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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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"Of Man, time and a river"
Introduction to Roland DeLorme's 1977 conference
& Should we do it again?

(Skagit sternwheeler)
      A sternwheeler on the Skagit, circa turn of the 20th century. Photo from Dan Royal.

      James W. Scott, of Western Washington State College, and a series of co-hosts staged conferences in the 1970s and 1980s and touched on all aspects of Washington history. This historic meeting in 1977 featured a terrific lineup of knowledgeable people who presented short papers and most of them read their work or observationss: June M. Collins, whose Valley of the Spirits is one of the required texts for anyone studying Native American history in the Northwest; Lawrence Boome; Charles Dwelley, editor of the Concrete Herald; Glee Davis; Howard Miller, George Theodoratus, David Button, Margaret Willis, author of the 1977 book, The Buildings of Old Skagit County; Daniel E. Turbeville, author of The Electric Railway Era in Northwest Washington, 1890-1930, the key resource about the Interurban. Roland DeLorme, Western History professor (your editor learned a great deal in his classes in the 1960s) followed Roland DeLorme earlier conference on Man, Time and a River, again on the Skagit, in 1977, and other similar meetings. My point in all this is that I want to propose to Western and publishers that we convene again, 30 years later, and once again address a time of economic turmoil, as in 1981, 1932 and 1893. Is there anyone else reading this who might want to help plan or assist in such a conference?
      The grand result of that series of conferences three decades ago was that James W. Scott gathered all the history resources together into the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, which also doubled as a publisher and then became the nucleus of the Northwestern Historical Regional Archives in Munro's plan. And they hired James Moore, my contemporary at the old Western Washington State College, to plan, staff, store and open the records of the northwestern counties, and complement it all with documents and photos, and, as they say, they were off to the races.

By Roland L. De Lorme, Western Washington State College
Director of the 1977 project
      Winding south and west from its Canadian sources and gaining momentum and size as it goes, until it discharges over twelve acre-feet of water into Puget sound, the Skagit river is among the largest and most important rivers on the Pacific slope. The river and its valley have always been a favored habitat for an abundance of fish and game, as well as wild berries and vegetables — a fact that apparently accounts for the first human settlements there between eleven and twelve thousand years ago.
      The river was a provider in other significant ways. Social organization was shaped by the seasonal nature of fish and plant supplies, by the floods that sometimes ravaged the valley, destroying any villages or boats too close to the river's banks, and by the river's obvious utility as a means for transportation and communication. Mythology and religious beliefs bore the imprint of the Skagit's central role in the lives of those first residents. For millennia, those early settlers shared the Skagit's bounty, worked hard but obtaining ample rewards, living in what one present-day Skagit Indian suggests must have been a near-Utopia.
      That Utopia was shattered soon after the initial European exploration of the area. Lieutenant [Joseph] Whidbey, exploring under the command of Captain George Vancouver in 1792, described the western lowlands of the Skagit valley as "presenting a delightful prospect."

(Vancouver Island)

