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1882 Pierce expedition down the Skagit river
Downing sketches the wilderness along the way
Cascades crossings for railroad

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore ©2013
(Sterling by Downing)
Alfred Downing's quick sketch of Jesse Beriah Ball's logging camp at the recently named village of Sterling, just over a mile west of future Sedro. Courtesy of a Nov. 17, 1946, Seattle Times article.

      Lieutenant Henry Pierce led a special expedition up and down the rivers on both sides of the Cascades in August 1882 and took a civilian cartographer along named Alfred Downing. The results are fascinating to read and see, and Pierce's conclusions put the first nail in the coffin of the idea of a Cascades and Skagit river route for the transcontinental railroad. Ross Anderson noted in a Seattle Times article in 2002:
      Over the following month, they trekked some 300 miles of rugged terrain, crossed five mountain passes over 4,000 feet high, up and down primitive switchback trails, across the snow-capped Cascades and finally down the Skagit River to Mount Vernon.
      In his official report, Lieutenant Pierce hoped "this reconnaissance . . . through territory never before traversed by white men, will add to a correct understanding of the geography of the country and perchance attract attention to fertile regions and pleasant landscapes hitherto unknown."
      Then Pierce faded into historical obscurity

(Upper Skagit River 1882)
"Upper Skagit River, by Alfred Downing, 1882. Courtesy of a Nov. 17, 1946, Seattle Times article.

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      We searched for more details of this very important, but largely forgotten, expedition. Unfortunately we found few records of Pierce's life before and after the journey, except at art houses that sell reproductions. We also could not find genealogical information on Pierce. Our only hints come from the brief notation in Department of War records that he was a lieutenant in at least the late stages of the Civil War, assigned to a battery of Connecticut heavy artillery. He was brevetted to first lieutenant in 1867 for gallant and meritorious services in battle of Petersburg Mine, Virginia, the battle late in the war that is sometimes called "the Waterloo of the Confederacy." We deduce that he was about 40 years old by the time of the Washington expedition.
      Most of the record of the 1882 expedition comes from Pierce's own 1882 report [1] and Gretchen A. Luxenberg's fine 1886 compendium of the North Cascades-area early pioneer history for the National Park Service [2] and a series by Jack Nisbet, focused especially on Downing's role, in the North Columbia Monthly [3].
      The main reason for the assignment was that the Army wanted to find efficient routes of transportation and communication. Pierce's task was to conduct "reconnaissance is to obtain such knowledge of the country and its occupants as may be valuable at present or in the future to the military service." Earlier in 1882 eastern Indians had crossed the Cascades and started a flare-up among camps near where the Baker river met the Skagit, but Lyman-pioneer Otto Klement mediated the dispute so successfully that the Upper Skagit tribal members sent the instigators from across the mountains back home. The trip also took on the additional mission to display the presence of federal troops so that Pierce could gauge the acceptance or resistance by Indians as he traveled and camped close to various bands along the way.

(Mount Vernon 1880)
Above is a photo by an unknown photographer, generally dated as circa 1880. Below is Downing's sketch of Mount Vernon in 1882. Note that the first signs of a reventment can be seen south of today's bridge to western Mount Vernon.
(Mount Vernon 1882)

A timeline of Cascade Pass crossings
      In his book, Cascade Alpine Guide, Cascades-specialist Fred Beckey notes that native Indians traveled across the Cascade Mountains via Lake Chelan, Stehekin and Cascade Pass for centuries, as did tribes in the Methow and Okanogan Valleys. They proceeded up the Twisp River, and over to the Stehekin Valley, then across Cascade Pass to the Skagit Valley region, where they traded with coastal Indians.
      We know from details in the 1993 paper, Sharing the Skagit: An Educator's Guide to the Skagit River Watershed, by the North Cascades Institute of Sedro-Woolley, that fur traders, many of them French via Canada, crossed back and forth individually searching for beaver and other pelts.
      The famous Canadian explorer David Thompson did not explore the North Cascades range when he conducted his landmark expedition of the Columbia river in 1811, but Scotsman Alexander Ross Observed Thompson carefully and decided to cross the mountains to the north in 1814. Ross became the first Euro-American to launch an expedition across the pass. After marrying an Indian woman, Ross set out in July and August, that year, but his exact route has never been determined because of a paucity of notes or a diary. We do know that he crossed Cascade Pass, descended down along the Cascade river to the junction of the Skagit river, and then turned around and returned to Fort Okanogan instead of proceeding to the Puget Sound. He did note that Indians traditionally packed hemp for their fellows on the west side of the mountains to trade for seashells and other trinkets.
      During the brief Fraser River (British Columbia) gold rush of 1858, Port Townsend pioneer J.J. Van Bokkelen [4] led a small group up the Skagit river as far as the Cascade river but did not cross Cascade Pass. The Northern Pacific Railroad sponsored the next substantial expedition when the company was still seeking a western terminus. In May 1870, Linsley proceeded up the Skagit river via the south fork, assisted by the young mining engineer and journalist, Frank Wilkeson [5]. This was the first fully documented survey; during a two-month period they explored the watersheds of the Skagit and Cascade rivers, toured the Sauk river area and crossed Cascade Pass to explore the Twisp and Stehekin river systems and Lake Chelan.

