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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

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

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Bert Huntoon, explorer of Cascade Pass,
and promoter of Fairhaven and Mount Baker,
and his friend, the irrepressible poet, Charley Gant

(Bert Huntoon 1900)
Bert Huntoon, circa 1900

By Noel V. Bourasaw, ©2002
      A few years ago at a garage sale, I found an innocent-looking little brown leather field notebook, the kind that engineers tuck in their breast-pocket, which was entitled Rainy Pass, Route, 1895. On the inside front cover the author had inscribed "aug. 1895, BW Huntoon, Eng'r State Road". Not a bad buy for 50 cents but for a long time it was a mystery. Over the years since then I have been collecting newspaper articles and combing websites and a clear picture of Bert Huntoon is emerging. He may very well be one of the most important pioneers to bridge both Whatcom and counties with his impact. And even if he is second to Nelson Bennett in financial impact on both counties, his long-range effect is deeper and more sustained. If you've ever driven relatives up to Mount Baker to show off the mountain, you can thank Bert for starting that custom back in the Teen years before there were navigable roads for cars.
      Berton Waldron Huntoon was born in Sacramento, California, on Feb. 6, 1869, to D.R. and Nellie Huntoon, who were born in Vermont and New Hampshire, respectively. An early census logged his Christian name as Herbert, but a later biography lists him as Berton. Regardless, he was always referred to as Bert while an adult. When Bert was 14, his family moved to Seattle and he finished high school there before studying civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York.

Land of Bert Huntoon
By Charley L. Gant
Truant fancy's prone to wander
    Up the mountain road again,
And my heart is growing fonder
    Of that pretty mountain glen;
Up there among the heather
    Where the heather meadows lay,
When it comes this kind of weather
    There I'd like to go and stay.

There Mount Baker lodge is standing
    Right at Shuksan's might feet,
And there I'll soon be landing
    Where contentment is complete,
And the breezes in the branches
    Play a pleasing mountain tune
As the water avalanches
    Through the dales of Bert Huntoon

It's a charming land, enchanting,
    And I want to go, I do;
Where the waterfalls are ranting
    And the skies are turquoise blue,
I wish that I were clever
    And could make the whole year June
I would go and live forever
    In the land of Bert Huntoon.

      One source emphasizes that his father and family moved to Bellingham [actually still Whatcom then] in 1887, so his mother may have died by then. Bert joined them there in 1888 after working for a short while as a civil engineer in Seattle. We find a reference to his father in the 1890 Bellingham Bay Directory as being president of the Sehome Land, Hotel and Improvement Co., with a residence on Elk street (now State street). We find in a yearbook of the Normal School on Sehome Hill that his sister, Helen, graduated from the college in 1896; she lived in Bellingham her whole life until 1955. His sister, Grace, attended the Normal School in 1901-02.
      The growing towns of Whatcom and Fairhaven were fertile ground for an engineer. Bert served for some time as assistant engineer to J.J. Donovan, who was then constructing railroads in the county and the Fairhaven & Southern Railway that connected Fairhaven and Sedro in Skagit county, 25 miles to the southeast. In 1890, at age 24, he already made headlines in the new Fairhaven Herald (which became the Bellingham Herald in 1903):

      Mr. Bert Huntoon, who has been surveying Donovan avenue, brought to The Herald office a specimen of sandstone which was lined with fossilized leaves of the Andantiates Hebernicus variety, dug four feet below the surface of the earth. Mr. Huntoon says the layer is but one and a half feet wide is only at this spot. [Fairhaven Herald May 11, 1890]
As you will see below, that discovery was a harbinger of his future interests.

County engineer and Pacific American Fisheries
      In the linked clipping file, you will see how Bert played an important role in the early surveys of Cascade Pass for a planned wagon road in 1895-96. When he returned to Whatcom he ran successfully for the office of county engineer, was reelected to a second term and remained in that post until 1899 when he was hired as the engineer for the new Pacific American Fisheries plant in Fairhaven. [xxThat location is the Greyhound bus station in 2002.] He remained as their engineer for the next 24 years. Sometime around the turn of the century, Bert married a woman with the name Wilcox, but we have no idea what her Christian name was. The only reference we have to her is from a 1914 obituary when her brother died. We find a marvelous coincidence in that the name of one of Fairhaven's most noted bankers and the largest landholder in 1890 was C.W. Waldron, who owned his namesake building at the northwest corner of 12th and McKenzie.
      Bert followed up his Cascades road survey by becoming an active member of the Washington State Good Roads Association, which became a potent political force at the state legislature in the 1920s. He took an active part in the building of scenic Chuckanut Drive in the teen years, and was a force in the campaign to get it included in the state highway system. He climbed Mount Baker many times with his friends J.M. Edson, Harley A. Dodson, Will D. Pratt and Joe Galbraith, among others. His love of nature and forests drew him continually into the mountains and by 1922 he was ready to launch a new career. Researcher Aaron M. Joy, who was the Bellingham Herald librarian in 1899 when they published Millenium Milestones, recounts his first steps. As a member of the city park board during the 1920s, Huntoon was instrumental in establishing Sehome Park. Joy found a story about Huntoon and the first ascent up Sehome Hill by auto that you can read in our linked clipping file. Huntoon Drive was built in 1925 along the western face of the hill.

