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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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History of Skagit county

[Written by Charles Dwelley, editor of the Concrete Herald, in 1953]
(Cedar Bar 1899)
Cedar Bar, 1899, with owner Lucinda Davis and her son, Glee. This site was located just south of the present town of Diablo and was covered by water when the nearby dam was built. Photo by Darius Kinsey.

      Editor note:This essay was transcribed from Dwelley's original story, which he wrote to honor the centennial celebration of Washington territory in a special 1953 state booklet. It has only been lightly edited in some cases for correction of spelling or to provide continuity. Blue underlined links either supply more background information of Major von Bokkelen or direct the reader to background essays elsewhere in the Skagit River Journal. You may want to read the whole essay before clicking on the links. Otherwise, you can click your back button to return to this essay.

      This history of Skagit County must, perforce, begin with the coming of the first white man, and the subsequent spreading of the news that brought adventurers to its shores to seek their fortune from the overflowing stock of natural resources that ranged from salmon in the salt water to gold in the mountain streams. The country was wild and rugged, so it is not strange that in the 161 years since Captain Cook found his way into Puget Sound and sailed past the Skagit delta, that some of the resources are still untouched.
      Following the early explorations and visits by settlers from nearby homesteads the land that is now Skagit County became first known for its island, Fidalgo, which is separated by a narrow slough from the mainland. It was here that the first cabin was built by white men. History has it that William Munks came there in December of 1859 to take over previously occupied quarters to become the first permanent resident. Those who had stopped earlier at the head of Fidalgo Bay went on. Munks came to stay, and in 1871 became one of the first postmasters of the new land.
      Because all travel was by boat, the islands became the most convenient homes for the venturesome. By 1873 all government land on Fidalgo and most of the other islands nearby had been taken by homesteaders and by that time the first farming machinery had been placed in use to harvest the crops from cleared lands. An attempt was made to select some of the rich land of the Skagit delta in 1855-56 but because of Indian trouble at that time the settlers were frightened away.
      The first recorded trip up the Skagit River was reported in 1858, when a party led by Major Van Bokkelen paddled canoes up the river to the Baker River and then up that stream to Baker Lake in search of gold. They found the Indians friendly, found some traces of gold on the river bars, but nothing to cause any great desire to return.

First county settlers
      The first assault on the Skagit Flats was made by Michael Sullivan and Samuel Calhoun near LaConner in 1863. Calhoun had seen marshland developed and his eye was taken by the rich soil in that area. He began diking off the shore areas and soon had farm land from which he took spring crops that caused much doubt among those who had to listen to the tales brought to Coupeville and Utsalady by the men. Finally, Mr. Calhoun swore on oath his statement of getting 1,200 bushels of barley from 21 acres. This was the first of the huge crops that were to be heard about all over the world in coming years.
      Need of a trading post brought Alonzo Low to the site of LaConner in May of 1867 and this was the first store to be established in Skagit County. Coupeville was at that time the main source of supply, as it was a port of trade with the sailing vessels reaching the Sound from San Francisco and all parts of the world. With boat travel from Coupeville [Whidbey Island] to LaConner fairly simple, LaConner began to grow and soon had mail service and a post office.
      In the coming years the influx of settlers to the timberlands of the flats of the lower Skagit pushed the boundaries of civilization further inland and up the Skagit River toward the present site of Mount Vernon. The first steamer to reach the logjam there was the Linnie, which arrived in 1870 with a party of prospective settlers. The site of Mount Vernon had been homesteaded previously by Jasper Gates and Joseph F. Dwelley. Harrison Clothier and Edward English made it a town by establishing a store there on land purchased from Mr. Gates. By 1874, regular steamer service was furnished from Seattle by the steamer, Fanny Lake.

Mount Vernon logjams hinder upriver travel
(West Mount Vernon bridge)
This photo is of the first bridge built to connect Mount Vernon with West Mount Vernon, from 1893 just after the opening.

