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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

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
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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The Skagit River Valley
Its great agriculture & mineral richness

(Baker Lake 1904 by Darius Kinsey)
Frank Wilkeson rode horseback around Baker Lake many times, stopping to fish and gazing at beautiful Mount Baker to the north.

Photo by Darius Kinsey, Sedro-Woolley, 1904

Five Thousand Five Hundred Square Miles of the richest
lands in the world; Coal and silver in enormous quantities

(This article by Frank Wilkeson originally appeared in the New York Times on December 2, 1891.
It was collected and transcribed by Patricia McAndrew, a biographer of Wilkeson, who lives in Pennsylvania.)

Frank Wilkeson wrote this fourth column in our Journal series in 1891 after he moved to the new state of Washington. At various times in the 1890s, he would live at Fairhaven, Stehekin and Hamilton and would serve a term in the state legislature. He was born in 1848 to a famous Buffalo, New York, family and served in the Civil War. A mining engineer after the war, he moved with his wife to Kansas, where he established a ranch near the town of Gypsum. A peripatetic sort, he mined in the Rocky mountains and in 1870 he joined Surveyor D.C. Linsley of the Northern Pacific Railway as they explored the Skagit River and the Cascades mountains. Like his father, he became a columnist for New York newspapers, first the Sun and then the Times. Many of his stories came from his experiences in region between old Sedro, Hamilton and Lake Chelan.

      There is a small valley in the northwestern portion of the northwestern State of our Union, Washington, named Skagit. This valley, including the valleys and divides and highlands tributary to it, contains about 5,500 square miles. It thrusts a broad, long, and exceedingly fertile hand northward across the boundary between British Columbia and Washington, and the fingers of this hand terminate on the southern slope of the Frazer River divide. Five thousand five hundred square miles is not an extensive area, but the Skagit River area is the most resourceful in the United States, if not on earth. It is an empire.
      In this valley sufficient food to feed a million persons can be produced. On its alluvial lands stand sufficient Douglas fir and red cedar to replace the wooden ships that compose the merchant marine that to-day sails on the highways of commercial seas if that marine were to be annihilated by some widespread disaster, and an expert woodsman would be required to discover the openings made by swinging axes during the period of rebuilding. The foothills that bound the main valley and all its tributary streams are ribbed with many seams of bituminous coal, the output of which, when the mines are opened, could supply America's blast furnaces with coke for a thousand years. The same hills contain iron ore in seams and veins in such numbers that no man longer pretends to keep record of the finds. There are mountains of low-grade iron ore on whose rugged flanks lie millions of tons of the ore, and from which other millions of tons could be quarried as rock from a hillside. Higher up the valley, close to the slow-creeping glaciers and outcropping on many rugged and almost inaccessible mountain flanks, is a wide mineral belt that is veined with ores that carry precious metal. It might almost be said that, if the silver coinage of our Nation were wiped out of existence, it could be replaced with the future output of the mines that have been discovered in this mineral belt.

Exploring the valley by horseback, wagon and canoe
      At short intervals in the course of last Summer I wandered up and down this remarkable valley and its tributary valleys. Here riding in wagons, there traveling in canoes, yonder laboriously walking through unbroken forests that were tropical in luxuriance of growth, clambering slowly up the steep side of this mountain to enter a tunnel that cut a ten-foot seam of coking coal, descending into a deep shaft on yonder mountain to inspect a twenty-eight-foot seam of hard bituminous coal, and over there, behind the twin mountains, stamping disdainfully on asbestos leads that varied from four to fifty feet in thickness.
      "It is the most productive freight valley of its size in the world!" I exclaimed one evening when I returned from a trip to the headwaters of Day's Creek.
      To the description of the valley. At the head of the Straits Juan de Fuca lies Fidalgo Island, which is separated from the mainland by the Swinomish Slough. This slough is a narrow tideway, through which salt water slowly ebbs and flows, and in which light-draught, sternwheel steamboats of scanty burden can churn their slow way at high tide. East of the slough are the delta lands of the Skagit, lands that have been made of silt that was gouged by glaciers out of the Cascades' rugged, granitic flanks 100, 150, or 200 miles up the valley and carried by annually-recurring floods to the shallow arm of Puget Sound, that in the old times separated Fidalgo Island from the mainland, and there deposited. This filling-in process is still in progress. Reeds and aquatic plants took root and grew to perfect maturity on these lands when they were only slightly submerged. Presently they rose out of the water higher and higher till at last they were never water-covered save at exceptionally high tides. They were extensive, grassy flats when I first saw them years ago. To the east a towering line of dark-green fir trees marked the boundary of the delta land. To-day this delta is reclaimed from the sea by dikes. The dikes are low and thick, with deep ditches on the interior of sufficient capacity to hold large quantities of drainage water. The entire dike system is cut at short intervals by tide gates, which are opened at low tide to allow the gathered water to flow into the slough.

