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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Otto Klement: Farming, dikes and earthquakes, including Journal quake research

Diary excerpted by the Mount Vernon Daily Herald beginning Oct. 19, 1926
Otto Klement

      Farming on the Swinomish in 1873 had just passed the experimental stage. Mike Sullivan, an eccentric little Irishman [Endnote 1], visiting the region in 1869 conceived the idea that by throwing up dikes to keep out the tides the land might be utilized for farming. Acting upon this theory, he at once went to work and diked in twenty acres and sowed it in oats. The result was marvelous beyond all expectations. The yield was upwards of 100 bushels per acre under indifferent cultivation. The news got around and by the end of 1872 thousands of acres had been taken up by incoming settlers, and by 1873 there was scarcely an acre left [on the LaConner and Swinomish Flats].
      Upon the whole the task of subduing the land proved to be an arduous one. At first each farmer diked in his holdings separately. The jam in the Skagit, acting as a dam, in freshet times sent the waters over the Swinomish and, its usual flow being obstructed by the dikes, the water went over their tops and washed them away. Passing on, it carried away the front dikes along Swinomish slough and the Sound, in turn, permitting the tides again to flood the land.
      A scheme of forming a diking district was finally agreed upon. This scheme provided for placing the entire district under one levee. This levee was to follow the bank of the river, the shores of the Sound, and Swinomish slough, thus stopping the water at its source. Under this expedient it was presumed that everyone owning land under the proposed levee would contribute his fair share of the expense. Some of the owners, however, being opposed to the program, legislation became necessary. This presently having been secured, a diking and drainage district was at once organized and the works which speedily followed have survived the test of time.

Journal Ed. note: Otto Klement was one of the first Skagit River settlers, arriving here in the fall of 1873 after paddling alone across Puget Sound. He eventually chose Lyman as his home on the north bank of the river, when Skagit was still part of Whatcom county and Washington was still a territory.

      A similar district was subsequently formed on the delta between the north and south forks of the river with the same gratifying results; and still another on the south side of the main river, not to mention similar improvements in the Samish country and the Olympia Marsh. This marsh acquired its name from the circumstance that in 1872 a number of residents from Olympia entered upon the area and located a dozen or more homesteads, but subsequently permitted their filings to lapse.
      The several districts above mentioned embraced an area around twenty miles in length along the shores of the Sound and six to ten miles in width, and together constitute the richest and most productive farming district in the state of Washington.
      A herd of elk, around forty in number, in former days came down out of the hills to graze on the Olympia Marsh. The last number of the band, a mammoth bull, carrying a forest of horns on his head, was killed in 1892. A like herd inhabited the region south of Conway. These, however, were exterminated at a much earlier date. Black bear abounded everywhere, while cougars roamed the wilds in great numbers. Deer were comparatively scarce owing to the cougar killing the young. On the islands, however, where there were no cougars, deer were more plentiful. Wild ducks and geese, visiting the great marshes in the fall of the year, might have been counted by the thousands, while the streams fairly teamed with trout. Salmon, at spawning time, ascended the river in schools so vast that a conservative estimate of their number would be discredited.
      Fish and game proved a blessing to the early settlers in supplying their tables. Wild game constituted almost the exclusive diet of the Indians in former times; and, though the Indians had inhabited the region in great numbers for countless generations, it seems strange that wild game should have continued to flourish under their regime; while, with the appearance of a few white men on the scene it should begin to vanish.
      Reverend B.N.L. Davis, a regularly ordained Baptist minister, was the only minister of any denomination to preach the gospel in the valley as early as 1873. Though in the midst of building a home and clearing a farm, not a Sabbath passed that he might not have been met, lantern and Bible in hand, on some gospel mission to some remote settlement. His faith was simply beautiful.

Earthquakes in the 1870s
      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, 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 and shocks of increasing intensity succeeded shock, 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 with the earth. The houses in 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.
      In the interval of the succeeding years a few tremors have been felt, but in 1900] a disturbance took place in the regions of the south fork of the Nooksack River that caused the earth to tremble for many miles around. Upon investigation it was found that the side of a high mountain on the south side of the river had slid down under the valley, raising the river bed upwards of seventy feet above its former level. A house owned by a Mr. Nadley standing in a little clearing on the south side of the river was left on top of a high hill on the north side. The river, deprived of its channel, formed a lake above the devastated area, until presently it found an outlet by way of a deep chasm which had been provided by the eruption. The incident was attended by many a freakish occurrence. Great stumps close to the house were split in halves and quarters without the surface of the ground being disturbed, while in the house a student's lamp sitting on a table was unmoved. Long seams were opened in the earth through which gravel was forced upwards into ridges ten and twenty feet in height. The surface of the back areas, which carried a heavy stand of timber, seemed in no way disturbed, but the timber was utterly destroyed.Endnotes


