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(S and N Railroad)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Sterling, Washington territory, Chapter 3:
Where was DeBay island?

Updated in May 2005 with conclusive proof of how the island was formed

(The Sterling Bend map)
      The U.S. Corps of Engineers commissioned this map after the three devastating floods of 1894, 1896 and 1897. This 1897 map was discovered by Mike Aiken of Mount Vernon among the papers of his famous upriver ancestor, Birdsey Minkler. You can see the double horseshoe bend. The old channel around the upper bend is now a slough that forms Hart's island. The lower bend hooked around Joe DeBay's property. The river eventually ate through almost due west and eventually formed DeBay's island between the main channel and a slough around the lower bend. That lower channel is now a dry slough.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2001
Joseph DeBay and DeBay Island

We are helping Joe Nemo and his family celebrate his 96th birthday, which falls on Aug. 29, 2009. Joe is Joe DeBay's grandson and namesake. We have already learned some additions and corrections to this story But we will wait to share them after getting more information at the party on Sept. 1, 2009. Happy Birthday, Joe, see you at your 100th.

      When I first started researching about the Skagit river itself, I read often about DeBay island, but had no idea where it was, just that it was not there any more. I knew it was near the home of my old schoolmate, Leonard Halverson, but it took me at least a half dozen visits and his patient explanations for me to finally place it. Halverson's family has lived on Lafayette road near the original townsite of Sterling since way before World War II. He recalls his father's story of when driftwood and logs would lodge in the river channel so high that he could walk over the partially submerged snags to the island. In 2005, we have finally determined how the island formed, as we will explain below.
      The island was in the Skagit River between the town of Sterling and what is now the Francis road area on the south shore. It was named for Joe DeBay, who was born on March 7, 1863 in Barenello, Italy, near Naples. His father Nicholas was a gardener and instilled the love of earth in his son. After his mother's death, DeBay ran away from home and eventually managed farms for wealthy overseers. He married in 1883 at age 20 and they had a baby girl, Maria, in 1886. His wife died soon thereafter and Joe decided to leave his daughter with family in Italy while he emigrated to America. Landing as a poor immigrant in 1889, he worked his way cross-country, stopping for brief times in New York, Illinois and Wisconsin.

(DeBay family)
     He wound up in Seattle just after Washington became a state and was hired to work at Snoqualmie, where he met his future father-in-law, Simon Petticore. Petticore pointed him towards the Seattle & Northern Railroad, which was then building its route between Anacortes and Burlington. From there he was hired by the Northern Pacific to work on building the line from Seattle to Canada through Sedro. He decided to settle in Sedro in 1890 and rented a 20-acre farming tract near the town of Sterling from Mrs. Mary Ellen Fredericks, his landlady in old Woolley. He soon bought the farm and continually expanded his holdings to 105 acres over the next 50 years. In those early days, the Skagit looped like a horseshoe, east and south of his farm. That was the inverse twin to the horseshoe bend that formed north around Hart's island. He also courted Bridget Petticore, whom he married in September 1895. In 1892 he took out his initial citizenship papers in Mount Vernon and completed them in 1896.
      Bridget was also an Italian immigrant; she came over to join her father in Seattle in 1892 and they also soon moved to Sedro. Joe and Bridget had three children before he returned to Italy for Maria, who was, by then, a teenager. Joe and Bridget eventually had six children together. Their daughter Maria married Andrew Nemo of Sedro, who was also an Italian immigrant. He was born on the same day as Maria but we do not know the location. Rose married Andrew Barbo and lived both on Duke's Hill and near the original DeBay homestead. The oldest son, Albert, had a service station on Duke's Hill in the 1930s. Rose's daughter, now Mrs. Marie Sims [wife of Vern Sims] of Sedro-Woolley, reminded us that the station was at the crossing of Mosier road and present Hwy. 9. Marie lived next door as a child and recalls that Joe ran the station at one time and she believes he owned the property. Son Sam moved to Aberdeen; son Frank eventually managed the family farm on the south shore of the Skagit, and Robert and George both worked at Northern State Hospital. George became a partner in the old Cascade Cafe on Metcalf and then sold out and worked for the Gateway Hotel and Restaurant. Bob lived into his late 90s and passed away a couple of years ago.
      Joe was a truck farmer and was well known for the sacks of potatoes and other vegetables that he transported by wagon to a small market and hotels in Sedro. His day job was road construction under county road supervisor Ed Lafayette (after whom the road is named) and his successor, a Mr. Collins. Joe worked on most of the early roads of the county, especially those upriver from Burlington.

DeBay loses his hand to dynamite
      One day in 1892 Joe was clearing land on his small farm and dynamiting stumps when the dynamite exploded prematurely and ripped off Joe's right hand. In what may be the best illustration of how tough those early pioneers could be, Joe checked the flow of blood by using a piece of cord from the dynamite box as a tourniquet and walked two miles to Sedro to the new St. Elizabeth's Hospital. [See photo of the hospital later at Sedro Photos 1.] That was the first county hospital and it had just opened at the corner of Fidalgo and Township, between the Sedros. In one of the first operations there, a Dr. Peterson sewed up Joe's arm.
      Nine years later he was working on a county road for roads supervisor Edgar F. "Dutch" Lafayette when his left arm was injured. Although he was helpless and confined to bed for several weeks, Joe paid all his own doctor's bills, asking help from no one, and kept the cheerful countenance that he was always known for. After the second injury, Joe stayed home to clear and till the land of his expanded farm, one-handed, ignoring his disability. With his family's help he worked morning until night and began producing more potatoes and vegetables for restaurants and hotels in Sedro-Woolley. He was very self-sufficient, producing most of his family's needs on the island besides making wine that his neighbors judged most potable, especially during Prohibition.

