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

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Mark Gilkey
Skagit River Gambler

By Ron Strickland, River Pigs and Cayuses, 1984
(Mark Gilkey)
Mark Gilkey

      Introduction: Ninety-five-year-old Mark Gilkey's white hair, courteous manner, and string-tie elegance belie his Huckleberry Finn-like youth on Samish Bay. Or his career seventy years ago running a professional poker game in the Skagit River's wild mining and logging towns. Eventually Mark Gilkey became a successful tugboat company owner plying the inland waters of Washington state.

By Mark Gilkey
(Indian Canoe)
This Indian canoe was rescued after decades under water and was donated to the Sedro-Woolley Museum, where you can see what Gilkey describes.

      My granddad took up a homestead right across from the town of Edison. He had to dike about two-thirds of it against the salt water to raise timothy hay. I was born in Edison on a clam bed on Samish Bay.
      There was quite a number of Indian canoes. You see, the Indians depended a good deal on the salt chuck [salt water] for clams, oysters, and salmon for their living. I even remember seeing the big war canoes of the northern Indians when they would come down here. Big high prows on 'em with a little face figure.
      As a boy I started my navigating in a little shovel-nosed canoe in Edison Slough. At one time it was the North Fork of the Samish River until the loggers dammed it off and turned all the water down the South Fork so they could float their logs down to the salt water where they could boom 'em up for towing. The North Fork became a tidewater slough then
      A shovelnose is a river canoe. The others are sharp-bowed and if the current catches them it'll slue 'em. But the shovelnose'll go right up against the current and won't be slued around. I used to steal the Indians' dugouts and their paddles. They always knew it was me, and then Mother would trim me for it. I learned how to find where their paddle caches were. They'd cache them in thick evergreen trees. Bundle them all up and shove them way up in there. I got onto that. I'd pull that down, then shove a canoe off the bank if it wasn't too big. I just wanted something to ride in.
      A few years later I had a gas cruiser, the Hiawatha. Her engine was built in Seattle at N & S ‐ Noise and Stink we called it. But it was a reliable old engine. I'd been with a gang over at Anacortes liquoring up, you know, and when we were coming home in my boat in the middle of the night, why, we decided we were going to blow up the Edison Jail. Because they had built it for just one particular drunkard. He wasn't in it at the time.
      A cousin of mine and one or two others were clearing land up at the east end of Edison. Clearing timber and blowing up stumps on a farm there. So it was all framed up as we come from Anacortes that they would walk to their dynamite cache and bring it down and blow the jail up. As an alibi I was not supposed to come steaming up into town with the boat until afterwards.
      When I first got up there here was the postmaster and the town constable and some others standing there looking at the wreck. It was evident that I was mixed up in it because I come steaming up to my dock right near the jail just after the explosion. Later on the county sheriff come over to quiz me. I told him, well, as I came into the slough in the middle of the night another vessel, a little gas boat, passed me going out. And, I said, he was operating without running lights. So I didn't know who it was. And the sheriff couldn't pin anything on me.

Gambling career
      I started gambling as just a young kid. We'd sneak around to play in the loft in the barn. I guess I was just a little crook at heart. As I look back on it now I must have been. When I was in my early twenties I ran a poker game in the town of Concrete. They had two big cement plants there then, and it was a hot town. A live wire town! All those workmen, you know. Loggers in their bright mackinaws, what we called squaw-catchers because the Indian women liked them so much. Plenty of tinhorns and sporting women and their macs.
      There were two or three hotels and a lot of saloons and sporting houses. Nell's, for instance. She had this vaudeville actor pimp, Ronnie McCarty. Sometimes he'd tend bar, too. One night in one saloon I raked off $125 and never turned a card. I took a rake-off offa' the pot, see. But, of course, I bought the drinks. Every so often the players could have all the drinks they wanted.
      Oh, you had to have a bankroll to handle a card game! I always ran an open blackjack game. No limits! Anybody with a lot of money could come in and tap your whole bankroll. You don't see that anymore. They have a limit on their games now. I shoulda had a limit, too, if I'da had any brains. One time in another town a fella tapped me in blackjack and I went broke. In the average small town there were usually only one or two games. In Concrete I had the only game. I made good money.
      One time I had to carry a gun because a fella from Bellingham was going to get noisome, as it were. I carried a gun against him because I was terribly sick at that time. Just couldn't even hold a soda water on my stomach. I was dealing at that time, and I would have shot the bugger if he had ever tangled with me because he was a big burly guy and he could have killed me. The only sheriff was down at the county seat in Mount Vernon. Cheating was another problem sometimes. There's a dozen ways, like marking cards with your fingernails, cold decking, invisible numbers, rings with little mirrors on them. But if you were a real dealer, you never allowed monkey work in your game. If you saw a man working, you reached over and took his chips away from him. He was out. You'd never even speak. He knew the score. No, we never allowed any crookedness.
      Finally one of the cement plants quit and the town went flat. Then I went upstream to Marblemount with another gambler and started gambling there. But I got disgusted with it. As a matter of fact, I really got ashamed of myself. I thought, well, you're a nice pill trying to cheat people around here out of their money. I really got ashamed of myself thinking I was making a living in that kind of a deal. I felt sorry for the men who worked hard for their money. Even the married men used to soak their watches to me to get money to carry on with the card game. One fella even soaked his wife's watch for more chips.
      So I quit cold! I got fed up on it. I had a change of heart, in other words.

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Story posted on June 20, 2009
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This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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