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Skagit River Journal

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Sam Strom, pioneer miner
— the young Count of Monte Cristo

(Harry Strom)
Harry Strom, in light winter gear, with rifle, a furry critter (bobcat), heading home for a snack. Thank you so much for these photos, Betty Knowles of Darrington, and your kindness and memories. We have always wondered what this marvelous Norwegian pioneer looked like.

      Sam Strom arrived at the Monte Cristo mines in eastern Snohomish county in 1893 at the same time that the nationwide Depression slammed the door shut for investment and economic growth in the new state of Washington. But when you read his memoir in our accompanying story in this issue, he never even mentions the bottom falling out of the economy. He exhibits the unfettered exuberance of an immigrant who was fully ready to overcome all obstacles in his new land, one who hit the ground running as a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
      Sam was born in Norway in Oct. 24, 1872, one of the few facts of his life before emigration to the U.S. that we know of any certainty. The only other item he shares about his home country is that he was from "far away Norway near the Border of Sweden Mountains." Maybe he recorded details somewhere about his childhood or his crossing over the Atlantic, but we have not found any details. We especially wonder if he was a brother or some relative of another Norwegian immigrant, Wilhelm (William) Strom, who settled in the Utopia district east of Sedro-Woolley in the same time period. My brother and I used to buck hay bales for Wilhelm's son, Otto Strom, who lived with his mother on the Utopia farm after Wilhelm died. Another son, Carl, was the night watchman who killed during a bank robbery in Sedro-Woolley in 1933. Their third son, Harry, died about ten years ago. We hope that a descendant or relative can help us connect the family dots.
      The fortunes of the Monte Cristo mines rose as the Everett Land Co. prospered in the early 1890s, and New York financial magnate John D. Rockefeller was the financial backer of the ELC. The Monte Cristo bubble burst when Rockefeller cut the legs out from underneath the principals of the company who thought that the boom and the good times would never end. Norman H. Clark described the 1893 situation in his terrific 1970 book, Mill Town:

      As he [the "father" of Everett, Henry Hewitt Jr.] contemplated the meaning of depression, he received an ominous summons to appear again in New York, where Rockefeller, in better health, had at last determined to look carefully into the management of the Everett Land Company. Rockefeller did so with rising indignation. His first decision was that he could no longer trust any of his affairs to Henry Hewitt; his second, that he would not impetuously precipitate any further panic by destroying the company itself. . . .
      At Port Gardner Bay [Everett], these words seemed too cruel to believe. The newspapers pumped hope after desperate hope into the deflated dream. Nothing, they said, could be permanently wrong. Rockefeller could not have taken a personal interest in the land company unless he was sure of its soundness. [Charles L.] Colby would never have consented to go to the head of any enterprise that did not promise certain success." Colby — or Rockefeller — had, in fact, completed the concentrator at the Monte Cristo mines, the railroad to the mines, and the smelter. They must then have faith, and this faith would be Everett's salvation.
      Even so, some men were known to have muttered in public — and it had reached the newspapers in print — that the city was "conceived in fraud and brought forth in iniquity." The land company, they were saying, had robbed innocent men. The Monte Cristo mines had been salted with Mexican ores. Everett, the underground whispered, was a "swindling townsite boom" where "owls and bats revel in the wreck of misspent fortunes.

