Behind an idyllic Vashon escape: A murky relationship

At the turn of the twentieth century, two Chicago doctors moved to Vashon Island. One lived in the author's home, the other a mere 3.5 miles down the road, in what is now one of the Seattle area's best-hidden escapes.
Crosscut archive image.

The view of Fern Cove from Vashon's Baldwin House.

At the turn of the twentieth century, two Chicago doctors moved to Vashon Island. One lived in the author's home, the other a mere 3.5 miles down the road, in what is now one of the Seattle area's best-hidden escapes.

The other day, we took a visitor to Fern Cove on the west side of Vashon Island. The tide had left us perhaps 20 yards of beach, drift logs to sit on, enough rotting organic matter for a whiff of that low-tide smell. A couple of dozen Canada geese fed in the creek mouth. Two kingfishers chattered overhead.

Just across the creek and up the beach, we pointed out the white frame house in which we had spent a few days last March.

Behind the house, white plum blossoms hung near the bridge that crosses a little stream near the back door. Later, looking out through the small panes of the old sash windows, we'd watch tugs pushing barges south toward Tacoma, and see an eagle dwarf the gulls and crows on the sandy delta of Shinglemill Creek.

We were staying at the Smith-Baldwin House, which the Vashon Island Park District has renovated and now rents out, fully furnished, by the day or week.

We live pretty close to Fern Cove, but we're not by the water, and a couple of nights there made a nice interlude. We walked the beach in the wind and rain, read books, hung out with our five-year-old grandson. The Park District has left some historical information in the house, and reading it, I had a kind of revelation: A century ago, life on the island was a lot more complicated than I had imagined.

But then, if you know details, life virtually any place has been more complicated than it looks in distant retrospect.

Built in 1912, the house was designed by Harlan Thomas, whose Sorrento Hotel had opened three years earlier, just in time for Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Thomas also designed the Corner Market Building at Pike Place and helped design Harborview hospital.

It's hard to imagine what the island looked like then, with steamboats calling at docks around the shore, fields of strawberries and currants growing on the largely-clearcut plateau, and old-growth fir and cedar still standing in the ravines. 

The Smith-Baldwin House was home for 30 years to Belle Baldwin, who may have been the first female physician in Washington. In the late 19th century, her father, William Loomis Smith, left her and her mother behind in the Midwest and moved west to become became one of Seattle's first doctors. After Baldwin graduated from the University of Michigan as a doctor and worked for a while in the east, she and her mother came west to join him. She practiced medicine with her father in Seattle.

When he died, the two women moved back to the Midwest, where Baldwin married and practiced medicine among the estates and big Chicago money of Lake Forest Park.

Then, in 1908, she left all that and moved back out to the Fern Cove property that her father had owned on the west side of Vashon Island.  Before a century of erosion created the mudflat that's exposed at low tide, deep water would have come up almost to the edge of their lawn. They could have watched steamers and fishing boats — some, in 1908, newly fitted out with gasoline engines — and tugs towing booms of giant logs.

The island had gotten its first automobile the year before they arrived, but the roads were still just dirt; even the island highway wasn't paved for another 20 years.

Baldwin lived there until her death in 1942, after years of declining health. The local paper noted that she left behind "a host of friends."

The house in which I've lived most of my life was also built by a doctor from Chicago. It stands a mere three-and-one-half miles by road from the Baldwin driveway. By the time Belle Baldwin moved back west, a Dr. Stockley had already bought in 1907 what is now our land. 

In 1908, visitors from one house to the other could have gone overland. The road didn't go all the way, but there must have been trails, and at low tide there was always the beach. Or a wandering doctor might have walked down to the steamboat dock at Fern Cove, passing a store, a flour mill, a post office, and rowed; in those days, people rowed to the store, rowed out to catch a passing steamboat, rowed over from the mainland to picnic or camp. 

At some point, Stockley moved into a two-story cabin that was later expanded in stages into our house. Then, as now, it stood on a hillside facing west. He planted fruit trees and raised chickens. I'm pretty sure he's the one who lined our driveway with pear trees and our stream (and at least one drainage ditch) with rough cedar planks, some of which are still there.

After serving as a military surgeon in World War I — evidently the only time he practiced medicine after moving west — Stockley added onto the house, building the second living room with its (ugly, now boarded-over) brick fireplace and its splendid oak ceiling.

Descendants have said that the oak flooring was a gift from a friend who had heard about his construction project. Allegedly, Stockley looked at the sea of mud that surrounded the house much of the year, decided that the oak was much too nice to waste on the floor, and put it on the ceiling.

He also had a local craftsman build the elegant barn that collapsed under heavy snow in the 1990s. Some of its details seemed lifted right out of the multi-volume Encyclopedia of American Architecture that we found in a glass-fronted wooden case when we moved in.

According to his descendants, he, too, practiced medicine in Lake Forest Park. He had in fact been chief of surgery at the hospital there. No one seemed to know just why he had left.

What are the odds that two surgeons practicing in Lake Forest Park in the first decade of the last century didn't know each other? What are the odds that their decisions to move a couple of thousand miles west, to live among mud and stumps on the same western shore of the same island in Puget Sound weren't somehow connected? Were they simply colleagues who had exchanged information? Were they something more?

I don't know what their relationship was. I doubt I ever will. But you can't tell me that they didn't have one.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.