      The huge logjam, which had been growing in the river since time began, blocked all traffic beyond Mount Vernon except by canoe. It was Amasa "Peg-Leg" Everett who made the first extensive exploration of the upper river. His party left in 1873 to seek minerals, and when they returned they had found coal, iron, limestone and traces of all types of precious minerals. This exploration continued as far up river as Marblemount, but during one of the trips an accident cost him a leg, forcing him to limit his travels. In 1875 he staked a claim at the mouth of the Baker River where the town of Concrete now stands. A mountain of limestone discovered by him is now the source of supply for the state's largest cement plant.
      As the logjam at Mount Vernon was the main obstacle in the progress of settling the river, legislation was initiated in 1867 for removal of the logs. A memorial to Congress for $25,000 was unsuccessful when government surveyors found that the cost would be closer to $100,000. Finally, a local organization was formed by seven loggers and with the help of public subscriptions they began their Herculean task. The jam was in two sections, one a half-mile wide and the other extending upstream for almost a full mile. Logs three feet to eight feet in diameter were piled like jackstraws to depths of thirty feet. It took the men six months to cut a narrow channel through the first jam — two years to breach the supper jam. Despite donations and public subscription to swell the money received from the good logs in the jam, the seven men ended their labors each $1,000 in debt after three years work. Clearing the monstrous logjam from the Skagit River was an undertaking that took two years.

Influx of settlers upriver from 1877-78 on
      But the river was open and new homesteads began to appear along the banks of the river. Karl von Pressentin made his claim at Birdsview in 1877. [Future] Sedro-Woolley was [settled] in 1878 by Joseph Hart and David Batey. Towns blossomed out of the wilderness wherever there was cedar and fir to be logged, sawed and floated to market. Skagit County's logging industry was not long in becoming the livelihood of the majority of the upper valley residents.
      Gold fever, brought on by the rush to the Fraser River in Canada [1858], brought miners to the Upper Skagit in 1877-8 with gold being found in quantity at Ruby Creek. This set off a big rush that populated the upper reaches of the river with thousands of prospectors. Steamboats began snaking regular trips from Seattle bearing equipment and more men. The boats began a race to see which could go the farthest up the river, ending with the smaller boats making it all the way to Goodell's Landing, near present Newhalem — the site of the City Light power project. The boats also brought mail and supplies to the residents along the river, exchanging supplies for wood for the boilers.
      Many exciting stories are told of tile rough and ready rivalry of the river boat captains and their races for gold, whiskey or just plain fun. A classic event of this type was between the Chehalis and the Josephine, which ended when one of the captains tossed his cargo of bacon into the boilers and roared into the landing with steam to spare. Another boat was famous for the fact that its skipper ran on a schedule timed to the amount of whiskey in the cask aboard. When he estimated there was no more than would be needed to supply him on the return trip, he jettisoned his passengers on the nearest riverbank and headed his boat back toward Seattle. The Alaskan gold rush emptied the upper valley of gold seekers and the boom was over. Many ghost names still linger from the towns that rose overnight to house those who sought to make their fortune the easy way on tile Skagit River.

Fishing and farming
(Rexville Creamery)
The Rexville creamery was built in the 1890s with the cooperative efforts of pioneers at a remote location. Photo courtesy of the Skagit County Historical Association's fine book, Skagit Settlers, which is now available at the association's museum in LaConner.

      But there were other ways to snake money for those who stayed. James H. Moores of Mount Vernon opened the fishing industry in 1879 by catching 15 barrels of King salmon in his gill nets and peddling the barrels at $10 each. The idea caught on and the fishing industry grew on the river, spread to traps in tile Sound and soon was one of the biggest bonanzas to hit the county. An 1897 report lists a catch of 10,000 salmon in a single lift of the net [at] one of the small traps. The lift netted the owner $800. He sold the fish at 8 cents each and cleared $30,000 for the season. Canneries at Anacortes developed with the influx of new wealth from the sea to make rich those who were willing to enter the business. The 1897 pack for the county was 9,840,000 cans sold at eastern markets at 25 cents per can.
      Meanwhile the Skagit flats, the dikes and the drainage, [and] the land clearing and logging were building other fortunes. Oats, barley, hay and other crops were growing like some-thing out of a fairy tale. The land, the river, the salt water was all wealth to be taken freely.

