Anacortes, Washington – Gateway to the San Juan Islands

Anacortes Washington is the place where exuberant travelers and locals catch the ferry to visit the San Juan Islands.

The San Juans are a beautiful collection of islands in the tippy top of the Pacific Northwest, just a splash from British Columbia. It is tempting to just blow through Anacortes on your way to the San Juans. But don’t do that. Plan a night or two or three in Anacortes. You’ll not regret it.

Welcome archway, downtown anacortes washington
It was sleepy on a Sunday morning in May when we took this picture, but trust us, Anacortes has plenty of reasons to stop and stay awhile. Bruce N. Meyer photo.

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Things to Know About Anacortes Washington

Anacortes was named for a woman named Anna Curtis, so that’s how you pronounce it. And it is technically on an island – Fidalgo Island – but you don’t notice because of the bridges and proximity to other land masses.

In the early 20th century, almost everyone in Anacortes worked in the salmon fishing industry, either on a boat or in one of the 25 commercial canneries in town. But in our zest to harness hydroelectricity, we’ve damned up the rivers where the salmon spawned, so no more salmon in this area.

Most of the boats and businesses have moved to Alaska. In fact, we were told that most of the boats seen in the TV show “The Deadliest Catch” are actually boats that were built in and once fished in the water around Anacortes.

About the only sign of the salmon industry today is the decorative trash cans and some of the murals on the streets of Anacortes.

And it’s the murals that we we really fell in love with.

The Incredible Murals of Anacortes, Washington

Just about any town or city worth its salt these days have massive, creative murals that tell a bit of the history and culture of the community. Or some murals that simply brightens an ugly blank wall and make a neighborhood more inviting. But the murals of Anacortes, Washington are different. And they’ve been around a lot longer than most.

We noticed the first mural, noticed that there was something special going on, as we waited outside to be seated for dinner at Nonna Luisa’s (This is an authentic Italian restaurant that we highly recommend) This life-sized mural is a real person who lived in Anacortes. His name was George Marinakos and he owned a local cafe. He was still working here when he died in 1942 at age 63.

Baker, WWII, anacortes washington mural project

We know this about George because of the little QR code attached to the brick wall. In fact, the mural is not painted on the bricks. It’s on 1-inch plywood, cut to form, painted in detail and then attached to the building.

Then we started noticing other murals and other stories. Again, these are not traditional murals painted on a building. These are individually cut forms telling stories of real people who lived and worked in Anacortes.

These are veterans of both world wars, who served their country and then came home to build a life in Anacortes Washington.

Anacortes Washington Mural Project, WWI veterans
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The Anacortes Mural Project

In all, there are 160 murals in little Anacortes, each one telling the story of a real person or real business. We learned that the Anacortes Mural Project began in 1984 and each one of these 160 murals was created by an artist named Bill Mitchell. Bill was a paraplegic who had assistance cutting the plywood and attaching the finished murals to the buildings. But he did all of the painting, bringing personalities to life.

Often families provided the images and financial support to produce the mural. Or a business would pay Bill to create the image and then donate the space. The only ones who weren’t real people are Superman and R2D2 that welcome guests to the local movie theater.

I loved one of a rural postal carrier who delivered mail here for nearly 40 years. A local woman who became a professional race car driver. A guy who owned the first car dealership in town.

Don’t you love this guy? His name was Chuck Peterson and he was a ferry boat captain for most of his life. Wouldn’t you love to hang out with a guy with so much joie de vivre?

Anacortes Washington Mural Project, Ferry Skipper
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Bill Mitchell, self-described as a pirate and a scallywag, died in 2019. The Anacortes History Museum is now responsible for the maintenance of the murals he created. The museum displays additional Bill Mitchell works inside and provides brochures and other information for self-guided tours of the murals.

Bill Mitchell was a regular sight in Anacortes, tooling around town in this tricked out, motorized wheelchair/car combo creation. And he, too, is forever immortalized as a mural. May we all leave this life having given as much to our community as Bill Mitchell gave to Anacortes, Washington, and everyone who visits there.

Bill Mitchell pictured in a mural he created in Anacortes Washington
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer