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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
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Nelson Bennett and the
Fairhaven & Southern Railway

      Over the next few months, we are going to share with you some stories that were written about the Northwest more than a hundred years ago, History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington, Volume II, edited by Elwood Evans and published in 1889. As those of you have followed our site over the last year know, we like to feature original sources and quote from them. We have been aided in our quest by Janine M. Bork, who lives in Wallowa county, Oregon. Janine is one of those wonderful volunteers who add so much to the internet history of the Northwest. She has scanned and transcribed many chapters of the 1889 book, which was edited by Elwood Evans, Secretary of State for Washington.
      In this work (beginning on page 210), we found the biography of Nelson Bennett, the man who, outside of Mortimer Cook, was the most responsible for opening up the Sedro-Woolley district to settlement and investment. Bennett brought the first railroad and was the first to efficiently extract and ship coal from the area. As we see in almost all of the Northwest boom towns, the map of new Sedro is marked with a street for the most important capitalist. In this case, Bennett must have been twice as important as anyone else because his name is affixed to two streets in the first plat for the town of Sedro. If you go to the high school today, you will see that the streets north and south of the block are named Nelson and Bennett.

(Nelson Bennett)
Nelson Bennett, 1880s

      This is all the more interesting in Sedro's case because the man behind the original plat was Norman R. Kelley and he and Bennett were thorns in each other's side. Kelley even went as far as to try to block the railroad completion with a court suit. But Bennett outfoxed him and sent his engineer, John J. Donovan, on horseback in a driving blizzard in the middle of the winter of 1889 to quash the suit in the county seat of Mount Vernon. The two ego-driven town builders apparently decided it was better to join than to fight because Kelley incorporated his town as Sedro and Bennett incorporated Cook's old river village site as Town of Sedro.
      In that year, when Sedro was born as a boom town, when Washington became a state, when Seattle burned and when the Fairhaven & Southern Railway chugged into town as a Christmas present for Sedro, this biography of Bennett was written. When you are finished, you might want to read about the Journal's exclusive history of the F&S, to see how he built his railroad line.

Nelson Bennett blasts across the prairies

History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington, Volume II,
transcribed by Janine Bork

      Though Toronto, Canada, must be accredited as the birthplace of the distinguished personage whose name heads this brief sketch of a most active, useful and busy life, yet were his parentage and ancestry thoroughly American. On the paternal side the Bennetts were natives of Virginia, three generations back; and his mother was of the ancient and time-honored family of the Spragues of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was born October 14,1843; and his father died when he was seven years of age, leaving a widow and six children. The family resided upon a farm; and Nelson was afforded the opportunity of acquiring a good rudimentary education in the grammar schools near Toronto. The custom was to work on the farm six months, and go to school the remainder of the year. This was continued until his fourteenth year.
      In his seventeenth year he left Toronto, and came to Orleans county, New York, the old home of the family, where he attended school for one year. During much of his first year in New York, he was sick from the effects of a singular but severe accident. He was riding horseback through the timber, his horse being on a lope, when he came to a limb extending across the road, which he thought he could avoid by ducking his head. The limb,, however, so caught his body, and drew it forward in such manner that the pressure caused extreme internal injuries, from the effects of which he suffered for about a year. His health being recovered in 1863, he was employed by the United States government, in a corps of artisans, whose chief occupation was building barracks for troops. In this service he remained until 1864, when he went to the oil regions of Pennsylvania. Then and there he first displayed the proclivities which have rendered his after-life so prominent, and his name so well-known. He commenced contracting. While there he sank twenty-seven oil wells, with varied success, and made considerable money.
      In the fall of 1865, he migrated to Pettis county, Missouri, where the town of Sedalia now stands, and invested the money made in oil in large tracts of land. In the spring of 1866 he went to Iowa and secured employment by the North Western Railroad Company, and worked on their roads in Iowa during that year. In 1867 he went out on the Union Pacific, and followed on the line of construction till the track reached Fort Bridge. He abandoned railroad construction when the mining excitement borne out into the Sweetwater country in Dakota, and remained there while the excitement continued. Among the occupations necessitated by his Sweetwater experiences was fighting the Indians for about two years of that period.
      Mr. Bennett had now become a miner. He left the Sweetwater country for the Little Cottonwood mines in Utah. For the next two years he engaged in mining pursuits in Utah, at which time he entered into a contract with Walker Brothers to transport a quartz mill from Ophir canyon, a district in Utah, to Butte City, Montana. This was the commencement of a freighting and transportation business out of which a train was built up of 150 animals, mostly Kentucky mules. The business was pursued under the old style of freighting, — twelve animals constituting a team, each team drawing three wagons. During the time Mr. Bennett pursued the freighting business in the Rocky Mountains, he opened a wagon road from Eagle Gorge on Snake river, by way of Big Lost river, through the Challis and Bonanza mining districts in Idaho Territory. He it was who also sent the first team into the Wood river district with supplies and materials for miners. In one of his expeditions during the year of Howard's campaign against the Nez Perces, his train had just passed Dry creek, in Idaho. The hostile Nez Perces came up and intervened between his train and the head of the train following, that of James Brown. Bennett's train was not delayed; but Brown had to return to Pleasant valley.

