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Samuel Simpson Tingley,
his pioneer Skagit family
and the Mercer Girls

(Elizabeth and Samuel Tingley, circa 1900)
Elizabeth and Samuel Tingley, circa 1900

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, 2006
Part 1 of 2

Samuel Simpson Tingley left his mark all over Skagit County. Literally. He blazed trails and cruised timber sections for banks and leading logging companies. Dick Fallis points out that Samuel built boats and ferries and raised many that had sunk on the river, drawing on his experience with the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, he shoed hundreds of horses for pioneers. He was one of many pioneers who hailed from Maine and New Brunswick, but he came to Washington Territory earlier than almost all the others from that far corner, first helping building a boat in Washington Territory in 1859. And his descendants continued his tradition by becoming pilots on the Skagit River when technology advanced from sternwheelers to tugboats. In addition, his second wife and his daughters were pioneers in the medical field. He also entered the regional historic record when he married one of the "Mercer Girls" of 1866.
      We have hesitated profiling this most interesting man and his family until we had verifiable details of their very early days. Those were supplied when Clarice Tingley published her book, Wildcat, a River and its Family, and most recently when Jack and Evelyn Tingley loaned us a series of books by the Tingley Family Association (referenced hereafter as the Family Record). Members of the association are descendants of Palmer Tingley who sailed from England in 1635 on the ship Planter, and arrived in Massachusetts on April 8, 1635. Tingley is a town name in Yorkshire, England, but no one named Tingley lives there any more. He landed in Charlestown, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later lived in Ipswich. The will of his assumed widow, Anna Barrett, led Tingley family researchers to the rest of the American Tingley family. The first Samuel in America was Palmer and Anna's eldest son. His family seems to have centered on Charlestown, Massachusetts.
      John Calvin Tingley, Palmer's (four greats) grandson was born in Grand Falls, Andover Parish, Victoria Co., New Brunswick, in 1801 and he married Sophia Boline there in 1911. His father, Josiah Tingley, was also born in New Brunswick and three of John's brothers served in the War of 1812, one of whom served on the British side. Sometime after the war, John moved to Aroostook County, Maine. The Aroostook River flows east and north from northeast Maine to the Saint John River, which flows along the international boundary. John raised his family north of the Aroostook River on the Saint John at the village Violet Brook, now named Van Buren. Samuel S. Tingley was born there on Feb. 12, 1836, two years before the Aroostook War — also known as the Pork and Beans War, broke out between Maine and New Brunswick, which was then a British colony. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 had not satisfactorily determined the boundary but the war was bloodless.
      Violet Brook was known foremost for its gristmill and Aroostook, the largest county east of the Mississippi, was already becoming known for its potatoes, the largest crop in Maine. The first potatoes arrived in America in 1621 when Captain Nathanial Butler, the governor of Bermuda, sent two cases of vegetables to Francis Wyatt, governor of Jamestown, Virginia. Irish immigrants began to cultivate the potatoes extensively throughout North America, starting near Londonderry, New Hampshire. About 40 miles to the southwest, another early Skagit Valley pioneer, Amasa "Peg-Leg" Everett, was also born near the Aroostook River 11 years before Samuel Tingley. Everett migrated to the valley in 1873 via Minnesota and in 1874, he discovered coal on the mountain across the Skagit River from Hamilton just hours before a boulder mangled his leg. He and his son Leonard went on to become the earliest settlers of Grasmere, now western Concrete. We have not yet found a connection between Tingley and Everett.
      John C. Tingley was a farmer in Maine and a ship builder, the profession that his son Samuel would eventually follow. Although he received a land grant in New Brunswick in 1858, he eventually followed Samuel out West in an unknown year. Young Samuel, the eldest of seven children, lived with his parents until age ten when he was "bound out to learn the trade of machinist," according to the tree prepared for the Family Record. He spent two years learning his trade in a shop and then two years learning about steam engines and then shipped out while a teenager for deep water work.
      The next record we have for Samuel is a stint in Washington Territory where he helped build the revenue cutter, I.I. Stevens, named in honor of the first Territorial Governor. In 1861, he decided to ship back home to attend a military school. Upon his arrival in Maine, he fell in with the Tenth Maine Infantry Regiment at Eastport and quickly enlisted to fight in the Civil War. With his experience and training, he was soon transferred to the Corps of Engineers and also served with the Secret Service at the end of the war, in 1865. After he was mustered out, he spent a year or so in Pennsylvania and in 1866 he decided to return to Washington Territory.


