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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, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Stanley Steamer automobile
and Pat Farrell's Sedro-Woolley collection

We moved this story over to the domain on Jan. 31, 2010, without updating it, except for the suggested book on this subject, and the new section with the 1904 reprint below. This has been the second or third most-read out of 700 for more than five years. Thanks again to Pat Farrell and his wife, Merilee, for their information and hospitality and all they have contributed to the world of sssssteam.
Journal research Ray Jordan on the Steamers 1904: What Not to Buy when You Buy an Automobile

Journal research by Noel V. Bourasaw, ©2003
(Stanley twins 1898)
The identical-twin Stanley brothers in one of their early runabout steam models, circa 1898. Farrell photo. This story was moved to this new domain without any editing yet, except for the book recommendation below.

      We have had several questions about the Stanley Steamer automobile, the early automobile that is always a nostalgic favorite and the one that gets periodic attention every time that alternative fuels are studied. Sedro-Woolley historian Ray Jordan published a very good basic article on the steamers 33 years ago. We decided to run it by our local Sedro-Woolley expert on the Stanleys, R. Pat Farrell, former owner of Pat's General Store in Burlington. Pat sold the store to one of his sons four years ago and now he spends much of his time restoring and maintaining his collection of five Stanley steamers — the largest collection in the state, along with the rest of his classic autos and a museum on his farm that would put many municipal museums to shame.
      Pat has also contributed to the manuscript of the latest history about the Stanley Steamer he posts a Stanley Steamer newsletter, which is now in its 15th year. For now, we have annotated the Jordan article below with some updates and corrections that Pat provided, since Jordan did not have access to much of the archival Stanley material that has been unearthed over the past 30 years. See updated information in the brackets[ ] as well as numbered referrals to footnotes at the end.
      To begin with, the identical-twin brothers, F.E. and F.O. Stanley of Kingfield, Maine, attended a "horseless carriage" show at the Brockton, Massachusetts, Fall Fair in 1896 that featured just one of the new autos and that one model could not complete a lap around the track without stopping. The auto industry was in its infancy, following Carl Benz's first production model in Europe in 1890 and the introduction of the first production models of the Duryea Brothers auto in 1896. The Stanley brothers were in their 40s and were very successful manufacturers of photographic plates, a business that they sold to Eastman Kodak. The show inspired them to build a horseless carriage of their own and by 1898 they had a marketable model. Within a year both customers and a determined investor were beating down their factory doors. As Pat explains, John B. Walker would not take "No!" for an answer and he finally asked the brothers for a dollar figure to buy out their interest. The brothers picked a figure they thought was outrageous, reportedly a quarter million dollars, thinking that would shut up the pest. Instead, Walker went away, found another investor who had a quarter million in cash and the two partners wound up buying out the brothers in 1899, forming the Locomobile company, a fine name that evokes several images, both about railroad locomotives and the sanity of the idea. But the new owners only limited the Stanleys to a two-year "non-compete" clause, so in 1901 the brothers began producing their Stanley Steamer again in Newton, Massachusetts, and that led to 25 more years of production.

Steamers versus smoggers
By Ray Jordan, in his book, Yarns of the Skagit Country, [this story written in 1970]
—transcribed by Larry Spurling for the website