"No need for commercial manure here!"
      Is the land that has been reclaimed from the sea productive? In my opinion it is the most productive agricultural land in the temperate zone. What would Long Island farmers, who till exhausted land that has to be spurred into activity by the use of commercial manure, think of a yield of from 100 to 120 bushels of oats an acre, of from 300 to 500 bushels of potatoes an acre, and of from four to six tons of hay an acre, all on unmanured land! I saw those quantities of oats, hay, and potatoes grown throughout Skagit's delta last year. All vegetables known to the temperate zone grow to enormous size, but not to delicate flavor, on these lands. The prices received by the delta farmers for their produce are as high, and higher in many cases, as the prices paid in New-York City. And these prices will remain at the top notch for many years to come, certainly during all the period of the establishment of the manufacturing industry of Washington and during the axe-swinging era when farms will be chopped out of Western Washington's forests. Skagit delta land is worth, and what is more to the point, fetches, from $150 to $200 per acre. It is on the produce of these lands that Anacortes, a city now building on Fidalgo Island, will depend in a great measure for food.
(Skagit River Gorge)
It may have been on a foggy day like this one that Frank and his son first came upon the Skagit river gorge, just east of present Newhalem. Photo courtesy of Joyce Rickman

      Up the Skagit for thirty miles from its mouth the valley is broad and heavily timber clad, save on the Olympic Marsh. Occasionally there is a fir-tree-surrounded farm that marks land that has been logged. All this broad area of land--say thirty miles long by six miles broad--is alluvial, and when cleared and put under the plow it is productively the equal of the delta land. I think it is more valuable, because it produces fruit and vegetables of a better quality than the delta. The soil is from two to six feet deep, of the finest silt. Wherever land is cleared in the valley white clover appears. The productive capacity of the land continues right up into the heart of the Cascade Mountains.
      Thirty miles from the salt water and on the south side of the river a low, mound-shaped hill rises, as an island, from the level surface of green fir tree tops. That mound marks the western extremity of the Cascade foothills. It is low, but to the east in successive billows the cross divides rise higher and higher and higher till, beyond the Sauk, they merge into the lofty, snow-clad peaks of the range. Above this mound the foothills are ever by the river, either on one bank or on the other, but the valley is from two to four miles wide for twenty miles above the mound. For sixty miles above the first foothill the valley is inhabited. Wherever there has been a logging camp in the past there is a farm to-day and a farm that produces enormously of hay, wheat, oats, vegetables, hops, and fruits. I came down the valley Jan. 8, and there had not been a killing frost below the mouth of the Sauk. All hardy vegetables were growing in the open air; grass was green; cattle were in pasture. Around farmhouses flowers were in bloom. The air was soft and warm. The wind was blowing free from the west, from the ocean through which an enormous river of warm water (Japan Stream) flows. So long as that great thermal river flows and the west wind blows will hardy vegetables grow in the open air in Skagit Valley in January.

So dense a forest that the sun's rays never pierce...
      The timber in this valley is the best in the State, save that that stands in Humptulips Valley, in the Grey's Harbor country. Large areas of the valley are covered with so dense a forest that the sun's rays never pierce to the surface of the ground, which is never dry. Throughout the standing forest lies another forest that fell, tree by tree, years and years ago. Upward through this interlaced tangle of gigantic fallen trees, through every space, it matters not how small, grow underbrush and tall ferns. All the fallen trees and all the dead trees that are standing are covered with long, thick moss and fern-like parasites. Standing in the forest and looking upward through the mass of interlaced boughs small bits of blue sky can be seen. The tops of fir trees that are 200, 225, or 250 feet above you may sway to and fro as a mighty wind rushes over them. The trunks of the trees that are from 4 to 8 feet in diameter do not tremble. A faint murmur, as of distant whispering, can be heard as the strong wind plays among the tops of the trees. But not a fern in all the great fern thicket in which you may stand trembles or evinces the slightest motion indicative of the fact that a great wind storm rages over the Skagit Valley. No fire can devastate this forest. The underbrush and down timber is never sufficiently dry to burn. The extreme limit of vision is from 150 to 200 yards. At that distance the trunks of enormous trees close in as a wall. It is as though you were in a prison stockade built to confine enormous and presumably dangerous giants.

