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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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How the Far West Grows
Some of the Latest Booms on Puget Sound

The Skirmish Line of Civilization
Fifty Years Ago and Now —
Nelson Bennett and His Lively Town

By Frank Wilkeson, New York Times, March 2, 1890
(Nelson Bennett)
Nelson Bennett

      During the period of building the empire of the Mississippi Valley and of the highland Commonwealths that were originally founded on beds of golden gravel the locations of cities and towns was determined by chance. Many men now living can remember when Indiana town sites were slowly and laboriously chopped out of first-growth forests. The opening of farms fully occupied the agricultural settler for years. Pioneers lived hard in those days. Towns grew very slowly. They were merely shabby collections of log huts. The forest town was never in advance of the surrounding and supporting country. During this time, when the pioneers carried axes, there were no railroads, no steamboats, no telegraph lines, and a weekly, or maybe a monthly, mail was the only means of communication between the frontier settlements and the Atlantic seaboard. A more dreary and dispiriting place than an Indiana town of fifty years ago cannot be imagined. The people were narrow-minded and egotistical, as all woodsmen who live apart from the world are, it matters not at what period.

Frank Wilkeson has been our favorite early Northwest columnist since we discovered his role in Skagit and Whatcom counties while we conducted our original research in 1893. We owe this column to Patricia McAndrew, a Pennsylvania researcher who is writing a book on Wilkeson and his famous family. You can read a bio of Wilkeson and 11 more of his columns in various sections of the website.

      When steamboats began to ply on Western rivers and railroads stretched their commerce-stimulating arms toward the Mississippi River, a heavy skirmish line of men emerged from the forests, and, rifle in hand, pushed westward to the great plains and to the pine-clad and snow-capped mountains whose rills and creeks flowed over golden gravel. On these rolling hills war-like Sioux were defeated in pitched battle. There, on the beautiful meadows that border the sluggish Platte, Cheyenne braves, peerless warriors, first met the hardy foresters from Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky, and have ever remembered the meeting. Westward the skirmish line advanced, here driving Utes into mountain recesses, there, on the Smoky Hill River, whipping Pawnees and coward Kaws, and holding their own against the fierce attack of Southern Cheyennes, and yonder on the Arkansas and Cimarron, whipping Comanches, and in the north driving Chippewas to forest cover and the Sioux into the desert. Rifles cracked, long war arrows whizzed, Indian's war whoop, fiercely answered by Anglo-Saxon's battle cry, ever resounded along this long, waving, and bloody line, as it slowly advanced to the desert and toward the delightful highlands far beyond.
      At points along the navigable rivers trading posts of logs were built. The sites of these towns were chosen because there was a mud bank on which a steamboat could safely run its bow preparatory to unloading freight or because loaded wagons could be easily hauled from the river bank to the plains that stretched from the Missouri's muddy water to the Rocky Mountains. A spring of cool water, a grove of shade-casting trees, an eddy in which catfish lurked, a saloon in which good whisky was sold, or the presence of a handsome and agreeable woman were sufficient to cause the restless pioneers to linger and to build a town of huts, which was quickly transformed into a trading or forwarding point.