(Cokedale Mine)
The Cokedale Mine in the 1890s, discovered by Lafayette Stevens and developed by Nelson Bennett.

      His singular good fortune, luck, or call it what you will, seemed never to desert him. A year later his train was making a second trip into the Challis and Bonanza districts of Idaho. A large train had gone ahead; and they were intercepted by hostile Bannacks, who fought them and held them at bay for two days and two nights, killing one man and stampeding the animals and running off a number. Colonel Green, U.S. Army, came up; and the Indians fled. Bennett's train came up after the arrival of the soldiers and the flight of the Bannacks. The soldiers were entirely out of provisions and really in need. Bennett sold out his whole outfit, consisting of grocery bacon, canned fruits, canned salmon, and a well assorted stock intended for the miners. Script was issued to him, as that was one of the years in which the appropriation had fallen short; and Bennett did not receive his pay for eighteen months.
      Whilst Mr. Bennett has been carrying on this freighting enterprise west of the Rocky Mountains, Jay Gould had undertaken the extension of the Utah Northern Railroad from Ogden to Butte City. That great financier had sent out, as superintendent of construction, Washington Dunn, wit whom, in 1881, Nelson Bennett became intimately acquainted. Through that intimacy Mr. Bennett entered upon the railroad contracting business. It is out of place to follow in detail the contracts he undertook. Since that date, a part of which time doing business under the firm name of Washington, Dunn & company, and in his individual capacity, he has built five hundred and fifty miles of railroad, including the Stampede or Cascade Tunnel of the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Cascade Range of mountains. The latter stupendous and colossal work was completed in May 1888. Mr. Bennett took the contract for its construction January 21, 1886, requiring its completion within twenty-eight months from the date of contract. He gave bonds of $100,000 cash, and ten per cent of the contract price for the fulfillment of the contract. He finished the great work, and had seven days to spare.
      During all the time that Mr. Bennett was engaged in freighting and railroad constructing, he was steadily occupied in other pursuits, — merchandising, the lumber business, dealing in agricultural implements, stock-raising, mining, and dealing in mining properties. He became largely interested in developing mines; and, although almost universally successful in any enterprise in which he enlisted, he has in his hope to develop mines expended some fifty thousand dollars, only realizing out of those ventures a thousand dollars. But indomitable he is still mining and not discouraged as to the future result of those investments. It would not be Nelson Bennett to give up, nor would it be him not to be crowned with a successful result.
      Since completing the Cascade Tunnel, Tacoma has been his headquarters; and he has contributed largely to the marvelous growth of that city. Early in 1889 he became interested in Fairhaven, Whatcom county, in the extreme northern part of Washington, on Bellingham Bay. The Fairhaven enterprise comprehends the development of the Lower Puget Sound region, the possibilities resulting from which it is premature to predict. They must be estimated in the future, though it is quite proper to add that the success of the short period already passed through promises grand results. Already twenty-five miles of railroad have been constructed, while another section of twenty-five miles is ready for tracklaying. A large force of men are not at work extending the line south of Skagit river, and gradually approaching connection with the Northern Pacific. There is also work being done on the line connecting Skagit river with the Eastern branch, which is heading eastward to pass through one of the Skagit passes of the Cascade Range to enter and open the rich mining region of the Okanogan, and connect it with Puget Sound.
      Another railroad is being constructed which extends northward from Bellingham Bay to New Westminster, and possibly to Vancouver and other more remote points in British Columbia. Mr. Bennett is the president of the Fairhaven & Southern Railroad Company. He has purchased the entire control of the Westminster & Southern Railroad Company properties. He is the president of the Fairhaven Land Company, a company which is engaged in the development of the city of that name on Bellingham Bay. He is the president of the Skagit Coal Company, which is at present and for the past year has been engaged in developing the vast coal fields of the Skagit river basin. He is largely interested in and principal promoter of the Fairhaven Iron and Steel Company, who are about erecting the necessary furnaces and works for the development and utilization of the rich iron deposits in the valley of the Skagit.
      He was the pioneer builder of the street railroad system of Tacoma, and is now the principal owner of the street railroad system of Butte City, Montana, which has three miles of cable road and six miles of motor lines. He is president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, as also the Tacoma Hotel Company. With all these manifold engagements, he still finds time to contribute by his presence and council to every enterprise suggested for the benefit of the public. He is ever ready to advise and to assist the needy. In vigorous and hearty manhood, full of intellectual vigor and physical strength, his life of usefulness and benefit to his race promises to be prolonged. No one in a more eminent degree illustrates the pluck and push of the men who have made our western civilization than Nelson Bennett.

