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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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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, founder (bullet) Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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An outdoor view
The railroad tracks in Sedro-Woolley

(Northern Pacific railyards)
      These are the railroad tracks that Les recalls, but from a different angle. Circa 1918, Frank LaRoche Sr., Sedro-Woolley's resident grand photographer at that time, stood atop an unknown building or apparatus and photographed the Northern Pacific rail yards. He was looking north. Pinky Robertson's childhood home is at the far left. To the right is a roundtable built for the original Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern locomotives. Borseth Street runs north and south in the upper left background. Click on photo for a larger version.

By Les Palmer, originally published in the Peninsula Clarion newspaper, Alaska, May 9, 2008
      The other day, I went back to my old home town, or tried to.
      It seems like only yesterday, but half a century has passed since I lived in Sedro-Woolley, a small town in Skagit Valley on the western side of "The Evergreen State." I had in mind a walk from my boyhood home to the Skagit River, a journey of maybe two miles. I expected it to be a pleasant, nostalgic experience.
      From around age 10 until age 16, when I bought a 25-year-old Ford and began driving everywhere, I walked to the river countless times to go fishing. The easiest way was along the railroad tracks. I knew every landmark — the water tower, the hobo camp, the scary trestle over the slough. Now, 50 years later, I wanted to see if anything remained of what I remembered.
      ome of it did. The house on the corner of State and Borseth streets is still there, as is the convenience store across State Street. With a feeling of loss, I saw that the vacant lot on the other side of Borseth Street, where neighborhood kids once flew kites, caught grasshoppers, picked morel mushrooms and played every game imaginable, had recently devolved into an apartment complex.
      The distance from my house to the railroad tracks seemed shorter than I remembered it. Kid miles are somehow longer, I guess. As I started walking down the tracks, smelling the sweet perfume of the creosoted ties, an old frustration came back. Ties seem to offer easy walking, but they are spaced too closely for human steps, so they don't live up to their promise. You end up alternating between short steps and long steps.
      I had a niggling fear that at any moment someone would yell, "Hey you! Get off the tracks!" Nowadays, railroads don't allow trespassing on their property, and walking the tracks can get you fined. In my kidhood, no one ever told us to get off the tracks. We knew enough to get out of the way if a train was coming. The worst hazard was getting a cinder in your shoe.
      During my childhood, when you could keep a straight face while calling Sedro-Woolley a logging town, these steel tracks played a role in the local economy, but no more. The tracks remain, not yet pulled up and sent to China, but the line is no longer in use. If I hadn't lived here, if I didn't know where the coal bunkers had once stood, if I hadn't seen tens of thousands of freight cars and flatcars rumble by and heard the wailing whistle of countless steam locomotives, I wouldn't know how important this railroad had once been to this town and this region.
      I had halfway expected to find a sign across the tracks saying, "No Trespassing." Instead, on the outskirts of town I came upon something even more forbidding: an impenetrable jungle of blackberry vines and alder trees had taken over the unused railroad right-of-way. My way blocked, I walked back to where I had parked my rental car.
      On the way, I noted that where a tavern had stood for years now stands a Wells Fargo bank. An old house that my father used to say housed "girls of ill repute" has been replaced by the Allelujah Small Business Center. Where the old ice plant used to be is now a logging supply store with an espresso kiosk in its parking lot.
      In the end, I had to drive to the river on a highway that didn't exist when I lived there. Where I once freely walked down a farmer's road to get to my fishing hole, now I was stopped by a sign that warned of dire consequences if I ventured beyond it.
      Stymied, I drove across a bridge that didn't exist in my youth and looked at my old fishing spot from the other side of the river. The Skagit was low and clear, a sign that the winter's snow hadn't begun to melt. I noted with dismay that the gravel bar where I once fished had eroded away, and a that a gill-netter's skiff — something else that didn't exist when I lived there — was pulled up on the bank where "my" bar used to be.
      As I drove away from my hometown, I thought about how lucky I was to have lived there when I did. It was the best of times, when there were vacant lots to play in, and when a kid could go anywhere the railroad tracks did.

(Northern Pacific rail trestle)
      This railway bridge that was erected by the San Francisco Bridge Co. in 1888-89 for the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railway, which was building in a mad dash north from Seattle to be the key line in the mix of three railroads that would soon cross in what became Sedro-Woolley. It is a lone sentinel now, its tracks clipped north and south and the entrances grown over with blackberries as Les describes. The cubicle at the top in this 1972 photo by Allen Miller dates back from when the trestle also served as a drawbridge. Click on photo for a larger version.

      Les Palmer is a writer who lives in Sterling, Alaska. He is the son of the late Lloyd Palmer Jr., whom we profiled here. Journal ed. note: Les Palmer is also an old friend of this editor, the older brother of my adventurous friend from high school, Ben Palmer. They and brother Dave grew up on Borseth Street across from Drake's Market. Their grandfather, Lloyd Palmer Sr., owned the original commercial garbage hauling service here, and won the contract to clear the road-bed and gravel the new highway to Burlington in 1932. Their father, Lloyd Palmer Jr., will be remembered as a master mechanic for Berglund Ford and for water-skiing under Deception Pass Bridge on his 50th birthday, and to really old timers, for saving Ernie Spurling from drowning when they were kids. Their mother, Junia (Cannon), was known for being a sweetheart and for putting a smiling face on the Puget Power's offices here. And every time I read a book, I still recall how she assisted Dolores Stendal at the old Carnegie Library and how they conspired to make me an avid reader on many rainy afternoons there. We dedicate this story, which we hope will be joined by more from Les, to his uncles Arthur and George, whom he never really knew. Arthur died in 1932 at a nearby gravel pit while they were preparing the Burlington Highway. And George died in a motorcycle accident ten years later on the Fish Hatchery Hill when Les was a toddler.

B&A Tavern
      This tavern was razed nearly 40 years ago in favor of the Island Savings building, now the Wells Fargo Bank. For those of us in search of a libation in the 1960s, the B&A Tavern was the last symbol of the wild and wooly days of Sedro-Woolley, except for Alice's Palace a few blocks north. Ikey Blackburn ran the bar, a modern version of the saloon that his father, William Blackburn, opened with partner Eddie Adams around the turn of the 20th century. [Return]

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Story posted on March 11, 2010. . . Please report any broken links so we can update them

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