Samuel crosses path of the Mercer Girls
(Young Asa Mercer)
Young Asa Mercer

      At that point, Samuel Tingley crossed paths with another fascinating early Northwest character, Asa Shinn Mercer (1839-1917). They may have met back in 1860-61 in Washington Territory, but we have not yet made the connection. We only briefly summarize Mercer's biography here because we are preparing a full profile for an upcoming, but the "Mercer Girls" story played a very large part in Samuel's settling in the Skagit River valley. We want to tweak some of the legends and myths about this most important Western pioneer and correct some of the most obvious errors in accounts about him. The most important fact we want to emphasize is that Mercer's second trip — with Samuel's bride-to-be — occurred in 1866, not in 1867 as the Tingley Family Record claims or in 1868, as many online sources claim.
      Asa S. Mercer was the younger brother of Thomas Mercer, who was a drover for the wagon train that left his hometown of Princeton, Illinois, in 1852 and he wound up in the tiny village of Seattle that fall, along with other key pioneers of the city, including clergyman Daniel Bagley and future-banker Dexter Horton. Asa was the youngest of 14 children born to Aaron and Jane (Dickerson) Mercer, Ohio natives who had moved to Illinois and died when Asa when age ten. He joined his older brother Thomas in Seattle 1861, where Thomas had made a very big splash and would become even more famous for naming Lake Union and Lake Washington. Asa was one of the most educated of the pioneers, having graduated from Franklin College in New Athens Ohio, after attending with aid of funds bequeathed from his parents (not other Franklin Colleges that have been referenced). Ten acres of land had been set aside in the vicinity of present 4th and 5th avenues for a territorial university and Asa helped survey the present downtown area and set about with other young pioneers to clear the stumps that remained after the forest on the hill had been felled.
      When the site was ready and a crude building erected, his former neighbor, Daniel Bagley, appointed Asa the first instructor of the university, which in reality was a glorified high school. The school opened on Nov. 4, 1861, with 30 students in one room, with Mercer working as the only faculty member as well as the janitor. By March 1863, funding dried up and the total of students dropped to five, so "President" Mercer shut the school without formalities. It reopened six months later and has been open ever since.
      As the Civil War raged on the East Coast and in the South, Mercer hired two Indians and a canoe and traveled 400 miles, visiting logging camps from Bellingham to Olympia in search of students. As Lawrence M. Woods wrote in his Mercer biography, Seattle, Western Promoter and Newspaperman, 1839-1917, Mercer received a federal appointment as Immigration Commissioner for Washington Territory in 1863 after leaving the school. In all these efforts, one simple fact stood out to the lonely young man: a 9-to-1 imbalance of men to women. Just as with the fledgling university, Mercer again became a one-man band, this time as a marriage broker, keenly aware that the only way to civilize the rough and rowdy village and territory was to bring wives for the young bachelors. Mercer was aware of the possible criticism that his plan would look unseemly, so he emphasized that the women who were sought would not only have opportunities for matrimony. He emphasized that they would be encouraged to become teachers and would also have the opportunity to fill positions that Puget Sound Herald (Steilacoom) editor Charles Prosch listed in a March 12, 1858, editorial about the matter: most importantly as teachers, but also as milliners, dressmakers, cooks and hotel and boarding-house keepers.
      That editorial was followed by other such articles and a public meeting at Delin & Shorey's Building in Seattle on Feb. 24, 1860. This activity and Prosch's original treatment of the need were apparently partially inspired by another frontier problem, in some people's eyes, that was discussed in earlier 1858 editorial that appeared in the True Democrat of Little Rock, Arkansas: "the white folks of Oregon, having no white women to choose from, are marrying Indian squaws." Prosch pointed out the dangers "certain to follow from intermarriages," but no matter how many brides were enticed to move to the West, pioneer men would still intermarry until the matter came to a head in the late 1880s when the Territory sought statehood.
      The late Murray C. Morgan described in his 1960 book, Skid Road, how Mercer traveled back East to Lowell, Massachusetts, formerly a bustling textile-manufacturing town, but was now the home hundreds of young unmarried women who were jobless during the depression that had resulted during the war because of dwindling supplies of cotton from the south. The young single ladies also outnumbered single men in the town due to heavy casualties in the state's regiments during the war