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      When automobiles first began struggling along our sorry roads, getting struck in mudholes and leaving a trail of collapsed tires, broken arms and cuss words from cranking the motors, we used to hear some of the old folk say that they were just a fad and wouldn't survive. Instead, the smelly things grew better and better and became so numerous that there is presently hardly enough room to park them all.
      But now with the campaign against being carbon monoxied to death swirling about us, we are not so sure but what our elders were right about skunk buggies since we often read about the revival of steam as a means of propulsion, which might be a cure for bad smells, if not for shortage of space.
      Last winter (1969) while we were in Phoenix, Arizona, we read of a man in Phoenix who had a contract to supply the California Highway Patrol with 35 steam engines for a tryout in automobiles. He said that the engines were simple to build and at a cost much less than that of a conventional gas-combustion motor, also that they were perfectly safe and would generate steam to the point of efficiency as quickly as a gas job could. [1] The only bug he had to work out was something about the self-starter.
      In the Dec. 21, 1969, Seattle Times, we read of an experiment to be conducted with a "Dobie steam car used in the Roaring 20's."
      We don't recall anything about the Dobie, but we do remember the Stanley Steamer, and if our senile memory is not tricking us, there was also one in use called the White. We've also been told that there were several "Bakers" in the county at one time. [2]
      The Stanley was an almost silent ghost on the road trailing a few wisps of steam and had a reputation for tremendous speed and power. In fact, there was propaganda spread about that a dealer would give you one if you could hold it wide open for a mile, but the Stanley Company always denied this.
      Anyway, they became quite efficient as they were improved. The worst drawback for a car like this now would be that it is like the monorail, too quiet in operation to satisfy the modern appetite for noise. But this could be overcome by installing some sort of din makers.
      Checking with the best authority we know of, we turned up some interesting history on the Stanley Steamer. During 1900, over 1,600 steam cars were manufactured to only 900 gas drive machines. (The World Almanac says the steam auto was invented in 1889.)
      At the annual automobile speed trials in 1907, conducted at Ormond Beach, Florida, a Stanley Steamer called "The Flying Teapot" reached a speed of 197 miles per hour [mph]. Just before reaching 200 mph it hit a bump, took off like a bird and crashed on the beach, a total wreck. No gas-driven car reached 100 mph at this trail. The record set by Stanley was not broken by a gas machine until 1927, and then by a 4-ton model with two twelve-cylinder airplane engines. [3]
      The Stanley took its name from Francis E. and Freeland O. Stanley, identical twins from the State of Maine. They were of an inventive turn of mind and did well on several patents they had sold. They became interested in "horseless carriages" after seeing a crude contrivance imported from France in 1897, and within a year [they] turned out their first steam conveyance.
      While the Stanley brothers were strait-laced, and very conservative, they possessed a dry humor and had a world of amusement startling inhabitants with their weird machine. The comical stories about them were legion.

(1906 Stanley Rocket)
      This is the 1906 Stanley "Rocket" or "Flying Teapot," take your pick. The 1907 revised and improved model became airborne and some of the resulting pieces are now in the Smithsonian Museum. Farrell photo.

      In 1917, the price of a Stanley steamer was about $2,500, a prestige possession. The statistics of the Stanley are fascinating, if not startling. The 1916 model had only 32 moving parts in the whole unit, that is, body, wheels and all. The 1917 model had a boiler only 18 inches high and 23 inches in diameter. It could easily take [the] 600 pounds of pressure needed for run-of-the-mill driving.
      As an experiment, one boiler was pumped to 1,500 pounds pressure and did not blow up. The tubes merely started leaking, allowing the steam to harmlessly escape. The engine was geared directly to the rear axle, which was geared for great power. Every time the engine turned over, so did the wheels, a great saving on engine wear. The Stanley brothers said that their engines would last forever and no wonder. A noted engineer has stated that the thermal efficiency of an internal-combustion engine may reach 35 per cent, that one of steam will go over 90 per cent.
      [There was no gear shift, just open the throttle and take off. The car would slide along smoothly, throttled down to one mph. The Steamer could be thrown into reverse while going ahead at a reasonable speed. This helped in braking. It would go as fast backward as forward! As early as 1914, a Stanley accelerated smoothly from 0 to 60 mph in 11 seconds, comparable to a 1958, 310 [horsepower] Cadillac in 11.7 seconds.
      Hill climbing of the Stanley is what drew nationwide notice. In 1899, with one passenger, one climbed 10 miles of winding 12 per cent road on Mt. Washington, the highest point in New England, in 2 hours and 10 minutes, the first time up for any car. Three years later, the first gas job made it in a little less than 2 hours. So, promptly, with an improved model, F.E. Stanley made it in 27 minutes. [4]
      But the Stanleys with all their genius were an eccentric pair. They wouldn't advertise, sell on time, or even sell to a customer whose attitude they didn't like, nor would they adopt the growing trend of mass production. In short, they were hopelessly out of tune with the changing business methods, so the gas people beat them to the market.
      In 1918, one brother was killed in a car crash and the other became discouraged and retired. The company passed to other hands and went out of business in 1925. Only 65 cars were produced in the last full year of operation. Ford was turning out more than that a day. [5]
      The Steamer had its faults, no doubt, but with all its good points it seems that it would be possible, using this principle, to turn out a much cleaner, simpler automobile.
      We've always been a champion of steam and hope it comes back in time for us to see it.