(Log Cabin by Darius Kinsey)
      Frank delighted in visiting frontier families in their lean-tos and cedar-shake cabins and chewing the fat around the fire. Each new settler was a source of information about hunting and fishing, the two sports that Frank loved the most. Photo by Darius Kinsey, Sedro-Woolley

      This timber, not all as heavy as on the tract which I have described, stands on thousands of square miles in the Skagit Valley. It will yield, if cut as closely as the white-pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin have been, from 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 feet of marketable lumber per 160 acres. In other words, each one-quarter section of this forest will yield in saw logs, at the present price, from $50,000 to $75,000, out of which sums must be deducted the cost of felling, sawing, and hauling the logs to the river bank or to a railroad. There will not be much profit left for the logger. But it must be remembered that, unlike the white-pine lands of Wisconsin and Michigan, which are lean and sandy, the alluvial lands of the Skagit are enormously productive, and that they fetch more money after they have been thoroughly logged than they will with the timber standing on them.
      Twelve miles above Hamilton and, say, fifty-four above the Skagit's mouth, Baker River, which heads in the glaciers that slowly erode the highest flanks of Mount Baker, pours its white waters into the Skagit. On Lower Baker River there are high bluffs of limestone of most excellent quality. It is fit for fluxing purposes, and fit to burn in kilns. It is from these bluffs that the limestone to flux the low-grade iron ores that lie in the mountains opposite Hamilton will be drawn. Higher up in the mountains, on Cascade Creek, there are several veins of most excellent marble.
      Beyond the marble, still higher in the mountains, lies the mineral belt, which carries silver-bearing ore in enormous quantities. This belt is known to be thirty miles long north and south. Its width has not been determined. In truth, the whole of Northern Washington, all through that sea of rolling, wooded, or grassy hills that extends from the wind-swept, snow-covered crest of the Cascades eastward through the Okanagon and Colville regions and away up on the Kootenay right into the Rocky Mountains, is one continuous mineral-bearing zone. There is ore that carries precious metal throughout the immense area. Some of the discovered mines pay handsomely, but most of the leads that lie east of the Cascade Range are mendicants. They ever cry for more money with which to pay for development work.

Cascade Creek [now called Cascade river]
      But to go back to Skagit's headwaters, from which I have strayed on mining trails. A short distance above the mouth of the Sauk River, but still on the Skagit, Cascade Creek foams down a narrow mountain valley over its boulder-strewn bed. The mountain flanks rise abruptly from the narrow valley and from all the cross valleys. These rugged mountain flanks are heavily cedar and fir clad up to the timber line. At short intervals wide swaths have been cut through this timber by avalanches. The region into which Cascade Creek and the Sauk River, too, have thrust their water-gathering rills is the most mountainous portion of the United States. The San Juan region in southern Colorado is a rolling land in comparison. Mountains rise above mountains, range above range. A hundred snow-clad mountains are within the compass of vision. Glaciers and immense snowbanks lie glistening in the sun, and there is timber — and heavy timber, too — everywhere below the snow line. Stand on a low peak and gaze north, south, east--mountains everywhere. It is the most intricate mountain system I have ever seen. It is wholly desolate. It is a most difficult region to prospect. I state the fact when I write that the mineral that has been discovered in this district is only that which has been stumbled on, and which the rapidly-flowing water in foamy creeks had uncovered so that it could be seen by prospectors. Prospecting, as the word is understood in Montana, in Idaho, and in Colorado, has not been prosecuted in these inhospitable highlands. Miners, heavily laden, and who carried packs on their backs--pack horses cannot travel in these highlands--walking slowly along creek banks, or with faltering steps climbing up the steep sides of bare mountains, have found a score of mines, any one of which, if it had been found in Colorado or Montana, would have created a mining excitement. One lead, the Boston, which is 9 feet wide, all solid argentiferous galena, and over 3,000 feet long, was found on Cascade Creek by George and John Rouse. This ore assays clear across the vein 60 per cent. lead and 40 ounces of silver per ton. Eight other leads, all distinct from the Boston, have been found on this creek, and though they are smaller than the great vein, the ore is equally rich in lead and silver.
      Thirty miles from Cascade Creek, on the same mineral belt, but on the headwaters of the south fork of the Sauk River, a lead of argentiferous galena that is 4 feet wide and that is known to be 10,500 feet long has been discovered. This lead has been extensively prospected. Sufficient work has been done on this lead to satisfy expert miners, men who own and manage mines in the Rocky Mountains, that the camp that will be established on the Sauk next Summer will prove to be one of the best in America's highlands. These miners invested very heavily in Cascade Mountain silver mines last Fall. There is no excitement outside of mining circles relative to these mines. Tenderfeet, who long to pack food and tools on their backs and to prospect, enter the mountains, and when they arrive at the mineral belt they are appalled at the physical configuration of the highland system and the difficulties it presents to tender prospectors. They look at the surroundings and then quickly descend from the region of snow, ice, and precious mineral, never to return. The aged and toughened miners of Montana and other Rocky Mountain States will have to prospect this promising mineral belt.
      Such is the valley that three railroad corporations are endeavoring to secure, not together, but each desirous of monopolizing the whole. The managing officers of these railroads realize that the Skagit Valley will in the future produce more freight than the whole State of Dakota. Agricultural produce by the tens of thousands of tons, lumber by the thousands of carloads, coal by millions of tons, iron ore and limestone by trainloads, marble and building stone by other trainloads, and in the near future, when the silver mines are opened and the silver smelters are in blast, trainloads of bullion will be produced. Then a very large portion of the coke that will be used on the Pacific coast will be made in this valley, at the Skagit-Cumberland mines, probably, and if there is ever an iron manufacturing industry established in Washington the furnace stacks will be at Hamilton or at the Bennett mines [at the future town of Cokedale], and at one or both those points will be the silver smelters in which the silver ores from Skagit's headwaters will be smelted.

