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Skagit River Journal

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Murdock leaves mark on Mount Vernon and Woolley

(William Murdock)
William Murdock, first mayor of Woolley, 1891

      William Murdock was one of the few pioneers who made an impact on both Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley. There has been a rivalry between those two towns from the beginning of settlement on the Skagit river and most people chose to live in one or the other but rarely both. Murdock apparently came to the Skagit valley sometime in the late 1870s when Skagit county was still the southern part of Whatcom county in Washington territory. Researcher Jeanie Bond found his naturalization papers from 1887, which required him to be a resident of the U.S. for at least five years, thus pre-dating the county's formation in November 1883. The records do not have much information other than the fact that he was born in New Brunswick.
      We first find William Murdock's name in legal records on August 29, 1886, when he granted a lien on logs with Mount Vernon pioneer William Gage. He continued in the logging business in the 1890s with a man named H.D. Cole in a firm called Circle 40. At some time in the mid- to late-1880s he became a partner with Charles Harmon in the Washington Hotel in downtown Mount Vernon. Court records of 1887 show that the same partners traded in cattle and Murdock may have also traded cattle in partnership with H.D. Cole. Harmon later became sheriff of Skagit county.
      With the help of reader Richard Falknor of Maryland, we have now placed Murdock in a logging camp on the Skagit as early as 1879. Falknor is a descendant of Winfield Scott Jameson, who settled near the Pope & Talbot mill at Port Gamble in the early 1860s and then staked timber claims along the upper Skagit, starting in the early or mid-1870s. In Murdock's journals, which Falknor has maintained, we find a note for Sept. 12, 1879:

This is a "place-holder story." It was originally posted back in 2001 on our original domain, and since then we have discovered many more details about the pioneers such as Murdock. We plan to completely update and extend the story by 2010. For now, we leave it in its original state. We hope that readers and descendants of the family will suggest ideas and provide copies of photos and documents that will illuminate the story when we update it.

      Sept 12, 1879 Wm Murdock, Geo Magoon, I[?] W Jameson, Crosby, Chris [Stevens], Charles Taylor started for Skagit River to take up timber claims went with supply [?] boat to Skagit City & took canoe & was six miles above Minkler's Mill . . .
      The townships and range numbers are difficult to read, but we know from the above directions that the claim would have been somewhere south across the river from where Concrete was later platted, probably near the present Ovenell ranch. We also found in a 1935 biography of J.C. "Baldy" LaPlant, the pioneer Prairie mill-owner, that in the 1890s he worked for the partners Cole and Murdock at their camp above Birdsview and later at their camp beyond Rockport. Finally, we have another connection with Jameson in that Murdock's partner in the Washington hotel was Charles Harmon, who was Jameson's cousin.

The Washington Hotel and saloon in Mount Vernon
      The Washington hotel-saloon combination in the '80s must have been substantial because Murdock and Harmon sold a 1/6 interest in it to Adelbert Ford in May 1888 for $1,000 in gold coin. The property consisted of: liquors, cigars, a billiard table, a fireproof safe, card tables, glasses, saloon fixtures, beds and bedding, chairs, carpets and crockery ware, plus unnamed appliances. Ford had bought 2/3 interest in the hotel in 1887. The humorous incident described by Devin below occurred while Murdock still managed the hotel and saloon.
      We found a wonderful tale about the Washington in the book, Booming and Panicking on Puget Sound, by George H. Bacon, who financed farmers and loggers in Whatcom and Skagit counties at that time. As his daughter notes in the introduction, Bacon arrived at the town of Whatcom at the age of 22 in 1889. He was both clever and delighted with the spirit and elan of the rough-and-ready residents of the Northwest. After engaging in creative tideland claims with his hearty friends, he showed immense delight in enabling farms to emerge from the wilderness and raising money for roads to replace the crude logging trails. In between his real estate investments, he wrote to eastern clients of the Illinois loan firm he had worked for while attending college. His letter prompted a visit by the company president who knew his family. The executive was both amused and convinced enough in the area's grand future to give Bacon a new agency and an order for $100,000 in loans. He chose the Nooksack Valley and delta land of the Skagit to be his initial market for agricultural loans. There was still no wagon road to Skagit, and the Puget Sound was the only highway, so he took a sternwheeler to LaConner at an undetermined date in 1889-90.
      He hired an Indian pony and took the old road along the farmers' dikes to Mount Vernon —; by then the county seat, via pleasant Ridge. When he arrived in Mount Vernon, a June freshet [flood] had just started with the river filled with logs floating loose. He noted that Mount Vernon was actually just a small fringe of shack hotels on the river bank with scattered houses on the hillside above and a wooden Odd Fellows' Hall used as a court house. There he met the county auditor, a Doctor Downs who was an old timer who came here from Boston in 1877. Downs took a fancy to the young man, opening many doors for him and outlining the rough settlements and surveys to that time. At the Washington Hotel he was a curiosity. Although he had considerable experience, he looked 16, and the salty pioneers considered him to be a freak and maybe crazy.
      Opportunity soon came knocking, however, when the steamer Henry Bailey arrived that night with two ranchers on way to their holdings. Each requested a $3,000 loan. One was Amasa Everett, a one-legged prospector who settled the Baker river area and discovered coal in this region. Bacon rode on horseback up along the north shore of the Skagit to Everett's ranch with the irascible Sterling settler, Lafayette Stevens, and Bacon recalled the most wonderful fir and cedar timber he had ever seen. He also noted that the only wagon road ran 30 miles upriver, and then a crude trail started. By the time he rode back to Mount Vernon, he was ready for a soft bed and looked for a presentable hotel.