Skagit county breaks off from Whatcom
      With these glowing reports from all sides the people began to become jealous of tile Whatcom County title placed upon them by the legislature, so in 1883 the first petition was signed asking that Skagit be made a separate county. The Northwest Enterprise opened the fight for [naming the county,] Skagit, [a proposal that was] militantly opposed by the Whatcom Reveille. The Puget Sound Mail soon entered the fray with a battle on whether the north boundary should be between township 35 and 36, or 36 and 37. The new legislature of 1883 set the boundary at 36-37 and began to consider the pleas of the two factions. A bill introduced by Orrin Kincaid and James N. Power was brought to a vote on October 24, only to lose 8-4; the Skagits were out-talked by the Whatcom lobbyists. Not to be balked, however, the Skagit men waited until the Whatcom delegation was sent home rejoicing arid then the measure was re-introduced quietly, and on Nov. 24 was passed 11-7, making Skagit a full-fledged county. The bill was signed by Governor William A. Newell to become a law.
      H. P. Downs, F. E. Gilkey and H. A. March were named the first commissioners, to take charge until an election could be held. Downs was named as Auditor. He had his office on the lower floor of the school building at LaConner, the temporary county scat, and had as his safe for county records a row of soapboxes nailed to the walls of his eight-by-twelve foot room.
      As LaConner was the up-and-coming metropolis of the district, no one had figured on any opposition to the location of the county scat at that place. However, Mount Vernon had ambitions and began a battle for the honor. It was a typical pioneer election with proponents combing the flat lands and the hills for voters and the newspapers adding their wordy clamor to the arguments. With the help of Anacortes, LaConner believed they had the election in the bag, but Mount Vernon had the miners and the up-river folks and, as one LaConner resident put it: "They just shook the trees and voters fell out of every one of them." Mount Vernon won with a 250 majority and, to cap their climax, elected three upriver commissioners!
      Isaac Dunlap, John L. Edens and Harrison Clothier were the first duly elected commissioners and met Feb. 4, 1884, in LaConner for the opening session before moving the seat of government to Mount Vernon. The first proposition heard was for a county road from LaConner toward the county seat.
      The population at that time was 2,816 citizens. This included 1,835 males and 1,081 females; 2,618 were white, 170 half-breed, 26 Chinese and 2 Negro.

Railroads open up the county
      Next of importance in the way of progress was the advent of the railroad, which had been coming in promise for several years. It was 1889 when the first steam locomotive moved up the rails into Skagit County, the first line coming from Ship Harbor. Soon both the Great Northern and what later became the Northern Pacific were battling for routes through the county to Canada and up the Skagit River toward a possible mountain pass into eastern Washington. By 1901, depots were a fixture in many Skagit towns, the main cities were on lines from Seattle, and the upper valley line had reached Baker [later named Concrete] and shortly moved on to Rockport.
      The following fifty years have brought continual improvement and development for the entire county. Some towns have boomed and died completely, others had their ups and clowns with the tide of industry, but in general, all are now prospering and looking forward to a more stable economy each year.

Brief town profiles
(Skid road)
This photo of a skid road near a logging camp at Fidalgo on the south end of the island shows what much of the county looked like when pioneers were leveling the first-growth forests. Photo courtesy of Lawrence Harnden Jr.

