Once the site of three permanent Lower Skagit Tribal villages, Coupeville encompasses central Whidbey Island between the Salish Sea and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, below the San Juan Islands in Washington state.
In today’s governance Coupeville holds the seat of Island County, Washington. The county is made up of both Whidbey Island and Camano Island to our east.
Coupeville’s downtown area is composed of a sloped waterfront main street called Front Street. Front lies from east to west along the south side of Penn Cove and has no extreme hills or conditions to navigate.
Downtown Coupeville Looking east down Front Street at Alexander. Photo Credit Island County Historical Society Archives and Museum, Coupeville.
Many of Coupeville’s older 1900’s structures survived into the twentieth century. In the 1970s when Whidbey Island’s citizens began to aggressively support restoration, preservation (of farm land and buildings), the arts, Coupeville became a National Historic Preservation District recognized by the United State Library of Congress’s National Register of Historic Places. Likewise many of Coupeville’s historic buildings are listed in Library of Congress’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
The activation of Fort Casey in 1901 spurred efforts for Coupeville’s incorporation April of 1910.
Impetus for the formation of central Whidbey’s National Historic Preservation District and the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve (the first reserve of its kind recognized in the U.S.) came along in 1978. Over the years since that time citizen based support has preserved four blockhouses, many historic buildings and homes, and most significantly, Ebey’s prairie itself and the Coupeville Wharf.
Gift shops, restaurants, personal service businesses and boutiques now line Coupeville’s Front Street.
Coupeville is by gone days with all the modern accommodations today.
You’ll begin your tour, at the Coupeville wharf.
1. Make your way down the wharf’s gangway to the historic Wharf building.
Located at the foot of both Front and North Alexander streets, the Coupeville wharf is the star of our western history. Relying on boats for both goods and travel and connecting Coupeville and Whidbey to Seattle, Everett, and ports beyond, the wharf connected Whidbey to the world. The famous “Mosquito Fleet” ran to and from this wharf until 1937 when the Deception Pass bridge was built.
The 1905 wharf (Coupeville’s fourth) was built longer and wider than its previous incarnations by a group of local farmers and merchants who wanted to better accommodate their transportation and commerce needs during daily low tides. The wharf extends 500 feet directly into Penn Cove.
Over the years the building has been home to Coupeville’s transportation, commerce and industry. Today it houses a marine educational center; a restaurant; souvenir shop; access to water recreation; gas and supplies for boats; and Harbor Master’s Office. The Wharf is owned, operated and maintained by the Port of Coupeville.
At low tide during early spring and summer, look for the large numbers of starfish attached to the wharf pilings eating mussels. Watch for seagulls and crows dropping mussels on the boardwalk to crack their hard shells, and then feasting on the delicious meat. Seals, otters, kingfishers and eagles are frequently visible nearby as well.
Once inside the wharf building you’ll find marine education front and center.
Installed and maintained by the Sound Water Stewards, the Port of Coupeville and the Town of Coupeville, the marine education center is kid and adult friendly. Marine skeletons recovered and preserved by the Sound Water Stewards volunteers hang from the ceiling of the center. “Rosie” the grey whale, “Rudy” the Dall’s Porpoise, and an unnamed Harbor Seal greet you as you enter the wharf.
From the gangways of the wharf you’ll look back on Coupeville.
Made up of historic buildings, and a couple new ones built under the guidance of the historic guidelines we maintain in Coupeville, Coupeville’s downtown and the Wharf represent the centerpiece of Whidbey Island.
2. After your visit to the wharf your next stop is the Island County Historical Society Museum
Though located in Coupeville, the museum represents all of Island County, and includes the histories of both Whidbey and Camano islands. Director Rick Castellano, his staff, and volunteers work hard and take great care in archiving, organizing, preserving and exhibiting the massive history of the area. Permanent and changing exhibitions will fascinate and entertain you during your visit. Did you know we have wholly mammoth bones? How did they get here? Find out when you visit the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville.
3. After your visit to the museum, you’ll be examining the Alexander block house.
Built in 1855 as a two story log blockhouse surrounded by a ten foot high double log stockade with sharpened ends. In the 1930’s the block house was moved from its original location on the Alexander claim to its present location. Block houses acted as a settler’s “safe house” in times of native tribal tensions during the settlement of the island. There are 7 block restored block houses on central Whidbey. Expanded history of the Block House and Museum area.
