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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

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

Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Tommy and Ella Thompson, North Cascades pioneers

(Tommy Thompson)
Tommy Thompson

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2004

Tommy and his family
emigrate from England

      As we wrote in our profile of Henry Thompson, Tommy Thompson was born in the Ravensworth district of England on April 17, 1884, the sixth of eight children of Henry and Margaret (Dodd) Thompson. Tommy was also the last of the children to be born in that country before his father moved them to the U.S. in 1885. Like other immigrants during those times, they sought the best opportunity for making a living and there were no signs yet that the father and two sons would become famous years after they arrived at the end of their journey on the West Coast of their new country.
      The family, with five surviving children, soon moved to the plains of South Dakota, where Henry was valued for his carpentry skills and he applied them to bridge-building on the frontier. Sometime after Anthony was born on March 1, 1886, in Ledger, South Dakota, the family again moved to Wichita, Kansas, the state that supplied the most by far of the residents of Sedro-Woolley and was also a base for many other emigrants to Skagit county. Janie, the last child, was born there on Feb. 18, 1889, and sometime after that they moved to Snohomish county, where historian John Conrad notes that Henry was again a bridge-builder.
      By 1891, Henry and Margaret ran a store and the post office at Birdsview, the village that Birdsey Minkler started in the late 1870s as a steamboat stop on the north shore of the upper Skagit river, and a site for his water-powered sawmill on the south shore. The town, with a hotel, saloon and a couple of stores, was 18 miles upriver from the first upriver town, Ball's Camp, later called Sterling. About the time they arrived, the town was also called Bessemer because Harrison Clothier from Mount Vernon and others were promoting the plat as a steel-making center for processing the iron ore from Iron Mountain on the south side of the Skagit. The Thompson store was on the north shore and father Henry homesteaded a farm between there and Concrete, which he kept at until his death in the famous Sedro-Woolley train wreck of Jan. 31, 1918. He taught bridge-building skills to David Russell, who wound up building many of the county's early bridges.
      Young Tommy grew up learning his father's skills, farming on the rich soil left after fir and cedar were logged off the lowlands along the river, and the ways of Indians who grudgingly relinquished one patch of land after another in the foothills of the Cascades. By 1904 he was ready to apply all those skills as he was hired as a fire guard in the Sauk river area, south of the new Skagit river towns of Rockport and Sauk. He was soon assigned to a small lake called the Texas Pond, which was on the west side of the Sauk and north of Darrington and the old gold district of Monte Cristo. He helped build a ranger sub-station there in 1907 and worked out of the Marblemount office of the federal Forestry Service, which had just been created. [See this < a href="http://www.stumpranchonline.com/skagitjournal/Upriver/Cascades/Forest-Parks/BackusRanger.html">Journal website for more information.] Below you will find several anecdotes about Tommy, his career, and his wife, Ella.


Forestry profile of Tommy
(From The Mt. Baker Almanac, Book of Historical Facts and Figures, by H. Phil Brandner, forest supervisor, and Newton Field, 1950)
(Tommy and the cougar kitten)
Tommy Thompson and his pet cougar kitten at Backus station about 1940. Photo courtesy of the Thompson collection and Will Jenkins

      Tommy Thompson entered the Forest Service on June 6, 1904, spending the first month of service at Baker Lake and the rest of the summer at Newhalem. His stations in 1905 and 1906 were at Newhalem and Ruby creek and a camp at Hidden Hand creek. In 1907 he was transferred to the Suiattle-Finney district and until 1914 his headquarters was at the Texas Pond Ranger Station and the Suiattle Guard Station where in 1913 he built the log dwelling that is still occupied by the Suiattle guards. Thompson's station in 1915 was the Blue Bird Ranger Station. His work on the Suiattle District was principally administration of timber sales, fighting fires in the summer time and keeping the Suiattle Indians pacified the year round. In these and other jobs he excelled and was always successful. [Ed. note: we once found on a hand-drawn map of the south-Skagit area that the original spelling of Finney creek was Phinney. We still wonder if that was the name of the pioneer who first squatted or settled there and if later pioneers "simplified" the spelling. We hope a future reader will know.]
      In 1915 he was transferred to the Backus Ranger Station as District Ranger of the Skagit district where he remained until he retired in May 1943. During Ranger Thompson's term in the Skagit district he maintained, between his office and the [Seattle] City Light departments, the most friendly and amiable relations and whole-hearted cooperation. He was liked by all the City employees, held in high regard and esteem and upon his retirement, City Light honored him with a party at Newhalem. The theatre was overflowing and he and Mrs. Thompson were presented with beautiful wrist watches. Tommy was tendered a position with City Light upon his retirement from the Forest Service and in 1949 he was still at Newhalem, being the same friendly, reliable Tommy Thompson.
      In 1927 the late supervisor C.H. Park wrote about Thompson: "Thomas Thompson, 'Tommy' to one and all, was one of the first men engaged on the Forest. He is also one of the very few men who never took nor was required to take a Civil Service examination. He entered the service as a boy when the forests were handled by the Department of the Interior, and just naturally inherited his position, in which by well-earned promotions, time after time, he reached the position he wanted and where he could serve best. There is no job too hard for him, no day's work too long in hours. If occasion demands, he can be depended on to do the very best, as his generally good judgment dictates.
      Tommy is fortunate in having a wife, Ella Thompson, who is just as sincere in her devotion to the Forest Service as to her husband. Rightly her title could be "Assistant Forest Ranger."


