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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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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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History of Hamilton on the Skagit river
Chapter One: Coal and the era
before William Hamilton

(Logging donkey crew)
      As in most of the early villages along the Skagit river, one of the first priorities was to clear the forest land to provide space for a townsite and residential area. This photo of the Hamilton Logging Co. shows a crew in action. Photo courtesy of Skagit Settlers, a fine history of Skagit county that is still available at the historical museum in LaConner.

      Ed. note: We have labored for a year to find the essence of the town of Hamilton, which formed on the upper Skagit river seven years before its larger neighbor of Sedro to the west. Nearly ten years ago, we started interviewing descendants and combing through the books, magazines and newspapers that have covered the settlement here. But we were still stuck for a fresh perspective until Lois Pinelli Theodoratus, Don Kelly and John Tomkins found our website and started sharing family memories and photos. They have suffered through dozens of emails as we quizzed them about the details of their pioneer families and the village of Hamilton. With their help, we were able to bring the early settlement of the village into focus. Mr. Tompkins was one of the descendants of William Hamilton who helped us profile this man, who moved away from here in 1891 and left more mysteries than details about his life. Since then we have located his descendants all over the country, interviewed genealogists from Kentucky and found dozens of sources that writers of local history have largely not seen before. Except for occasional stories in periodicals, Hamilton was not profiled as a subject by itself until Carol Bates and family wrote the Hamilton Centennial book in 1991. You can read how to obtain a rare new copy here or you can look for a used copy. Finally, we picked the brain of Fred Slipper, whose father and uncles left their aristocratic upbringing in England to establish businesses in the young village. The Hamilton museum was Fred's childhood home.
      This story would normally be introduced in our online, subscriber-paid edition because it involved a couple hundred hours of work and writing and editing. But we wanted to share our work on the free website so you can see the research and writing that goes into a piece like this. We also want to make clear that this is very much a work in progress. One of the advantages of working on the web is that we can provide a draft, a framework, which can be added to, corrected and supplemented by your own memories, documents and photos. If you find anything that you question or if you can add to our work, please email us. The Hamilton story starts with two chapters. The first is on preparation of the townsite and early settlement, and the second is on the role of William Hamilton and his family. They suffered both the usual hardships of pioneer settlement plus the loss of their father once the town started booming. The next chapters will profile the events leading to the turn of the century and the arrival of more pioneer families. If your family moved here before 1929, we would especially love to hear from you by email or mail. We do need financial support to continue this project at its current level, so if you like this story and want to read the many features available to subscribers, please read details about our separate Subscribers Edition, which started in January 2001.