The early West and gold
      One day, late in the "fifties," a man, long-haired and belted and lean, rode up out of the western horizon that bounded the plains where the short brown grass rustled in Autumn winds. He hitched his horse in front of a saloon that stood on the banks of the Missouri River and strode in to drink of fiery waters. He paid his score with gold dust, and then told the story of the finding of gold in Colorado's highlands. Up and down the Missouri River, up the eastern branches of that mighty stream the news spread that gold had been discovered in Colorado. The border was astir. The ox-train era on the plains set in. An army composed of the flower of the Western youth marched across the plains the following Spring. They had to be fed and clothed and supplied with tools and alcohol. Then the old river towns, the sites of which had been selected without thought of any possible development of the far West, were stimulated into life. Their landings were crowded with steamboats. Their warehouses were packed with goods. Long trains of wagons hauled by oxen moved slowly through the streets or stood in rank around the warehouses. Troops were marched into the Western desert, and forts were built on streams the names of which were unknown to Eastern people. Vice was rampant in these river towns. Drinking and gambling saloons were ever open, and the musical clinking of drinking glasses and the sharp rattle of faro and poker checks was heard throughout the night. Armed men, wild-eyed and soaked with alcohol, sat at gambling tables and staked their Summer's wages on the turn of a card. Rows, bloody and often fatal, were frequent. Gaunt, blonde giants, Pikes from Missouri these, strode through the dusty streets and made their short-handled black-snake whips crack as revolvers.
      A train of white-hooded wagons rolled heavily out of town. The weary oxen bore strongly into the yokes as they slowly ascended to the plains, and blear-eyed drunkards, who sat on drift logs to rest their alcoholic-soaked bodies, murmured, one to the other, "There goes the Fort Luma train," or, pointing with outstretched arm toward a low-lying dust cloud, in which patches of active red flannel could be seen, they would say, "Yonder goes the train for California Gulch."
      Heavily-loaded trains of wagons rolled out of the river towns; empty wagons rolled in, with bullet holes in their wagon boxes and their white hoods slit into canvas sieves, each slit marking the line of flight of a long, grooved war arrow, and the bottom of many of these wagon boxes were stained brown in irregular spots---Pikes' blood, that.
      Around the saloons and gambling tables and dance halls the town slowly grew as trade increased, and the line of agriculture advanced westward. Then came railroads and telegraph lines, and one day, usually directly after an atrocious murder had been committed at the gambling tables, the reputable citizens gathered in mass meeting and were called to order by a stern-tempered merchant or lawyer, and after a few savage "whereases" and a few resolutions that were indicative of bloodshedding, the red-handed gamblers and saloon keepers were expelled from town or hanged to limbs of trees, and the rule of the whisky men was thrown off forever. Then the town grew rapidly, agriculture pressed close to its borders, manufacturing industries were established; and not one town out of twenty so built stands on a commerce commanding or on a natural manufacturing site, though many of them are noted for the excellence of their manufactured products. They thrive to-day because transportation corporations discriminate in their favor, and because the high protective tariff shelters them from competition with other and wisely located cities. Torn from under the shelter of transportation corporations and the war tariff these unwisely located towns would languish, and other towns, built on commerce-commanding and manufacturing sites, would quickly surpass them in importance. The old towns were built by chance. Annually the people pay heavily to keep them in existence. They represent the survival of the unfittest, because their commercial and manufacturing life is unwisely prolonged by predatory tariff laws.

How Bennett helped build Fairhaven
(Bellingham Bay 1889)
View of Bellingham Bay
north from Fairhaven 1889
Click on photo for larger version

      How is a city built to-day? I have just returned from a visit to three new towns---at least the people who live in them hope to see them grow into prosperous towns---Fairhaven, Anacortes, and Grey's Harbor. I tell the story of Fairhaven to illustrate how a town is built to-day. Anacortes or Grey's Harbor would serve my purpose as well, but I desire to use the former town to show the readers of the Times the wildest real estate excitement I have ever seen, and I am not as familiar with Grey's Harbor as I am with the Bellingham Bay territory, so I use Fairhaven.
      Nelson Bennett, who founded Fairhaven when he was much younger than he now is, was engaged in transportation on the great plains---that is the way his admirers state the case, but really he was an ox or mule driver who, blacksnake whip in hand, walked in dust clouds from Missouri River steamboat landings to the Rocky Mountains. Bennett was plucky; he was energetic; he hated idleness. He is highly intelligent. He does not lie, and he has never been known to desert a friend. When he was young in the business of driving oxen across the plains he saw the enormous profits derived from the overland trade, and presently he was driving his own teams and selling his own goods.
(Fairhaven Promotional Map)
This promotional map for Fairhaven was distributed all over the world in the early 1890s

