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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Sam Strom memoirs
Monte Cristo mines 1890s

(Monte Cristo Town)
Photo of Monte Cristo in 1894 by Frank LaRoche of Seattle and later of Sedro-Woolley, from the Philip R. Woodhouse collection. Taken with a Cirkut camera. See this Journal site that features photos from the book, Everett and Monte Cristo Railway, by Woodhouse, Daryl Jacobson and Bill Petersen. Click on photo for full version.

      Ed. note: Norwegian immigrant Sam Strom arrived at the Monte Cristo mines just as a nationwide financial panic loomed in the U.S. in the early 1890s. Lucky for us, he did what few other miners did: He recorded his impressions some years later in an autograph book that he carried with him. We have transcribed it, as is, except that we occasionally edited the punctuation and we corrected a few spelling errors, where necessary for continuity. We left his capitalization and we do not clutter the transcript with "sic" after the numerous misspellings. We also included explanatory notes in [ ] brackets, and in some cases we provide underlined links to more full explanations or outside sources.
      Author Elizabeth Poehlman provided a photocopy of the manuscript she typed from Strom's handwritten memoir that he finished when he was 63. Strom gave the autograph book, dated on April 21, 1936, to Alice Elinor Lambert Ransburg, a Darrington author, five years before his death. Alice lived to be 95 and was a key resource for Elizabeth's 1979 book, Darrington, Mining Town/Timber Town. Elizabeth explained the nature of the memoir: "It was handwritten and appeared that it was written exclusively for Alice's benefit as memoir, not as notes made contemporaneously as events unfolded. His introduction to the memoir , dated April 21, 1936, appeared on the first page. I typed it probably in 1968 or '69."
      At the end of this story, we provide some biographical information on Strom and we link you to an introduction to Mrs. Ransburg. We hope very much that a reader will know about both these people, and we especially hope that someone will have a photo of either of them. Alice was a member of Seattle's Bohemian, artistic community in the early years of the 20th century, and we are trying to determine if Sam was related to the Strom family who lived in the Utopia district east of Sedro-Woolley.
      We also provide this brief introduction to the Monte Cristo mines, a significant mining boom that attracted capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller. In 1889, at the same time as the town of Sedro was born, Joseph Pearsall and Frank Peabody discovered promising galena deposits near Silver Creek in eastern Snohomish county in the foothills of the North Cascade mountains. Then they discovered gold and silver ore, but they did not have funds to pursue a claim so Peabody went to Seattle to assay the ore and find someone to grubstake them. By accident, he found John MacDonald Wilmans, known as Jack, Mac or Mack, and the Wilmans put up $150. The Wilmans brothers had already made and lost small fortunes in mining ventures. Over the next year, Wilmans and his brother Fred decided to stake claims at the headwaters of the Sauk river near the Skagit-Snohomish county border. Unaware that they could ship machinery up the Stillaguamish river, they chose to bring it in by boat up the Skagit river and then the Sauk. We will provide a link to our own exclusive history of Sauk City and the Sauk river, but if you want more background on the Monte Cristo area, we suggest that you read Monte Cristo by Philip R. Woodhouse, A Broad Ledge of Gold by Rosemary Wilkie, or Mrs. Poehlman's book. You can read more about the Monte Cristo mines in our profile of Sam Strom in this issue.

Part One: introduction to Monte Cristo,
the area and the prospectors
We are awaiting a photo scan of Sam Strom. We hope that a reader can send us such a scan or copies of documents that will help us understand this mining pioneer.

