The Roots Run Deep at Roche Harbor’s Afterglow Vista

A couple of months ago, on a cold and clear day on San Juan Island, H and I found ourselves in the community of Roche Harbor. It’s a genteel holiday town tucked into a fold of the northern shore’s complex of bays, headlands and islands, overlooked by steep slopes and holiday homes that look like oversized Victorian row houses. There’s a customs office for visitors coming in on Canadian ferries and a dock that still had its share of crusty nomad sailboats and gilded vanity yachts in the depths of a pandemic-stricken winter. 

The main attraction for us, however, was a mausoleum hidden up a wooded hill a little ways north of town, one of the island’s low-key tourist sights. Known as Afterglow Vista, it’s a circular platform ringed with six columns built in the classical Doric style. From a distance, the sandstone seems to glow in an otherwise gloomy fir forest, mimicking the colour of a handful of madrona trees leaning into the clearing. 

In the centre of this rotunda, there’s a circular limestone table surrounded by six stone chairs. Each chair is hollow, containing the ashes of various members of the McMillin family. The patriarch, John Stafford McMillin (1855 – 1936), is floridly remembered as a “32nd Degree Mason, Knight Templar, Noble of the Mystic Shrine, ΣΧ (Sigma Chi, his fraternity at Indiana’s DePauw University), Methodist, Republican.” His wife Louella (1857 – 1943) is meekly remembered as “Wife of John S. McMillin.” There are also four McMillin children, of whom only three lived into adulthood. The last was Dorothy, who passed on in 1980. John’s personal secretary, one Ada Beane, is reportedly interred within the same chair as a baby John, who was born on July 16, 1878 and died two days later. I didn’t see Ada’s name anywhere on the tomb. 

John McMillin grew up in Indiana and trained as a lawyer, a profession he followed until 1884 when he took his family and his walrus moustache to Washington Territory, where he became president and general manager of the Tacoma Lime Works. This made him a prominent business leader in that city during the Tacoma Riot of 1885, in which a mob led by “prominent businessmen, police and political leaders” attacked the local Chinese community and violently expelled them from the city, forcing the evacuation of 1,000 residents to Portland via train. In the lead-up to this race riot, the mayor of Tacoma — a German immigrant named Jacob Weisbach — roused a mostly white crowd with the words, “if the people are in earnest, if they are Free Americans in fact they will not yield up their homes and business to the filthy horde.” As in many former European colonies, the roots of anti-Asian racism run deep in the United States.

Whatever the McMillins thought of this violent expulsion of their neighbours, by 1886 they were on the move again. This time they went to Roche Harbor, after McMillin and his Tacoma partners bought the entire area to develop a limestone operation. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of the skeletal fragments of marine organisms, useful for surfacing old roads and in the manufacture of concrete, glass, mortar and iron. As a fertiliser, it helps farmers neutralise the acidity in soil. 

Roche Harbor’s limestone was extracted from a quarry inland, then sent by rail down the steep coastal hinterland to a series of kilns. After firing, the processed lime was then bagged or barrelled, then sent onto ships via the docks. The company turned what had once been a small operation into the largest limeworks west of the Mississippi River, making McMillin a rich man. Roche Harbor lime was used in the manufacture of cement that helped rebuild San Francisco after the great 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, a fact that gave McMillin a lot of pride. 

Roche Harbor became a fully fledged company town during these years, with a store, barracks housing, a doctor’s office and a post office. At first McMillin issued his payments in company scrip, which was only good for spending in the company store — and even after he finally began paying cash he still encouraged his employees to spend their wages in company businesses. In his opinion, “workers were inclined to squander their money on liquor, gambling and other sinful pursuits.” Like many of his fellow robber barons, McMillin also dabbled in politics, unsuccessfully running for a Senate seat in 1895. 

He is said to have been “strong of character and a hard-headed, demanding businessman, but sociable and on generally good terms with his employees.” A friend of Theodore Roosevelt, McMillin once hosted the president at Roche Harbor during one of his hunting expeditions. In the manner of wealthy white uncles today, the two did their best to impress one another with displays of wealth and influence: McMillin put on an epic salmon barbecue, but Roosevelt blew his friend out of the water by calling in a Navy destroyer to anchor in the harbor. 

The McMillins aren’t the only folk buried in the forests outside Roche Harbor — a number of the town’s residents from the same period are buried in a younger section of the forest, which seems to have grown up in the years since the limestone operation wound down. According to Robin Jacobson, a member of the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, many of these deaths can be attributed to the “three Ds:” disease, dynamite (in the limestone quarry) and drowning. 

A sizeable contingent of workers came from Japan, single men who arrived alone chasing their fortune, and who then sent home for so-called “picture brides.” No doubt hopeful that the presence of women and children would steer his workers away from “liquor, gambling and other sinful pursuits,” McMillin encouraged the formation of families in his town. There were quarters for single men and cottages for families. The Japanese workers were segregated away from everyone else, part and parcel of the legalised white supremacy that dominated the United States for a majority of its history. 