      Then, as railroads were extended into desert and highlands, and wagons were pushed from the trails, Bennett began to contract to build railroads. He built railroads in the Rocky Mountains, on the Great Plains, in the arid basin that is between the Rocky and Cascade Mountains, and in the latter range. He blasted the long tunnel through the Cascade Mountains, through which the Northern Pacific's cars roll when on their way to and from Puget Sound. Every contract he undertook he fulfilled and made money in blocks at the work. He became thoroughly familiar with the whole country west of the Missouri River. He knows its freight producing capacity. He knows the probable output of all the great mining camps. He built street car lines and established electric plants in towns in whose future he had confidence. His investments are scattered over half a continent, and every night he knows precisely how he stands financially with the world. He makes no pretense to knowledge. What he knows he knows as thoroughly as an Indian knows the physical configuration of the land in which he lives. If he knows nothing of the subject under discussion he says so, and listens attentively to other men who possess the sought-for knowledge. His knowledge of men is absolute. He has never selected a subordinate who did not fill the bill. As I have written, Nelson Bennett became wealthy. All Western men are gamblers, and, gambler-like, he keeps his money on the cards. He has no store of bonds. He resolutely refused to become a coupon clipper. He saw Spokane Falls, Butte, Seattle, Tacoma, Denver, and Salt Lake City grow from collections of log shanties to rich and prosperous cities, and he did not lose his head in any of the real estate excitements that raged so wildly at those towns. He knew that on the shores of Puget Sound there would surely rise a city that would be the commercial and manufacturing metropolis of the Pacific coast.

Fairhaven next project after the NP Stampede Pass tunnel
      When the Cascade Tunnel was completed, Nelson Bennett thought his time had come. Familiar with the building of Tacoma and Seattle, and with the undeveloped resources of the country tributary to those important towns---resources which the inhabitants of those towns have resolutely refused to develop---he, after much consideration, concluded that they did not occupy commerce-commanding sites and that, if a manufacturing city could be established on a good harbor and close to the sea, it would speedily overshadow the towns that stand at the head of Puget Sound. This conclusion arrived at, he acted at once. His subordinates, snappy, brainy young men, were summoned. They came. Engineers from the plains and highlands, railroad builders from the forests, managers of stores, real estate experts, miners, and timber-land examiners. A council was held, and a decision was arrived at speedily. Then the men were dispatched, some into the highlands to search for coal and iron ore and veins of gold and silver ore, others with barometers strapped on their backs were sent to search for routes for a railroad, others to examine the forests to estimate the amount of marketable timber it contained, others to watch and measure the sweep of the tide through narrow passages adjacent to rival sites and to examine harbors.
      Presently gaunt men, toilworn and haggard and bowed under heavy burdens, emerged from the dense forests that stand on the western flanks of the Cascade Range. This man bore silver ore, that one iron ore, and in the third man's sack was coking coal. That group of worn, tired-eyed men were from the Skagit Pass, below them on a floating dock stood a group of leg-weary men, the pockets of whose tattered coats bulged with note books that were stuffed with information relative to the quality of the timber and the character of the soil of half a State.
      Out of forests, off of sweeping tide waters, out of mountain passes, from the plains east of the Cascade Mountains, from probable rival town sites, men hurried to Tacoma and to Nelson Bennett's office. The information which was to determine the site of a city was gathered. It was carefully studied and laboriously compared and weighed. Slowly the evidence was sifted. A map was made, and the resources of the country that had been examined was marked on it. This point was rejected because of its harbor, that because the tributary land was not arable when cleared, and another because it was too far from coal and iron deposits. Finally it was decided that the new city should be built on the shore of Bellingham Bay. When this conclusion was arrived at, to act followed instantly.
Early promotion of the bay towns from Fairhaven to Whatcom was based on trains, this one the BBBC in 1891

