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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Glee Davis, packer and mountains man

By Ron Strickland, River Pigs and Cayuses, 1984
(Davis map)
National Park Service Map

      Between the gold stampede of 1880 and the coming of the hydroelectric era in the 1920's the Goat Trail was the road to riches in the mountainous upper reaches of the Skagit River. Generations of men and pack animals knew its every scary twist and caprice. Glee Davis was five years old in 1890 when he and his mother first arrived in the country by dugout canoe and pack horse.
      In 1880 a miner named Johnson described the original stampeders' trail as one of the worst in the world. Fifteen years later Glee Davis's mother, Lucinda, operated a roadhouse, or hotel, halfway along that route between the head of navigation and the claims way up on Ruby and Canyon Creeks [at Cedar Bar]. She recalled a winter return upstream to the roadhouse accompanied by young Glee. Travelling in deep new snow and camping overnight only two and a half miles from home, "We hurried all we could for fear of the [snow] slides. . . . We got to the midway point where the trail was blasted into the rock, afraid every second that the ice would break and fall." At an iced-over bridge they were almost stopped until Glee braced himself between the bluff and the bridge to forge a way through, this despite a steep drop to the torrent below. That was the way Glee Davis grew up along the Goat Trail.
      "I'll go first," said Glee as he started down from the modern canyon highway, handhold to handhold, over scree, roots, and fallen trees, looking for the most notorious section of the sixty-years-abandoned mining trail. His old straw hat and green jacket disappeared in the brush
      We had not descended very far when we did come to a trail, a rough mountain track which obviously had seen much use. "Bog the amount of horses that have come through here!" exclaimed Glee as he sat down to rest. Later we mounted a small rise in the trail, and there in front of us across a rotten foot bridge was the famous Devil's Corner, a point where the canyon wall jutted far out into the river channel.
      The Devil's Corner's open-sided tunnel continued straight through the granite for about three hundred feet, a terror for the old pack trains. Glee passionately recalled a horse of his which had become stuck under the low overhang while carrying a tall cook stove.
      The dilapidated steel cable bridge which we gingerly crossed had been laid over the miners' original log one in 1920 by Seattle City Light in developing a power dam. "Notice," Glee said disdainfully, "that this new bridge is sawed lumber, not the split lumber in our old one."
      New or old, clumps of moss were growing on the weathered boards and brush had found a few rocky rootholds along the precipitous path. But despite its thick duff of fir cones and moss the Goat Trail's tread looked as if packers had not been gone long. In fact, listening to Glee Davis it was easy to believe that a string of horses might clomp by at any moment.

By Glee Davis
(Glee Davis)
Glee Davis

      Rebuilding our old trail would be an awful nice thing to remember the miners who spent so many years up here working their lives out! But make the new trail the old way we built trails. Not too blooming good! Use split lumber instead of sawed lumber. And no wrought-iron railings. That spoils the beauty of it, to my way of thinking.
      Leave it the natural way that the rocks lay. Just throw out rocks and make a path. It seems to me that would be more appropriate. The trails I've seen lately, they grade them all out smooth so they can run a motorcycle over them. Of course, I wouldn't want to see motorcycles on any of it, myself. The motorcycles just don't belong in the mountains, to my notion. You're out there to hike and to take the things Nature provided, not destroy. The old trails were hard, hard on horses, but I like to be on an old trail if I can.
      Just horses and backpackers. Well, fiddle, backpackers were the ones who built it. Tommy Rowland, for instance. Once he carried a load of five hundred pounds up the river to his cabin, what they call Roland's Point on Ross Lake now. He divided the five hundred pounds into four loads. He'd carry one forward, then go get another. He'd keep on trying to edge them ahead. Whenever I think of backpacking I think of that. Lately I heard kids talking about backpacking so I asked what they carry. I naturally assumed they were talking about carrying a load of freight.
      Tommy was a better gardener than he was a miner. He was a wonderful gardener. An old Kentuckian used to call him God the Gardener since he was so religious. He lived by selling his vegetables to miners and he called his place New Jerusalem. He thought he was the Prophet Elijah and some of the miners had him committed so they could search his shack for gold. In the '80's there was an old hermit here. Captain Randolph had been a steamboat man, but he ended up with a little shack here at the Devil's Corner. He scratched out a kind of trail around this cliff and charged a toll.
      Later in 1895 miners blasted it out like it is now. Quite a job! I've still got their time sheets. Each miner would donate a few days digging and blasting. There were about twenty men altogether. One fellow put in seventeen days. Another, William Jackson, had only put in one day when he was killed. They'd just blasted some rock, and Jackson got there first to dig away the rubble. He pried at the pile and it all came down on top of him and carried him into the river. Never found him.
      They claim there was quite a storm of miners up here, maybe five thou sand. But they overdo those figures. I located a number of claims myself. I was trying to find the Mother Lode, to see where that gold came from. Nobody seems to have any idea where it is. When we first went up as far as Ruby Creek in 1898, sluice boxes were all over. You'd have a time finding room for a claim.