Mount Baker beckons
      By 1922 Bert spent hours each week carting Northwest movers and shakers up and down Mount Baker by horse and buggy and then by automobile. People in the know were soon convinced about the importance of Mt. Baker as a recreational area. His work in the Good Roads group led to improved gravel roads in the early 1920s and finally to pavement, which meant access to many more snow lovers and alpine enthusiasts. In 1923, Huntoon became general manager of the Mount Baker Development Company. The company soon began construction of a grand lodge, which was officially opened on July 27, 1927, with Bert as manager. Once the pressure died down, Bert found himself in the middle of a nature photographer's paradise. We can only imagine his joy at age 58 as Indian summer painted the landscape for him around Baker and Shuksan peaks.
(Mount Kulshan by Bert Huntoon)
Indians called this mountain Kulshan, the Great White Watcher. When Bert Huntoon took this photo in 1942 he noted that fine roads and trails led to countless scenic spots, many the result of his leadership

      Over the next four years travelers and nature lovers came to think of him as the premier photographer who publicized the mountains and the Mount Baker Forest Area. The lodge grew to include 100 rooms — 60 with bath and telephones, and all electrically heated. Bungalows were built adjacent to the lodge proper and soon there were accommodations for 400 or more guests at a time, along with campers. But an electrical storm on Aug. 5, 1931, led to the unthinkable — the lodge caught fire and quickly burned to the ground.
      The lodge was rebuilt, but Bert was beginning to think of retirement. He left active management of the lodge in 1933 and for the next 14 years he built up a huge collection of scenic photos of Baker and Shuksan, his old favorite Chuckanut Drive and other recreational areas west of the Cascades. Those photos found their way into newspapers, magazines and calendars nationwide, as well as many world fairs and regional promotional events. Eastern Washington University at Cheney also has a significant collection of his photos.
      After World War II, returning vets with cars, along with other long-time residents, started a tradition of putting The Mountain on the top of the list of places to show off for family and visitors from out of town. I can still remember the day in 1953 when my grandfather, William Crayton Kirks, rolled up his first snowball and threw it at me while visiting us from Missouri and seeing a mountain close up for the first time. He never stopped bragging about Mount Baker until the year he died. Bert died on Jan. 2, 1947. We have not yet found his obituary (we hope a reader will share one) but we hope he received his due in both Skagit and Whatcom counties. In 1961, Huntoon Drive washed out during a storm and rain from the Columbus Day "mother of all storms" in 1962 dredged it out even more so that from then on it was only used as a trail. But in 1974, Sehome Hill Arboretum was established in the former Sehome Park and Arboretum drive roughly follows the original Huntoon route.
      We suggest that you visit the website for the Whatcom County Museum, where many of Huntoon's photos and negatives reside. Lawrence Pagter, Bert's friend and the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Mt. Baker National Forest, collected many of those photos. The photographs were donated to the Whatcom Museum of History & Art by Pagter's daughter, Mary Jean Pagter.