We needed the money
      The Washington Hotel was a wonder to him. He noticed that everyone seemed to drink a lot at the hotel bar, over which hung this motto: "To trust is to bust/ To bust is hell/ No trust no bust/ No bust no hell." Bacon noted that Adam [Adelbert] Ford and Billy Murdock then owned the hotel. The most beloved boarder of the hotel was Bill Hayton, a candidate for representative, who "ginned up" the house and passed out cabbage leaf cigars. Bacon initially refused the proffered cigar, explaining that he couldn't vote for Hayton back in Whatcom. After being derided as one who didn't understand local rituals, he gladly accepted the cabbage cigars on future trips.
      Ford . . . ambled over to my table one night to explain to me the cause and amount of all this social drinking around there. Adam was himself well mellowed, as usual, and possessed furthermore a very loose set of false teeth that interfered greatly with his pronunciation.
      "Bacon," he said, "I want you to know that I used to be jus' as nice a man and jus' as respec'able a man as you are. But we started this place an' I had to get out with the boys an' carouse around an' raise hell. An' I ruin my health. An' I ruin my reppitation. An' I had to do it, — (long thoughtful pause) — because we needed the money."

      Bacon wanted customers who needed the money. He also admired the long-timers of five years or more, who shared both great optimism in the territory and displayed ruddy good health, which Bacon attributed to the climate's health-preserving qualities. There is no malaria here, he noted, and every stream of the state has fresh water. He especially loved the story of 85-year-old Erastus Bartlett who fell off the steamer State of Washington and swam all the way ashore, without even losing his favorite umbrella.

Murdock was P.A. Woolley's neighbor
      At about the same Murdock became quite a figure in the development of P.A. Woolley's company town. Woolley first came to the area in November 1889, when he bought a 44-acre timber claim from Ole Borseth and George Nelson, who had, in turn, bought it from a Chris Olson. His neighbor to the east was William Murdock. We would love to know if Murdock already owned the area that is now the northeastern section of Sedro-Woolley or if he heard of Woolley's dealings at the bar of the Washington saloon and rode 12 miles east cross county to make a deal in Sedro himself after hearing of Woolley's plan.
      The 1906 Illustrated History notes that the first public mention of Woolley's company town was in April 1890 in a briefly lived newspaper called the Skagit County Logger. Starting as a company town on the south side of one block of what we now call Northern Avenue, over the next few months Woolley's town became a village. By the time the third rail line, Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern, rolled into town that Thanksgiving, Woolley's town looked like it soon might become a major boom city. By the time P.A. platted it in the next spring, Woolley and Murdock must have become allies because the eastern boundary was named Murdock street. Woolley voted to become an incorporated town of the fourth class on May 11, 1891, and in that fall's election, Murdock was also elected the first mayor temporarily in the spring of 1891 until P.A. Woolley was elected in the permanent election that fall. It seems somehow appropriate for jokester Murdock that one of the council members was named Goosie.
      Murdock owned a great deal of land east of and adjacent to the town of Woolley & north of and adjacent to town of Sedro. Sometime in 1890 he had the land surveyed and it became "Junction addition to Sedro." The Western boundary was the center of Murdock St., which was then the eastern border of the Town of Woolley. Murdock must have been quite a businessman. Over the next year he gave public land for streets & alleys and sold many choice lots. We can only surmise that the financiers, boomers and traveling retailers who were staying at the St. Clair Hotel were betting that Murdock's land would become prime residential property in this rambunctious town where three railroad routes crossed and you could board any of 11 trains daily.
      Murdock's supreme business act was when he sold most of the rest of the lots for $80,000 to a land group called the Grand Junction Land Co., which was financed by young Sedro banker C.E. Bingham. That would be a multi-million-dollar deal today and for his efforts he was named president of GJLC. Looking back in hindsight today's businessman might quibble that the 16 lots that Murdock retained wound up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, in this case being north of the Seattle & Northern tracks that were being built up to the town of Hamilton. Woolley's mansion was originally in that area on Gibson street but when he built his mansion downtown on Woodworth street at the turn of the century and Murdock's lots were in what was considered the poor part of town. Murdock street on that side was not paved until the 1970s.
      The last public record we have about Murdock is wedding license that researcher Roger Peterson found from Aug. 22, 1891, for William H. Murdock to marry Lennie McDonald. At the bottom of this collection of stories, you will find one by Harry L. Devin, one of our most beloved city fathers of Sedro-Woolley, about Woolley's first mayor, William Murdock. We know precious little about Wild Bill before he came to Skagit County and we have no idea where he went afterwards, but we know that his sense of humor was infectious, as was that of Harry's.

