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Skagit River Journal

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Otto K. Pressentin recalls "that flood of 1897"

Otto Presssentin, British Columbia, 1911

By Otto. K. von Pressentin, Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times, May 1, 1958
      The stories you have published recently about the flood of the Skagit during the summer of 1897 were interesting to me because I was in it to a certain extent.
      I was teaching school at Marblemount at. that time and boarding with the William Barrett [Barratt in most records] family on the east side of the river while the school house on the west side on the low river flat below the level of Marblemount proper. Just about a hundred feet south of the present highway bridge there. The Barrett family owned end operated a cable ferry there.
      Just after 4 p.m. (pupils kept at their lessons those days until that hour, and were not out at 2 p.m.) Mr. Barrett [crossed] his three children, the Witham children and myself.

Otto saves the books
      The next morning, early, the river was bank full and still rising. I knew there was water already in the school house and it could spoil all the pupils' books as well as my dictionary and other reference books (everyone furnished their own books in those days) so I got into a canoe with a good canoe-pole and paddle to cross the river to the school house, the current being entirely too swift for-the ferry. I wanted to save all the pupils' books and my reference books and the school bell.
(Indian canoe)
This photo of an Indian canoe near Marblemount was taken by Darius Kinsey of Sedro-Woolley and appeared in Sebring's Illustrated magazine in 1902.

      Arriving at the school house I [unreadable] I had to put all my weight to the odd side of the canoe to tip it low to the water, then put my arm into the water up to part of my shoulder to reach down to the door knob to open the door. Then I had to lie down flat into the bottom of the canoe as there was just room enough between the top of the water and heading of the door casting to get the canoe into the house.
      Once in I pulled desk after floating desk to me, piling their contents into the canoe. I worked as fast as I could and got out again because there was no telling but what the house would start down stream at any moment and both I canoe would be trapped inside. Then came the job of getting back across the river to my boarding place. It was a real warm day and I had to work that canoe upstream about two hundred-yards against that zooming current, through willows and low hanging tree limbs that made hissing sounds in that rushing water. I made that distance in an hour, grabbed a limb and hung on for some time to catch my breath and rest. I found my watch had been whipped out of my pocket by brush and lost for keeps in the river.
      Then I took my paddle in one hand while hanging to a limb with the other and made a quick, strong pull on the limb, swinging the canoe out, and paddled for the opposite shore five hundred feet away and reached it about eleven hundred feet further down stream. I was wetter with sweat than a Texas steer would be after a stampede. on a hot day.
      The water was a lot lower in a couple of days but after a couple of the directors looked the building and soggy desks over they ordered a two week vacation. Besides everything being water-soaked there was eighteen inches of gooey mud over the whole floor.

An early Marblemount ferry

      The water was up to the top sash of the store but the building did not move though it leaned over downstream a lot. The mud was eighteen inches deep in it top. And believe it or not, that storekeeper and postmaster had not shoveled it out yet in March of the next year. His name was Chas. Simpson.
      Since school was closed, I decided to go for a visit to my parents at Birdsview. Putting some cedar timbers together with spikes, I made a small raft and started down the river. I put on a pair of high topped rubber boots to keep my feet dry from likely splashing water, and coming through The Dalles, the swirling cross currents overran my raft so much that the water came within about two inches of the tops of my high boots. But I kept the raft on an even keel by shifting my weight from one foot to the other until I got into smoother water. Then, as I .floated down through the bend known as "Cape Horn," between Birdsview and the Rock Cut. I saw my raft was going to be drawn into a big whirlpool.
      I quickly got down on the raft on my belly and hung onto the raft with both hands as it floated on the whirlpool. I could look through the cracks down about eight feet into that funnel as it spun the raft round and round for a couple of minutes then threw it out into smooth flowing water. I stopped at my folks's place overnight [Karl and Minnie von Pressentin on the south shore opposite Birdsview],then got on the raft again just to float down to Hamilton up some. I saw the [Great Northern] railroad rails with the ties on them floated up and dropped over stumps seven or eight feet high. (This story will soon be changed to this address. If neither file connects, please email us.)
      An uncle of mine with his wife and family [A.V. Pressentin (This story will soon be changed to this address. If neither file connects, please email us.)] were then living on the ranch at Rockport in a two story house near the river bank. My uncle was away from home at the time of the flood and my aunt never had any idea the river could get so big in a few hours, [unreadable] as caught in the house in the night and found water over all the lower floor. She started to carry everything she could handle including the children upstairs. The water got four feet or more deep on the first floor and the current, being blocked in its flow, started to wash the ground away from in under the house. It. washed down to a depth of about five feet under fully one-third of the foundation area. But the house did not move. They sure had .a lucky escape.
      When my uncle came home and saw what had happened he lost no time in moving the house away from the river, on much higher ground on which he continued to live and founded the village of Rockport.

(Hamilton flood)
      Paul Dorpat cleaned up this photo, which is dated 1898 and supposedly depicts the aftermath of the 1896 flood. The ID for it could be mistaken because it is hard to imagine that the damage from the flood was still in this state two years later. Regardless, the photo bears excellent witness to the wrath of the floods of 1896-97 to towns that were located on the shore of the Skagit River, such as Hamilton, Sauk City and old Sedro. The view is to the west. Note the drift logs over the street, what every sternwheeler pilot dreaded ramming into. The street was aptly named Water Street and part of it is now in the river. The buildings are long gone. Fred Slipper does not remember any of them still standing when he was a child in the 1920s. This is what Otto would have seen in his tour above.

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Story posted April 3, 2006, moved to this domain Nov. 6, 2011
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