(Linsley route 1870)
The Linsley route, 1870. Courtesy of Civil Engineering magazine, June 1932, Vol. 2, No. 6.

Pierce leads 1882 expedition
      Pierce departed from Fort Colville, at Kettle Falls in far-northern Washington Territory on Aug. 1, 1882. His party included Assistant Surgeon George F. Wilson, Topographical Assistant Alfred Downing, 1stLt George B. Backus, Jr. [6], guide Joe LaFleur, two sergeants, four privates, a musician, a packer, fourteen mules, and fifteen horses. They departed from Fort Colville on August 1. His orders outlined a route up the Okanogan and Methow Rivers and to proceed to the head of Lake Chelan and thence, if practicable, cross the mountains to Skagit River and pass down the river to Puget Sound.

(Pierce route map)
The Pierce Route, 1882. Courtesy of Seattle Times, 2002.

      The party spent 22 days advancing from the east to Cascade Pass. As they approached the pass, Pierce noted in his diary:
      As I gazed westward from a height of 6850 feet above the sea, and 5800 feet above the lake, a scene of remarkable grandeur was presented. To the south and west, were the rugged peaks of the Cascade Mountains covered with everlasting snow. At our feet, reposed [Lake] Chelan, in color like an artificial lake of thick plate-glass; While the Pierce River [the Stehekin River] brought its clay-tinted waters with many a winding down the narrow canyon that opened to the north [west]. No painter could place the view on canvas, and be believed.
      Downing was not such a painter, but his drawings illustrated aspects of the wilderness that still dominated the Territory.
      [Aug. 27] . . . is low and comparatively easy of approach from the east, but westward the descent is at first rapid and precarious . . . the path wound its uncertain way for three miles through an entangled growth of trailing alders, over seven feet high; emerging from which, we came upon the margin of a creek, in and out of whose waters, the footway led us blindly for a considerable distance.
      A century later, Harry M. Majors wrote:
      Local Indians refused to believe that Pierce and his company of men had arrived on the Cascade River from the summit: "The old man [Indian] apparently 70 years of age, claiming that he had never seen a white man go or come that way, and that it was impossible for any one but an Indian to keep the trail." [7]
      As Luxenberg reports:
      Pierce noted that the existing Indian trail was "exceedingly serpentine and difficult to meander in all its countless bearings," and the party frequently climbed adjacent slopes to avoid dense undergrowth. After several days of hiking Pierce sensed he was near the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit Rivers and sent Backus and LaFleur ahead to locate Indians willing to lead the entire exploring party down the Skagit River to Puget Sound. . . .
      Pierce bartered the party's three government horses for a canoe ride downriver to Mount Vernon, where the party could obtain a steamboat to Puget Sound. After an exhilarating journey down the Skagit in swiftly gliding canoes, Pierce was motivated to write, "The Skagit is a beautiful stream, often reminding the traveler of some charming tree-fringed river in New England."

      We know that the expedition party visited Jesse Beriah Ball's logging camp and general store at Sterling because Downing sketched the scene and Pierce recorded the visit in his trip diary. The camp and very small village stood on the west shore horseshoe bend of Skagit, west of where Mortimer Cook settled in 1884 and built his store and home in 1884 — the future site of Sedro. Pierce recorded Sterling as:
      . . . a mere logging-camp but a paradise just the same, the ravenous men ate bountiful suppers before retiring amidst the 109 stumps of the "town" [Luxenberg]
      The upshot of Pierce's final report to his ultimate superior, General of the Army and Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, was that he could not recommend the route from Fort Colville to Puget Sound, via the Skagit river, as a feasible rail route. Sherman responded:
      . . . little is known of the Region of Country between the Upper Columbia and Puget's Sound. Further Explorations will be made, and publication of the information gained should be made, as it is to the national interest that the timber and minerals of that Region should be brought within the reach of the Emigrants who will throng to Oregon and Washington Territory as soon as the Northern Pacific Railroad is completed.
      Sherman toured much of the same route in 1883 as one of his last official acts of his 14-year term as Army chief. As Jerry Smith notes:
      [Sherman] crossed the northern part of the county during a farewell tour preceding his retirement. John Marshall has extensively reported this foray in "General Sherman Passed This Way." Arriving with General Sherman at Osoyoos Lake, Lt. George B. Backus, who had accompanied Pierce, was ordered to try again for a railroad pass, and up the Methow he went. [His] was the last of the military exploring parties. [8]
      Regarding the second goal of the expedition, Pierce reported that he believed that the mountain range was a great enough physical barrier to prevent the eastern and coastal Indian tribes from ever becoming allies and effectively threatening settlements on the west side of the pass.
(Old Fort Colville)
Old Fort Colville, Alfred Downing, 1882. Courtesy of Ned M. Barnes Northwest Room Digital Collections, Spokane Public Library.

