the end of that July the newspaper reported, “The new store building at Tahlequah being complete, the stocks arrived last weekend, Mr. Lucas has opened up for business. We trust that Mr. Lucas may soon find himself reaping the reward for his farsightedness in establishing himself in this promising locality.”

Through the 1920s, the business was owned by Clara and Ezekel Lucas and operated by his uncle, Captain Peter Anderson.

Tahlequah was directly connected by Vashon Highway to the rest of the island when the highway was completed from Burton to Magnolia in 1925, and then from Magnolia to Tahlequah in 1932. During the 1930s Minnie and Kenneth Fry operated the store, and in 1941 sold it to Dolly and Doyle Williams who operated the store until they sold it to Russ Halls in 1962. Halls owned the store until 1969 when he sold it to Myrtle and Burt Mortenson.

The Mortensons added the dock in 1975 to bring in business from the sport fishermen and boaters plying the waters at Dalco Point and the Tacoma Narrows. Many visitors thought the dock was a remnant of the Mosquito Fleet days, but it was a modern addition.

The store closed in 1999 and was acquired by the State of Washington in 2005 as part of the Tahlequah ferry terminal. The building was removed in 2007, and the dock in 2015. In 2021, the failing bulkheads were removed, and soft shore protection was installed to prevent erosion and improve habitat.

Current preservation and restoration efforts

King County has identified south Vashon-Maury Island as a priority for shoreline habitat preservation and restoration to support Chinook salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery, and the County was instrumental in assisting with project development and permitting.

Tahlequah Creek, which has some of the best water quality of any stream on Vashon Island, empties into Puget Sound at this location, presenting an excellent opportunity to restore this pocket estuary and the surrounding shoreline. Much of the surrounding shoreline is armored and presents an opportunity to protect and enhance 700 feet of marine shoreline, including the WSF Tahlequah Ferry Terminal property.

Restoring the estuary at the mouth of Tahlequah Creek will open fish passage to nearly 5,000 feet of stream. A restored creek is expected to support runs of coho and chum salmon, and sea-run cutthroat trout. Juvenile chinook salmon are expected to feed along the restored estuary habitat.

Enhancement of the WSF property shoreline fits well into these plans. By improving the habitat on WSF property, forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance will have increased beach spawning habitat. Juvenile Chinook salmon will have improved chances of survival with more shallow water refuge areas and increased prey availability.

In addition to the project area directly adjacent to WSF property, King County has another restoration and acquisition project site 3,500 feet east at Neill Point. At this location, King County has permanently restored and protected almost 3,000 feet of marine shoreline. The restoration and preservation efforts at both Neill Point and Tahlequah provide a significant block of valuable marine and estuary habitat that will contribute toward Chinook salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery.

King County plans to acquire and permanently preserve properties in this area. Existing structures will be removed, and the area will be revegetated with native plants. Restoring a natural pocket estuary and shoreline will create resiliency against sea level rise by reconnecting the creek with its floodplain, and the backshore with the nearshore.

This year, a technique called soft shore protection was used at the Tahlequah Store and WSF Tahlequah Dock to reduce shoreline erosion and improve beach habitat for forage fish and other wildlife. Forage fish (Pacific herring, surf smelt and sand lance) are food for endangered Chinook salmon, which are key to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population. To enhance upper beach habitat, the project removed failing creosote timber and concrete bulkheads, placed new beach material and planted native plants.

The Vashon Nature Center began pre-project beach sampling in 2020, measuring forage fish spawning and beach characteristics, monitored the site during the project and will continue to monitor after the project is completed. Benefits of this soft shore project include healthier salmon populations and shorelines, and a beautiful place to enjoy while waiting for the ferry.

The beach restoration project at the site of the Tahlequah Store is a good example of how the shorelines of the island changed as we developed them for our current uses and how modifications we made changed the island ecology. This project is also a good example of the efforts it will take to restore the habitats that we changed and destroyed by our development of the shorelines.

This project also highlights the tensions between restoration and preservation. While we can all celebrate the effort to restore the beach at Tahlequah and the planned restoration of Tahlequah Creek, we can also acknowledge the passing of a historic landmark like the Tahlequah Store.

If you want more information about Vashon-Maury Island natural resources and soft shore protection, visit the Vashon Nature Center website at vashonnaturecenter.org, the King County Small Habitat Restoration Project website at bit.ly/3JuQ0tp, and the Salish Sea Restoration Project at salishsearestoration.org.

Terry Donnelly is an island photographer. Bruce Haulman is an island historian.