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Skagit River Journal

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Memories of the 1909 Flood


(Hamilton flood 1896)
      The scene above was repeated many times and places all over the county in 1909. This photo has been published before but until we studied photos in the University of Washington system and found this one, we could not determine the date or details of the flood. The scene is on Water street in Hamilton, which is now, in 2009, at the very edge of the north shore of the Skagit river or possibly underwater. If you go to that location today at the foot of Cumberland street, south of present-day Hamilton, you will find gravel and potholes and a great view across the river of second-growth forest where the South Hamilton School once stood. The flood of 1896 surely inflicted damage like this and the 1897 was even more destructive to Hamilton and the upriver town of Sauk City, which was literally swept into the river.
      The photographer was looking almost due west. Note two interesting items in the photo. One is the building at the center, the third fašade toward the rear. That resembles the Yellowstone Bar and Hotel, owned by Peter Jacobino, where Marshal Jake Woodring would be murdered on the sidewalk five years later. The other landmark is the pole at the left center, which was for either telegraph or electric power lines. We hope that a reader can determine its purpose. It surely was not for a telephone line because that service would not come until 1909 when druggist James Smith and the Quackenbush sisters brought telephone service to Hamilton. We also hope that a reader can tell us who took the photo.
      One might ask why the damaged buildings still stood two years later. We surmise the reason to be that Hamilton was suffering from the collapse of a boom and the hopes for mines on Coal Mountain and Iron Mountain on the south shore of the river. The country went through a crushing Depression in 1893-96 that was especially hard on frontier boomtowns such as Hamilton, which just seven years before was touted in newspapers as far away as New York City as the "Pittsburgh of the West." Maybe Jacobino and the other property owners left the shattered hulk of the flood-damaged buildings just as they were when the flood swept through on Nov. 16, 1896. As always, we are grateful to Larry Kunzler and his book, Skagit River Valley, the Disaster Waiting to Happen. We hope that readers may have in their family collections a newspaper article that will reveal more about Water Street and that 1896 flood.


By Lloyd Seabury, Skagit Valley Herald , unknown date
      We listened to the storm outside and to the sudden gusts of wind that shook the old house. I lowered a piece of clothes line out of the window with a lead weight on the end to measure the flood water.
      Father asked, "How fast is the water rising?" I said, "About an inch in the past half hour." I watched that night by the open window, logs and brush and flood. scum of various kinds drift by and finally, I could make out the grunting form of our pigs swimming back and forth and around the house and finding no place to cast their feet.
      At intervals, chinook winds roared out of the southeast driving, warm, melting rains before them, then died to a whisper in the rippling and wash of water up against the house.
      Sometimes father stood by that upstairs window, too, looking and listening. There wasn't anything else we could do except hope soon the weather would change. He seemed to be taking the storm and flood calmly and was not as disturbed as I was. The sounds coming out of the night bothered me most of all.
      I worried I'd lose my two-year old Morgan colt — thoughts, as I look back now might have been selfish ones. I should have been more concerned for the safety of the milk-cows, the basis of our farm living. The cattle bawled part of the time in unison, a mixture of high and low-pitched sounds, while the horses neighed frightening cries and the pawing and stamping never sh4ed. The water must be up to their bel1ies by now. I was thankful that the barn floor was several feet above the ground level.
      It happened during the flood of 1909, Father and I batched that winter at the old ranch house. He called me his bull-cook. I was all of that and more. I cooked and helped milk the cows, kept house and rode by saddle-horse to school. I was sixteen, the youngest of a family scattered to many homes and professions. Now, when I thought of the mud collecting downstairs on mother's range, the pride of all her housekeeping, and of the disorder in her once immaculate kitchen, the shambles outside our home.
      I wondered how I could wish her back under the present circumstances. How I missed her! I realized her contribution to the well being of our home, even small things important to a hungry boy, like the cooking — good smells coming from that wood range down stairs.
      Then I thought about a conversation I had overheard between father and mother. She wanted a new home built away from the flood area somewhere on the uplands. There was a mild argument as to when, and if, we could afford the new buildings. Why not sell the forty to the neighbor who wanted to buy it? Mother wanted the house painted white, a long front porch with a latticed railing where she would plant climbing nasturtiums and have a suitable place to raise her moss roses. I had never mentioned to anyone what I had overheard — this little difference of opinion in the lives of the two people I dearly loved.
      Listening to the storm, father seemed to be in a moody and reminiscent state of mind. I thought be might be recalling other crises in his lifetime shared with his mate for so many years. They had homesteaded in Nebraska. Now, alter those rugged years, they pioneered In Washington. Lately, when I could get him to tell the stories — I liked to hear more of his pioneer experiences on the plains — father a quiet, stoical man often caught up in his own thoughts. Once that night he read his Bible and prayed for all I know but not from fear of the threatening aspects of the moment. He read by habit each day, a solace lost to me in a younger generation and the hurrying years to follow. The pioneers were not a breed of men to scare easily. Every storm and hardship was a part of the life they understood very well.
      Ascendant memories had been in my mind all night of my mother, howls of the coyotes. It was for both an unforgettable trip to a sod shanty, but to a clean, new land — their land. The chinook winds bad been taking turns all night in battering ram thrusts against the old frame house. How long would the cedar-block foundation hold? In the tardy morning hours which never seemed to come there were finally signs of a break in the storm. In the wan light of a half-moon and the coming daylight, black and ragged clouds ran ahead of the winds.
      Sometimes in this lull of the morning weather the soft, chinook air caressed the skin on the face like the warm touch of a woman's breath and yet, at intervals, blew with fury and velocity to reach the peaks and glaciers to the far Northeast. We had seen many floods before. The river came up over our bottomland. Logs shifted with the currents from one neighbor's land to that of another but there had been higher floods in the '80's [actually the 1890sxx]. Indians had told the first settlers of paddling their canoes from mountain to mountain.
      Through breaks in the clouds up the valley we could see white blankets of snow on Mt. Sauk — we had no reason to doubt the stories of the Indians and felt as trapped as the animals in the barn. We wished we had one of those Indian canoes tied to our upstairs window. I measured the flood water finding more territory to spread across the lower valley and to the salt-flats
      At last a subdued and mist-filled daylight settled over our world at water and half-submerged buildings and fences and stumps. A mountain beaver drifted slowly by riding a slab at burned cedar that appeared to be dry on top. Beehives floated everywhere. I thought of all the wasted honey, the homesteader's sugar and of the cooking,. mother's honey cookies and hob cakes and honey shared with other sweet-starved neighbors.