Chapter 1: Coal mines and settlement before William Hamilton

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2001
      To understand why Hamilton almost became a major city, you have to search back way before William Hamilton claimed it and named it. The seeds of the town were planted in the fall of 1873 when Amasa Everett moved to LaConner from Minnesota and joined Orlando Graham who had moved from the same state to stake a claim on Fidalgo island that spring. About that same time, Lafayette Stevens moved here from Nevada where he worked as a miner.
      We learn from the 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties [page 109, hereafter called 1906 Book] that the trio met the next summer while Graham and Everett worked for farmers on the Swinomish flats. Apparently Indians brought samples of gold ore to the Swinomish trading post and Stevens led an exposition to find the source in September that year. Everett seems to be the key to the group. He grew up in Maine in the county is furthest north in the continental United States, Aroostook, which was also home to Samuel S. Tingley, the famous pioneer of Happy Valley and Day Creek. Skagit county was full of settlers from that area and New Brunswick, Canada, just over the border.
      Travel up the Skagit river was a torturous affair in those days. After the gold fever on the Fraser river died down in 1858, some of the frustrated miners decided to prospect on the Skagit, where they poled up at least as far as present-day Hamilton, which is about 40 miles up the river from its mouth, as the crow flies. But they decided against subsequent trips because of the scarcity of placer gold and the two logjams that blocked off the river at present-day Mount Vernon. The next upriver explorers came in 1870, a team led by D.C. Linsley and Frank Wilkeson, which was assigned by the Northern Pacific to determine if the Skagit Valley and the Cascades were suitable for the route of the proposed transcontinental railroad. They also noted the logjams and the difficulty of carving either wagon roads or railroad beds in the narrow valley. Before 1874 there were only two permanent settlers above the north log jam. A.R. Williamson had located just west of present-day Lyman on the north shore of the river in 1872. After trying to make a living trading with the Indians, he began growing hops. He learned that method of farming while working for the famed Oregon-Trail emigrant, Ezra Meeker, down south in Puyallup. A year later, Baptist minister B.N.L. Davis also homesteaded and grew hops on the south shore of the river, north of the present Skagit Valley Community College and just to the east of the where the Great Northern Railway would cross in 1891.
      After the trio of prospectors portaged around the logjams and then poled up the river in Indian canoes, they stopped at the south bank of the Skagit, across from Hamilton. There they were distracted by other Indians who told them about some sort of peculiar black metal that they had found on the mountain that rose steeply from the bank. The men split into teams to explore the hillside. Everett poked around the mountain with an Indian companion and discovered coal deposits that were so exciting that he carried the ore back down in his hat. It was on the trip down that he met with the accident that cost him his leg. While he stooped to drink from a creek, a boulder tumbled down the mountain and crushed his right leg before he could escape its path. His Indian companion did what he could to help set his broken leg in a crude splint and when Graham and Stevens joined them, they took him down the mountainside to their canoe and rushed him downriver. Apparently they did not take him to Dr. George Calhoun in LaConner and Graham decided instead to take him to Seattle by steamboat since his leg was crushed so badly. By the time they found medical assistance, gangrene had set in and a surgeon decided to amputate his leg at the knee.
      In a memoir by John P. McGlinn in the fine book, Skagit Settlers, the federal Indian agent describes a canoe trip that fall of 1874 that terminated at a spot about where the trio above had prospected. His canoe party included LaConner founders John S. Conner and his wife Louisa Ann; Edward Seigfried, Mrs. Conner's brother from Pennsylvania; James O'Loughlin, who owned a tin shop there, and his wife; and James Gaches, who started a general store there the year before with his brother and who would become one of the county's most famous early pioneers.
      The last member of the canoe party to Hamilton was John Campbell, a partner in a local trading post, who had impressed McGlinn mightily as a speaker at the LaConner Fourth of July celebration, the summer before. Campbell gave quite a stem-winder of a speech and kept the small crowd of settlers convulsed with laughter. But McGlinn noted that Campbell's prediction of LaConner's future in 1900 "appeared to be... a picture drawn from a too-fervid imagination." If McGlinn is to be believed, that was surely an omen for the trip upriver.
      After the party enjoyed a day of peaceful commune with nature across the river from future-Hamilton, they woke in the night to hear piercing blood-curling shrieks. Campbell had slipped off into the night.
      It was a terrifying moment. The wild and unsettled country, the unearthly shrieks coming at such an hour, and in such a place, completely unnerved them, making the hair on their heads stand and thrilling the blood in their hearts.
      The men set off in the woods and found him shrieking over and over the name of a local Skagit River Indian, "Ted-auh-an." It was all the men could do to restrain him, but after his struggles ceased, he lapsed into a milder form of what McGlinn described as religious dementia.
      The party had planned to continue upriver but the women balked and they certainly did not want to continue up or down in Campbell's company. O'Loughlin saved the day when he tricked Campbell into believing that an Indian courier from Swinomish had arrived with a letter from Catholic Father Chirouse that requested Campbell to return downriver immediately. Campbell fell for the bait. He would not be the last man to go insane while living upriver.
      We note here, however, that McGlinn was antagonistic towards Campbell for two reasons. First, McGlinn was a Republican appointee and Campbell was a Democrat. And McGlinn was an ardent prohibitionist, while Campbell incurred the disfavor of neighbors for his sale of liquor to Indians at his trading post on the South Fork of the Skagit River. Author Tom Robinson strongly suspects that politics colored the descriptions of Campbell in the 1906 book, The Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties.

(Coal Mountain)
      This undated photograph was often printed on postcards near the turn of the 20th century. It is a truly a puzzlement, as people might have said back then, because most of the building are news to anyone who has seen the photo. We have no idea who the photographer was or what year the photo was taken, much less are we sure of which streets are crossing. At first, we thought that the view is looking south over the young town of Hamilton, with Coal mountain looming behind on the south shore of the Skagit river. That would mean that the streets are: diagonal-left-to-right — Cumberland Street, and horizontal — Maple Street.Or . . . are we looking west-southwest at the same streets, but switched in direction? We have begun to wonder about this because of the mountains in the background and the curved slopes of Iron Mountain and Coal Mountain. Just to confuse matters further, was this photo taken before the disastrous 1897 that wiped out the early town by the river — i.e., could the diagonal street be Cumberland and is the horizontal street, Water Street, which is now covered by the Skagit River? We hope a reader can identify when it was taken, in what direction and what the buildings are in the photo. This is truly one of the most mysterious and fascinating photos that have been passed down throughout the years.