Charley Gant
      We were curious about Charley L. Gant, so we went looking for him on the web. For those who enjoyed the movie, How the West was Won, no, he does not seem to be the inspiration for Eli Wallach's memorable villain by the same name. As luck would have it, in 2005 we found a website lovingly presented by Jenny Lynn Zappala about the frontier town of Moclips, which was born in 1905 about 30 miles north of Hoquiam at the mouth of the Moclips river. According to the Washington Place Names department of the Tacoma library, "It was once a center of cedar shingle and shake manufacturing. The name is a variation of the Quinault word, No-mo-Klopish, meaning 'people of the turbulent water.'" Jenny reported that the Moclips centennial would be held in 2005 (June 24-July 4) and they did indeed have a jolly time. Meanwhile she is collecting memories like the ones of Charley Gant, who hunt-and-pecked at the Moclips Ocean Wave newspaper in 1909.
      Kathy Jaquet is continuing a book about Moclips that she and her late husband started with Eloise Hanson and her late husband. And all the very active members of the Moclips Museum are continuing their efforts to raise matching funds to rebuild the old Northern Pacific railroad depot, which was unfortunately razed in the 1950s after passenger service ended in 1954. Always the iconoclast, Gant was very dismissive of the depot, as in the "The Old Depot" poem he wrote for the Dec. 18, 1914, Willapa Harbor Pilot (shared from The Sou'wester magagine): "It stands a mile away from town, a monument of gall,/The place would be far better off with no depot at all." Meanwhile, one of Kathy's partners in the founding of the Moclips Historical Society, Kelly Calhoun, has a delightful website about the Moclips museum, which is well worth perusing.
      "Jaquet has also collected and laminated several issues of the Moclips Ocean Wave, a short-lived but wonderful weekly newspaper, circa 1909. Charley Gant, the Wave's itinerant editor, was a superb poet and writer of satirical editorials. Unfortunately, he also had a weakness for whiskey. The wave he rode in from Hoquiam swept him to Anacortes in short order," Jenny wrote. In the years around 1902, Gant also published his own weekly, Gant's Sawyer
      John Hughes, publisher of the Aberdeen World, co-wrote a delightful book about the coastal area: On the Harbor, in 2005. In it he describes how Gant held court while covering his newspaper beat during Aberdeen's "Balck Friday," Oct. 16, 1903, the day of the really big fire: "On one of the side streets, acid-tongued Hoquiam newsman Charley Gant later noted, the patrons of a brothel were holding high carnival. 'The notes of the piano playing the Hiawatha two-step could be heard above the crackling flames,' he wrote half-indignantly, 'while women but half-dressed sat in the upper windows plying their nefarious attractions to passers-by, and men stood in the front doors drinking beer from the bottle.'" Various old-timers told me that Charley later moved on to Fairhaven and Guemes Island and that Charley died in Bellingham, but I did not find authoritative details until I literally tripped across a delightful website by the Guemes Island Historical Society, which has reprinted columns called "Guemes Gleanings," by author Gertrude Howard, who lived on the island with her husband, Robert, in the 1940s. She wrote:

      Before coming to Guemes Island, Charley Gant worked on papers in Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Anacortes. Before that in about 1901 he published a paper in the Grays Harbor area that he called "Gant's Sawyer." Charley himself admitted in his writings that he was addicted to the Demon Rum, but somehow that didn't affect those writings. He had an astute command of the English language and a beautiful way with words. He was a natural poet, and his writings seemed to come out in rhyme, whether intended or not. Charley loved Guemes and wrote many verses about the island and its people.
      The first paper on Guemes was the Tillikum. Lee Lewis was the publisher and Charley Gant the editor. The first issue was dated April 8, 1912. The Tillikum was written and printed on North Beach. The partnership of Lewis and Gant lasted until the following February when Charley really fell off the wagon and went on a destructive spree. On February 14, 1913, he became sole owner of the Tillikum. Lee Lewis left the island to go to work on a steamboat in Tacoma. It was at that time this column appeared in the paper:
      "There is no use wasting your time roasting the Editor of the Tillikum, my dear. Just go right on with your quilting and knitting, sweetheart, and let us tell you what a disreputable, baldheaded old beast we are when we go sauntering down the road to hell arm-in-arm with John Barleycorn. We have been both up and both down the sunny and shady sides of life, yet the only reflection we have ever seen of life's other side came the other day. We looked into the mirror. Sorry looking sight, honey, beautiful brown eyes all red with rum, and intellectual brow all wrinkled like an old maid's convention. Yes, we are a degenerate son of a drunken sire, darling, good at times, and bad between times. But don't waste your time in roasting us, dovey, we are not worth your while. Just go ahead with your knitting." Some weeks following that, the Tillikum came to an end.
      But Charley came back in 1916 as the sole owner of the Beachcomber. His first office was in the vicinity of the shipyard location. Later, he moved to a building east of the ferry dock and across the road from where Bud Hanson now lives. This office must have been fairly large dances were held there. The Beachcomber was published for about seven years.

      You can join the society to learn more about Guemes and the other islands around Fidalgo and I very much recommend your doing so. Meanwhile, I hope that other readers can provide similar details about Charley's adventures in Whatcom County.

Links, background reading and sources
See our "Huntoon Clippings story elsewhere in Issue 46, Subscribers Edition, for these additional details

Story posted on April 1, 2002, last updated Jan. 12, 2009
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This article originally appeared in Issue xx of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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