1. Mike Sullivan
      Michael Sullivan and Sam Calhoun were the legendary first settler-farmers on the Swinomish Flats. The two men worked at the Thomas Cranney and Lawrence Grennan sawmill and shipbuilding yards at Utsalady on Camano Island. In 1863 they independently rowed over the Skagit mainland and planted crops in the rich soil around the stream that we now know as Sullivan Slough. Read about them at this exclusive Journal biography [Return]

2. Olympia Marsh
      This very rich stretch of farmland straddled what is now I-5 and Old Hwy 99, north of Burlington. Much of it lay on top of a peat bog where underground fires had smoldered for decades, according to Indians who met the mass of white settlers, starting in the 1870s. Klement's explanation of the place name's genesis is the earliest explanation we have found. Confession time: when we started researching this project in 1992, we found the place name while reading about Mortimer Cook's farm on what became Cook Road — in the middle of the marsh — but we looked in an atlas for the town of Olympia and were disappointed that we could not find the marsh there. [Return]

3. Rev. B.N.L. Davis
      Brisbane Napoleon Longinus Davis was a 23-year-old traveling preacher from Tennessee when he arrived at the Skagit River in the spring of 1873, just months before Klement's arrival. Like Ezra Meeker, the founder of Puyallup, he planted hops that found a ready market in England and Europe and became a wealthy farmer and stock breeder at his farm on what is now the Hoag Road, at the southern end of the Great Northern Railroad trestle, in the Riverside district of Mount Vernon. He died at the age of 41 in 1891 but had a profound effect as both a pioneering farmer and a dedicated preacher. Read this Davis biography, A Man Whom All Men Delight to Honor by Dick Fallis, a legendary Skagit historian in his own right, on our sister website, The Stump Ranch, organized by Dan Royal. Royal, a descendant of the L.A. Boyd family of Birdsview, replaced Fallis as historian for the Pioneer Association when Fallis retired. Fallis now lives at an assisted-care home in LaConner. [Return]

4. 1871-72 earthquakes
      Since the initial period Klement describes preceded his arrival, we wonder if he got the months wrong. The only earthquake reported in June 1871 was on the 20th and it was a minor trembler. The Washington Standard, newspaper described an earlier quake on January 20 as being felt all over Olympia. The major event of that period began with an earthquake that occurred on Aug. 23, 1872. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network's Cascadia Historic Earthquake Catalog, 1793-1929 reported that the quake's epicenter was at Entiat, Washington, "and had a magnitude of around 6.8. Dozens of communities reported severe shaking, but no surface faulting was found. The 1872 earthquake was originally thought to have originated in the North Cascades, a rugged area inaccessible for most of the year. Reports of shaking came from more populous areas some distance away, making the location and size of the earthquake very hard to determine. Magnitude estimates have ranged as high as 7.4, and location estimates have spanned a wide area of the North Cascades."
      Aftershocks continued for the next few months, capped by a major trembler on Dec. 14, 1872, described by Capt. James S. Lawson of Olympia: "It was timed with a chronometer watch, absolutely correct, . . . A shock occurred precisely at 9:40 p.m.. It commenced with a light movement, gradually increasing for eighteen or twenty seconds. Then came the heavy shock, lasting four or five seconds; then it gradually decreased. In six minutes after the first shock there was another, followed by two others one minute apart. At 10:12 2/3 there was another shock, lasting four or five seconds; then it gradually decreased. In six minutes after the first shock there was another, followed by two others. During the night other shocks were reported, at 3 and 5 o'clock. On Sunday evening, at 6:37, a light shock. December 16th at 9:17 a.m. another light shock."
      Eight years later, two major earthquakes occurred in December 1880, which was coincidentally the year of the heaviest snowfall and the most significant flood that settlers had observed thus far. The Cascadia Historic Earthquake Catalog describes the quake of Dec. 8, 1880, as "Sources for this event indicate that it was felt in Seattle, Tacoma, Puyallup, and Olympia, and Port Townsend, as well as on Bainbridge Island. Persons were reported to have fled into the streets in Seattle, but no damage was reported. Previous catalogs indicated that this event was located at Bainbridge Island because the weather observer there reported feeling six earthquakes. His report: 'December, 1880: Earthquakes as follows: 7th at 5:45 p. m. — Direction north to south, motion wavy. 10th at 5 a.m. — motion perpendicular. 12th at 8:40 p.m. north to south, wavy. 14th at 7 p.m.— tremulous. 26th at 10:16 p. m.— wavy. 29th at 11:25 p. m.— also wavy. All of the above very distinct, but not severe. Rather pleasant, than otherwise, Riley M. Hoskinson, observer.' suggests little difference in shaking intensity between the several events in the sequence. On the basis of newspaper accounts, it is obvious that the most widely felt earthquake of this series was on December 12, and that the December 7 earthquake was also felt over a considerable area . It seems possible that the larger events originated elsewhere in the Puget Sound region, rather than on Bainbridge Island."
      Another Cascadia Historic Earthquake Catalog report notes the Dec. 11 follow-up quake was "This is the largest of the earthquakes in December of 1880, and is well documented and well represented in catalogs. It was reported felt from Victoria to Portland and to Astoria, Oregon. It rang a church bell and the bell of a parked locomotive in Tacoma, damaged hop-kiln chimneys in Sumner, and a chimney in Seattle. Dishes were thrown off shelves, clocks stopped, and lamps overturned. The event was reported *not* felt at Neah Bay by weather observer James G. Swan. The Spokane Times mentions the earthquake being felt in the Sound, but it was not reported to have been felt anywhere east of the Cascades. The Dec. 13th issue of the British Colonist [Victoria, B.C.] is not on microfilm, and the earthquake was not mentioned in the issue of the 14th" [Return]