4. Gillespie Meat Market (1887) 24 NW Front Street, now home to Collections boutique
This tiny building first housed a meat market owned by James Gillespie. In 1887 Gillespie bought the parcel from Abram Alexander and built a small shop where he worked as a meat cutter for many years. In the rear is a stairway descending to the beach, and the Port of Coupeville business office. Expanded history of #24
Note: At this point you’ll be going up Front St. on the waterside and then down the other, therefore the numbered sites on your map will be out of order.
Photo Credit Vail’s Wine Shop and Tasting Rooms
The Coupeville Mill first stood on this site, but in 1897 this structure was erected to capitalize on the Klondike gold rush. Charles Terry had a large orchard and hired local women to dry prunes for shipment to Alaskan miners. Potatoes and onions were also processed. In 1908, Carl and Laurin Gillespie, sons of the butcher next door, opened a livery stable here, renting out horses and later cars. Expanded history of #22
12. Benson Confectionery (1916), 16 NW Front Street, now home to The Kingfisher Bookstore.
Sam and Nellie Benson originally had a candy and gift shop on the first floor and lived upstairs. A variety of businesses, including a liquor store, have occupied the store since then. Like many buildings on Front Street, the concrete foundation was added later, in the 1970s. Expanded history of #16
15. Blowers & Kineth Store (1886) Coupeville Cash Store 12 N. W. Front Street. Late 2020 into 2021 this historic building is undergoing massive renovations. Sea Bre’s Yarns is on the street level and open
Photo credit Sea Bre’s Yarns
This was once the largest general store in Coupeville, selling everything from groceries and dry goods to mowing machines. A wagon shop and blacksmith occupied the lower level. It remained a grocery store for more than sixty years, and was then a pharmacy until 1959, when it became an antique store. Expanded history of #12
16. John Robertson’s Store (1866) 10 NW Front Street. Today home to The Laughing Admiral and soon to be coffee shop.
John Robertson was one of Coupeville’s first entrepreneurs, owning six buildings in this block. He purchased a portion of the John Alexander claim in 1860. This is one of the earliest buildings on the street, built in 1866. It originally had a simple gable roof, with the false front added later. Expanded history of #10
18. Whidbey Mercantile Company (c. 1875) Whidbey Cash and Carry 8 N. W. Front Street, now home to Toby’s Tavern.
Photo credit: Jack Penland – Whidbey Camano Tourism.
Years ago the name of this store derives from the fact that it was common at one time for stores to have customer accounts and to deliver purchases. Here, savings could be had for “cash and carry.” This is another structure built for John Robertson, with a false front added later. On the rear is a large door on the second floor, where boats could unload directly into the store at high tide; there was a scale on the sidewalk in front to weigh goods being shipped, and in 1883 an adjacent wharf (no longer standing). About 1930, a lean-to on the west end was enclosed and used as a gas station, with gasoline pumps right at the sidewalk. The eastern section remained a store. It has been a tavern since 1938. Expanded history of #8
19. Wooden Sidewalk and Public Deck
This spot marks the location of the first town offices and library, which were demolished in 1959 after becoming very unsafe.
Coupeville’s early sidewalks were made of wood like this one. They extended along much of Front Street, through some residential areas and out Main Street as far as the church at the top of the hill. The walkways kept people out of the mud, but they were very slippery and caused endless maintenance problems. Concrete sidewalks replaced them in the 1950s. Expanded history of this area
This building was also constructed for John Robertson. Its east side is exactly on the line between the Coupe and Alexander land claims. One of the early owners of this store was an undertaker, who reportedly found the town to be so healthy that there was little call for his services and he opened a home furnishings store. The small addition to the east housed the town’s first telephone exchange from 1900 until 1930.
At one time, a Chinese laundry occupied the lower level. Central Whidbey had a number of Chinese residents, who had come through the immigration station at Port Townsend. Some were tenant farmers renting land on the prairies, while others worked for local farmers. Although often treated like unwelcome outsiders, they made a significant contribution to the island’s early economic development. Expanded history of #4
23. Puget Race Drugstore (1890) 2 N. W. Front Street, now home to Aqua gifts.
Photo Credit: Robert Elphick
Puget Race was a long-time drug store in Coupeville. At one time this was one of only two drugstores between Seattle and Bellingham. Expanded history of #2
At this point, we’ll cross the street and walk back west.
21. Glenwood Hotel (1890) 1 NW Front Street. Now home to McPherson & McPherson PLLP, Attorneys At Law.
This elegant Italianate structure with tall bays and a balcony was probably the grandest building on Front Street, featured prominently in early photos.
