"A legendary character who sailed San Juan waters was Lawrence Kelly, better known as 'Smuggler' Kelly. One can still hear the most lurid accounts of his supposed bloodthirstiness, yet Kelly himself always insisted he was an 'honest' smuggler who never harmed his fellow man.
The surviving evidence seems to bear out Kelly's claim. Part of the problem is that for decades Sunday Supplement writers have carelessly confused Larry with a hoodlum and sometimes smuggler named Jim 'Pig Iron' Kelly (no relation), who did terrorize the Puget Sound country during much of the same period.
Larry Kelly sometimes trafficked in wine and Chinese illegals, but his main stock in trade was opium. In those days drugs were not illegal in the US, but they were dutiable. Uncle Sam's customs officials were supposed to see the government got its cut in the lucrative business of supplying Chinese laundry and cannery workers with their drug of choice. Kelly used to claim customs men themselves were the most active opium smugglers of all, and that the real reason they pursued him so relentlessly was to cut down on the competition.
Kelly hailed from the Emerald Isle and went to sea as a young lad, seeking adventures that took him to the ports of Europe, Asia, and the South Seas. A ship chanced to land him in New Orleans just as the Civil War was getting underway, and Kelly decided to stay and join the fun. Records of Louisiana's Confederate soldiers show that he joined a volunteer company of the 22nd and 23rd Infantry on 2 September 1861.
Perhaps the war wasn't as much fun as he had expected. The records show he was only present until February 1862.
Presumably there was another sea voyage and then Kelly landed on the shores of Puget Sound in 1865. He did some honest labor at the little village we now call Tacoma, loading lumber on board a sailing vessel.
Some time in the 1870s Kelly settled on the southwest shore of Guemes Island at a spot which is still known as Kelly's Point. It afforded him a view through Bellingham Channel to the Strait of Georgia which was useful in monitoring the movements of customs boats. He married an Indian woman named Lizzie Katz and began raising a family.
In Helen Elmore's book about Guemes there is a description of Kelly: short, barrel-chested, wiry brown hair, bushy beard, small bloodshot eyes, dirty shirt and overalls, bare sun-tanned feet. Bill Rosler of Friday Harbor told me years ago that Kelly also had a scar across his forehead and was a "nice fellow".
Kelly would purchase opium in Victoria, where there were at least two factories openly manufacturing the drug. Then came the illicit dash over the border on his fast sloop, first to one of several hideouts in the San Juans, then on to some Puget Sound city with a large Chinese population. A frequent destination was Pt. Townsend, where Kelly used to land at night and let opium down the chimneys of Chinese laundries.
Apparently it was a most profitable business. By 1886 Kelly was able to buy up the western half of Sinclair (also known locally as 'Cottonwood') Island where he moved and became a leading citizen. He was even elected to the school board, in spite of his occupation.
William Rosler, Friday Harbor, WA.
Son of Christopher Rosler (d.1907)
who was one of Capt. George Pickett's soldiers
who helped build American Camp.
(Writer Richardson interviewed Bill Rosler in 1960.)
Original photo from S. P. H. S.©
In time, they caught him and Kelly paid several fines for carrying contraband. But he was a thorn in the side of customs officers who were determined to 'put him away'––and they did.
In March 1891, Kelly was traveling to Portland to board a train that, whether by accident or design, was also carrying two customs inspectors. They opened Kelly's large, new leather suitcase and found 65 half-pound cans of prepared opium. Kelly was arrested at Castle Rock and returned to Tacoma for arraignment, where he protested long and loudly that the customs men themselves had planted the drug among his effects while he was in the wash room.
Larry Kelly wound up in McNeil Island pen for a couple of years, in spite of the petition his Sinclair Island neighbors put out for his pardon. During his incarceration his small son was drowned in a shallow well on Sinclair.
When Kelly emerged from the federal clink he was a beaten man. Federal agents had raided his home, and seized and sold his sloop. He needed $500 to pay back bills, and had to mortgage his property to raise the money. There were domestic disagreements and Lizzie moved out. By 1896, the last of the Sinclair Island property had been sold and Kelly was living in Anacortes.
He was in and out of just about every jail on Puget Sound in the course of the next ten years. The last record of Larry Kelly in an item in the San Juan Islander for 16 May 1911, reported that his sloop had just been boarded again off the north end of Lummi Island. Kelly gave a fictitious name and claimed he was on his way to Alaska, but the boarding officer was sure Kelly was headed for Victoria for another buy.
It's claimed Kelly finally retired from the smuggling business, went back to Louisiana and lived out his days in a Confederate soldiers' home. Some years ago this writer tried to find some documented record of Kelly's last days but a fairly lengthy correspondence with Louisiana archivists, including the curator of the state's Confederate Cemetery, failed to turn up Kelly's name.
Kelly used several sailing vessels in his career, the last two of which were seized by agents. Some years ago the Anacortes Bulletin ran an article claiming that one of Kelly's boats, a ketch-rigged sloop, 38-ft long, weighing over seven tons, was still in use in local waters. The boat in question had been built on Waldron Island, [WA] in 1894, named the KATY THOMAS.
In one of those strange twists Fate seems to delight in, Kelly happens to have two great-great-grandchildren still living in Bellingham. And their names just happen to be Katy and Thomas."
Above text by author, historian, long time San Juan County resident David Richardson, for The Islands' Sounder, 9 December 1981.
From the collection of the Saltwater People Historical Society.
This year the KATY THOMAS was the subject of a news article by Marine Editor Glen Carter of the Seattle Times.
At that time the sloop was on the hard on property owned by the City of Anacortes, next to the Washington State Ferry terminal, Anacortes, WA. She was owned by the Northwest Seaport who had plans to save her but in the next decade she fell apart and was scrapped.