5. 1900 earthquakes and the Nooksack River flowed backwards
      An obscure but fascinating reference book, The Great Pyramid Jeezeh, by Louis Phillipe McCarty (1907), included a list of notable earthquakes around the world in the years before and after the turn of the 20th century, including this reference to Klement's event of interest: "1900 — (Mar. 27) Eruption in Mt. Baker district, Washington; a hill thrown up 70 feet high in a valley and it changed the course of the Nooksack River; report heard 10 miles away. " McCarty also listed in that same year, earthquakes that rocked Lima, Peru, in February; Lindai, Japan, in June; Kodiak, Alaska, in October; Caracas, Venezuela, in October; Jacksonville, FL, in October; and in January 1901, earthquakes sent hundreds into the streets in Kansas and Missouri. On July 17, the volcano on Mt. Azuma in Japan destroyed several towns and 200 were killed.
      That was a rocking, rolling year for sure. The Cascadia Historic Earthquake Catalog reports that the quake of about March 30 was "known only from the Chilliwack Progress article transcribed in the WPPSS documents: two distinct earthquake shocks were felt on Friday evening about ten o'clock."
      Mount Baker in eastern Whatcom County also made big news that year as newspapers on the East Coast reported that climbers discovered dramatic evidence that Baker was a truly active volcano:

Mount Baker Active
The Supposedly Dead Volcano Has an Eruption

The Evening Times, Washington, D.C., and The New York Times, New York
April 7, 1900 (referring to March 27), Mount Baker, Washington

      SEATTLE, Wash., April 7. — Returning trappers and miners from the vicinity of Mount Baker, 110 miles from here, in the Cascade Range, report a tremendous upheaval of earth and rocks ten miles west of the snow-capped peak, March 27. The report bears every evidence of accuracy and reliability.
      H.C. Banning and D.P. Simons, the latter a well-known mining man, of this city, visited the scene of the eruption. They declare it a genuine eruption, with evidences the Mount Baker is likely to burst out anew as a volcano. Great fissures were opened in the earth, and in the valley of the Nooksack, a big mountain stream, a huge mound of earth, seventy feet high and a quarter of a mile long, was raised across the valley. The stream was dammed and rose to a considerable height, forming a lake before breaking through. The earth trembled and there was a rumbling noise lasting several minutes. There is great excitement among the ranchers of the district.

      Then came the story of the Nooksack changing course, which Klement described.
Upheaval of the earth
Queer Freak of an Earthquake in the State of Washington

Salt Lake Herald, Utah, April 8, 1900, Mount Baker, Washington
      San Francisco, cal., April 7. — A special from Seattle says: The Nooksack river, one of the navigable streams of this state, has been dammed and the course of the river changed by an earthquake upheaval. The bed of the river now rises ridge-shape to a height of seventy feet. It is no longer a river bed cut by the rush of water.
      This eruption and upheaval is centered about Mount Baker, one of the highest and most interesting peaks of the Cascades. It occurred March 27, and was accompanied by a sound not unlike the heavy rumble of thunder. Hamilton, a town ten miles distant, heard the report.
      News of the phenomenon came from D.P. Simons, Jr., who was in the vicinity of Mount Baker, timber cruising, at the time of the earthquake. He says the upheaval turned the river from its course and from the center of the great mass thrown up by the earth's belching can now be seen a lake. Such trees as escaped destruction stand at a remarkable height in comparison with other timber growth. Gaping cracks and crevasses large enough to engulf a team and wagon were seen. A strong scent of sulphur permeated the air immediately following the upheaval.
      A cabin occupied by William Hadley, a trapper, was demolished. It stood in the center of the great new mound. Hadley was not in his home at the time, else he could not have escaped death. The lake formed in the center of the thrown-up ground is declared to be a quarter of a mile in length and half as wide.

      We found both those stories on a fascinating resource, the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory website for Volcano Newspaper Clippings. [Return]

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