      LaConner, once the gem of the future, had its brief moment of publicity, then settled down to a quiet but busy life as the "pioneer town." During its heyday it was the center of the hop, bay and grain harvest from the flats with river boats handling the cargoes from the sloughs nearby where each large farm had its own wharf and storage. It is now a busy little town boasting a worldwide seed industry, canneries and the Skagit River fishing fleet.
      Anacortes also had its golden days during the fishing and lumbering era when its shores were lined from end to end with salmon and cod canneries, sawmills, shingle mills and other industries. Planned as the perfect city, Anacortes is the largest in the county, with wide streets and large blocks ideally platted. The canneries faded somewhat with the outlawing of fish traps and for a time there were evil days in the lumbering industry. Now the city is building a bright future with a huge plywood plant, pulp mill, shingle and saw mills, a huge public-owned ocean port and most recently, the acquisition of a large oil refinery.
      Mount Vernon continues to be the pivot-spot of the county, providing the most compact and complete business district for the growing population on all sides. Here are the finest stores, the center of county government from the large courthouse, a number of growing industries including frozen foods, dairy products and farm processing of many kinds. Mount Vernon is the second largest city in the county.
      Burlington began as a single cabin along the river in the center of a huge forest of trees. Since that time the trees have long disappeared and in their place are some of the finest farm lands in the state. Also at Burlington is the home of the Skagit County Dairymen's Association, a pioneer cooperative that has made dairying one of the top industries in the county.
      Sedro-Woolley started out with the unusual name of "Bug," the name being the whimsical notion of Mortimer Cook, who wanted a town named like no other. He was talked out of it by the womenfolk of the community; they settled on Sedro, a corruption of the Spanish word for cedar. A nearby settlement was called "Woolley" and eventually the two grew together. Mr. Cook still had his wish as the city is now advertised as 'The Only Sedro-Woolley On Earth." Primarily a logging and farming town, Sedro-Woolley now contributes to the fame of the county with the gigantic Skagit Steel & Iron Works, which makes logging machinery and other similar equipment for users all over the world. [The] most recent contract will be for a large new plant to manufacture shell casings for the government [Ed. note: This subject will be an upcoming feature in the Skagit River Journal].
      In the upper valley are the small communities of Lyman, Hamilton, Rockport and Marblemount, which are shopping points for the residents nearby. Concrete is the largest town in the upper valley and is so named from the plant of Superior Portland Cement, Inc., the largest cement plant in the state. Concrete also has a new veneer plant, several mills and the county's only large hydroelectric plant, which is on the Baker River almost within the city limits.
      Other small communities in the lower valley are Edison, Conway, Blanchard, Clear Lake and Bay View. It also had a community called Utopia , which was near an equally unusually named place Skiyou, and in the early days fostered a temperance town by the name of Avon. Most towns have names of common origin. LaConner is named for Mrs. Louisa A. Conner; Anacortes for Anna Curtis [Bowman]; Rockport for the rock along the riverbank, Marblemount for a ledge of that material found by the early prospectors. Burlington for its namesake in the east; Edison for Thomas A., the inventor; Hamilton and Lyman for [pioneer] residents. No longer a town, but interestingly named, was Birdsview, which came into history as a pioneer river stop in which the town's mill owner was Birdsey Minkler. [Ed. note: you can read more about these upriver towns.]
      Skagit County now has a population of 43,000, and its industries range the full gamut from chicken farms to large manufacturing concerns. Logging, farming, dairying, farm-product processing, fishing, quarrying and mining are still listed among the top wealth-producing resources of the county, just as they were many years ago when the Skagit River valley was as raw a frontier as you could find. New wealth is constantly being developed in industry and further use of the potential resources is yet to be harnessed.
      Skagit County's past has been interesting as a story of pioneers building a new country from a wilderness. Its future will be a sequel of modern progress.

These county businesses sponsored the above essay:
      The Skagit County story is made possible through the cooperation of the following local sponsors: H. Bean Hardware Co., Sedro Woolley; Burlington Machine Shop, Burlington; Cargill & Lisherness Mobil Service, Sedro Woolley; Cook Motors — International Trucks, Kaiser, Fraser, Henry J. [models] — Mt. Vernon; Dunlap Hardware Co., LaConner; Tom E. Dunsmore, Shell Oil Distributor, Mt. Vernon; Firestone Stores, Mt. Vernon; Hamburg Iron Works, Allis-Chalmers dealer, Mt. Vernon; Harry's Texaco Service, 3rd & Jameson, Sedro Woolley; Hoehn Motor Co., Mt. Vernon; Jeff's Mobil Service, Burlington; E. A. Jensen, Standard Oil Distributor, Sedro Woolley; LaConner Motor Co., distributors for Standard of California, LaConner; LaConner Tractor Service, LaConner; Lentz & Nelson, 100 West Ferry Street, Sedro Woolley; Mount Baker Hardware Co., Sedro-Woolley; Nelson Motor Co., Inc., Sedro Woolley; M. J. Olson, Associated Oil Distributor, Mt. Vernon; C. B. Rings Service Station, Sedro Woolley; Sedro-Woolley Auto Parts Co., Sedro-Woolley; Skagit Glass & Upholstery Co., Sedro Woolley; Staves Super Service, Sedro Woolley; Union Oil Company, Sedro Woolley.

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Story posted on April 30, 2003, and updated on May 22, 2004
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This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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