      . . . there Mercer found eleven virgins willing to forsake the land of the cod. They traveled from New York, crossed the Panama Isthmus, rested briefly in San Francisco (where some enterprising Californians tried to talk the maidens into easing that region's shortage of pure females) and went by schooner to the Sound. They debarked at Yesler's wharf about midnight, May 16, 1864, and were welcomed by a delegation headed by Doc Maynard.
      Note here that the first trip took only two months after the ship departed Massachusetts in March 1864. The girls arrived at Puget Sound on two different lumber boats, which first landed at Port Gamble, so we can imagine the shouts of joy that erupted at the Pope & Talbot mill there. In hindsight, the most important of the passengers was the oldest spinster from Lowell, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Ordway, 35, who never married after arriving in the territory and was quite proud of that, expressing her intention instead to bestow her attention on students. She became the first public-school teacher in Seattle and the first superintendent in Kitsap County and later became a leading suffragette when she hosted Susan B. Anthony and joined Seattle pioneer Sarah Yesler in starting the Female Suffrage Society. The historically most important male passenger was Daniel Pearson, who became a lighthouse keeper on Puget Sound and then founded the town of Stanwood in 1878.
      Although Mercer hardly satisfied all the eager young bachelors, the men in the region rewarded Asa by electing him to one term in the upper house of the territorial legislature, even though he never campaigned for the office. He also assembled an 1865 tract, The Washington Territory: The Great North-West, Her Material Resources and Claims to Emigration, which became the first of many promotional pieces distributed all over the country to encourage new settlers and businesses around Elliott Bay. Flush with success, legislator Mercer decided to return again to the East in March 1865 and this time bring at least 500 potential brides, since the numbers of unmarried young women had skyrocketed. He raised funds from eager would-be-husbands, but as he would discover sadly over the next year, he did not raise anywhere near enough.