Will Jenkins remembers Tommy
(Will D. "Bob" Jenkins, Last Frontier in the North Cascades (Tales of the Wild Upper Skagit),
No. 8 Skagit County Historical Society: P.O. Box 818, LaConner, WA 98257-0818,
1984. Ed. Helen Barrett, Margaret Willis)
      During the years of World War One, it was Thompson who headed up the sale of Liberty Bonds on the upper Skagit. When the family eventually acquired an automobile, the ranger spent many of his Sundays repairing broken springs or working on its motor to keep it available for emergency transportation over the rough country roads. His diaries disclose the fact he was frequently called upon to remove someone to hospital or secure a doctor or medicine from the lower valley. Probably because Thompson represented "the government" in his district, he was looked to for advice and authority. There was, in those early years, a rather close parallel of "the law" between forest rangers in the western United States and members of the Canadian Mounties in the bush north of the Border.
      Thompson was The Law in the far wilderness reaches of his district. The few old-timers in the back country as this is written well remember Thompson's capture of two armed military deserters at the mouth of Ruby creek in 1918. Looking into the muzzle of a Colt .45 in the hands of one of the men, Thompson coolly talked the fellow out of committing himself to a possible charge of murder, held out a hand, asked for and received the surrender of the weapon mdash; and both men.
      Among Ella Thompson's cherished mementos are two beautifully embossed wall plaques which she displays with justifiable pride in memory of those active years at Backus station. One of these relates that Thomas George Thompson was one of eight original veteran rangers of the United States Forest Service, chosen to escort President Franklin D. Roosevelt at dedication of the Mt. Hood National Forest's Timberline Lodge, Sept. 8, 1937.
      Beside this plaque is another, presented to Thompson on April 12, 1955, by Chief Richard E. McArdle of the United State Forest Service. In recognition of half a century of service, it denotes Thompson's charter membership "among the small group that established the United States Forest Service in 1905."
      Somewhere along the course of the past 65 years, it seems to me, there should have been another plaque mdash; dedicated to the woman who shouldered a pack and trailed with her husband to that first station at Texas Pond. Ella Thompson would be a deserving recipient.


(Tommy and Ella)
      Ella and Tommy Thompson look pretty spiffy in their "Sunday Go to Meetin' clothes" on the porch of the Texas Pond Ranger substation that Tommy built. Photo was taken about 1907-08 and is courtesy of the Thompson collection and Will Jenkins