What Not to Buy when You Buy an Automobile
By P.M. Heldt, Technical Editor of The Horseless Age magazine

(Steamer in the snow)
Pat Farrell's 1914 Stanley Steamer

      When the prospective automobilist has finally made up his mind that he must have a "machine," he is confronted with a very serious and perplexing problem, that of selecting from the multitude of makes and styles offered in the market the one best suited to his needs.
      Of the many motive powers suggested and commercially exploited during the past ten years, only three have proven successful so far, those popularly known as electricity, steam and gasoline. Gasoline is the source of motive power in both the so-called gasoline and steam vehicles, a fact which is the cause of the frequent confusion of the two types in the popular mind.
      The difference in the use of the gasoline in the two types of cares is that in one it is burned in a burner under a steam boiler to generate steam, which is used in a steam engine [that] drives the car, while in the other, it is burned directly in the cylinder of a gasoline or explosion engine which drives the vehicle.
      Each of the motive powers may be said to have its special field, though the ranges of practical application of steam and gasoline overlap considerably. The electric car, being dependent upon power houses, is thereby limited to use in cites and suburbs, where charging stations are sufficiently numerous. The range on one charge of an ordinary electric behicle varies between twenty-vie and sixty miles, although over two hundred miles have been made by a specially built machine.
      The manufacture of electric cars has been concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number of large concerns, and all parts of these vehicles, with the exception of the battery, have long passed the experimental stage and reached a high degree of development, so that no matter what machine the purchaser buys, he does not run the risk of making a great mistake.
      Generally speaking, the larger the capacity of a battery in proportion to its weight, the less its durability, and for this reason, few electric vehicles are equipped with batteries which are good for more than forty miles on one charge on fair roads.
      Don't purchase a second-hand electric carriage without scrutinizing the condition of the battery. When an electric mahcine is offered for sale second-hand, the reason often is that the battery is nearly or completely worn out and the owner dreads the expense of renewal. A trial of the car, if it can be had, is a fairly convincing test, as the mileage, or total distance run on one charge, drops with the deterioration of the battery.
      Considering only the highest developed types, the steam and gasoline systems are both eminently suited to long distance toruing as well as to local work. The most advantageous feature of steam power is its flexibility, the property which admits of temporarily increasing the power far beyond the average amount available, a feature particularly to be appreciated in mountainous sections. Steam vehicles are also more free from noise, smell and vibration than gasoline vehicles. In steam machines the boiler and burner are perhaps the most valuable parts, and they should be carefully examined by the purchaser and watched by the driver.
      The advantages of the gasoline system as compared with steam are that it is more economical of fuel, and that the gasoline car, generally speaking, is gotten under way more quickly when starting on a run, and is more immune from fire risks.
      The weak point of the gasoline machine is the mechanism which produces the spark necessary in the use of this kind of power, but improvements are constantly being made in this direction. A certain amount of muscular effort is necessary in the "cranking" or turning the wheel which starts the gasoline mechanism. This effort is not required on steam autos nor always indeed on gasoline machines of the four-cylinder type which are largely self-starting. By the application of the flash system in the steam machines the time necessary for getting underway has been reduced to about five minutes.
      In the choice of an automobile the purchaser's financial status is, of course, a determining factor. The price of stock cars varies roughly from $500 for the lightest types of runabout to $12,000 for the powerful imported touring cars. The qualities the purchaser requires in a car are about as follows, in the order of their relative importance: safety, reliability, comfort, economy, appearance.
      Do not purchase a machine because of its speeding ability or its trac records. Speeding or scorching is the cause of a very large majority of automobile accidents. In spite of the very defective construction of most of the earlier machines, there was not a single fatal accident in this country between 1895, practically the beginning of the automobile movement, and 1900. It was when the speed craze developed and machines became over-powerful that serious accidents first occurred. Excessive speed should be deprecated, while on the other hand, good hill climbing ability is essential. This is partly a question of gearing.
      Do not buy a car which has a defective braking system. The safety of a car is largely dependent upon its brakes. While it would be wrong to consider a car having only a single brake unsafe, in the writer's opinion two independent brakes are much better than a single brake. Some brakes are so constructed that they hold only in one direction and cannot prevent a car from running backward downhill should the power fail during an ascent. To depend on such brakes alone is to invite accident. Few cars are now constructed without at least one [brake] holding in both directions, but many cars of the older styles now offered for sale second-hand have only one brake, and that operating in one direction only. It is well not to buy such cars, or if they are bought, they should be immediately fitted with good double-acting brakes.
      Almost as important as the brake, from the standpoint of safety, is the steering gear, and a machine with a defective or frail steering gear should be avoided. The steering gear and brakes of a car should be given periodical insprection when the car is in use.
      The extent to which a car possesses reliability can hardly be determined in any other way than by an extended trial.

