There's a proposal making the rounds to designate a large chunk of Washington's coastline a National Maritime Heritage Area. Such an area would require an act of Congress.
The proposed Heritage zone would extend up Washington's Pacific coast from Gray's Harbor and include the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands. It would run south from the Canadian border to the southern tip of Puget Sound. In Seattle, it would encompass Salmon Bay, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Lake Union. It would extend 1/4 mile inland, and could include other nearby designated sites.
The main idea is to provide a way to recognize Washington's maritime history and industry, from Coast Salish cedar canoes to old lighthouses, from World War II shipyards to houseboat communities. A Heritage Area designation allows locals to coordinate ways to recognize and protect local historic sites and structures, promote tourism, and develop a narrative that ties-in life today. It also views cultural heritage to be seen broadly, connected to living, inhabited, and industrious contemporary landscapes. A Heritage Area is no wilderness National Park, though the Park Service does provide technical assistance.
National Heritage Areas have proven popular, mostly in the eastern U.S, and the idea is spreading. According to a presentation by the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, there are 49 such areas in the U.S., with nine of those designated just this year. The largest Heritage Area is the entire state of Tennessee, recognized for its Civil War era history. There has also been interest in creating a Heritage Area along the Columbia River, inspired in part by the recent Lewis and Clark expedition's bicentennial.
Washington's would not be the first to focus on an industry. Surrounding Dayton, Ohio is the National Aviation Heritage Area, home of the Wright Brothers, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and the Aviation Hall of Fame. In Michigan, there's the Motor Cities National Heritage Area which focuses on the U.S. auto industry (which is almost history) connecting factories, museums, and sites in Detroit, Lansing and Flint.
Washington's maritime heritage, past and present, is significant, but an official Congressionally-approved Heritage Area might give widespread locales a reason to coordinate efforts and find strength in developing interpretive centers and signage that tell the story of our relationship with the sea. In effect, a Heritage Area allows a kind of re-branding that can attract "cultural tourists" who want to learn something on their travels (they also tend to stay longer and spend more than other tourists). We may not have Europe's ancient cathedrals to offer sightseers, but we do have working and historic waterfronts. Maritime Heritage includes, but is bigger, than sailing ship replicas and historic tugboats.
One example of a creative packaging of maritime history is in Richmond, California, home of the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park. While not a Heritage Area (it's run by the Park Service) it's an example of what can be done to revitalize old shipyards and warehouses into a compelling story of life and work on the home front during World War II. It hosts a festival dedicated to the wartime contributions of civilians, and you can also see where Rosie lived, worked and visit the ships she built, like the surviving "Victory Ship" SS Red Oak. With so much to compete with in the Bay Area, it's hard to imagine a city like Richmond finding a way to make itself attractive to visitors, but it's been done.
A Heritage Area designation could also give some aid to preservationists who are fighting ongoing battles to save waterfront history. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's annual endangered list has included maritime structures consistently in recent years.
The 2009 most-endangered list worries about the historic structures at Seattle's redeveloping Sand Point, once home of a Naval Air station. In 2008, Bellingham's Old Granary building, threatened with demolition by the Port of Bellingham, was listed and is on the current "Watch" list. Also listed last year were Gig Harbor's waterfront fishing net sheds and Tacoma's Murray Morgan Bridge, which is also on the "Watch" list. And Seattle's Wawona sailing ship was listed in '05, but nevertheless demolished just this year.
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