The Skagit River Valley & its great agriculture & Mineral Richness
      Is it any wonder that each corporation desires to secure the valley? Throughout last Summer many engineering parties were at work in this valley. Here worked Great Northern engineers, some parties high up in the mountains, searching for a pass that would lead from the Okanogan country to the Skagit, down which valley it is the desire of the managers of that system to run their main line. Yonder worked the engineers of the Oregon Improvement Company, and behind them came several hundred workmen who graded the road from Anacortes to Hamilton, and laid rails from Anacortes to within six miles of the Skagit-Cumberland coal mines. There, across the river, on the south bank, the engineers employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company ran lines from Mount Vernon to the Sauk to determine whether a line could be built on the south side of the river that could successfully compete with the Great Northern, which will operate north of the river.
      In addition to the bitter rivalry that exists between the Northern Pacific and Great Northern transportation companies, a rivalry that causes each company ardently to desire to control the freight-carrying trade of the Skagit valley, the future of two town sites is involved.

(Cokedale Mine northeast of Sedro)
      This is a photo of the mines at the town that was eventually named Cokedale, four miles northeast of Woolley, in the hills.

      Anacortes is a Northern Pacific and Oregon Improvement Company town. Both of these companies hold large areas of land on Fidalgo Island, and many hundred town lots stand in the names of the officers of those railroads or in the names of their agents. The Great Northern is a large owner of property in Fairhaven, and desires to have all the freight germane to the Skagit Valley discharged, preparatory to shipment by sea, at Fairhaven. The town that secures the handling of this freight will speedily grow into a prosperous city. The war will be exceedingly interesting to persons who own no property in either town, but to property holders the contest for supremacy is beginning to be nerve-destructive.

