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Skagit River Journal

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Klement Chapter 3: Otto paddles to the Skagit

Part one printed as Early Recollections on Oct. 19, 1926 in the Mount Vernon Daily Herald

(LaConner 1870s)
      This drawing of LaConner from the period of the late 1870s or early '80s is close to what Klement would have seen when he lived and traded there after arriving, minus the multiple sternwheelrs.

      I was born in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, in 1852 and left that state in the early spring of 1873, headed for Puget Sound over the Union [Pacific] & Central Pacific Railroad by way of San Francisco.
      There were no boats direct to the Sound in that day. One steamer [to Victoria] had sailed the day preceding my arrival in San Francisco so I had a 30-day layover and I familiarized myself with the city and its environment.
      The name of the steamer in question was Prince Albert, a British boar and a veritable tub, requiring seven days to make the run. Arriving in Victoria I found another steamer due to sail the next morning, the Northern Pacific, a large new boat that made weekly round trips between Victoria and Olympia. I took passage on this boat for Olympia.
      At Port Gamble, however, a representative of the Gamble Mill Company appeared on the dock, looking for mill hands. I engaged with him and went to work in the sawmill at $40 per month and board, working twelve hours a day. My object in coming west was to avail myself of the opportunity of taking up land, so after continuing in this employment for five months, I purchased a rowboat, laid in a supply of provisions and tools, and struck out for the Skagit River.
      At this time Victoria was the only town in this northern country worthy of the name. Seattle had a scattered population of around 600 souls, Olympia about the same, while Tacoma was not yet on the map. Indians, however, were everywhere, perhaps a hundred where there is one now. Lumber was practically speaking the only industry, represented by a half dozen saw mills, located at eligible and widely separate points, while logging camps were distributed in like manner.

60 whites and 2,000 Indians in Skagit Valley in 1873
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      The settlement in the Skagit River Valley at the time of my arrival [Oct. 12, 1873] consisted of approximately sixty whites and around 2,000 Indians. A majority of the white settlers had arrived during the two preceding years. A dozen white men, having Indian wives, came at an earlier date. Mrs. Thomas R. Jones was the first white woman to settle in the valley. One of her children was the first white child born here. J.J. Conner and D.E. Gage maintained a small store at a place called The Forks, located in the fork of the north and south branches of the [Skagit] river. A little later a post office was added, the mail coming by the way of LaConner.
      Log huts along the riverbanks in the midst of an acre or two of cleared land housed the inhabitants, and owing to the panic of 1873, more or less hardships prevailed. Since insect pests had not yet been introduced, crops yielded abundantly and were of excellent quality. Sloops sailed out of the mill ports [down south] with stocks of goods, carried on a profitable trade among the ranchers, logging camps and home ports, exchanging their merchandise for the farmers' produce, which they later sold to the loggers and mill companies. Selling whiskey to the Indians was also a profitable feature of their traffic.

1935 letter to Ethel Van Fleet Harris
      Marks on cedar trees showed that water in the valley at one time, before the advent of the whites, was three feet higher than it has been since. But that may have been due to a jam of ice or driftwood in the river.
      What constituted the first school in Skagit County was in progress in 1873 in a log stable on the homestead of the late David E. Kimble, a short distance below the present site of Mount Vernon. A half dozen pupils were in attendance. Miss Ida Lanning, a popular little lass of sixteen, presided over this educational institution.
      At this point the river came to a sudden end, at least so it would have appeared to a person not familiar with the situation. A jam of driftwood here spanned the river for a distance of a mile and a half upstream. This jam had existed so long that it had become waterlogged and had sunken to varying depths. Its surface was in an advanced state of decay, and overspread by a heavy coat of river marl and supported a forest growth scarcely distinguishable from that prevailing on the river's banks. This forest rose and fell with the rise and fall of the river. In times of flood, owing to the settling and shifting of the mass in the upper regions of the jam, a weird note of groaning was produced, not unlike that of a monster in pain, while sharp reports of breaking timber could be heard for miles around. A rude skid road around the jam, built by the Indians, over which they hauled their canoes, was the only road in the valley worthy of the name.
      Jasper Gates lived in a shake house with his family was holding down a homestead now occupied by the main district of Mount Vernon. His daughter Mary was born the day the writer arrived in the valley on Oct. 12, 1873.