      Darrington, Wash, April 21, 1936
To: Alice Elinor Lambert Ransburg
      I submit my scribbled memories of Pioneer days of Upper Sauk River. As was in the beginning, 43 years ago and on to present time, 1936. My excuse of writing about these simple incidents is that for most part the little happenings of the old days are little known. The news or happenings never reached the Outside World. Trusting you will find a few moments amusement reading the story, and assuring you it to be true. I will back it up as such to all citizens, Judge, Jury and Governor.
— Very truly yours, Sam Strom

Sam's background about Monte Cristo
      Darrington and Monte Cristo discovered in 1889, late summer of Aug. Fred and Mack Wilmans Bros. first and [Joseph] Pearsall and Bishop [unknown first name] next to follow. Very little done that year in 1890 except staking claims and prospecting. More prospectors came locating claims and the camp attracted much interest. Capital began to be attracted during that year. Organization for a Mining Camp was underway. It was then a place little known. The place did not even have a name. Just a spot twixt the Towering Mountains in the verrry Heart of the Wildest of the Wild of the then New and Unsurveyed Rugged and Beautiful Cascade Range of Mountains in Snohomish County, Wash.
      The nearest Post Office, Index, fully 20 miles away and no mail service those days. Then getting Mail and supplies in to the Camp was a serious problem shared by all. The Prospectors and Miners came in increasing numbers on foot. They lived in tents or as in some cases entirely outdoors among the trees at a point of the forks of the creeks later known as Mystery Gulch. This being the headwaters of Sauk River, South fork, and 76 Gulch. '76 creek puzzled them as to its source. They discovered that it was tributary to a river and they hacked their way through brush for nearly two weeks to discover that the river was the Sauk, which was a major tributary of the Skagit river. Unaware of the Stillaguamish river at that point, they decided to ship freight up the Sauk river from the Skagit and the town of Sauk City rose at the junction of those two rivers.] This being a Point that for natural setting and beauty as a Camping ground is unsurpassed. When once reached there was the swift and clear running water in creeks that was teeming with Rainbow and Mountain Trout. Unlimited supply of fuel and a variety of large and small game on the hillsides that never before had been disturbed by Man. At this Point the Prospectors would gather by the Evening Campfires and plan and dream their Golden dreams.
      Wealth there was on every hand and in the Midst of Mountain Scenery in a tremendous and large Territory nothing but rugged Mountain Peaks and narrow Valleys and Timbered Hills and Canyons as far as the Eye could see in any direction. All this Region unknown, untrod and unsurveyed, not even a singel Mountain Peak was yet named, neither Trail nor Road was yet built. there was much to do; this vast region of the unexplored, add to this the lure of Gold. Indeed this would inspire the imagination of any Prospector or Miner to think this Part of the World was yet new and for everyone. To just walk in and help yourself. Take what you want. If you find a Gold Mine it's yours. If you want a Timberclaim take it. If you want a Homestead take it. Uncle Sam was Rich in these Pioneer days of some 45 years ago.

How Monte Cristo was named
      Thus is it was that during the Summer of 1890 a small group of hardy seasoned Prospectors (No Tenderfoots here) would gather around the Meeting Place campfire and discuss Ways and Means of how to open up by building of Trails and Roads to connect with the outside World.
      And the all important question. What Name should this place have that would be appropriate to be know by? Shurely it should have a name in keeping with its prominence in Natural wealth and Beauty, a name that would gripp the imagination of the Outside World. Thus it was that one evening by the Campfire smoke, not more than half a doz. in number, the all important question, What to name this Mining Camp again was taken up. (This incident was related to the writer by Fred Wilmans himself.)
      These Prospectors carried with them several Books as reading Matter. Among the books was one the Title of which is The Count of Monte Cristo [Alexander Dumas]. This book had been read by all in the past. During this particular evening, during the discussion of naming the Place, it was suggested by Fred Wilmans to name this wonderful place Monte Cristo after the Place named in the Novel.. All persons present agreed and the Famous Mining Camp Monte Cristo came to be known by that name during the Summer of 1890 and bears that name to this day.
      he next step was [to blaze] a trail to Southwestward down a creek since named Silver Creek to Index about 20 miles in length. This trail was built by Prospectors on their own time and money and from then on Supplies and Mail was taken in by Pony Pack Train over this Trail. Monte Cristo was in the early Stage of becoming a booming Mining Camp. The Trail to Index served well as a Packtrail but due to a high divide, since named Poodle Dog Pass, was not Practicall as a Rail outlet. That was needed for heavy duty Transportation. And the Industrious Prospectors, founders of Monte Cristo, began during the Summer of 1890 to explore Sauk River for a feasible route for a Railroad route. At this point I wish to call attention to the quality and determination possessed by the Prospectors and Miners of those days of the '90s. Starting out with nothing but packs on their backs and following the course from the verry headwaters of the south Fork of the Sauk River to its mouth or junction with Skagit River.
      There was no Trail or Bridges them days. Everything stood as God had left it. To these that ride the cushioned Limozines [limousines] of today, should remember what these Pioneers had to contend with. But believe me they were a husky, daring lot and Happy in their invironment and hardship and at times very limited Bill of Fare. So much for these Mountain Pioneers. They overcame all these obstacles.

