By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
Connecting Rosario, an idyllic resort in Washington State’s the San Juan Islands to a massive battleship in Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet may seem like a stretch, but once you visit Rosario the connection is crystal clear. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Rosario presents a majestic appearance when one drives up the circular driveway or walks from the marina along a flag-lined path.
Rosario Resort today
The battleship connection is with its creator, Robert Moran, the Seattle shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle, whose company constructed the famous U.S.S. Nebraska. The 441-foot, nearly 15,000-ton battleship was the pride of the U. S. Navy when it was commissioned in 1900 in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war. It would sail around the world as part of the Great White Fleet, designed to promote America’s power and enhance its international reputation.
Following Horace Greely’s advice to “Go west, young man,” Moran had left New York at age 14 in 1875 with just enough money for a steerage ticket to San Francisco crossing the Isthmus of Panama, probably by rail as the canal was yet to be built. Finding no work in San Francisco, he spent his last $15 on a ticket to Seattle where with 10 cents in his pocket, he embarked on an unsuccessful three days as a cook at a lumber camp. He next landed a job on a steamer and began a career that would lead to his establishing his own machine shop in Seattle in 1881.
By 1900, given a boost by the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, the Moran Brothers Company had grown to be among the largest shipyards on the west coast, bidding successfully on government contracts. With the launching of the U.S.S. Nebraska in 1904 Moran was at the peak of his career. But he was worn down by the pressures of work and devastated by a diagnosis of “organic heart disease.” He was told he had two years to live. In 1906 Moran sold his now multi-million dollar company and retired to Orcas, the largest of the San Juan Islands, 86 miles north of Seattle. But retirement did not stop his instinct to build. Rosario would be his “retirement” project.
The San Juan Islands seen from Blakely Island
Orcas is to the right rear.
The design and construction of Rosario and island life clearly reinvigorated Moran. He later described the area as “unique in charm and beauty, in perfection of climate, in easy living conditions, in healthfulness…It is a wonderful place in which to forget one’s troubles and worries and get back to Nature in her happiest moods.” He would defy his doctors and live until 1943 when he died at age 86.
When construction began on Rosario in 1906, Orcas had been populated since the early 1850s by white settlers, who lived peacefully with the Native American Lummi tribe. The largest of the 172 islands in the archipelago, Orcas constituted 57 square miles of heavily forested hilly land and featured 125 miles of coastline, punctuated by inlets and rocky beaches. By the end of the 19th century, a number of communities had grown up around such industries as logging, lime extraction, farming, sheep raising, and fishing. Sawmills and fruit-drying operations flourished. Steamships facilitated commerce and also brought tourists for day trips from Seattle. Visitors might fish, hunt, hike, or take a horse-drawn wagon ride to the top of Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans.
Inspired by a cruise through the San Juans, Moran purchased a small sawmill and gradually acquired adjacent land eventually totaling 7800 acres, including Mt. Constitution. He would site Rosario, named for Rosario Strait on the eastern edge of the San Juans, on Cascade Bay. “Building Rosario was simply a continuation of my life-long urge to be continually pushing ahead in industrial construction work,” wrote Moran in 1939. He brought his shipbuilding skills to the task, designing the mansion himself and hiring many former Moran Company craftsmen to work on the project. Walking through Rosario today, one sees the exquisite craftsmanship in the beautifully maintained woodwork and fittings, reflective of his nautical background.
Main staircase leading to the music room
Built-in drawers in original bedrooms
Today, guests check-in at the main house. There are no guest rooms in the original mansion. 127 guest rooms are scattered over the 40-acre property in a number of cottages and low-rise buildings, all with the same stunning views Moran and his family enjoyed.
Guests frequently arrive by seaplane
Within the main building that houses the restaurant, spa, boutique, bar, indoor pool, and exercise room, there are displays that tell the shipbuilding story and display Moran’s own historic photographs of his business, family, and estate.
Moran’s guests enjoyed tea on the open veranda and croquet on the lawn.