Click on these thumbnail photos to see the full-sized photos
(Devil's Elbow 1)
(Devil's Elbow 2)
Center left: This photo of Devil's Elbow, courtesy of Joyce Rickman, was also taken by or of her uncle, Milton Johnson, who worked at the Skagit Queen Mine in 1906. Although it is considerably faded, the photo shows details of how the tunnel was chiseled from the cliff above the Skagit.
Upper left. This is a photo of the Devil's Corner or Devil's Elbow, which was on the Goat Trail, a path that miners carved by hand from The Portage, downriver from Newhalem, to the gold fields on Ruby creek, starting in 1878. The path was chiseled out of granite to form a path along the steep walls of the gorge above what we now call Newhalem. From The Portage, the last point to which canoes could navigate upriver, all supplies had to be carried on the backs of miners or mules. Until Will D. Jenkins and others were hired to use dynamite to widen the trails about 30 years later, the Devil's Corner was typical of the switchbacks and abrupt turns on the trails. This photo was probably taken by Darius Kinsey, in 1903, the same year as the Skagit County Times article below.

      You can't make any money panning unless it's very rich. Hardly anyone did, and they went all over. I've sized it up that any colors have been ground into flour. I never found any nuggets of any size. Oh, at the old price of seventeen dollars I'd find something worth twenty-five or thirty cents.
      Yes, seventeen dollars an ounce! That was the price as far back as I can remember. In 1893 we handled that little trading spot at Goodell's. Handled it for two years for a prospector named Reese Jones. Miners brought a lot of gold down from the crevices along the Skagit and often paid us in gold. We had a little gold scale there. I still have a few little pieces of gold which they paid me with when I packed with my horses for the old Discovery. They say a fifty-dollar nugget came out of there. The one George Holmes had, I got a chance to roll that around in my hand. Like a small walnut.
      I've been up to a place on Canyon Creek where they found a piece of old channel maybe sixty feet above the present creek. Well, the fellas shoveled the gravel out of that old bedrock and sluiced it down to the creek to their sluice boxes and they cleaned up three thousand dollars there. It's very rich about a quarter of a mile above Ross Dam on the east side of the river. There was a box canyon there with straight walls maybe three hundred feet high. Well, there's pretty close to four hundred feet of water on top of it now.
      There's lots of gold in the Skagit. Some pretty rich strikes! There's a wonderful rich place under a big pool above Diablo Dam. Two hundred feet under water. I had a claim located there at different times and took up some gold, but it never paid. Old George Neal and Andy Seawright worked that several different times and got quite a lot of gold out. You see, it came down from J.J. Jones's claim down through the canyon, around Sourdough, and dumped there in that wide place. Their gravel was not more'n a couple of feet above the water level and when they would dig down they couldn't get anyplace because it was all porous. Big rocks. They'd dig down and capture all they could. But the gold is still there. They never got down to the rich part.

(Goat Trail)
This photograph of the remnants of a rickety bridge and railing over a stream shows just how perilous the old Goat Trail was for those trying to pack into the North Cascades mines and why a wagon road was needed. The photographer was located a few miles east of the present town of Newhalem, looking west, and the Skagit River is on the left. Photo from JoAnn Roe's book, North Cascades Highway, which is still for sale in a second printing. In 1895, The Washington State Legislature appropriated $5,000 for a Cascade Pass wagon road to connect the areas of Washington state on both sides of the North Cascades mountain range, just south of the Canadian border. A generation later, the road was only partially completed and seemed stalled. The concept required an industrial leader with some moxie to communicate the need to both the public and the politicians. As his son, Sydney, took over management of the Skagit Steel & Iron Works in Sedro-Woolley in the mid-1920s, David G. McIntyre took on the highway as a personal project and spent the next 13 years until his death, devoting most of his spare time to the goal. That Highway 20 was finally opened in the summer of 1972, 34 years after his death

      Those old prospectors had a pretty hard life. But they were happy. Always thinking they were gonna strike it rich. Some did quite well, but they'd spend it on more prospecting. They wouldn't quit when they got a strike. There's more of it out there, so back they'd go. You, too. It wouldn't take you more than a day or so if you found some and you'd be saying, "I want to go and try that strike up there."
      My own life seemed to fall to packing. I didn't like the job. My motto on packing is that it's only fit for an Indian and he's too smart to do it. But you do what you can to exist. I was a good packer and I'd always get pulled in on that.
      Sometimes the income up in the mountains was pretty lean. In a way we'd have been better off someplace out near civilization, but my mother got awful stuck on the hills. I did, too. I lean very substantially to the woods and mountains. I just love to look at those rocks and to climb them, searching for footholds.
      I lived so much of my life on that trail, running pack horses over it all the time. I had kind of a hard life — yet I wouldn't' t have missed it for anything. You know, I went barefoot a lot. Well, fiddle, I'd be packing in those mountains and just feel so good I'd take my shoes off.


Captain Randolph
      JoAnn Roe researched that part of the Goat Trail for her 1997 book, North Cascades Highway:
      The miner's easy approach ended and he was faced with the awful gorge. One scoundrel, a Captain Randolph, built a house across a narrow portion of the trail, demanding a toll to pass through. Randolph and his structure mysteriously disappeared, though. . . . A particularly bad point in the trail was at Devil's Corner. . . . later dubbed Devil's Elbow), a ledge that lies directly above Tunnel No. 1 on today's highway; an overhanging rock there required a series of ladders to enable prospectors to pass.

George Holmes
      Holmes was a former slave who became a hermit miner in the North Cascades. You can read a Journal story about him that is from Will D. "Bob" Jenkins's book, Last Frontier in the North Cascades, () or you can read this collection of mini-profiles about Holmes and other people mentioned by Davis [Return]

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Story posted on Sept. 11, 2000
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This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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