      For the building of a town in 1889 land was bought for a very large sum of money, hundreds of men were employed to chop and burn the trees that stood on the town site, the town was laid out, a wharf was built, a steamboat was built to ply between Tacoma and Fairhaven, which is the ill-chosen name of the new town; a railroad was projected and engineers located it, and hundreds of men began to build the grade. Locomotives and cars and steel rails were bought and delivered at Fairhaven, and presently trains of loaded cars departed at short intervals from Fairhaven's wharf. I will here say that Nelson Bennett's railroad, the Fairhaven and Southern, is the best-equipped railroad in the land. All cars are equipped with air brakes and automatic couplings. No brakeman's hand will ever be smashed on this road. An electric light and power company was incorporated and began work at once. A water company was formed, and in April the water mains will be filled with water from a mountain lake. Forty men are driving gangways and turning rooms on two immense seams of coal that are twenty-five miles from town, preparatory to supplying the Pacific coast with cheap fuel. Other men work at the silver mines in the Skagit Pass.
      The States of Washington, Montana, California, and Idaho are filled with men who believe in the future of Washington, and who are gamblers. Hundreds of these men know Nelson Bennett and believe in him. These men purchased lots in Fairhaven. The money so received was expended in railroad building. Southward through an almost unbroken forest the railroad was built to the Skagit River. Southward from New-Westminster, in British Columbia, the northern extension of the Fairhaven and Southern was graded to Blaine, a town that stands directly south of the boundary line, and to-day the grade is being extended northward from Fairhaven to Blaine.
      The town was laid out and lots first offered for sale in May 1889. To-day there are 1,200 people there. The town resounds with blows struck in creative industry. Where a dense forest stood eight months ago are streets that are lined with houses. Men who carry tools swarm up and down the sidewalks. Saloons are open, and in almost every one of them are gambling tables, around which "suckers" swarm to stake their money. The scent of alcohol is heavy in the air. At short intervals the dull whistles of steamboats arriving or departing, or of sawmills, cause the air to tremble. Every few minutes the loud report of a giant cartridge causes the windows to rattle and announces that another cedar or fir stump has been blown to flinders.

Frank first visits booming Fairhaven
      On my arrival in the town from the forest, where I had been for a time, I sat on a chair in a friend's office and, as we smoked and talked, I gazed through eyes that were snow-dazzled in the highlands at the streets and by passers, and my friend commented: "That chap," he said, as a squat German who had evidently been toying with beer when it was foamy went by, "that chap came here last May with $1,000 in his pocket. To-day he is worth $10,000. He invests his winnings in real estate."
      "That man," he said, as a typical gambler and saloon keeper passed, swaggering offensively and hitching his shoulders in imitation of a local prize fighter who walked beside him, "has made $15,000 in real estate speculations. He puts every dollar he earns or wins into town lots. He hungers for real estate."
      A group of well-dressed, clean-shaven, Eastern men passed, walking briskly. "A Saginaw outfit. Been buying Skagit River timber land. They arrived here from Cedro [another common spelling for Sedro in the early days] the other day and dropped $35,000 into corner lots," my comrade said in reply to my look of inquiry. Sons of Israel pass, chattering men with accented tongues and with bad cigars thrust into their mouths. There was a twirling of hands, palm uppermost, around shrugged shoulders, and they disappeared up the street. "Clothing dealers from 'Frisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and New-York, who are looking for a site for a clothing house. They have invested heavily in real estate."
      A tall, gaunt man, with white beard and water-laden eyes and trembling hands, walked with the infirm step of age past the open door, he looked in, smiled rather sorrowfully, and in broken voice bade my friend "good-morning," and walked slowly on.
      "New-York Yankee," my friend said. "He bought two Harris-street lots the other day for $2,000, and because he cannot now sell them for $3,000 he is frightened, and haunts real estate offices."
      Drunken men staggered by at long intervals, and occasionally one wanted to fight, and when he entered a saloon in which other drunken men were congregated he was promptly accommodated. "A man can get anything he longs for in Fairhaven," my friend murmured as a man with a fresh blackened eye hurried by the door. "We may be young," he said proudly, "but no visitor can truthfully say that he could not get what he asked for in our town," and he left me to learn the particulars of the "scrap."