Will Jenkins: Ella, The Boss at Backus
(Will D. "Bob" Jenkins, Last Frontier in the North Cascades)
      In the old days we used to hear it gossiped around the night fires that the women ran the Forest Service. Of course that wasn't true. Rangers' wives, I always believed, were proudly loyal to the Service. They were not unlike the wives of pioneer settlers, perfectly capable of sharing the responsibilities of their men as conditions often dictated in the early frontiers of the big timber country. This was probably a characteristic born of the circumstances surrounding lives which were frequently isolated.
      Ella Thompson fits precisely into this picture. The daughter of Skagit pioneers George B. And Laura A. Drum, she married Thompson on July 1, 1908, and with her ranger husband, moved to a honeymoon station at Texas Pond in the Sauk river district. Texas pond's then-new station, built by Thompson, was one of the first in the old original Forest Reserve system, where Thompson began service as a fire guard on June 6, 1904. This area became a segment of the newly created Washington National Forest in 1907. It joined the Snoqualmie Forest near Darrington. The entire region is now known as Mount Baker National Forest, the largest single area of its kind in the nation. At the time the Thompsons took up residence at Texas pond, logging was still a limited operation in the area, though shingle bolt cutting and shingle mills were more generally widespread. [See a map for Texas pond at this website]
      During those early years, scaling logs and shingle bolts, and trail and primitive bridge building took up most of Ranger Thompson's time. He was frequently away from the lonely little cabin at Texas pond days and nights on end. It was at Texas pond that his bride of that year faced and mastered the problems of the rugged existence of a wilderness wife. Long before Tommy Thompson became the ranger over the sprawling upper Skagit district, stretching from Mt. Baker to the summits of the Cascades and from the Glacier Peak country to the Canadian border, Ella Thompson had become an expert woods woman. She could wrangle the Forest Service pack mules and lace on a diamond hitch as deftly as an old-time packer. She had acquired the sill of an Indian in the handling of a dugout canoe and used one frequently. She could swing a doubt bit ax and cut a clean chip. As a trail mate to her young husband, she acquired an expertise in campout and open fire cooking that became legend on the upper Skagit. All this ability was bundled into the frame of a slim young woman who could scarcely tip the scales above one hundred pounds.
      [Ed. note: The next part of the story, the wonderful story about Ella and the "go-devil" tram across the Sauk river, is at our website]
      In August of 1972 my wife, Mildred, and I went to Washtucna, in the wheat country of eastern Washington, to visit Ella Thompson, the widow of Tommy Thompson. He had been my boss on the upper Skagit more than 50 years ago. I needed some information about the original fire lookout station on Sourdough Mountain and Mrs. Thompson had given me access to Tommy's old diaries, which she had preserved.
      Needless to say, the diaries not only furnished the facts I needed; they also polished to a new brightness, memories of my youthful years on the Skagit. And they gave me a new appreciation of the man I had known as a benefactor when I was a footloose and irresponsible teenager.
      I came home to conclude these memoirs, largely based on gleanings from those diaries, among which, surprisingly, I also found one of my own. Their contents have been richly embellished by the keen memory of Ella Thompson, "the boss of Bacus," [correct spelling was Backus] who ran the operations of our district station whenever Tommy was off on lonely missions and out of contact in the high Cascades. I think that above all others, the following story best reveals the true character of Tommy Thompson, who was a champion in my youthful eyes.
      [Ella] also has a ready memory of amusing incidents, some of which had occurred in the midst of serious situations. One of these in particular she likes to recall.

You're fired
      There was a time in 1926 when uncontained fires raced through the isolated back country of Big Beaver and Bacon creek watersheds following a midsummer electrical storm. Death by fire claimed 40,000 acres of prime timber on Big Beaver that year. L.B. Pagter, an official of the regional office of the Forest Service in Portland, had come to Bacus [hereafter Backus, the official spelling] Station to assist.
      An unending flow of reports on new and spreading fires came over the single wire of the Forest Service telephone system from Sourdough Lookout and elsewhere as smoke boiled out of the heavily timbered valleys and a thickening pall spread over the North Cascades. Somewhere in that burning area, Ranger Thompson was directing his firefighting crews and for two days had been out of contact with Backus Station. Mrs. Thompson recalled that Pagter had become a victim of fatigue.
      "He was asleep on his feet. He had been on phone duty for more than 30 hours, handling messages and he was ready to drop. He protested stubbornly when I told him to get some sleep and I would stand by at the phone. He didn't realize how much of the time Tommy had to be away and I had to answer emergency calls. His head kept dropping over as he sat by the wall phone. Finally, after I kept insisting he get some sleep and assured him I could at least answer the phone and if there was something I couldn't take care of, I could call him. He agreed to 'stretch out just a little while' and he slept like a log for ten solid hours." Pagter awakened, finally, to discover the ranger's wife had directed the dispatching of supplies for three firefighting crews while he slept.
      Another incident that demonstrated that Ella Thompson was, in truth, the boss at headquarters when Tommy was away, occurred on the occasion of a small but very hot fire on the north fork of the Cascade river in 1928. A call came in to Backus asking for extra men. There were two young summer guards at the Marblemount station at that time and Mrs. Thompson directed both to join the Cascade crew. One of the men left at once, but the other, recently hired out of Bellingham, refused to leave without a direct order from the ranger. When Ella Thompson informed the young man he was fired, he laughed at her.
      "You ain't the boss and you can't fire me," he said. When Tommy Thompson returned to Marblemount he confronted the fellow over his refusal to join the fire fighting crew on the Cascade.
      "And did my wife tell you that you were fired?" asked the ranger.
      "She sure as hell did, but I wasn't taking no orders from a woman!"
      "That's too bad you didn't," said Tommy, quietly, "because just as sure as shootin' you were fired!" And he most certainly was, as he quickly discovered. It might have been unofficial at the time, but it was, nonetheless, effective. The little woman who ran Backus station when Tommy was absent had not been fooling.


