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James B. Hamilton: Banking in 1901 for the Binghams

By: James B. Hamilton, from the book, Skagit Memories, 1979
[The book is still for sale at the Skagit County Historical Museum in LaConner]

(James B. Hamilton)
James B. Hamilton

      Ed. note: See the story of James's parents, Frank R. and Adelaide Glass Hamilton below. They were pioneers of the Baker river/Concrete area.
      In the spring of 1901, C.E. Bingham asked my father, Frank R. Hamilton, if he would like his son to become a banker. Dad's grueling experience in trying to wrest a competence from the land made him glad to say "Yes," so I started my banking career on July 1, 1901, after finishing my junior year at the high school (Sedro Woolley). [Bingham owned his namesake bank at the southwest corner of Metcalf street at Woodworth. It was then in a woodframe building, which was moved back on the lots in 1904 and replaced by the stone building that still stands there today.]
      For the first hour or so of the day I was the janitor. I spread sawdust, moistened with a disinfectant solution, on the floor of the lobby, Bingham's small office, the workspace of the cashier's wickets and counter and the hall beside, and a room back of the vault. This material swept up and disposed of, I copied the previous day's letters in the copybook [in longhand].
      or collection by wholesalers and others in Seattle and elsewhere. I presented those to the merchants and often brought back a check or cash in exchange. I was never sent to collect a draft against one of the 13 saloons or from the madams of the several bawdyhouses along West State Street. I suspect C.E. had doubts of the power of a 17-year-old farm boy to resist temptation.
      About the 2nd of July someone asked me to go the Northern Pacific R.R. station [which at that time was on the north side of Northern avenue across from the Keystone Hotel] and get the cash ordered from a Seattle bank to care for the large sums of money to be paid to the loggers and shingle weavers who flocked to town for the Fourth of July celebration. When I got to the station I was told the stationmaster had loaded the shipment into a cart and was taking it to the bank. I realized, after I got back, that I had been sent after a "left-handed monkey wrench," as it were.

(Hamilton column)
James Hamilton's column

      There were five canvas bags, each containing 1,000 silver dollars, weighing about 65 pounds each, bags of halves, quarters, dimes, and nickels. I doubt if there were any pennies. Probably there wee bags of five and ten-dollar gold pieces, and some twenties, but I don't remember them specifically. I was soon put to work counting the silver and stacking the dollars in twenty to a stack, and halves, forty to a stack, etc. [At that time, paper currency was still rarely used on the frontier and was still distrusted, as it was from the time of the civil war. Coins were exchanged at par value; paper money was usually discounted.]
      When I joined the organization, C.E. Bingham occupied an office in the front of the bank. Q.P Reno, his cashier, was at the teller's window much of the time. He was relieved occasionally by Bill West, Laurence Ringer and I were around and about, eager to do what we could. A young lady, Miss Soule, I believe, sat at a tall desk and wrote figures in a big book until Q.P married her some six or eight months after I showed up at the bank. Q.P was the next to arrive at the bank after I finished the janitor work. He knew the combination and opened the vault, and sent me to open the front door at 9 o'clock.
      [Journal Ed. note: Bill West was a 52-year employee of the bank, who died in 1952 and also began work there in 1900 while a high school student. See this Journal website for other stories about the bank from those days (This story will soon be changed to this address. If neither file connects, please email us). Lena Soule was the daughter of Tom W. Soule, who brought his family from Vermont in 1890 and invested in the Burlington, Washington, townsite along with George McLean and Roswell Skeel. He named the town after his favorite town in Vermont. Lena was 24 when she came to work for the Bingham Bank in 1900. She died in 1965]
      When I was hired, C.E. gave me $16.67 a month, and told me how generous he was when I was hired. He had started at $10 a month in Marengo, Iowa. At Christmas, C.E. shook hands with us in wishing us Merry Christmas. I was surprised to find my hand, palm up, with a ten-dollar gold piece in it.
      When Miss Soule went away with Q.P., I was promoted to her job. I sat on a stool at the high desk and entered the deposits and checks cashed, the first to the left, the others to the right, beneath the names of the bank's customers, in a big ledger. My salary was jumped from $16.67 to $50, so I felt I had become a banker.
      But the indoor work got to me, so I quit and went to the University of Washington and became a civil engineer. Eventually, I worked for the National Park Service. They transferred me from park to park, and I visited many on my own. I have enjoyed most of the 91 years of my life.