Lincoln assassination complicates Mercer's plan
      Time after time, events tested Mercer's indomitable spirit. First of all, he arrived on the East Coast on April 14, 1865, and hours later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. As Mercer explained decades later in his book, The Banditti of the Plains, he had once as a child sat on the lap of Congressman Abe Lincoln. We have not confirmed, but some writers have implied that Lincoln had already given the green light to the second expedition. Two different influential newspapers responded in diametrically different fashion. One was very favorable, as witnessed in a story in the Sept. 30, 1865, edition of the New York Times. In that issue, Washington Territory Governor William Pickering presented Mercer's bona fides and hope abounded.
      The article described how Mercer barely skipped a beat after reading about the assassination, immediately meeting with the governor of Massachusetts and explaining his plan to take "150 families" West, "on the condition that the passage-money of all persons should be paid by themselves, but that plentiful work would be found for them in the Territory at specified wages. He traveled through Massachusetts, distributed circulars embodying his plan, and held many conferences with varying prospects but not positive success." Mercer went on to promise to personally "provide the provisions for the emigrants while on their way to the Pacific, as well as to procure them homes, if the government would furnish a vessel manned and coaled for the purpose." Satisfied that the plan was legitimate, the governor supplied a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, attesting to Mercer's high character.
      Mercer decided to not meet with Stanton, however, because of advice from an unnamed source that Stanton was unapproachable, so he decided instead to appeal to the recent war hero, Gen. U.S. Grant, for a suitable ship to transport the hundreds of single women to the Northwest. Grant served at Fort Vancouver between the Mexican War and the Civil War and Mercer asked a Grant aide whom he knew personally, a Colonel Bowers, to help arrange for a ship.
      Grant was impressed enough with the young Mercer's plan that he personally introduced it to the new president, Andrew Johnson. We read in Hunt and Kaylor's 1917 book, Washington West of the Cascades, the details of what transpired at the highest level. According to their report, Grant presented the plan to the president and his Congress and a half hour later he had their approval, as long as Grant would assume the risk. With Grant's authorization in hand, Mercer headed to the Quartermaster Corps for what he assumed was the last step in the process.
      But Hunt and Kaylor detailed how Mercer was foiled again, just as assumed he was snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Mercer was third in line at the Quartermaster, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs. Meigs has been enshrined as one of the most scrupulous and honest men ever appointed to the position, one of Lincoln's finest appointments, known best for his requisition of General Lee's home for the Arlington Cemetery. He personally oversaw contracts and interviewed applicants. Unfortunately for Mercer, a man two places ahead of him in line had already double-billed Meigs for the same horse and was back to try it again. When Meigs recognized him he flew into a rage. By the time Meigs saw Grant's order, he refused to sign it, declaring the scheme illegal.
      Up in Massachusetts, girls and families were still signing up for the voyage, but Mercer had to cool his heels in Washington, casting about for any solution as his funds dwindled. A New York Times article of that period even suggested that Mercer considered an overland mission, but that alternative was obviously fraught with disaster, with a railroad still four years away in the future. Then, after weeks of spinning his wheels, Mercer's hopes were again elevated, briefly. Meigs changed his mind, possibly after Grant's urging, and informed Mercer that the S.S. Continental was up for auction as war surplus, a 285-foot propeller-steamship built of oak and hickory in Philadelphia in 1864 for the government. All Mercer had to do was come up with $80,000 — cash.
      Just when the project again seemed destined to fail, a hero appeared on the scene. Ben Holladay, who had become the Stagecoach King of the West with his Overland Mail Co. in the West during the Civil War. Holladay, who would become most famous for his Oregon Short Line of railroads in the 1870s, was building a fortune from his Pacific Mail Steamship company — carrying people to the West via the Isthmus of Panama. He realized that Mercer's project could be a public relations bonanza for him, and he also realized that Mercer's back was against the wall. The almost-new Continental was worth $250,000 on the open market, but Holladay and his lawyers drove a hard bargain, wanting nearly all their costs covered. Mercer signed a contract for transporting 500 women and other passengers from New York to Seattle. At least he had a boat now, so it behooved him to sign up as many passengers as possible and collect as much up front as possible.
      What a roller coaster Mercer was forced to ride. And just as he headed back up the ascendant, he received the worst news of all, a public relations disaster. The crusty and cross-eyed publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, published an article that equated Mercer's mission with pimping for a house of ill repute, and further claimed that the bachelors in Seattle would like be old men reprobates of the worst sort. Bennett had changed journalism with his new style of reporting, which highlighted the expanded role of the interview in newspapers, but at the same time the Herald was part of the "Penny Press" that sensationalized events. In addition, Bennett's son was taking over the paper and was determined to sell papers by exposing scandals; Mercer's project was ripe for criticism. Pastors condemned the project from their pulpits and the vast pool of virgin hopefuls shrank drastically nearly overnight. As Murray C. Morgan noted,

(Mercer Girls)
Drawing of the Mercer Girls. Courtesy of Paul Dorpat

      The expose implied that most of the girls were destined for waterfront dives on Puget Sound and if anyone did gain a legal mate, she must steel herself to the fact that he would probably be ugly, unnumbered, illiterate, and probably diseased.
      Massachusetts authorities investigated too, though hardly thoroughly. Since no politician is likely to admit that young women would do better to leave his state, the report implied that Mercer's girls might be headed for a fate worse than Mormonism.