Subsequent surveys
      Back in February 1881, a Montreal-based syndicate that included James J. Hill began pushing westward across Canada to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), a transcontinental line. By 1887, Hill was advancing westwards with his own line that would become the Great Northern Railroad [GNR]. Hill fielded a reconnaissance party during the summer of 1887, led by Albert Bowman Rogers, a stern taskmaster who members accused of nearly starving their earlier party.
      Rogers had a knack for discovering mountain passes, often aided by local Indian tribes who showed his various parties their trading routes. A Yale-trained engineer, Rogers originally surveyed the U.S. prairies for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. In 1881 Hill hired Rogers to find a route through the Selkirk and Rocky Mountains, which he successfully crossed in 1882, receiving a cash award from CPR.
      In the spring of 1887 Hill assigned Rogers to search for a pass over the Continental Divide and located such a prospective pass in Montana. Although the GNR eventually selected Marias Pass, 100 miles to the north, GNR named Rogers Pass in Montana for the surveyor, just as the Canadian pass was earlier named for him. Decades later Rogers Pass in Montana became the route of Montana Highway 200, the highway route between Great Falls and Missoula.
      That summer, Hill assigned Rogers to survey the upper Lake Chelan region to find a railroad route through the mountains and via the Skagit River. Luxenberg records that Hill was adamant about building his rail line along the Skagit River and sent Rogers exploring numerous routes in the Cascades hoping one would lead to the Skagit drainage. In July, during exploration, Rogers noted in his diary that, after climbing an unknown peak to view his surroundings, he observed Sauk River, Bridge Creek forks (North Fork and main branch) and "mountain peaks." Rogers learned from a member of his party, a Lake Chelan settler named W.L. Sanders, that Bridge Creek was the route the Indians traveled to the Skagit river from the Methow/Twisp region.
      Rogers retreated down-valley and returned to the head of the lake and to Chelan. Rogers later completed his search for a feasible railroad route through the North Cascades with a journey across the Cascades divide and then down the Skagit and Sauk Rivers, south of today's National Park. He noted in a letter addressed to Hill dated Oct. 7, 1887:

      This route leads wt [west?] to the Indian and Ward's passes-(which are only 2 miles apart)-and is the only route connecting the Skagit with the Wenatchee [River]. Besides being much longer it is not so favorable as the route via the Skykomish [which Rogers explored earlier].The avalanches on the western slope are fearful. [9]
      Fred Beckey, a specialist about the North Cascades past and present explains that:
      Hubert C. Ward in September 1872 surveyed south of Indian Pass and reached Ward's Pass, then ventured east into the Cady fork of Wenatchee. During surveying for the Great Northern Railroad in September 1887, Albert B. Rogers traveled the Sauk to Indian Pass and found survey evidence (diary in Rogers's Papers). He noted that there was a fear of the upper Sauk among Indians and that only four knew the route (p. 91); he felt Indian Pass was the only Skagit to Wenatchee route, but that it was not as good as the [Skykomish river route to the south]. [10]


1. Pierce Report
      Report of an expedition from Fort Colville to Puget Sound, Washington Territory, August and September, 1882, made by First Lieut. Henry H. Pierce. Under the orders of Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, small exploring expedition across North Central Washington from Old Fort Colville, in what is now Stevens County, to Puget Sound via Lake Chelan and the Skagit River. Washington. Govt. Print. Off., 1883.
      Also see the story of how Pierce found gold-bearing quartz west of Cascade Pass in the Eldorado Peak area. [Return]

2. Luxenberg series
      Historic Resource Study, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Washington. Early impressions: Euro-American explorations and surveys. Gretchen Luxenberg. [Return]

3. Nisbet
      "Boundaries" column by Jack Nisbet, April 2012: "Sketching the New World: The Art of Alfred Downing." Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. [Return]


4. Van Bokkelen
      See this Journal profile of Van Bokkelen. [Return]

5. Frank Wilkeson and Linsley expedition
      See this Journal story about the 1870 expedition, with a link there to a biography of Linsley and of Wilkeson.
      Also see this National Parks service site. [Return]

6. 1stLt George B. Backus, Jr.
      Do not confuse him with Cascades homesteader Fred Backus and the Backus Ranger Station in Marblemount. [Return]

7. Harry M. Majors
      Harry M. Majors, editor. An Army Expedition Across the North Cascades in August 1882. [Return]

8. Jerry Smith re: Gen. Sherman
      Jerry Smith, "General Sherman passed this way". Okanogan County Heritage, June, 1967. [Return]

9. Rogers expedition
      Albert Bowman Rogers, Papers 1857-1889. Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington, re: July 6, 1887. and Luxenberg report, see above. [Return]

10. Fred W. Beckey
      Fred W. Beckey's 2003 book, Cascade Alpine Guide: Climbing and High Routes. [Return]

See Part Two of this story, focusing on the sketches of Alfred Downing and subsequent railroad
surveys of the Cascade Pass region.

Story posted Sept. 30, 2013
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