Footnotes: Pat Farrell's initial corrections
(1914 Stanley)
Pat Farrell and his wife, Merilee, in their restored 1914 "coffin nose" model 606 Stanley Steamer. Pat graduated from Oak Harbor High; Merilee from Concrete. Farrell photo

1. Pat explains that in the late 1960s and the early '70s, both federal and state governments were actively pursuing alternative fuels and propulsion methods for autos, especially after the first upheavals in the Middle East oil-producing countries. California did, indeed, experiment with steam propulsion in a few dozen of their state cars with mixed results. The project had backing from William P. Lear Sr., who had a pile of capital after selling his famous Lear Jet airplane company and who led what has been called the "great crusade" to revive steam propulsion, starting in 1968. Another goal was to reduce pollution and steam autos garnered much early attention because they were largely pollution-free. Just as the kinks were being worked out, attention waned, government funding sources dried up and by the 1980s the experiments faded. But the steam bug bit many individuals during that time and Farrell and dozens of others across the country have never gotten over it. He notes that he built a three-inch matchbox-model steamer as a child in 1952 but did not actually see a real one until 1978, the beginning of his 25-year odyssey. It is worth noting here that the original steamers carried both water and gasoline, the latter used to heat the water boiler. Return
2. Dobie is a misspelling of the Doble Steam Motor Co., which had a production complex in Emeryville, California. Abner Doble was one of the true innovators in the field and his company was an industry leader in the 1920s, finally going bankrupt in 1931. The White company that Jordan mentions was the primary competitor to the Stanleys from 1901 until they stopped producing steam autos ten years later. As Pat summed up, the Whites had a jewelry background and built a plant that featured precision engineering and production tolerances that outshone those of the Stanleys. White catered to the carriage trade and the Stanleys aimed at people who wanted a more durable auto that could climb challenging hills and travel on rough, country roads. The Baker auto was initially battery powered and the company did not produce steam models until the late teen years. Return
3. This is one of those pieces of folklore that will never die. By 1905, Ormond Beach became the Mecca of automobile field testing and speed trials. The Stanley brothers were longtime horserace enthusiasts and they initially wanted to set speed records. In January 1906 their model established four new world records and newspaper stories featured a photo that showed an auto that resembled a rocket or a tornado. Pat describes it as an upside-down canoe and notes that it had a curved top. Fred Marriott, the repair department manager for the Stanleys, was the test driver and he set the world land speed record that year at 127.659 miles per hour [mph], a steamer mark that stood for almost 80 years. Barney Oldfield broke the land speed record in a gasoline-powered Benz auto three years later, timed at 133 mph. In 1907, Marriott was ready to break his own record, but the beach was not. Storms had caused depressions in the sand and on January 25, the last day of racing, Marriott hit one of them and the auto went airborne. The shape of the car caused lift like with an airplane wing and it headed for the sea, flipping over and breaking into many pieces, although Marriott miraculously survived. According to a stopwatch, the speed probably approached 155 mph. We asked Pat where the 197 figure came from and he explained that Fred, who lived into a ripe old age, probably hiked up the figure every time he sat back in his rocking chair and amused a new reporter. By the way, in a later interview, Marriott supplied a quote that we reporters always hope for. When asked in 1956 why he was chosen as the test driver, he replied, "I don't know, probably I had more balls than anyone." Return
4. We read in Pat's manuscript that the Mt. Washington road rose more than 1,600 above sea level and its entire length was a little under eight miles, with an average grade of 12 percent and 22 percent for the final 50 yards. The model that set the record was actually a Locomobile brand and the climb required a water refill along the way. Return
5. Jordan's story about the end of the company needs some clarification. First, he left out one of the key changes in the Stanley company that resulted from when F.O was diagnosed in 1903 of having a reoccurrence of tuberculosis. If you think that pollution was bad in the second half of the 20th century, the air in the eastern U.S. was even more foul at the turn of the century. F.O.'s doctor gave a grave prognosis and F.O. and his wife Flora decided to move to Colorado, finally relocating at Estes Park, about 50 miles northwest of Denver. Estes Park had been a tourist destination since 1877. Soon after building a "summer cottage" there he built a grand hotel. Because the railroad depot was about 25 miles away, guests had to be transported by horse and wagon, a very bumpy ride. F.O. initially shipped out a 1903 Stanley runabout model, which greatly impressed the locals, but over the next few years he had the company engineers plan a completely new model that became the Stanley Mountain Wagon in 1908, with 3 or four rows of comfortable leather seats, which were bolted onto a lengthened frame. This opened a whole new market for the company and the mountain wagon became a hit for resorts up and down the West, from Sol Duc Hot Springs on the Olympic Peninsula clear down to San Diego. The hotel still stands and was the backdrop of a recent movie based on a Stephen King novel.
      By 1916 the brothers were 67 years old. That year they turned over the company to a new set of investors, including their nephew Carlton Stanley, who had been very active in management since 1906. F.E. was very dissatisfied with the progress of the company and he flirted with the idea of producing steam-powered, self-propelled rail cars. F.O. was living permanently at Estes Park at the time and in 1916 he sold his interests in the Stanley Hotel but retained considerable acreage and the family home nearby.
      Then in 1918, the brother's long partnership ended. F.E. was long noted as a somewhat reckless driver who loved to speed. In 1913, he swerved to avoid another car and his wife, Gustie, was thrown from their touring car. On July 31, 1918, F.E. was driving alone in his Model 730 touring car from Squirrel island to Boston, when he swerved to avoid two other autos and his auto overturned, causing grave injury from which he did not recover. Although he was severely shaken by the loss of his identical twin, F.O.'s move to Estes Park turned out to be a lifesaver as his doctor predicted and he lived to age of 92, dying in 1942, not long after he moved back home to the East for a brief time.
      Pat has visited Kingfield, a town a little smaller than Sedro-Woolley, and he notes that the Stanley homestead beside the Carrabasset river in western Maine is still the nucleus of the town. Members of the Stanley family originally moved there in 1807 and built a dam and a grist mill back when Maine still had stands of timber comparable to those that the pioneers of Skagit county found in the 1870s. This year of 2003 is the centennial anniversary of the school that the brothers donated to the town; it now houses the Stanley Museum, with a branch at Estes Park. This (2003) is also the centennial year for three of the original competitors to the Stanleys: Cadillac, Ford and Harley-Davidson. The last Stanley steamer rolled off the Newton line in 1926. Out of about 16,000 Stanley steamers produced, 600 still exist. Only 20 Mountain Wagons are left and Pat owns two of them.

