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Whidbey Island
and The Legend of Deception Pass

Chapter Sixteen

Cornet Bay, Ben Ure Island, and Smuggling

Deception Pass, that vibrant, picturesque and scenic waterway between two Northwest Washington Islands, has a history of early settlers of a hundred years ago, both good and bad.

Cornet Bay, a lovely indentation on North Whidbey, bordered by Goose Rock and hillside forests, was named for John Cornet, a lonely early settler. No one seems to know the origin of the name for Goose Rock; some see a "roast goose" from the east side of the bay; others surmise it may have been a nesting place for migrating geese.

Today a small dock extends into the bay, a tying-up place for small fishing craft. Rugged dirt roads invade the pristine hillside to the east where a number of homes are today. The John Lang family of the 1890s pioneered the property next to today's dock. It was from this dock that the first Deception Pass ferry was launched. German-born Christ Weidenbach, who had married John Lang's sister Margaret back in Michigan, homesteaded 40 acres in the mid 1890s. A "homesteader" of the 1920s was George Rogers, who was so enamored of Cornet Bay that he traded his sailboat to a tugboat captain in 1921 for a piece of the Cornet Bay waterfront!

Cornet Bay, today a peaceful, lovely inlet between wooded hills, did not always have today's reputation. Ben Ure, a canny Scot who is said to have started the chain of events that gave Cornet Bay its early reputation, homesteaded on what was to become "his Island," and then set out to trade among the Islands, using rum, opium and woolens as his trade.

Ben Ure's Island, a small rocky protrudence close to Whidbey Island, was a wild place just inside Deception Pass and near Cornet Bay. On the Northeastern part of Whidbey is a spot known as "Ben Ure's Spit." His cattle were reportedly stolen by rustlers from nearby La Conner around 1860.

Ure was on San Juan Island during their joint occupation by the U.S. and Britain from 1860 to 1872 and was familiar with the "Pig War," which brought the two countries close to war. He operated a small boat in Canadian waters from which he furnished rum to both American and Canadian soldiers. And in the 1890s he had made enough money to invest in the Anacortes "boom days," only to have his investments in real estate swept away by the panic of 1893. He then packed his gear in his sailing sloop and headed back toward his Island where he maintained a small lighthouse.

Ben Ure's life was a rocky one, and exciting. On Ben Ure's Island a dance hall and saloon sprang up where loggers and tugboat men spent their leisure hours under the watchful eyes of Revenue cutters. It was suspected that Ure's setup on the Island was used by smugglers. While the patrol boats were helpless, the rowdy partying in the saloon went on and the variety of boats tied up at the small dock were usually gone by morning.

Then a small news item in a Seattle newspaper of May 29, 1902 carried this item: "White-haired Benje Ure, accused of harboring smugglers and pirates, is now under arrest, formally charged with receiving stolen goods."

So finally Ben Ure, whose Island will commemorate his name longer than his questionable activities of that period, was arrested, charged with stolen goods. Several cases of contraband cigars, whiskey and opium were found on his Island. And when his trial came up, Ben Ure told of his exploits.

He had assisted smugglers such as "The Flying Dutchman" and "Pirate Kelly," the king of all Puget Sound smugglers. When asked why his Indian wife spent so much time on Strawberry Island he said, "She sits behind the fire when the patrol boats are around, and in front of the fire when it is safe for the fellows to come though the Pass."

Ben Ure spent only five days in jail, but it apparently changed his thinking and his ways. He was 72 years old and made a will disposing of his property, but made no mention of the Island. The United States may have taken it over, because a government-operated lighthouse was in operation there for many years. The little Island that was a part of Deception Pass for many years still retains the name of the old-time settler who died Nov. 15, 1908. The lighthouse keeper took care of him in his last days. Nothing remains on the Island to bear his name; there is no information on his Indian wife, and he had no children.

Because of its location and sparse settlement, Whidbey Island lent itself ideally to smuggling operations beginning in the 1890s with opium and continuing through Prohibition.

A fruit rancher near West Beach found several cans of opium on the beach, and mistaking it for mineral paint, used it to paint his house! The Coupeville Sun reported: "It took about $3,000 worth of opium to do the job, giving it a fine maroon color."

The wreck of a schooner on Camano Island was found to be carrying opium, 100 pounds of the drug retrieved by an Inspector Delancey.

The Chinese importation took on a new phase of smuggling from the mid-1880s to 1900 and there were many harrowing stories of cargoes of Chinese dumped overboard when the Coast Guard approached the smuggling vessel. Deception Pass was a favored lookout for government vessels.

Then came Prohibition, and liquor smugglers unloaded their boats on West Beach rather than dare the narrowed waters of Deception Pass. The trucks took liquor to a farm building to hide until night, when they were driven to the east side of Whidbey to be loaded back onto boats. One Oak Harbor farmer told how he was offered $100 a night to shelter a truck in his big barn. It was a difficult decision, because farmers in that era were having a hard time keeping afloat, and the $100 was over twice what most men's incomes were for a month. Suspecting the cargo, the farmer refused, but the smugglers didn't have any trouble finding another farmer who would hide the truck.

The Islands of the Northwest, the San Juans, Fidalgo and Whidbey with their hundreds of coves and passageways plus their close proximity to the United States and Canada, made them ideal bases for smuggling in the early days. Before the 1850s, when serious settlement began on Whidbey and on the other Islands, they were noted for being headquarters for adventurers, hoodlums, disappointed gold seekers from California et al., and Deception Pass was most popular.

The area offered excellent hiding places and only the U.S. Revenue cutters made any attempt to stop those unlighted ships that lay in the shadows of the coves and channels. Opium and diamonds were prime smuggling items in those early days, and later wool was on the contraband list. The price of wool in Canada was only half that of the United States and as a result, the Islands of the Northwest were a popular contraband area. Deception Pass presented a prime waterway for smugglers heading for the bigger settlements of Seattle and Everett.

By the 1850s, more people had come to Whidbey and her sister Islands. Sea Captains who found Penn Cove a haven of peace for their families, the Irish immigrants who came to Oak Harbor, and later in the 1890s the Hollanders who farmed and went into business, built schools and churches to build a town.

The Prohibition era left its mark on Whidbey and Deception Pass. Smuggling was the last of the big-time contraband operations that occurred when our Northwest Islands were being settled. (The above information was taken from The San Juan Centennial Edition, 1859-1959.)

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