      Still determined, Mercer planned to sail soon after the first of the year of 1866. He took a collection of the letters to Holladay and begged for a better deal. Holladay was unmoved. He had already bought the ship at auction per their contract, and he said that he would still set sail for the West but that Mercer's passengers would have to pay the going rate of passage. Mercer assured Holladay that Governor Pickering would cover the difference once the ship arrived on the West Coast. Holladay demanded payment in full, but finally acquiesced when he got every cent Mercer that had.

The Continental finally sails in January 1866
(Flora Pearson Engle and William Engle)
Flora (Pearson) Engle with William Engle, 1876. Courtesy Admiralty Head Lighthouse, home of the Fresnel Lens

      When the day came to sail, Jan. 6, 1866, only 47 suitable virgin brides-to-be had braved the bad publicity and signed up. Mercer had supplemented the disappointing low number of young girls, by selling passage to families and young men with important skills that were much needed in Washington Territory. The Times noted that about half of the latter were shoemakers; and that most of the young men had been soldiers, several of them wounded during the war. The manifest showed roughly 100 passengers. We know a wealth of details about the trip itself because a New York Times reporter, Roger Conant (1833-1915), went along. Conant left a remarkable journal of the daily sights, pleasures, squabbles, and adventures of the party, later published in book form as Mercer's Belles: the Journal of a Reporter, and still later annotated by Lenna Deutsch from her extensive research.
      The one confusing fact about the trip is the time it took. As we noted above, the first trip in 1864 took two months. But in 1866, the ship did not arrive in San Francisco April 25 — three and a half months on the water. Forty years later, Samuel Tingley explained in an interview for the 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (hereafter 1906 Illustrated History), that the second trip was "around the Horn," a route that was much longer and more time consuming, which seems an odd choice. Perhaps that route was chosen instead of the route via the Isthmus of Panama because of the heavy and bulky agricultural equipment that Mercer had already contracted and paid for before all the difficulties.
      The passenger list included some people that would have a marked influence on Northwest history. They included 15-year-old Flora Pearson (1850-1935), who was joining her father and two older sisters on Whidbey Island. One of her sisters, Josie, died of a heart attack soon after arriving in 1864, and the other, Georgiana, taught on Whidbey and married there. Flora, who was accompanied on her 1866 trip by her mother, Susan Pearson, and her brother, Daniel, married a Coupeville farmer, William B. Engle (1831-1907) on May 8, 1876, and she become one of the area's first historians. (See Engle, Flora P. "The Story of the Mercer Expedition." The Washington Historical Quarterly VI (1915): 225-237; and "Pioneer Privations and Pleasures" excerpted from the 1937 WPA project book, Told by the pioneers, at the U.W. Digital collection).


Did Samuel Tingley marry en route?
      Peri Muhich, who has prepared a website about the Mercer Girls in preparation for a book, notes another passenger who would prove to be important in pioneer Seattle. "Sarah Jane Gallagher (sometimes spelled Sara), was the first music teacher at the Territorial University of Washington," Muhich notes... After her husband's death, she built the "Russell House," and provided food, drink and gentle hymns to exhausted firefighters as owner of the only hotel to survive the Great Seattle Fire, on June 6, 1889. But for this story, the most important passengers were Samuel Simpson Tingley and his eventual bride.
      We do not know for sure if Samuel knew Maria Azubah Kinney before he hitched a ride on the Continental, but the Tingley Family Record indicates that they met on board. She was the daughter of W. H. and Azubah (Brown) Kinney and was born Feb. 19, 1842, at Canastota, New York, near Lake Oneida. We also do not know where she lived before boarding the ship, just that she was nearing what was considered the "old maid" age at the time, and that she caught Samuel's eye.
      One can imagine the probability of romance on a swaying ship over a four-month period. Conant recorded an especially amusing incident about Asa Mercer's attempt at wooing one of his charges.