One of three original settlers above Mount Vernon on the river
      Mr. A. William was a hop grower near the present site of Lyman and was the only permanent white settler above the jam. The writer was the second, having settled on a claim on the east bank of the river at the point where the Great Northern [railroad] bridge now spans across. Reverend B.N.L. Davis previously [claimed land] on the west bank at this point, but did not occupy it until later in the season.
      Working in the harvest fields on the Swinomish [channel] for Samuel Calhoun in 1876, the writer made the acquaintance of the late Harrison Clothier and E.G. English. Finding that they were in quest of a location for a store, he prevailed upon them to accompany him to the Skagit. The jam had been removed to the point where Mount Vernon now stands. A number of logging camps had moved into the district. Pleased with the business outlook, Clothier and English purchased five acres of land from Jasper Gates and erected thereon a two-story frame building and occupied the lower story with a small stock of merchandise. A small hotel, owned and operated by the late Mrs. Shott, and a saloon operated by John Bieble, soon followed, and these constituted the first steps in the building of the little city of Mount Vernon. These occurrences happened just fifty years ago almost to a day. A post office followed almost immediately with Harry Clothier as postman.

Serial part 2 [added May 6, 2002]
From letters to Ethel Van Fleet Harris in 1935
      Earthquakes, which in recent years have manifested themselves with such remarkable frequency in all parts of the world, are of rare occurrence in the state of Washington. In 1871, however, [before I arrived] one of these convulsions occurred in the Puget Sound country and was of such severity that it almost frightened the inhabitants out of their skins.
      Following the writer's arrival in the country the great seismic disturbance still figured among the topics of conversation in the new settlement. According to reports, the quakes commenced on a beautiful morning in June [1874?] and shocks of increasing intensity succeeded shocks until late in the afternoon. The settlers abandoned their homes and took refuge in the open spaces, while the earth and everything upon it was being rocked. Dishes and clocks were dashed to the floors and in some instances forest trees were leveled to the earth. The houses of that day, being of but one story and built of logs and lumber — few of which were even plastered, little damage aside from broken dishes, was sustained.

From letters to Ethel Van Fleet Harris in 1933
      I came to the Skagit Valley just 60 years ago, but as I recall incidents in those days, it does not seem so very long after all, illustrating how brief is the span of life. There were about fifty adult settlers at that time and that contrasts strangely with the twelve or fourteen thousand who now call the valley their home.
      I arrived here in the year of the panic of 1873, although we did not hear of the panic until a year or two later. Upon the whole it didn't inconvenience us much as we were all broke anyway. There was very little doing in the valley — cultivating an acre or two of garden around the log cabins was about the sum total. Remunerative employment was not to be had; but that did not inconvenience me — I was never fond of employment anyway.
      Speakers and writers make it a practice of dwelling on the hardships and privations endured by the early settlers. Such was not my experience. In fact the happiest days of in the 81 years of my existence are referable to this period. There were around a dozen interesting young girls in the settlement in those days, and as many young men, and that with dances, prayer meetings and the like, there was no end of fun and good times. There were as yet no roads in the valley; footpaths through the woods from which not even the windfalls had been removed, answered all our purposes — we found it no trouble to help girls over the logs.
      There was but one class in the valley at that time and we all belonged to it. No one then put on airs over his neighbor. We lived plainly, dressed plainly, enjoyed good health and were happy.
      I have not yet touched on the great Swinomish and shall refrain from doing so at this time, except to say that the population of this region exceeded that of the Skagit River Valley proper, somewhat.
      Figuring over the adults that were present on the Swinomish in 1873, I find that my friend, David McCormick, is now the only survivor. Looking in like manner over the adults that were in the valley proper at that time, I am now the only one left to answer the roll call. I cannot look up in the circumstances as a distinction — indeed it fills my heart with a deep sense of sorrow and loneliness to reflect upon it.

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