(Book Cover)
      The Stanley Steamer resource, according to Farrell and many others

Historical trivia
      Journal Ed. note:: in the book, Automobiles of 1904, a version reprinted in 1987 by Chandler Press, we found a 1904 "Baker Stanhope" model, with this description:
Single 1 3/4-horsepower, multi-polar, electric-motor mounted centrally under body; 12-cell battery, 3 speeds, maximum 14 miles an hour; armored-wood frame, wheelbase 64 1/2 inches; tread, 52 inches; weight 950 pounds; seats 2 persons; price $1,600. The Baker Motor Vehicle Co., Cleveland, Ohio.
We also found a less expensive runabout model, 300 pounds lighter and with a 3/4 horsepower engine. We also found a Stanley steam runabout, with this description:
Double cylinder, compound horizontal steam engine, rear end on rear axle and front end, suspended from body of car; water capacity, 20 gallons; gasoline, 13 gallons; wheelbase, 78 inches; tread, 52 inches; weight, 720 pounds; seats 2 or 4 persons, price, 4670. Stanley Motor Carriage Co., Newton, Mass.
      Closer to home, early nine years ago, we discovered the handwritten obituary notes of John Conrad, the longtime historian for the county pioneer association, and we are sharing these notes from the years 1949-73 with our subscribers. When pioneer Nick Bessner died in 1955 at age 94, Conrad shared one of his exquisite bits of trivia about Skagit county. He said that Bessner was the owner of a Cadillac that ran on batteries and had no windshield or top. But the kicker was that Pleasant Ridge pioneer J.O. Rudene told Conrad before he died that the first three autos in the county were various models of those electric Cadillacs, the first owned by Peter Downey, the second by Bessner and the third by Rudene. Unfortunately we do not know the model year of each auto. (1955, p. 1)

Story posted on May 18, 2003, moved to this domain Jan. 30, 2010
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This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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