      As paraphrased by Vancouver, Whidbey reported that "nature had here provided the well-stocked park, and wanted only the assistance of art to constitute that desirable assemblage of surface, which is so much sought in other countries, and only to be acquired by an immoderate expense in manual labor." The Vancouver expedition found evidence that the Indians of the Skagit valley already had commenced trade with white ship-masters. That trade continued through the early half of the nineteenth century.
      United States citizens interested in the agricultural possibilities of the area entered the valley in the 1860s. Their usually crude, individual attempts to control the river by constructing dikes were furthered, in the 1870s, by the diking and reclamation projects of a private company. County government assumed responsibility for maintaining and extending these early efforts soon thereafter, and state and federal assistance, long-sought, was obtained by the closing years of the nineteenth century. Since then, a complicated system of reclamation, diking and damming has been developed, involving private and public groups, often with conflicting aims and always with imperfect results Nonetheless, barely a century after organized farming had begun, the market value of the valley's agricultural production could be estimated at over twenty-six million dollars, with over 30,000 acres set aside for growing vegetables alone.
      The river had marked agriculture, business activities, and governmental structures and priorities as indelibly as it had the earlier Indian culture. It also left an imprint on white settlement patterns, for the river remained a chief means of communication and transportation. Towns were platted along the river, and steamboats and, later, railroads carried goods and people up and down the valley. The white settlers, too, had folk tales derived from their dependence upon, and struggle with, the river. Descriptions of the removal of two ancient log jams, near present-day Mount Vernon, which freed the upper river for navigation, have taken on the drama of heroic legend. Contemporary story-tellers spin yarns depicting the river's unpredictable power and the human struggle to tame it: one steamboat captain, it is said, would only brave the river armed with a keg of whiskey; when the keg was half-empty, he would turn the vessel about and return to Seattle.
      As the Indians before them, the site settlers were awed by the river's beauty. The artistic expression of both cultures continues to reflect the valley's significance as a place both inspiring and protecting such expression.
      The Skagit river valley's beauty, particularly the upper reaches of the valley, where few towns and industrial sites have trespassed on the wilderness, evidently always has lured those seeking recreational opportunities. A lifelong resident and National Park Service employee, Marvin "Jim" Harris, recalls that, as children, he and many others, Indian and white, used the river bank as a playground. Harris also remembers the first "tourist" - a retired dentist who spent every summer in a riverside surroundings. As late as 1958, the upper Skagit valley had no commercial tourist facilities. Dr. Keith Murray of Bellingham visited the Marblemount area with his wife that year, staying in a private home, fishing — "without a license, I might observe!", Murray has noted — and hiking.

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We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down bedding. See our Journal feature on this local business and learn more details and how to order items at their website.

      "There were absolutely no accommodations," according to Murray, "there was no boating of consequence . . . [and] the highway . . . went only about twelve miles past Marblemount. Commercial recreation was really unknown." Today, commercial developments compete with public campgrounds and parks maintained by local, state and federal agencies, canoers and sports fishermen brave the river's hazardous waters, and at least one entrepreneur offers float trips on the Skagit. Valley opinion is divided over the issue of giving "Wild and Scenic River" status to the Skagit, a suggestion recently endorsed by President Carter.
      Besides serving thousands of people in search of recreation, the Skagit river has become a major supplier of hydroelectric energy. Initial attempts by private investors to develop the river's hydroelectric potential failed, by 1919, under the determined leadership of J.D. Ross, Seattle City Light had launched an ambitious effort to harness the river for Seattle's electrical needs. Dams and generating plants — Newhalem, Copper creek, Ross and Diablo, were constructed despite immense natural obstacles and financial difficulties. Ross Dam, with a generating capacity of 360,000 kilowatts, also provides some flood control protection. Yet the damming of the river has profoundly disturbed some who see such projects as dangerous to fish and game and to the natural environment. Puget Sound Power and Light's [today's PSE] plans to construct a nuclear electrical generating complex in the valley, near Sedro-Woolley, and the invasion of tourism triggered by completion of the Northern Cascades cross-state highway have added to public concern about the future of the area. Just as the river has had a major influence upon the lives of the people of the Skagit valley, then, it is obvious that the action of individuals and private and public groups can have a crucial effect on the life-giving river.
      In the fall of 1976, a series of eight public meetings were held to examine the many interrelationships between the Skagit river and the people of its valley. The meetings were planned and sponsored by the Department of History of Western Washington State College, cosponsored by the Skagit County Historical Society and the Society's museum, and by Skagit Valley College. The project was funded, in part, by a grant from the Washington Commission for the Humanities, an agency of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Held in communities in the valley, each meeting included panel discussions and audience participation focusing upon aspects of the interrelationships of the river and the people - navigation, farming, recreation — and the public policy questions these matters posed. The proceedings were tape-recorded and transcribed, and this occasional paper consists of selections from the public meetings. The resulting collection is a true reflection of the nature of those sessions. It is a rich harvest of expert interpretations, suggestions, opinions, and personal reminiscences, including formal papers read by professional scholars and comparatively less structured but nonetheless useful presentations by persons whose own lives are intertwined with the great river whose power and mysteries they seek to address

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Story posted on April 15, 2003, updated and moved to this domain Jan. 15, 2012
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This article originally appeared in Issue xx of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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