The grounds where the families used to live are picturesque, with homey wooden cottages dotted about a verdant lawn. Nearby, there’s a little schoolhouse complete with its own fireplace. But photos from this period — splotchy fields of deep shadow and harsh light — show a denuded landscape littered with splintered tree trunks. Weeds can be seen growing rampant in between, with top-heavy orphan firs looking terribly exposed with the forest stripped away around them. 

Up to 30 Japanese workers were employed at Roche Harbor by 1910, and their families were a familiar sight throughout the island. Their presence was apparently a cause of some debate among the island’s white population — some wrote ominous (and anonymous) letters to the editor of the San Juan Islander newspaper. However, the paper also endeavoured to educate its readers with “Interesting Facts About Japan” and editorialised that “the Japanese have as much right to be here as any nationality. If they enter the country in the proper way, then abuse or maltreatment of them in any manner cannot be justified upon any grounds.” 

Some of those family members remain buried in that little forest near Afterglow Vista, their headstones bearing kanji inscriptions that remain a mystery to this ignorant visitor. Among them is Kendo Yasuda, whose grave is inscribed in English, and who was born in 1914. Yasuda’s parents worked for the McMillins — his father was a gardner, his mother a cook — until 1931, when they left the island to take up farming in eastern Washington. The Yasudas were interned with the rest of the west coast’s Japanese population during the Second World War, and then moved to Idaho. By the 1960s the Yasudas had their own fruit farm, growing cherries, apples, plums, peaches, rockmelon (cantaloupes to Americans) and watermelon. As an old man Yasuda contributed his childhood memories to a historical documentation of Roche Harbor, a place that he evidently loved. When he died in 2010, half his ashes were kept in an urn in Idaho, the other half were left at Roche Harbor. According to his obituary, the Yasuda family still uses Louella McMillin’s turkey stuffing recipe at Thanksgiving. 

Kendo Yasuda as a child, on the left.

San Juan Island’s Japanese population declined quickly after 1910, with machines taking over much of the work in fish canneries while the limestone quarry wound down production. Most moved to the mainland to become farmers, and just two families remained into the 1930s. Only one remained by the time the Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941: Jack and Yuki Saoka, who ran a florist and nursery in Friday Harbor, the main town on San Juan Island. Days after the attack, the Saokas asked that the local paper, the Friday Harbor Journal, publish a desperate letter appealing to their neighbours’ better nature:

“We have nothing but sorrow and regret for the attack made on the United States, by the land of our birth. In our hearts we have for many years felt that the land of the free — the United States — is our real country. We would long ago have made application to become citizens of this country, if that had been possible. Whatever it is possible for us to do for the success of the United States, we shall be glad to do.”

Nevertheless, they appeared to know what was coming. In the letter they offered up the proceeds of their full stock of flowers and plants to the American Red Cross. I learned about all this from an essay that documents this story, but it’s unclear how the rest of the community reacted to the Saokas’ predicament. In any case, the family was deported to an internment camp soon after, never to return to San Juan Island. 

***

A century on from its industrial heyday, Roche Harbor has successfully made the transition from extractive industry to tourism, a holiday spot for mainland families and a stopover point for Salish Sea boaters. Afterglow Vista is little more than a curiosity, with a sign explaining the significance of the mausoleum’s various features — steps representing stages of the masonic order, a winding path indicating that the future cannot be seen, a broken column representing humankind’s unfinished work at the time of death. 

But even as the mosses and roots slowly reclaim it, the stony solidity of the monument feels alien in a landscape that is always moving and evolving. Just 5,000 years ago this whole region was much hotter and drier than it was before. The cedars that dominate the old forests here are relatively recent arrivals, moving in with the wetter weather. The sea level only stabilised between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. Forests rise with a deciduous flourish and mature into mossy evergreen cities, whole islands disappear in a single seismic night and half a mountain can slip away in less than half a minute

Coast Salish communities have a better understanding of the malleability of the landscape they inhabit, and I imagine their ancestors would scoff at McMillin filing himself and his loved ones away in this set of stone furniture. According to a 1999 thesis from a student at Canada’s University of Victoria, the Coastal Salish buried their dead in unused middens, piles of old bones and shellfish near their settled communities. For them, the “land of the dead” was a short walk away from the village, a topsy-turvy world where the “the dead seal themselves away from the nuisances of the living.” 

“Too often Western thought equates a midden with a garbage heap,” the author goes on. “While this is literally true, the western idea of ‘garbage,’ as unusable refuse, is not the perception that the Coast Salish seemed to have. Rather, their idea is more akin to the concept of recycling. Midden burials, then, could be seen as a sort of spiritual recycling in which the decaying material feeds future generations.”


Thinking…
Success! Look out for a welcome email in your inbox.

Photo sources:

Roche Harbor

John McMillin

Kendo Yasuda obituary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s