Frank and Adelaide Hamilton
Baker river pioneers

(James' parents)
Frank R. and Adelaide Glass Hamilton

      James B. Hamilton was born to sturdy pioneer stock. His father, Frank R. Hamilton, was born in 1857 in Iowa and came west with his parents in 1862 to the Petaluma and Santa Rosa area of California. When Frank was just 13, his parents moved to Nevada to enter the mercantile trade with miners there and Frank's adventures began.
      He married Adelaide Glass in Viginia City, Nevada on Sept. 6, 1880, and they moved together to the Skagit river sometime in the next three years. One source, Charles Dwelley, editor of the Concrete Herald, wrote in 1951 that "With the gold rush dying, many of the men found the river and its land still interesting. Many stayed to build homes and start hewing down the forests to lay out farms. Frank R. Hamilton and his wife settled at the mouth of the Baker in 1880." That makes sense. We know that about 5,000 gold-seekers squatted near Ruby Creek in 1880, the year of the mini-gold rush upriver, and most quickly went home when the weather turned bad and they had produced very little placer gold. Others stayed to mine the riches of the upriver forests and the topsoil left after the trees were felled. But then, in other articles, Dwelley mentioned anywhere from 1883-85 as the Hamiltons' arrival year. The property that Hamilton chose was originally claimed by gold-seeker John Rowley but abandoned when Rowlery moved on to other prospects. [Read about that early settlement of the Baker at our Journal website]
      Whenever the young couple arrived, James B. Hamilton was soon born on Feb. 24, 1884, the first white settler baby born in the Baker river area. There was no town of Concrete yet. In fact there was barely a settlement. Pioneer Amasa Peg-Leg Everett chose a spot on the east side of the river, a few hundred yards north of the mouth, for his farm. Adelaide did not have many women neighbors nearby at the time of his birth. A pioneer manuscript by student Violet Burmaster notes that Frank and his wife had joined her half-brother, Theodore Sunter, who settled at the Baker with their mother, Emily Glass — the first white settler woman that far upriver. Two other settlers were there early on with them, Orrin Kincaid and a Mr. Anderson, but Kincaid soon moved back to the lower valley to join again with his brothers in the Mount Vernon region.
      The 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties also pegs their arrival year at 1880, gives Mr. Anderson the initial "S" as a first name and adds another key settler to the group, Eli Frome. Sometime in the mid-to-late-1880s, Frank Hamilton and Frome joined together in an historic feat. While bringing a bull up the river, they apparently could not travel that far by sternwheeler because of obstructions at the time, so the two men blazed out a trail "which in later years became the course of the river road." That must have taken them days, cutting through the dense forest and chopping their way through deadfalls and brush. The late Howard Miller took me on a jaunt in 1999 up what is left of that trail. The River road that passes by Mortimer Cook's original settlement of Bug/old Sedro is part of it, as the Black Slough road in Utopia and the remains of the Challenger road near Concrete. That trail was converted into a crude wagon trail in about 1895 but it would be at least three decades until it was firmly graveled and then paved with Macadam.
      Another story about the Hamiltons establishes them firmly at what we now call the Ovenell or Double-O Ranch. In the Aug. 24, 1908, Baker Bulletin newspaper, we read:

A historical farm
      Across the river at the confluence of the Baker and Skagit rivers lied the Riverview farm, now owned by S.E. and C.F. Jones. There are about 150 acres in the tract, in the shape of an L. It was first settled upon in 1883 by Frank R. Hamilton and wife, receiving a patent for the land in 1885, when this country was a part of Whatcom county. After clearing off the fir and cedar from the land, the Hamiltons set out fruit trees, apples, pears, peaches, plums, prunes and in one sunny spot, grapes are growing in wild profusion. In 1902 John Carlin bought the place and in turn sold to James Swzine. J.V. Van Horn acquired the title in 1905 and sold to the present owners in 1907.
      Frank Hamilton's acreage coverd both sides of the river. Most of that acreage became part of a 713-acre parcel that James T. Ovenell and Harold Pearson bought in the 1940s and Ovenell bought outright in 1960. The current owners of the original Hamilton property south of the river are descendants Norm & Eleanor Ovenell, who have their wonderful Ovenell's Heritage Inn [http://www.ovenells-inn.com/] there and raise Angus beef cattle on their Double-O Ranch. There are also very historically conscious. You can tour the property from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 2 and 3 this fall, as a part of the tour of Skagit family farms.
      By 1897, the farm produced 500 hundred sacks of grain and a 100 tons of hay. But that was the year of the monster flood, the third such in four years and the one that floated away the entire town of Sauk City upriver. The flood rampaged the house and outbuildings of Frank Hamilton and family and sent them packing in a canoe. It also floated away 40 head of cattle and 15 fat hogs. Like other pioneer families, that flood convinced Frank to move downriver. He moved his family to Sedro-Woolley land that he owned and joined them after selling the farm. And that is when James caught the eye of his banker mentor, C.E. Bingham. While upriver, Frank was a Justice of the Peace and volunteered for the school board. He was fraternally an Odd Fellow and went through all the chairs of the IOOF. By 1906, he was a member of grand lodge. The 1906 Book notes that he was a Repubican by party and that he had four older brothers who fought in the civil war. One, unnamed, settled here and died in 1881. James eventually left the banking business to attend the University of Washington for a course in civil engineering. By the time of the Great Depressions of the 1930s, he had settled into a career with the National Park Service. One of the highlights of his work with restoring the Indian Kiva pueblo ruins in the Southwest. He died in Seattle early in 1979 at the age of 94, but he wrote often during retirement about his experiences growing up near the Skagit. We hope that readers who have clippings of his stories will mail us copies.
      Adelaide lived in Sedro-Woolley as a widow for nearly two decades after Frank died. We find from her burial records that she died in 1930 at age 74, a native of New York state. Frank, whose full name was Francis R.A. Hamilton, died in 1913. We hope that a reader will know more about this family, especially about James and his siblings.

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