The Skagit river carves an island

(DeBay farm October 1924)
      This 1924 photo of the farm on DeBay island shows Joe DeBay in the center with his dog. Bob DeBay is steadying the two horses; Joe Nemo is on the horse to the left and Josephine Nemo on the other. We don't know the names of the cows. All these island and family photos courtesy of Allen Lyons and his wife, Marsha DeBay Lyons.

      The Skagit river now flows southwesterly from the site of old-Sedro. Back in the early days before 1921, however, it made a sharp northern meandering bow up nearly to where the Seattle & Northern tracks ran west to east, and a corresponding bow south of DeBay's farm. Here is an intriguing description by pioneer Harry Devin in his diary written sometime in the 1920s:
      In the early 1890s there was a horseshoe bend [now called Hart's Island] in the Skagit River a couple of miles west of town that was rapidly cutting away the bank and approaching the [S&N] track. After considerable work in 1897, we secured an appropriation of $35,000 from Congress, the cost estimated by the army engineers for a channel through the neck of the peninsula, but with a rider attached that required us to secure waivers of damage from all owners of property abutting on the river for five miles down the river below the proposed cutoff. It was impossible to do this so the appropriation lapsed. The river continued cutting deeper in the bend and by 1908 had washed away hundreds of acres of good farming land and reached the Great Northern [formerly the S&N] Railway, which had to . . .
There the diary ends. The river kept eating away the northern bank, especially in flood years like 1896 and1897 [see the Journal story, Mother of all Floods]. The next major flood occurred in 1909, causing much damage in the Sterling and Nookachamps Creek area and breaching a dike near Burlington. narrow sloughs had formed at the south of the loop, forming Hart's island over the years. Finally, in 1911, Burlington-area farmers dynamited a new channel for the river through those sloughs, cutting the channel almost due west from Burn's Bar, east of Sedro as the rider to the 1897 Corps of Engineers support had suggested.
      "The first time the river cut all the way through what is now the main channel was during the flood of [Dec. 12-13] 1921," says Halverson. "Although each flood would cut the present channel wider, it was completely plugged up by a log jam within months in 1921, with submerged logs, buildings that has washed down and boats. Each summer farmers on the south side of the present river channel would set the jam afire in one spot and then another. Finally, in about 1932, it all washed away. I can remember one of the DeBay boys telling me that he walked home with a lantern from our house across the log jam the last night before it washed away, and could feel the logs coming loose below his feet."
      In 1936, DeBay told Catherine McClintock of the Courier-Times that it was in the big flood year of 1921 when the river began eating through the neck of the peninsula and isolated part of Joe DeBay's farm as an island with the new channel of the river on the northwest and another channel cutting through on the southeast. Successive floods in 1924 deepened the main channel due west and DeBay island was formed, with Joe's farm as the dominant feature. Unfortunately, we could not find the evidence of that latter flood, but Larry Kunzler has posted a new document on his new website, which is dedicated to researching Skagit river floods and the system of dikes in the watershed. In the March 3, 1932, Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times article about the Feb. 27, 1932, flood that was the worst such event in 11 years:

      The same authorities also explained the fact that while flood waters at Mt. Vernon reached within inches of an all-time record, the peak at Sedro-Woolley was from four to five feet under the record. This was due to the fact that previous floods had removed two curves below Sedro-Woolley and shortened the river's course nearly one-half mile. This makes the river almost straight from Burn's bar three miles west, and the effect had been to lower the river bed here nearly four feet.
      Kunzler checked and discovered that there was a minor 1924 flood, so that confirms that the present channel, directly west, formed in 1924 and we deduce that the major flood of 1932 removed most of the log jam. This research process only took 11 years, but we are pleased that we finally know the details of how and when DeBay's island was formed.

Bridge over troubled waters
      The formation of the island didn't deter DeBay from marketing the vegetables and fruit from his abundant farm. For 11 years, he and his family used a primitive ferry to transport goods to and from the island until he induced the county to build a wooden bridge to their place. We still do not know if that ferry was on the north side of the island to the Sterling area or if it was on the southeast side of the island to Collins road and Clear lake. On Sept. 22, 1935, the bridge was opened and the DeBay family staged a grand picnic, inviting friends and customers from all over the county to share their bounty and their wine.
      Ken Johnson, who owned part of the DeBay homestead for about 20 years, recalls that the bridge was torn out about 30 years ago because it was built way too low. The county pulled out the old bridge, put an extensive culvert in and raised the road much higher. The southeastern channel that created the island is pretty much a dry slough today. Johnson notes that the original DeBay homestead was at the west end of the island. After a fire in the 1930s, DeBay moved to higher ground at the eastern part of the island. Joe DeBay died on Nov. 23, 1942; we do not know Bridget's death date. Her father, Simon Petticore, died here in 1928.
      There is a beautiful and appropriate happy ending to the DeBay story. In the 1990s the state department of wildlife bought a large portion of the original property and in 2000 a preserve for swans was created. It is accessed by an extension of the Francis road that crosses the DeBay dry slough on the south side of the Skagit. My first memory as a child was of riding in my parents' old 1946 Plymouth to see and hear the trumpeter swans near our rented home east of Mount Vernon. I can just imagine the first time Joe heard their unique call in the winter of 1890 and decided that this was the refuge he sought when he left Italy for the New World in 1889.

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Story posted July 1, 2001, updated on May 20, 2005, and moved to this domain Aug. 28, 2009
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