Fairhaven was Tacoma's child vs. the rest of the sound
      Has Fairhaven an assured future? I believe so, but there are other towns on Puget Sound, and new ones, too, that men of intelligence and large capital are supporting, and supporting with projected railroad and steamboat lines and large expenditure of money. There is Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, that the Oregon Improvement Company is booming; there is Grey's Harbor, that the able men who own the stock of the Ontario Land Company support and thoroughly believe in, and there are many small towns, the advantages of which are daily displayed in the advertising columns of many newspapers that are published on the Sound.
      The bitter feeling that exists between the inhabitants of Tacoma and Seattle extends to the new towns that are being built at the mouth of the Sound. Seattle men will not invest at Fairhaven because it is, they say, the child of Tacoma, and no good can come out of Tacoma. No Tacoma man who has a particle of self-respect or the least public spirit would buy a lot at Anacortes. They savagely damn Anacortes, and say that it is Seattle's child, and necessarily a fraud, and that any man who buys a lot there should be declared incompetent to manage his affairs, and should properly be declared a lunatic and be confined in an asylum.
      Tacoma men further say that Seattle men are guileful and their schemes fraudulent, and they lift their voices against Elijah Smith [an early railroad boomer affiliated with both Northern Pacific and Union Pacific] and attribute certain highly discreditable remarks relative to the proper preparatory methods to be employed to entice tenderfeet to enter corporation real estate offices where their pockets would be emptied artistically to that honest gentleman; and Thomas F. Oakes would gaze through grief-stricken eyes at the word-picture Seattle men paint of him. The picture of that gentleman that was dangled before me at Seattle when I talked in a group of real estate men was ornamented with horns and a long flexible tail, and was wholly unlike the gentleman it was alleged to be a photograph of. Sufficient of town sites.

Frank's view of Bellingham Bay
      As I write Bellingham Bay lies as a sheet of silvered glass before me. To the north, far beyond the line of dark-green firs that stand close to the shimmering water, and beyond the Frazer River, is a lofty range of snow-clad mountains with saw-toothed crest marked against a blue background. To the east more mountains, distant about sixty miles. To the west islands, fir-clad and rugged, and beyond them the white peaks of the Olympic range. Tugboats steam to and fro whistling shrilly. Sternwheel steamboats, crowded with passengers and heavily loaded with freight, their loud-sounding whistles blowing hoarsely, steam into the harbor and presently disappear, apparently steaming into solid land. Fish leap from the water at short intervals. Flocks of wild ducks float lightly on the calm water. On the exposed tide land thousands of crows walk to and fro voicing their discontent with life and greedily eating such food as they may discover. And gulls, beautiful, peaceful, low voiced and delightful, fairly swarm along the shore. They sit on the water close to the [Fairhaven] hotel and patiently wait for scraps from the table. They gather in flocks close to the streets and gaze through black eyes at the people who hurry past. Gray gulls, white gulls, blue gulls, large and small gulls, all graceful, all peaceful, hover along the water [illegible type] of the town and swarm around the houses that overhang the water.

      You can also read this story about Nelson Bennett, a ranscription of an 1889 biography by Elwood Evans. From Subscribers Edition, Issue 4. See a list of links to all of Frank Wilkeson's columns on our site. And read about Patricia N. McAndrew's new book, The Old Soldier Goes Fishing — planned for publication in winter 2005, a collection of his columns and a biography of Frank and his family.

Story posted on Aug. 31, 2004
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