James J. Conner might have been first permanent settler
at William Hamilton's future town site
      While Everett healed during that winter of 1874-75, Stevens made several more trips up to the mountain for coal ore. In the spring of 1875 he was joined by miner James Scott. Scott's parents were Scottish and moved to Ireland by the time of his of birth in 1843. They emigrated to Pennsylvania while Scott was a child. After serving in the Union army in the civil war, he joined the Indian scouts in the Sioux country of the Midwest, then moved to California, and then Olympia before coming north to the Skagit and homesteading at Hamilton. He made his home at Hamilton for the rest of his life. About the same time in 1875, O'Loughlin and James J. Conner also decided to prospect in the area of Coal Mountain. This early mining led to the famous description of Hamilton in the 1903 Graphic magazine as the "Pittsburgh of the West."
      Conner was the brother of the storekeeper who named the town. Like Scott, Conner had served in the civil War and also later served as a Midwest Indian scout. His brother, John S. Conner, arrived on the Swinomish slough in 1869 and bought from Thomas Hayes the trading post that Alonzo Low had started on the LaConner side (east) in 1867 as the first commercial establishment in the county. After joining John in 1870, James pre-empted 160 acres around where the marina is today and then laid out the actual town of LaConner in 1872, naming it for his sister-in-law, Louisa Ann. In 1873 he built the first hotel in the county there, although this area was still the southern half of Whatcom county then. Between 1874 and 1877, James ran a trading vessel on the sound in partnership with the mentally jumbled Campbell. He probably also set up Campbell in the trading post at the log jams, replacing a Mr. Barker who was killed there in 1869 by a white man, although an Indian was executed for the crime. The store was relocated a mile south to the fork of the two branches of the Skagit River and Conner bought out Campbell when the latter's mental health deteriorated further.
      From 1875, Conner was associated more with the little settlement that would become Hamilton and in 1879 he moved there permanently. He apparently was the capitalist of the group and helped pay for a force of laborers who sunk a shaft 100 feet in depth, from which they extracted 20 tons of coal that they shipped to San Francisco. Here we find the first hindrance to complete development of the riches of that area. The ore had to be piled on a makeshift barge of boards lashed on top of two or more Indian canoes. About 25 miles down the curving snake of the Skagit was a formidable hurdle: the two logjams at the site of present-day Mount Vernon. Loggers and laborers had to cut a road through the dense forest that lined the bank south of present-day Avon. When the ore got that far, it could be loaded onto the sternwheeler Chehalis, which steamed up the Skagit to a point below the second jam. That was about a mile southwest of Mount Vernon at the David Kimble homestead. The first successful shipment of ore to points south began on April 22, 1875, when the sternwheeler off-loaded to the schooner Sabina.
      In the 1906 Book, a writer for the Bellingham Bay Mail [later changed to the Puget Sound Mail newspaper in LaConner in 1879] was quoted about the Hamilton coal mines:

      He referred to the Bellingham Bay stone quarry at the foot of the Chuckanut range, and visited and described the coal, the stone and the timber lands extending northward to the limits of what is now Skagit county. The progress of development of the coal mines is indicated by the fact that on April 22, 1875, the company shipped its first coal by the schooner Sabina. The cost of delivering that first shipment below the jam was about ten dollars per ton, which was so great as to leave no profits, but in a short time the construction of the new road so diminished the expense as to leave a goodly margin to the company After the completion they were able to transport from one hundred to two hundred tons per month to a shipping point.
      Conner continued the shipments for two more years, but was always short of capital and the complicated transportation cut deep into any profits. The initial cost of transporting ore from Hamilton to the sternwheeler landing was $10 per ton. Meanwhile, Amasa Everett — soon known as Peg-Leg — sold out his interests to a San Francisco coal agent and settled in 1875 on the east side of the Baker river just north of its mouth at the Skagit. Ten years later he discovered a bench of limestone on his ranch that was the beginning of the towns of Baker and eventually Concrete. We do not know where Graham wound up but we know that Stevens staked a claim at the future site of Sterling and developed mining claims up and down the south shore of the Skagit and the foothills of the Cascades.
      The 1906 Book notes the high costs of staples in 1876 by quoting from settler James H. Moores, who emigrated to the Skagit from Canada that year to join his uncle at a logging camp. Prices included: sugar, 8 pounds for $1; flour, $7 a barrel; tea, 50-60 cent a pound; nails, 7 cents a pound; butter, 75 cents a pound, hay, $14 per ton; potatoes $18-20 per ton; carrots, $15 per ton; salt, a penny per pound; beef was very hard to ever find. He also noted that wages for ordinary labor ranged from $40-75 per month.
      During that summer of 1876, the first steps were taken to clear up the logjams that were hindering both travel and settlement upriver. Since Congress refused to bankroll the $100,000 estimated price tag, settlers formed a company to do it themselves. Among the eight major sponsors, two would eventually settle upriver — Joe Wilson, who was one of the first residents of the Skiyou area, and James Cochrane, who would become an early settler of Lyman. Eldridge Morse, the roving reporter of the Northern Star newspaper from Snohomish, reported on Dec. 16 that year that a half mile of the south jam had been removed, which reduced the portage by more than a mile. The reporter was so impressed with the progress that he prophesized a prosperous town at the site of the coal diggings, one that would sport iron furnaces and a machine shop and would attract a railroad upriver. What he did not mention was that the mines in three regions on the mountain across from future Hamilton were only running sporadically because the portage around upper jam still made transportation costs too high. By the summer of 1877, a 250-foot channel was cut through lower jam and the first steamer reached Mount Vernon.

