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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
(Seattle & Northern 1890)
Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered:
Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated
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Noel V. Bourasaw, editor 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Ella Thompson and the Sauk Go-Devil

(Go-devil across Thunder creek)
This go-devil crossed above the rushing waters of Thunder creek, decades before Ross lake flooded the area. Courtesy of Mrs. Joyce Bergman Rickman.

      Ed. note: When we posted the photo feature about the Skagit Queen mine that includes the wonderful photos from Mrs. Joyce Rickman's collection, we received several questions about what a go-devil is. Ella Thompson, pioneer wife of famed Forest Ranger Tommy Thompson, tells us and shares the thrills she felt as she learned to ride one all by herself.

(From Last Frontier in the North Cascades by Will D. Jenkins, 1984, pages 159-61.
Still for sale at the Skagit County Historical Association museum in LaConner.)

      The old Suiattle Crossing, a cable spanning the Sauk [river] equipped with a go-devil that rode the wire on two V-pulleys, was located a little below the point where Suiattle river joins the Sauk. Here was Mile "0" on the 44 miles of trail to Suiattle Pass, an old Indian trade route into the Chelan country by way of the high alpine meadows now known as the Glacier Peak primitive area.
      The go-devil at Suiattle Crossing once gave Ella Thompson what she came to regard as perhaps her greatest test for survival as the wife of the ranger at Texas Pond [the legendary Tommy Thompson]. In 1913, Tommy was on the Suiattle to build the original log station at Mile 18. He was often away from his headquarters a week at a time. During those early absences his wife remained frequently alone.
      There came a day when the receipt of an urgent official for Thompson reached Texas Pond and Ella considered herself duty-bound to deliver it to her husband. Thus it came about that the ranger's wife prepared to hit the trail by way of the Crossing. There, however, she discovered Tommy had used their canoe. It had been hauled out on the opposite shore. Her only choice, now, was the cable go-devil on the high wire above the river. This was a new device, on which the pulling rope, by which a passenger could haul himself across the river, had not yet been attached. Knowing this fact, the ranger had warned his wife against any attempt to use the aerial carriage. There was a natural sag in the cable hanging more than 400 feet between trees on opposite banks of the Sauk. Riding the strand on its pulleys, the little box-like cage would roll with exciting speed to the low point of the sag over mid-river. But from there the remaining distance was all "up-hill" and you had to pull yourself manually, with both hands grasping and hauling on the cable in the narrow space between the pulleys. That last and final haul-up to reach the opposite bank was always a hard one; no task for any but the strong, as old-timers would recall.
      For Ella Thompson, it was a pull for life.
      All went well as she rode the carriage down the first slope. At midstream, the low point in the long stretch of the wire, the go-devil slowed to a stop, to swing idly above the racing current of the Sauk. Here she grasped the both hands as she knew she would have to do, braced herself and began to pull. The corded twist of strands in the heavy wire bit into the tender skin of her fingers as the go-devil began to move again, this time slowly against the uphill drag.
      The muscles of her young arms were hardly equal to the dead weight of the carriage; and before she had hauled herself more than half the remaining distance to the east bank of the Sauk, her arms cried for rest and she eased her hold. The carriage began to roll back on its iron pulleys. She grabbed the cable quickly then, and that's when the forward pulley rolled over the fingers of her right hand. She was trapped. In painful desperation she pulled on the cable; a violent yank freed her fingers from the wheel as the carriage inched ahead once more. Feeling faint from the pain in her pinched fingers, Mrs. Thompson clung to the cable, as blood began to drip from the cuts.
      "The pain in my fingers was terrific," she would reminisce of her ordeal. "I was afraid I was going to faint. I remember looking down at the river sweeping below me, and the thought of fainting and falling into the Sauk scared me so frightfully. I knew I had to do something and the only thing I could do was pull. I guess the thought of falling into the river gave me the strength because I pulled that contraption on across the river."
      Near collapse, she finally hooked into the anchor tree and shakily climbed down the pole ladder to the ground. Ahead of her still lay a journey of several miles to Tommy's trail camp on the Suiattle to deliver the message. It was delivered!

Click on these thumbnail photos to see the full-sized photos
(River gorge)
Far left. This river gorge that Mrs. Rickman's uncle photographed near Diablo illustrates why a go-devil was so necessary in the Cascades during the days before bridges and roads.
Center: This photo is from Will Jenkin's book. He included this caption: "The author and Tony, the Troublemaker., in the Lynch Brothers' go-devil at Newhalem in 1920. This is where the Airedale pup fell into the Skagit and rode the rapids for half a mile. Pat Lynch shut down the work on five diamond drills to organize a successful search for my dog." Probably circa 1920s-30s.

Story posted on May 16, 2002 and updated on April 22, 2004
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