      . . . Asa Mercer himself, a self-described "incorrigible old bachelor" became enamored of "a young maiden of good report and fair to look upon." Without giving her "the slightest intimation of what he was about to do, not even so much as a tender look, or an evening's courtship," Asa invited her to his stateroom, told her he loved her enough to marry her, and "opened his arms and smiled fondly upon her. The maiden laughed right in his face" (Conant). Conant did not record the name of this particular fair maiden. However it must be noted that Asa Shinn Mercer did marry one of the "Mercer Girls," Annie E. Stephens, on July 15, 1866. (See Muhich's site)
      Our information for Samuel's first marriage is very sketchy because most of the details come from his biography in the 1906 Illustrated History book. He was very vague about the details, perhaps in deference to his second wife. The Tingley Family Record is not very much more enlightening because most of their details about his life are also based on the 1906 Illustrated History book.
      When the S.S. Continental finally arrived in San Francisco on April 25, 1866, Holliday's captain demanded the balance of what Mercer owed for his passengers. According to Morgan:

      The captain ordered everyone ashore. This, he said, was as far as he was going. Mercer argued and lost. When they put him ashore he rushed to the telegraph office and wired Governor Pickering: "Send two thousand dollars quick to get party to Seattle." Pickering wired back his best wishes, collect. In desperation Mercer appealed to the skippers of the lumber schooners that plied between Seattle and San Francisco; these gentlemen, pleased at the prospect of feminine companionship on what was usually a dull voyage, took them fare free.
      A few of the girls decided to stay in California and who can blame them? Mercer must have been tempted to stay. He had spent every cent that had been given to him; he had brought back fewer girls than he had promised, and those not on schedule. He must have known the home folks weren't going to elect him to the legislature for this performance.

      Mercer supplied many more details in the 1917 Hunt & Kaylor book, and you can read that excerpt at a future Journal site. In that interview, Mercer explained that when Pickering failed to live up to his bargain, Asa was forced to sell the $2,000 worth of agricultural equipment in order to pay for the lodging of his charges. We do not know when the ship or ships with the remaining passengers departed for Seattle, but we know from various sources that 36 passengers were left behind in San Francisco, including 13 eligible "maidens." The party that continued to Seattle included 34 unmarried women, hardly the bonanza total that Washington bachelors hoped for.
      Historian Dick Fallis wrote in a Skagit Valley Herald column in the 1980s that Samuel married in Portland, on the way to Seattle. Clarice Tingley wrote they married on the voyage before the ship docked in Portland. The 1906 Illustrated History simply notes that they married in Portland in 1867. The Tingley Family Record claims that Samuel and Maria married in Portland but on Sept. 5, 1867, and names the minister, Geo. F. Whitewirth. We know from our study of the Goodell family that the minister was actually George F. Whitworth, who organized the Presbyterian Church of Puget Sound with Jotham W. Goodell (see this Journal site). We already know that the Family Record confused the year of the second Mercer voyage as 1867, and that 1867 date is firm because a footnote explains that the source was the ledger in the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland. In addition, we know for certain that September 1866 was too late for the Mercer voyage, and Peri Muhich, who has researched both Mercer voyages, notes that there is no indication that the ship or ships that transported the Mercer passengers in 1866 docked at Portland. We also know from several family records that Maria was a teacher. Perhaps she taught in Seattle or some other location and then she and Samuel married later, in 1867. Samuel possibly earned a stake building ships and then prepared a home on the north fork in preparation for Maria. We are still investigating.


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Story posted on Aug. 26, 2006, last updated Dec. 2016
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