All Over The Map: How Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island counties were named

Mar 5, 2021, 9:09 AM | Updated: 11:30 am
The Grant County seat is Ephrata; the better-known Grant County community of Moses Lake is located along I-90. (USGS) Ephrata is the Grant County seat. (USGS) Grays Harbor County was previously known as Chehalis County; the name change took place in 1915. (USGS) Montesano is the Grays Harbor County seat; it’s west of the larger communities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam along the Chehalis River. (USGS) Nautical chart from 1886 shows Gray’s Harbor, eventual namesake of Grays Harbor County. (NOAA) Island County was created in 1852 and is comprised of Whidbey, Camano and seven smaller islands; San Juan County, Snohomish County, Whatcom County and Skagit County were eventually carved from the original Island County. (USGS) The quaint seaport town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island is the Island County seat. (USGS) Vintage National Ocean Survey chart shows much of Island County, including Whidbey Island and Camano Island; red oval indicates county seat Coupeville. (NOAA)

It’s time for the fifth installment of County Countdown, KIRO Radio’s 13-part series about the origins of county names and county seat names in the Evergreen State. Our three counties for this episode are Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island.

Unless you’re driving while reading this story, get out your souvenir Washington map to follow along, which are available at all Puget Sound Ernst and Valu-Mart locations. And good luck finding one of those long-gone local retailers, by the way.

Grant County

Grant County, in Central Washington, was created from Douglas County in February 1909 and named for the Republican 18th president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was first inaugurated 152 years ago this week, on March 4, 1869.

The county seat is Ephrata, and the name is biblical in origin, likely originally spelled Ephratah. It’s a variation of the name for Bethlehem, and indicates either the presence of fruit orchards or water wells, both of which were present in Washington’s Ephrata in the 19th century. Most sources credit railroad workers for choosing the name.

Grays Harbor County

Grays Harbor County, in Southwest Washington, was created by the Washington Territorial Legislature in April 1854 from parts of Lewis and Thurston Counties. It was originally called Chehalis County, for the Chehalis River, which flows into Grays Harbor; the name was changed by the state Legislature in 1915.

As early as 1907, citizens had attempted to split Chehalis County in two, with the western half taking on the Grays Harbor County name. The state Legislature passed a law accomplishing this, but it was struck down by the Washington State Supreme Court, as at least one of the new counties lacked sufficient population as required by state law.

Grays Harbor is named for Robert Gray, the American sea captain who named the Columbia River and explored the harbor on May 7, 1792. Gray named it Bulfinch Harbor after one of the Boston-based owners of his vessel Columbia. It was renamed by Joseph Whidbey of Captain George Vancouver’s expedition in October 1792.

During the 19th century, Grays Harbor was called Puerto de Gray by Spanish explorers; the Hudson’s Bay Company employees operating in the area called it Chihalis Bay; explorer David Douglas called it Whitbey Harbor (an alternate spelling of Whidbey).

“Chehalis” is an indigenous word related to “sand” or “shifting sand,” both of which are found in ample supply at the mouth of the Chehalis River in Grays Harbor. The Chehalis people have lived in the area of what’s now Grays Harbor County for millennia.

The county seat of Montesano was first called “Scammon” by J.L Scammon, a 1852 homesteader. One version of the story is that Mrs. Scammon wanted to call the community Mount Zion; Montesano is a compromise suggested by someone, which, in Italian, means “mountain of health” or maybe “healthy mountain.”

Island County

Island County, which is now mainly Whidbey and Camano Island, was originally created from Thurston County in December 1852 or January 1853 by the Oregon Territorial Legislature. The original Island County was huge. It included Whidbey and Camano, plus the San Juans, and most of what’s now Whatcom, Skagit, and Snohomish Counties.

In addition to Whidbey and Camano, the other islands comprising Island County – which is perhaps the least imaginative name of any county in the state – are Baby Island, Ben Ure Island, Deception Island, Hackney Island, Kalamut Island, Minor Island, Smith Island, and Strawberry Island.

The county seat is Coupeville, which is the oldest town on Whidbey Island, and which is a great place to visit. Coupeville was named in 1851, 1852, or 1853 for a homesteader and sea captain in the Northwest to California timber trade named, not surprisingly, Thomas Coupe. According to maritime names expert and author Richard W. Blumenthal, Captain Coupe was one of the first people to sail through Deception Pass – in his bark called Success – and live to tell about it.

Coupe was not alone in the early years at Coupeville. In fact, so many salty sea-going types settled there, place names expert Robert Hitchman writes, “An early nickname [for Coupeville] was ‘Port of Sea Captains’” – which is certainly evocative, but not exactly chamber of commerce or tourism bureau-friendly.

Check out earlier episodes of KIRO Radio’s All Over The Map: County Countdown!

County Countdown Episode One

County Countdown Episode Two

County Countdown Episode Three

County Countdown Episode Four

In the next installment in April: Jefferson, King, and Kitsap.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: How Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island counties were named