(Flood Clear Lake bridge)
      This photo has been published before with a suggestion that this was a scene of the Clear Lake bridge during the 1909 flood. That cannot be because the Thompson Bridge was not erected until 1912. We do think, however, that this is a photo of the bridge during a flood not long after that. We think we are looking north, with the Joseph Hart home in the distance, but perhaps a reader can help us identify the scene and year.

Recalling stories about back home in Nebraska
      I thought of the stories describing his early years on the Nebraska prairies. Perhaps now, as he listened to the wash of the water against the old frame and the bumping of logs or to s ping, picket fences made from the beautiful, straight cedar around our place, and then, from the sounds coming from the ham — he could also be thinking of Nebraska. in the 1880s. Of sod shanties and of the great blizzard of 1888. Times when you lost all of your stock if you were unable to drive them along the fenceline to the barn against the blast of freezing sleet. You had to grip a rope, hand by hand, from the house to the barn. Away from it a minute and you were lost in the blinding snowstorm. Fuel? Picking up buffalo chips and twisting swamp-grass when you had a few minutes to spare. Neighbors? A few surely, wandering tribes of the .Pawnees until the first white settlers came to build their sod houses within sight across the lonely plains.
      But most interesting to me he told of his good memories as well. Supplies dumped miles from the site of the homestead by one of the first Westbound trains and the thrills of hauling the precious cargo over the rolling land covered with wild white and red roses, He would remember best his pretty wife of sixteen and of her first impression and delight when she saw the roses and other wild flowers and of the fragrance in the prairie air.
      Life was an adventure unaware of the future — youth bumping along in that first old, lumber wagon — . honeymoon journey to an unknown destiny. For the young bride the wild flowers were not the only enchantment of the prairie grasslands, but to her, the strange animal and bird life, the foolishly tam, prairie hens, the prairie dogs barking from their burrow-like mounds and from the far ridges the startled [text missing].

(Flood 1909)
This photo shows the damage to the railroad tracks between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley during the 1909 flood. Barbara Halliday, a descendant of the von Pressentin family, found this postcard. If you click on the photo, you can see what was written by a family member on the reverse, indicating that Charles Pressention, son of Karl von Pressentin, is standing on the right. Back in those days, photographers used to take your photo and print it on postcards of lots of 100 or more and then sell them to you or at retail or both.

      In the growing daylight, father and I pondered the uncertainly of storm and weather and farming, when suddenly the front end of a big dug-out hove to around the corner of the house, neighbors looking in on neighbors, Early Van Fleet and Frank Kirby.
      Earl could run a canoe as well as any Indian. He had paddled through trees and logs and every kind of drift to reach our flooded home. His pioneer father [Emmett Van Fleet: http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/NearbyS-W/Skiyou/VanFleet/VanFleet02-ElizaDAR1928.html], listening carefully to Indian friends had built on high ground. Now Earl had found pasture-land above flood water. We could swim our stock to safety for the present at least.
      A whinnied chorus from the horses greeted us when we slid the door open into the barn. From the prow of the dug-out we eased down into three feet of water to lead the horses from their stalls, nervous but willing to follow us anywhere. When they stepped away from the barn they were swimming, trailing alongside the canoe to dry land.
      No trouble. Good horse sense but not so with the stubborn cattle. The cows had long horns, convenient handles to grab when they tried to jump into the canoe. We had to push them down into the water and guide them through floating logs and brush, Finally, with Frank Kirby busy wtth a pike-pole shoving logs away, one by one the cows were moved to higher ground.
      The wind had died to a dry rustle among the leafless trees through which we paddled to our neighbor's house. The wind was shifting slowly to the north, an arctic movement of air that would give us freezing, bitter cold weather for two weeks. Already the gray water had begun to leave a narrow receding line on the mud-coated trees.
      Father, still in a reflective mood said: "You know I have been thinking of your mother all night," he paused for a moment. "She wanted me to sell the East Forty and build a new home on high land — and you know she was usually right about everything.


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Story posted on Oct. 28, 2009. . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine



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