Sauk river trail
      Monte Cristo was no dream. It kept growing. The men that explored the Sauk River Valley reported it grand and feasable for Railroad and Wagon road. This Point having been satisfactory settled, there seemed to be no trouble to obtain capital to finance the enterprise. By the fall of 1890 Plans was on foot to proceed with Mining Projects that involved the expenditures of many Millions of Dollars all for Monte Cristo. The place was Famous and attracted men from all parts of the Globe. Even John D. Rockefeller interests and Jim Sloan, Pearcall (Pearsall) and Bishop [again, no first name], William Thorn, Joe Baldwin, Jim Harris, Frank Jenkins. [Also,] Stevens, Jamisons, Mackintosh Bros, Christopher, Buttler [Butler?], Smith Bros., Watsons and Sutton. And first and last, Fred Wilmans and Mack Wilmans, Discoverers. Those men was the Moving Spirits of Monte Cristo in its Hay day and indeed held the reins for several years. These was Men to reckon with. They was all High class. Both as Financiers and Mining-Engineers and Railroad Builders, Men with a purpose. They pushed things through in these Mountains and real construction work on a large scale was commenced in the Spring of 1891. Work was first started on a wagon road at Sauk City on Skagit River up Sauk River to Monte Cristo about 45 miles away true [through?] Mountains and Forest all the Way.
      The system of construction was a winding dirt road following the least resistance by avoiding the larger trees as far as possible. No gravel was hauled at any place. In swamps and soft places, Punching [puncheon — cedar logs sliced in half lengthwise] split from trees on right-of-way was used and this Winding Narrow road was pushed true [through] to Monte Cristo or nearly so in the late fall of 1891. Machinery for a Sawmill was hauled in along with the Progress of the construction of the Road, that is. The Machinery for the Mill weighted many tons and was moved by Horses, Oxen (six) and Mules by relays as building of the road progressed. This moving of the Machinery and Supplies to the established Roadbuilding crews along the route was done entirely by the known as Frieght crew. r and 6 Horse teams, and some Oxe Teams. Also some Packtrains to carry supplies to the front crews.
      The Timber fallers and Swampers cutting out the Right-of-Way and building bridges. Thus it can be seen that the Mass of Machinery and Men, Horses, Mules and Oxen moved like a large caravan up Sauk River chopping and blasting their way true [through] and taking all Machinery for a Sawmill along at the same time. Thus it will be seen that the Trail from Sauk City to Monte Cristo arrived there nearly all together, crew, bag and baggage and thus was established the Sauk River Monte Cristo Pioneer Trail in 1891. Thus it came about Men and Supplies poured into Monte Cristo both true [through] Poolledog Pass and via Sauk River route for a while.