      By November 1894, the ELC could not pay the eight percent interest on its bonds and Rockefeller, who "had never seen Everett and had no intention of doing so," instructed his confidential secretary, Frederick T. Gates, to "extract him from the Everett mess." As Clark observes, the Panic of 1893 was a panic of lost confidence, true here regionally as it was true nationally. As we read his memoir, we wish that Sam had reflected on the pessimism, but then again, we forget. We forget that he may have been illiterate in his new language and may have been unable to read the newspapers that heralded the panic back east, the bankruptcy of the Northern Pacific railroad and the halt in construction on the Great Northern Line that James J. Hill ordered, the same GN that bypassed Everett and proceeded to Seattle that year for its terminus.
      We learn from Sam's memoir that gold was discovered in the Monte Cristo area in 1889, the year that Washington became a state, and for a time there was a feverish staking of claims. Transportation of supplies was the major obstacle facing the miners. While Sam missed the initial activities, he gained an intimate knowledge of all that had transpired before and of subsequent events by close contact with many of the original miners. Those miners who stayed and did not give up, told him of the frenzy of development after word got out about the discoveries of Frank Peabody, Joseph Pearsall and the Wilmans brothers, Mac and Fred. When Sam arrived at the mines, the town of Monte Cristo had a population of about 400. There was a tri-weekly train service between Everett and Monte Cristo on the new railroad that covered a distance of 52 miles. The town of Monte Cristo sported three hotels and a number of stores. Sam explained that miners originally reached the promising Silver Creek district by a pack trail through Poodle Dog Pass, but the high divide there was not practical as a rail outlet. Sauk City was a logical place for a market stop in case the railroad advanced up Skagit valley. He described in detail the original road from Sauk City to Monte Cristo:
      The system of construction was a winding dirt road following least resistance by avoiding the larger trees as far as possible. No gravel was hauled at any place. In swamps and soft places, puncheon split from trees on the right of way was used and this winding, narrow road was pushed to Monte Cristo, or nearly so, in the late fall of 1891. The Sauk river valley was the only logical outlet for a railroad before the Stillaguamish river route was surveyed. Railroad engineers were at work looking for the most feasible place to build it and a party surveyed up the Sauk river. Sam explained how a railroad engineer named Barlow found a spring on a hillside a few hundred feet west of the Sauk. That little trickling steam of water did not flow into the Sauk. It proved to be the very beginning of the divide between South Fork of the Sauk river and the South Fork of the Stillaguamish. Barlow Pass was discovered and examined for the man that found it.
            Sam discussed all those events and phenomena in his memoir. But when we tried to supplement his own unorganized notes with official records, we ran into a lot of blank walls. We do know that he took an interest in mountain climbing in his spare time because he is credited with being a member of the first party to ascend Glacier Peak, in 1897, along with Thomas Gerdine, A.H. Dubor and Darcy Bard. In 1900, he was enumerated for the first time in a federal census while living in the White Horse precinct of the Monte Cristo district, Snohomish county. He was 27 years old and there is a hint that he may have emigrated via Pennsylvania and may have come to the U.S. with his family as a teenager. At that time he lived next door to James Bedal and family.
      In the 1910 federal census, he is shown as living in Darrington. He was married by then to Emma Raiche, who was born in Michigan and was about three years younger than Sam. We know nothing else about Emma except that she appears to have died as a widow in Seattle on Feb. 11, 1953. Their daughter, Mary A., was listed as a baby; she was born on Dec. 10, 1909. They are also enumerated in Darrington in the 1920 federal census and a son, James W. Strom, is listed as age nine. In 1930 they are again in Darrington and Sam's employer that year was the Puget Sound Copper Co.
      We had no other information about Sam as he approached middle age, until that is, we asked Daryl Jacobson, who co-authored the 2000 book, The Everett and Monte Cristo Railway. Lucky for us, he learned details about Sam while he researched for that book:

(Strom home)
      Another lovely Betty Knowles photo of Sam's original house, which he built in 1897 after arriving from Norway and working at the Monte Cristo mines. Does a reader know the location?

      Yes, Sam Strom was quite a man. What his remembrances don't tell you is that Sam once took on Snohomish County when they tried to build a road though his patented mining claims, without compensation. They threatened to send him to jail if he didn't remove his self-built toll gate on the road. Not only did he refuse to remove it, he sued the county and won damages for the timber the county removed and a mine tunnel they plowed through.
      Jean Bedal said Sam was a man who hated her father (as stated in his 1936 remembrances) but who very much liked Jean and her sister Edith and would allow the girls free passage past his gate on the road.
      This short — 5' 6", ball of fire took on the entire Darrington contingent of the Ku Klux Klan, not once but at least twice as Darrington town constable. Once when they tried to lynch a young Indian boy and another time when they tried to burn a cross in the yard of a Catholic schoolteacher there. He was said to be involved in something like 14 to 17 shootouts during his life.
      The late Joe Cook once told me that he liked Sam Strom until he found out Sam was a heavy for the Western Federation of Miners. Reading carefully through his remembrances that appears to be the case. Sam was quite proud of wearing badge #10 of the WFM.

      Sam Strom died on April 11, 1941, at an unknown location in Snohomish county. He was 68.

Endnotes from above
Sam's memoir
      See this Journal feature. [Return]

Carl Strom
      For information on the Strom family and the 1933 Sedro-Woolley bank robbery, see this Journal feature. [Return]

Mill Town
      Norman H. Clark. Mill Town. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970. [Return]

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Story posted on Oct. 7, 2005, last updated Sept. 26, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 30 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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