The hotel was particularly noted for its fine public baths. The top floor was a hotel until the 1940s, when it was converted to apartments. It was owned by the Calhoun family for 75 years until the present owners purchased it. It had been their residence since 1970, with various shops and offices on the ground floor. The mansard roof was added about 1900, and asbestos siding was installed after a fire in 1954. This non-historic siding has since been removed. Expanded history of #1
20. John Robertson House (1864) 5 NW Front Street, now home to the Seaside Spa and Salon.
The oldest building on Front Street, this dates from 1864. It was said to have been built as a grist mill, to grind wheat into flour. However, it is not known that it was ever used as a mill. In 1864-65, the building served as the county courthouse for a few months, accommodating court hearings and commissioner meetings. It was a residence for many years and still has a distinctly residential appearance compared to the surrounding structures. The porch was added in the late 19th century and the dormers in the 1990s. Expanded history of #5
14. Central Hotel/Good Templars Hall (Site) Southeast corner of N. W. Front Street and Grace Street, home to Penn Cove Gallery (right) and Back to the Island (both buildings on left) and Marcon International (entire upstairs).
Two major buildings once stood on this site. The 1884 Central Hotel was a local institution, with a porch from which patrons could survey all of Front Street. It was locally famous for its fine wines, liquors and cigars. It was so popular that its bar expanded into the second floor of the neighboring building–ironically, the hall of the Good Templars, a temperance organization.
After the hotel burned, the lot remained vacant for decades until this new building was constructed in 2000. Due to design guidelines in the historic district, the new building was designed to look like several smaller structures to avoid overwhelming the street with its size. The new building uses historical features found on surrounding buildings, such as horizontal siding, double-hung windows, false fronts and traditional storefront designs. Expanded history of #9’s space
13. Post Office (1938) 11 NW Front Street, home to The Touch of Dutch.
This small building was built in 1938 as the second post office, which it remained until 1956. It is a concrete block structure, originally a good example of simple Moderne design popular in the 1930s. It was clad in wood siding for the movie Practical Magic in 1999.
The Ursula Building, 13 Front St. is a new building built in the 1990’s with historic intent and the home of the shop Madrona Blossom.
11. Elkhorn Saloon (1883) 15 NW Front St., now home to the Elkhorn Trading Company.
Although known as the Elkhorn Saloon, this was a saloon only briefly. For many years it was a drug store and doctor’s office, and later the area’s first real post office. It was the first false front building built in Coupeville. A tall facade was added to a simple wood building to make it look larger and grander. The style remained popular here for many years, making it difficult to tell newer buildings from older ones. Expanded history of #15
10. Judge Lester Still Law Office (1909) 17 N. W. Front Street, now home to Briggs Shore Ceramics
Judge Still was a prominent local official and entrepreneur who had this building built and practiced out of it for many years. Expanded history of #17
Note: Still also built the now iconic log Whid-Isle Inn and cabins for a family and friends vacationing spot. Whid-Isle has been operating as the Captain Whidbey Inn many decades. It is located farther west of Coupeville down Madrona Rd.
9. Island County Times (1906) 19 NW Front Street, now home to Jan McGregor Studio.
Whidbey Island has had a succession of local newspapers. The Times began publishing in 1891, and eventually became incorporated into the Whidbey News Times, which is still published in Oak Harbor. Expanded history of #19
8. Island County Abstract Office (1890) 21 N. W. Front Street, now home to Kapaw’s Iskreme.
Coupeville became the county seat in 1881, bringing numerous travelers on legal business. Many of the early businesses focused on courthouse activities, including several law offices and the abstract office, where property title documents were prepared. This building is a good example of the simple unadorned wooden structures that are common to Coupeville’s business district. It was once a meat market, located farther east on Front Street, and was moved here in the early 1900s. Expanded history of #21
Note: Years ago a coffee and ice cream shop called Wet Whisker made it’s home in this building. It’s in that business that Seattle’s Best Coffee was born.
Photo Credit Robert Elphick
Cushen Ford, one of the island’s first auto dealerships and garages, opened in 1925. In the 1930s-40s, Whidbey Dairy Products was housed here, followed by a grocery store and then a part of Lindsay’s Marina once located across the street. The building is actually concrete, and once had large display windows, typical of an auto showroom. The windows were filled in and wood cladding added when it was transformed into a mini-mall in 1974. Expanded history of #23
Before you visit you can download the National Park Service Historic Coupeville Walking Tour map.