Tommy's Historic Hand-Split Log Construction at Suiattle Guard Station
(From website: http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/about/drd.shtml)
      The Suiattle (pronounced "Sue-attle") Guard Station is located in the Suiattle River drainage. In 1913, Tommy Thompson was the Assistant Ranger of the Suiattle-Finney District. As a ranger, one of his tasks was to construct his own station. He used hand-split shakes and log construction to supplement purchased building materials. Because of budget limitations, the Forest Service often relied upon rangers to construct their own stations in this matter. Construction details on the Suiattle Guard Station, such as the half-dovetail notching, is a tribute to Ranger Thompson's craftsmanship. As a testament, the cabin survives to this day as one of the two oldest administrative buildings in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Suiattle Guard Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, and is currently in the Cabin Rental Program. For more information, or to make reservations, contact the Darrington Ranger Station. Also visit our web page about renting the Suiattle Guard Station.

National Park Service: Tommy anecdotes
(From website: http://www.nps.gov/noca/hrs6-2d.htm)
      In addition to building campgrounds and shelters, USFS rangers were required to stock the rivers and lakes of the North Cascades with game fish, "making fish grow where none grew before." With the sport fisherman in mind, Ranger Tommy Thompson packed milk cans full of trout fry from the State Department of Game and lead his horse train up Big Beaver and Thunder Creeks to release the fish in those waters. Two decades later, in the 1930s, Thompson and other USFS personnel packed in tens of thousands of fry to Sourdough Lake, Thunder Lake, Pyramid Lake, and McGuire Lakes (Panther Potholes today).
      Materials for the building of pontoon bridges, ships, barracks, and much more were in great demand and the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest could easily meet that demand. To the dismay of conservationists, USFS chief Lyle Watts convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow a timber harvest in closed forest areas. As a result of this decision, eleven million board feet of timber were removed from the North Cascades Primitive Area in. 1942
      The USFS was also asked to participate in the defense against possible invasion by the Japanese. Ranger Tommy Thompson spent most of December 12, 1941, at the Backus Ranger Station preparing windows for wartime blackouts. That same month, he canvassed the upper Skagit area registering people between the ages of 18 and 67 to assist with defense work. Although forest rangers were exempt from military service, many other local men were drafted. It was not long before USFS crews were comprised of older men, high school age boys, and women. Most helped by keeping watch at Aircraft Warning System (AWS) stations. These posts were manned 24 hours a day year-round for the purposes of detecting foreign aircraft or incendiary balloons in American skies. Lookouts built earlier for fire protection high on mountain ridges were ideally suited for AWS stations. Desolation, Hidden Lake, Bacon Peak, and Roland Point were all used in this fashion. A post was built at Boundary during this time period as well. Throughout the year, supplies were packed in by USFS crews for the lonely observers keeping vigil over the rugged mountain range.


Tommy and the homesteaders
(From website: http://www.nps.gov/noca/hrs3-4a.htm)
      Of the ten known homesteaders who settled along the upper Skagit River corridor and within the boundaries of the present-day park, all but three filed homestead claims between 1899 and 1910 in order to obtain full title to their land. Only a few were actually declared legitimate homesteads under the requirements of the June Act. Over time the squatters abandoned their efforts, reluctantly returning their land to the federal government. The USFS firmly exercised its right to administer the law, which included the removal of illegal squatters from the national forests. On one occasion in 1918, Ranger Tommy Thompson accompanied a U.S. Marshal who boarded over windows and "fastened up"' a house on an illegal claim, posting signs warning trespassers to keep their distance. It is unlikely that such drastic measures became common occurrence in the upper Skagit region. The USFS did, however, generally regard settlers on forest lands as potential problems. In interpreting the homestead laws and determining which homesteads were valid under these laws, the USFS was strict and rarely offered leniency of any kind. Perhaps this attitude toward homesteaders explains why patented acreage recorded in the Skagit drainage between 1906 and 1913 totaled only 500.