Abundant coal from Sedro to Hamilton
      Opposite Sedro and in the low mound that marks the western extremity of the foothills the coal measures of the Skagit first outcrop. From Hamilton to Sedro is thirteen miles. For that distance the river flows over coal measures. North of the river and about four miles from Sedro is a long, high range of hills that extends from Sedro to Sauk Mountain, which rugged peak stands close to the mouth of Sauk River [where it meets] the main branch of the Skagit. This range of hills is heavily charged with coal. It is known that the coal measures on the Skagit are at least 13,000 feet thick vertically. At two points only have the coal seams been opened preparatory to shipment. Nelson Bennett, who founded Fairhaven on Bellingham Bay, Washington, and who builds railroads and operates mines and establishes steamboat lines to aid in building a town as freely as a Kansas town boomer used a printing press to accomplish the same end, opened the Bennett coal mines, which are, in my opinion, the most valuable bituminous coal mines in the United States. The point he selected at which to open the mines is about four miles northeast of Sedro, and in the long range of hills that trends from Sedro to Sauk Mountain. At this point seven seams of good coal have been discovered. The continuity of the seams has been tested by sinking a slope, on the main seam, which is 28 feet thick. The seams all pitch at from 40 degrees to 60 degrees from the horizontal.
      I insert the following table for the information of Eastern ironmasters who think they own the market of the United States, and who resolutely refuse to establish iron works at new and advantageous positions so long as they are protected from competition by law. [Ed note: Actually, this table is too long to include here, but if you want to email us, we will return to you a copy in MS Word format.]
      When the great Northern Railroad, which is now being extended westward from the Milk River country in Montana to Puget Sound, bought the Nelson Bennett railroads, that extend from Sedro on the Skagit River to New Westminster in British Columbia, Mr. James Hill bought this great coal property, and with its output now proposes to control the coal trade of the Pacific coast. He owns the best coal property that I have seen on this coast, and if it is skillfully and economically managed, he will probably be able to set the price of the coal consumed throughout the country west of the Cascade Mountains and in California. This, provided the Skagit-Cumberland group of coal mines do not prove to be as valuable as they now promise to be.
      Nine miles up the valley from the Bennett Mines, and on the other side of the river, are the Skagit-Cumberland Mines, the development of which has cost close to $100,000. These mines are directly across the river from Hamilton. They outcrop on the flank of a high mountain. They have been traced for four miles back from the river to the very summit of the divide. Five seams, varying from five to ten feet in thickness, have been discovered. They all pitch into the mountain at about 60 degrees. They have been opened by a working tunnel driven across country rock at right angles to the seams, and as seam after seam was cut the coal was opened by cross-gangways, and a score of rooms have been turned. These mines are ready to output coal to-day. The coal is much softer than that contained in the Bennett Mines. It is a very superior coking coal, and can be cheaply mined. The seams are not too large. They can be cheaply timbered, which is not the case at the main seam of the Bennett Mine.
      It is a well-known fact that all the coals of the tertiary measures are liable to spontaneous combustion, and that it is unsafe to fill the mine chambers in which the miners work with broken coal for fear of fire. The working rooms must be kept clean of coal or the mine is always in danger. This being so, it is an open and much-discussed question among the miners of the Pacific coast as to whether the Bennett or Skagit-Cumberland group of mines will output the cheapest. Personally, I am satisfied that the Skagit-Cumberland coal will be cut and placed on the cars for less money a ton than the coals from the Bennett Mines. The cost of timbering in the twenty-eight-foot seam at the latter mines will be enormous. But the Bennett coal, ton for ton as it is cut, is the most valuable. It is equally good coking coal as that produced at the Skagit-Cumberland Mines, and it is a much harder and a far superior shipping coal. At any rate, the question will be decided in the near future. The piles on which to build bunkers to hold the output of the Bennett Mines preparatory to shipping will soon be driven at Fairhaven. The piles to support the bunkers to hold the Skagit-Cumberland coals, and those from the recently-discovered mine in Blue Canyon, near Lake Whatcom, were being driven the earlier part of January at Ship Harbor, on Fidalgo Island. It is on the coals of these mines that the future iron manufacturing industry of the northwestern portion of Washington will be founded.
      The coal measures terminate at the Skagit-Cumberland Mines. Five hundred feet beneath the lower coal seam the iron ores of the region outcrop, and continue to outcrop for six miles up the river till they terminate in iron mountains at the O'Toole Mines. Enormous quantities of ore are in sight, but it is all low grade. The best iron that I have seen in the Skagit Valley came from veins that trend through the primitive rock on the Upper Sauk River, and not far from the region that abounds in silver-carrying veins. The Sauk River iron ore is steel-producing, and the quantity is as great as at Tower, in Minnesota.

Some background:
      Frank Wilkeson served as a Union officer in the Civil War and wrote a book about his experiences — Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1887) that rivals Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. His grandfather, Samuel Wilkeson, is credited with being one of the builders of Buffalo, New York, and the Erie Canal. His father, Samuel Wilkeson, was secretary to the board of the Northern Pacific Railway. Frank accompanied D.C. Linsley on the NP survey of the Skagit river watershed in 1870 and then lived here for a few months every year — in Hamilton and Fairhaven, starting in the mid-1880s, and recorded his experiences for the New York Sun and Times.
      Through the Internet, we found Patricia McAndrew, an author living in Pennsylvania, who is researching Wilkeson's life for a book, and she has recorded dozens of his columns. Nearly half of them are about the boom days of Stehekin, Fairhaven, Sedro and Hamilton. He was a prominent boomer in the latter two towns. We have transcribed 15 columns for you and will share many more in the future. We hope you will enjoy them as much as we do and pass them on to your friends and family who want to read first-hand accounts of living near the river more than 100 years ago. We are converting each of these columns to our new domain and will complete the process by 2010.

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Story posted on Oct. 28, 2001, transferred to this domain Feb. 18, 2009
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