Questions about William Murdock

      Who knows, maybe Billy moved on to greater things by the late 1890s, when we lose track of him. But that is where you come in, dear reader. We want to know what happened to Wild Billy as the Depression set in during 1893. Did he invest his Grand Junction profits wisely? Do any of you know anything about Murdock or his descendants? If you do, please either tell us by email or post in the guestbook below.
      For quite awhile we mistakenly assumed that William had a brother named Joseph. Joseph Murdock lived in the Olympia Marsh Diking District and married Jennie Osborne Thomas, who had 15 acres there from her first marriage. She died in childbirth and Joseph raised the children from both marriages alone. But researcher Carolyn Murphy established that Joe was from a different part of Canada. He did have a brother named William, but not our William. To complicate matters further, we find very brief references to a Grant Murdock, who lived here prior to the turn of the 20th century. Where did he fit in? We hope a reader will know. Meanwhile, let's listen to Harry Devin tell about his friend Billy and the dastardly deed he committed in Mount Vernon when he brazenly took advantage of two friends.

Murdock had sense of humor
      Journal Ed. note: William Murdock, first mayor of Woolley, was one of Skagit County's pioneers. He logged, ran a hotel, tended bar, mined and speculated in real estate. But he is best remembered for his love of practical jokes. He was interested in a hotel in Mount Vernon in the eighties when the two important features of a hotel were the kitchen and the bar. Bill managed the kitchen, and his partner, Adam Ford, managed the bar. Sedro Pioneer Harry Devin wrote this story as a humorous account of the shenanigans of Wild Bill.
      In those days, chickens were property if kept by a family man, but just a fad if kept by a bachelor, and fair loot to boot. One of Mount Vernon's leading bachelors imported some fancy chickens of an improved breed, which were quite a novelty and the apple of his eye. Bill suggested to one of the hotel patrons that it would be a good joke if he would slip over after supper and steal half a dozen of the fancy chickens, and they would then give a chicken dinner and invite the owner to attend. The patron agreed and Bill then thickened the plot by warning the owner of the chickens that he had heard this fellow planning to raid his chicken roost that night. Murdock suggested that he had better load his shotgun with salt and lay for him.
      The plan was duly carried out. Bill accompanied the prospective chicken thief as lookout and was watching from the street while his confederate raided the chicken roost. But before the thief reached it, the owner filled his legs with salt and the two engaged in a rough fight.
      Bill succeeded in separating the two combatants and herded them to the hotel bar. When they downed their animosity Bill slipped out and caught a dozen of the chickens and chopped off their heads. Then, taking a head in hand, he returned to where the owner was by then in a comatose condition and put some blood on his shoes. Then, shaking the owner awake, Bill assured him that all the men at the bar accepted his invitation to a chicken dinner and that they all thought very handsomely of him for extending the invitation. He looked at his shoes and decided that he must have indeed done his chickens in and later hosted a very gracious dinner.

      Ed. note: Having grown up on a chicken farm five miles east of town in the Utopia district, I have to share with you a joke that had been passed down orally through generations of Sedro-Woolley farmers and loggers, although you might have had to prepare a chicken for dinner from the start to understand it. The one-liner goes like this: "Daddy, why do we have to help the chickens get dressed?" That was a knee slapper then, trust me. If you liked the tale of Wild Bill and the chickens, you might also like the story of the good ole boys of Lyman and their pig dinner in 1881. You'll find it in the Otto Klement section. Klement was a Murdock contemporary who arrived in Skagit county in 1873 after paddling across Puget Sound from Port Gamble in an eight-foot saltchuck cedar canoe. His sense of humor is just as infectious. He was the Lord of Lyman when he wrote the hogtied story.
      It is with sadness that we note there are no other references in county histories to this man who had such an effect on pioneers in both Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley. But most of our history has been written by folks in Mount Vernon and LaConner, many of whom looked down on Sedro-Woolley as an anomaly. Maybe that is why our town has always seemed delightfully funky. We thank Sedro-Woolley High School graduate Judy Johnson for the research for her 1969 term paper that netted the Grand Junction details.

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Story posted on Jan. 1, 2001, last updated on Jan. 1, 2003, and Feb. 12, 2009
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This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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