Hamilton-area settlement begins
      One of the first early settlers was Martin Smith, who emigrated to the Skagit from Iowa in 1875. He was a native of Indiana and his wife, Nancy Smith was originally from Tennessee. Smith homesteaded land north of the eventual railroad tracks, just west of town where the highway pavement originally ended. He sold out to the J.R.H. Davis in 1884 and bought 160 acres on Cockreham island or The Island, as it is known, near Lyman. He moved back and forth over the years but his son, Emmett, born in 1891, continued trading at Hamilton. One of Smith's descendants, Nancy Brownlee, wrote and gave us some information about the family; we are still seeking more.
      Sometime in 1877, Valentine Adam settled upriver after emigrating from Rhenish Bavaria in Germany. Trained as a stone cutter, he worked across the country at this trade and then initially took a claim of 159 acres at future-Lyman on the north shore of the river after looking up and down the river for land. Over the next few years he proved up on his claim and helped first Lorenzo Lyman and then Otto Klement start the village of Lyman. He worked part time helping Williamson with his hop farm west of town and the rest of the time clearing his own land on the north bank of the Skagit.
      Later, in 1880, Henry Cooper and his cousin, Henry Cooper Leggett, arrived in LaConner from Quebec. Leggett settled southwest of Lyman and the Williamson ranch where the river branched off into a slough on the north side and created little islands. That area became known as Utopia. Cooper took a claim upriver halfway between the future towns of Lyman and Hamilton. Cooper's daughter, Henrietta, wrote in her 1951 application for the Territorial Daughters of Washington that her father and Adams decided to swap properties in March of 1883, just months before Williamson died on his hop ranch. This appears to be in conflict with Adam's homestead patent, however, which was signed by President Chester Arthur on June 17, 1884. Henrietta was born in September 1888, four months after her father's death. She eventually inherited much of that original Lyman land and she and her husband settled next door to Klement. Her grandson, Bud Meyers, and his wife, Maxine, still live in her house and they now own the Klement house, too.
      Meanwhile, Adam set about clearing his land near Hamilton by hand. He told the interviewer for the 1906 Book that Williamson was his only neighbor in the very early days, and recalled how there were no roads, only muddy trails between the monster trees. There were no horses or oxen in those early days. Frank Hoehn would bring the first large herd of horses over the Cascades in 1889. The first trees cleared off his property were the cedars because they were hollow. Settlers learned to poke burning coals into a horizontal tunnel they drilled into the tree. They angled a shaft down from a foot or so above at a 45-degree angle that served as a flue. As a result the insides slowly burned out and the tree and stump were easier to remove, though nothing was easy for a settler in those early days. As if that wasn't enough, 300 angry Indians stormed over the Cascade Pass from Yakima in 1878 and scared the settlers up and down the river until cooler heads among the whites met with the Indians and quelled the warlike tendencies. In 1885 Adam married Margaret Bruns of Hanover, Germany, and they raised six children together on that farm. A Republican, Adam was later a road supervisor at the turn of the century and was an avid supporter of education, serving several terms on the Hamilton school board.

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Story posted on April 1, 2001, last updated Oct. 26, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
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