Poet Kenneth Rexroth meets Tommy during the Bohemian days of the 1920s
(From website: http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/autobio/4.htm)
      [Ed. note: Kenneth Rexroth was the elder of the Beat poets who gathered in San Francisco, Manhattan and Mexico City in the mid-1950s. He was a veteran of the days in the early 1920s when striking workers and populists spoke out against authority in pre-World I America. He spoke on soapboxes in Seattle and hiked up to the North Cascades to work with his hands and learn about wilderness survival. In the 1950s, he inspired poet Gary Snyder to do the same and Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen to come to the North Cascades and work in the summer as fire-watchers. You can read about them at our website about John Suiter's book, Poets on the Peaks.]
      At Marblemount was a ranger station, where I got a job [in the mid-1920s].. Almost forty [a slip: he means thirty] years later I was to meet Gary Snyder, who had worked for the same district ranger just before his retirement. At this time the ranger was just starting. He was what they call a local man in the Forest Service mdash; he was not a forestry college graduate. His name was Tommy Thompson and he was a wonderful fellow. He eventually became Chief Ranger of the Baker National Forest. I came in the evening with a rucksack on my back and asked for a job. He said, "Come on in and have supper. Maybe I've got a job." . . .
      This was some of the wildest country in America and I had never been in real mountains, except as a child sightseeing in the Alps. Thompson gave me a short crosscut saw. I said, "Oh, are we going together?" He said no. I said, "Who's going to pull the other end of this? It hasn't got any handle on it." He said, "There isn't going to be anybody to pull the other end of it. You'll do it alone." Off I went with a rucksack on my back with a week's supply of food and a couple of light tools and a crosscut saw and ax. The distance was not great, but between Marblemount and Stehekin I did the work which later would be assigned to a CCC crew of twelve boys. I had no pack horse and nobody to give me any advice. I did what seemed to need doing. I sawed open the trail. In one of our tool caches I found some dynamite and an auger. At that cabin I camped with an old hardrock miner who said I was wasting my energy. He showed me a little of elementary powder-man technique. After that I blew open the windfalls. I bored a hole in the log, put in a little powder and a cap, and blew it to pieces. On the way back on the other trail, which was extremely rough and steep mdash; in those days it was impossible to get stock over the Suiattle River trail mdash; I blew my way out of the country, but going in I sawed my way. There were plenty of tool caches. You don't camp out in that country, it's too wet, particularly on the Sound slope. All through the country there were cabins to stay in where there were supposed to be tools for Forest Service use. A saw and an ax would not keep very well over the winter, so those two things I carried, but there were bars, peevees, mauls, picks, hammers, wedges, and dynamite cached all over the country. I tipped rocks into mudholes and pulled rocks out of the rocky spots and leveled off the trail, and was a one-man trail crew and thought nothing of it, because I'd never seen such things before. I got back probably the happiest boy who ever lived. . . .
      I went fishing with Tommy Thompson and he gave me a lot of advice about living and working in the mountains and sold me a horse. This was the first horse I ever owned and one of the best. I went out Monday night and fed him a handful of oats and curried him and put my arms around his neck and rubbed his nose and ears. It's impossible to convey the intense excitement of an adolescent boy from a great city rubbing noses with his first horse deep in the Western mountains the night before he starts off on a typical wandering, horseback, Western-story quest for range and mountain work. The horse's name was Bob . . . .He cost me twenty-five dollars and an old McClellan saddle and a Spanish ear bridle thrown in for free. Anyone who has ever ridden a McClellan saddle can understand why it was free.


Epilogue
      EpilogueWe have not yet found an obituary for either Tommy or Ella, but we know from his relative, Mary Lynne Ball, that Tommy died on June 6, 1969, the 25th anniversary of Normandy D-Day, and we know that he died at Pasco. He was 85. He and Ella moved sometime in the 1950s to Washtucna in eastern Washington to be near their only daughter, Vera, who was married and was Mrs. Vera Murphy. Sometime before 1930 the Thompsons apparently moved to Sedro-Woolley because we found them listed in 1930 census, next to Sidney S. McIntyre Sr. We have also learned from Dr. Jesse Kennedy at the Marblemount Curation Facility of the National Park Service that Vera donated Tommy's extensive journals and diaries, covering the period from 1907-43, to the Washington State University archives after Ella's death in an unknown year. [You can read about them at: this website] We hope that a reader will update us with obituaries about Tommy and Ella and other memories, documents and photos.


Story posted on April 15, 2004
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