A wide-open veranda originally wrapped the house, capturing the sea breezes off the sound. The veranda is now enclosed to create a section of the Mansion Restaurant; a new wing was eventually added to enlarge the restaurant’s capacity. Its stepped design guarantees views for all diners. The mansion includes a paneled music room and several bedrooms and bathrooms where the original owners lived. On an upper level is the library with the books Moran and his family collected. Many relate to his professional interests in manufacturing and naval architecture.
Moran’s personal library reflects his interest in naval architecture and engineering.
Original bedrooms and baths enjoyed views of water or forest.
It’s also here on the balcony overlooking the music room that the organ sits, played for the enjoyment of guests. Originally this was a player organ, using music rolls like a player piano. The player mechanism no longer works, but the organ is played regularly for concerts.
The music room is seen from the balcony
The visible organ pipes are decorative only; the actual pipes lie behind the screens flanking the piano.
Moran loved music, but not a musician himself, he liked to entertain on his player organ.
Rosario exemplifies the Arts and Crafts aesthetic of its time with a nautical overlay from the fireplace tiles and light fixtures to the Tiffany glass shade on the music room ceiling.
Fireplace tile mantel
Music room Tiffany ceiling light and period stained glass
Whether staying at the resort or coming for dinner by ferry, yacht or seaplane, guests can share at least one experience enjoyed by Moran’s early 20th century guests. Free concerts are held several afternoons a week in the music room, thanks to the musical talent and historical knowledge of Christopher Peacock, a 41-year Rosario employee, now the general manager. “I actually moved to the island the day Mt. St. Helens erupted, so I always know my anniversary,” he says with a smile. Peacock delights in entertaining guests by playing the piano and the organ. Often using his own compositions, he accompanies videos of the San Juans and slides from the Moran collection of old Seattle and the building of Rosario. The perfect historic touch is his playing vintage organ music while guests watch an abbreviated version of the 1925 silent film version of Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney.
General Manager Christopher Peacock at the keyboard with selections from the Talbot Productions Dolphins and Orcas video
Peacock has endured 18 difficult months. Rosario closed for three months in 2020 due to COVID. His biggest headache now is hiring enough help. COVID cut off his primary source, European students looking for summer jobs when the J-1 visa program was suspended last spring. Even now, he can’t fully staff the resort and has had to close one restaurant. But Peacock is dedicated to Rosario, “It’s a perfect job because I get to change what I’m doing every few hours of the day…sometimes I’m hiring, sometimes I’m tasting wine and sometimes I’m playing music.” The one problem he doesn’t have is getting bookings. “We’re packed!” he said.
Poolside, one never leaves the shoreline.
Robert Moran realized by 1932 that the depression made upkeep of the large estate challenges, and given his children’s lack of interest, he decided to sell the property.
After a national promotion, he finally sold Rosario, fully furnished, to a California industrialist for just $50,000. After two more owners, it was opened as a resort in 1960. Moran donated the majority of his land to the state of Washington, writing later, “When I had money that I could not use in an industrial and constructive way, I gave it away.” Moran’s Orcas legacy lives on today as Moran State Park that welcomes visitors to camp and climbs (or drives up) Mt. Constitution to see the vistas so enjoyed by Seattle tourists and Robert Moran’s guests nearly 120 years ago.
Visiting Rosario takes one back to a different world combining an American version of old-world elegance and new-world entrepreneurism. When a visitor strolls from the waterside swimming pool to the front desk, one almost expects to see a woman fashionably dressed in a Gibson Girl shirtwaist ascending the stairs to attend an afternoon concert. A recent visitor explained, “I felt like a guest visiting Moran in his home. The staff was gracious and helpful, the food delicious. His personality was reflected everywhere in this fascinating building.”
Readers interested in more detail about Robert Moran, his career and the building of Rosario are encouraged to read Christopher Peacock’s account, Rosario Yesterdays, A Pictorial History. Background on Orcas may be found in The Orcas Island Historical Society and Museum’s Orcas Island in the Images of America series published by Acadia Publishing in Charleston, SC.