The lake-like haven of Gig Harbor is shut off by a narrow entrance from the open Sound; surrounding hills protect it from gales from any quarter, as the crew of the ship’s gig from the Wilkes expedition gratefully found when it took refuge here from a storm in 1841. By the 1940s, Gig Harbor was the home port for some 35 large purse seiners which followed the various fishing runs from Mexican waters to the Arctic seas. They were manned mostly by Croatians, Slovaks, and Austrians, who maintain a Catholic Church and its several societies, and a Croatian Fraternal Union, and formed a strong unit of the Fishermen’s Union.
Agriculture was also a source of income for Gig Harbor. The Washington Berry Growers Association and the Washington Co-operative Egg and Poultry Association both had depots here. Produce, flowers, and poultry were displayed at the community fair held each September in the high school gymnasium.
The first settlers, Dr. Burnham and his family, arrived in the early 1880s. In the succeeding quarter of a century the town flourished around a sawmill and the wharves, where schooners and, later, steam freighters loaded the cut lumber. Within a score of years, however, the forests were gone, the mill was closed and dismantled, and the freighters sought cargoes in other ports.
In the 1940s, the Gig Harbor shipyard, owned by the Washington Navigation Company, sheltered under a spreading sheet-iron roof its piers and ways, machinery, and benches. At its drydocks the company’s five ferries, as well as sundry fishing boats, were maintained and serviced. Mitchell Skansie, organizer and part owner of this enterprise, began by building fishing boats, mostly purse seiners, of 65 to 85 feet, more than 100 of which have slipped down the Gig Harbor ways to a roving life on the waters off Western America. Formerly, Pierce County operated the ferries built with the hammers and caulking irons of Gig Harbor craftsmen; but, in 1921, the shipbuilding company took over the lines.
As late as the 1940s, Gig Harbor presented an unusual sport in the rooster races held at the C. E. Shaw residence each Saturday and Sunday throughout the summer. The trained white leghorn racers, bred for speed, roosted in the little houses of a miniature village laid out beside the track.
The bay was named by Cmdr. Charles Wilkes, in 1841 who believed that the bay had sufficient depth for a captain’s gig.