Barlow finds a pass, a spring and the Stillaguamish route
      During this time the Railroad project was not overlooked. It was first intended and considered that the Sauk River Valley was the only logical outlet for a R.R. as far as known at the time. Railroad Engineers was at work looking for the most feasable Place to build it. In fact, party surveyed up Sauk River. Among thse Railroad Engineers was a man whose name was Barlow. One day while surveying or reconnoitering about four miles down stream from Monte Cristo, Barlow found a Spring on a hillside a few hundred feet from Sauk River on the West side. This Spring runs no different than many other Springs in these mountains. It is at the foot of a high cliff and at first glance would naturally be considered to belong to Sauk River, but the little trickeling Stream of water so small as not to be noticed ordinarily did not flow into Sauk River. Where did it go? Barlow became interested. On examination he found that the small stream of water had an outlet on the West side of a Promentory just high enough to turn the Water into a narrow Valley to the west of a low ridge. It proved the beginning of the divide between the South Fork of the Sauk River and the South Fork of the Stillaguamish. Barlow Pass was discovered and examined and named for the Man that found it. Barlow Pass. Man proposes God disposes.
      It so happened this little Spring of Water changed the whole plan. The Sauk River project was abandoned though this Pioneer Trail was built at great cost. Attention became centered on Barlow Pass as the best Route for a R.R. from Hartford to Monte Cristo and for years known as The Everett and Monte Cristo R.R. Branch of N.P. system. This railroad was completed in late fall of 1893. Amen.
      This then was the beginning of the most reckless freedom of action and spending of money that it have ever been my good fortune to see for a small Mining Camp. Indeed Monte Cristo deserves that name though it is silent today. This then is the beginning of the real Monte Cristo as it was in the some odd 42 years ago.
      The Railroad having been built and completed far enough to permit handling of freight and Passengers began to pour into Monte Cristo. Human characters from all the rest of the Globe came and particularly the Miners of these Western States. Monte Cristo was a beconing [beckoning] Lode stone that for a number of years attracted attention to many wandering restless Men and Women in search of adventure and fortunes in this fair land. The great West that was then a new wonderland of opportunity.

Endnotes from above
Poehlman book
      Elizabeth Poehlman. Darrington, Mining Town/Timber Town. Kent, Washington: Gold Hill Press, 1979. [Return]

Sam's Biography
      See this Journal site [Return]

'76 Gulch
      . . . was named by Pearsall and Peabody for their nearby claim that they staked on July 4, 1889. [Return]

Monte Cristo name

First names:
      Strom did not note a first name for any of those men. Butler was William C. Butler, superintendent of the Pride of the Mountains and Mystery mines. [Return]

      "The swamper was the pioneer. His duty was to clear the brush and windfalls from the right-of-way." — Otto Klement. See the Otto Klement diary for more details of logging operations in those days . . . and see William Entwistle's memoir. [Return]

Barlow Pass:
      The namesake of Barlow Pass is a mystery that we are still unraveling. While researching Monte Cristo a few years ago, we discovered that there was considerable confusion over the first name of railroad engineer Barlow, both in contemporary newspapers of the time and in more modern place name accounts. Many references are based on the mistaken identification of S.K. or Samuel K. Barlow. He was the namesake of the Barlow Toll Road and Pass near the Dalles on the south shore of the Columbia river that was a key avenue for covered wagon trains that arrived in Oregon territory in the 1840s and 1850s. There is no evidence that this man had anything to do with Barlow Pass near Monte Cristo. Newspapers of the time identify engineer Barlow as J.C. Barlow or M.Q. Barlow. But we have now communicated with both the Barlow family genealogists and the living authors of various articles and books and all admit that they are unsure about that spelling either. We are now nearly certain after exhaustive research that the real man was J.Q. or John Q. Barlow, a Northern Pacific railroad engineer who was a fellow alumnus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute with John J. Donovan, the legendary railroad man and lumberman from Bellingham. We will reveal all our research and conclusions in Issue 31 of the Journal. [Return]

Continue to page two

Links to other stories and further reading
Journal features in this issue
Journal links with the history and photos of the Monte Cristo
mines and the Everett & Monte Cristo Railway
Journal links, background reading and books

Story posted on Oct. 9, 2005
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