More reading and photos:
      On March 2, 1890, Col. Frank Wilkeson, Skagit county's most esteemed early writer, profiled Nelson Bennett in a New York Times column. Bennett was the founder of the Fairhaven & Southern railroad, and boomed old Sedro after a long career as contractor the Northern Pacific railroad as that company built their line across the plains and the Rockies. Shared from our optional Subscribers Edition. In June 2005, in Issue 28, this feature will be joined by the profile of Nelson Bennett from Elwood Evans's 1889 book, The History of the Pacific Northwest.
            Also read our exclusive two-part story of the F&S in Issue 28 of the Subscribers Edition. Part One of the story at this website. It includes the background of the transcontinental railroads from 1853 on; the Canfield Road, which failed; Nelson Bennett and C.X. Larrabee's launch of F&S and the Fairhaven Land Co. in 1888 and a profile of John J. Donovan. In Part Two, you will learn about Skagit county and Sedro's preparation for the first standard-gauge railroad in the state north of Seattle, including: how the two towns of Sedro boomed almost overnight in 1889; how developer Norman R. Kelley almost brought the project to a halt at the last moment and how John J. Donovan rode through a snowstorm to defeat Kelley's injunction; and details about how the F& went into decline and disappeared by the turn of the 20th century. Donovan's ride alone will remind you of an old-time, silent Western movie.
      Or you can read the Journal Railroad Section with links to many stories and outside sources. Also, see Issue 28 for another story of the F& by the late Ray Jordan, Sedro-Woolley's ace historian, and see the same issue for a profile of Nelson Bennett. Also, see Issue 28 of the Subscribers Edition for another story of the F& by the late Ray Jordan, Sedro-Woolley's ace historian, and see the same issue for a profile of Nelson Bennett. If you are researching railroad history and want more information about our sources besides those quoted in story, please email us your questions. You may also want to see the Journal Check out Sedro-Woolley First for links to all stories and reasons to shop here first or make this your destination on your visit or vacation. If you are researching railroad history and want more information about our sources besides those quoted in story, please email us your questions.

Story posted on May 30, 2005
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