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Skagit River Journal

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Documents about the 1870s Skagit River Log Jams

(Finney Creek)
This photo from a fine website by Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, a newsletter called The Redd, edited by Alison Studley, with assistance from the US Forest Service. It is well worth reading and shows how logs and debris still pile up when the river is high. Caption: "a group of log jams combined with flood-recruited woody debris in a Finney Creek side channel."
      Two log jams near the future of Mount Vernon frustrated those who wanted to settle and develop the upper Skagit River before 1876. Other than fur trappers and hardy mountain men, the first explorers that we know of were a group of gold prospectors who explored the river during the summer of 1858 during the gold rush on the Fraser River in British Columbia. Major J.J. Van Bokkelen led the expedition to a point as high as at least future Concrete and they found a smattering of placer gold on various sand bars. But like others for the next 20 years, they had to portage around the log jams, a tedious process that discouraged many others. In 1867, an Olympia businessman, A.J. Treadway attempted to explore the river but got started too late. In 1870, D.C. Linsley and Frank Wilkeson and a survey team explored the Skagit and other river systems for the Northern Pacific railroad.
      Pressure to remove the log jams built up after Amasa "Peg-Leg" Everett and others discovered coal in 1874 on the mountain on the south side of the Skagit from future Hamilton. [See this Journal website about Everett — it is from our old domain, so some links may not work — it is being updated this summer.] The resulting company shipped their first load of coal ore south by sternwheeler on April 22, 1875 after hauling it around the portage and necessity became the mother of invention. Researcher Tom Robinson discovered that sometime in 1874, John Campbell, a settler on the South Fork of the Skagit, attempted to put together a team to remove the log mass, but failed. Mount Vernon researcher Matt Hayden also sent us an official U.S. government document from 1874 that shows that Congress appropriated at least $25,000 for log clearance but the devil was in the details; the money was not actually used and it probably would not have covered the needs anyway.
      The documents below will begin to tell the story of how the log jams were successfully removed, using the strong backs and primitive tools of pioneers already living on the river. We were especially pleased that the Washington State Librarian found and copied for us the column in our companion story from Eldridge Morse and the Northern Star of Snohomish City. It announced that both jams near the new town of Mount Vernon were cleared by May 1878 so that a sternwheeler could proceed upriver for 14 miles. He also pegged the beginning of the jam removal to February 1876.
      If you want to study the log jams further, you will find links at the end of both stories for more background material. One link is to our discovery a few years ago that a theory we have formulated about the tallest trees that grew from the log jams could have taken seed in the soil mass of the jams as early as the eruption of Mount Baker that Captain Vancouver and Spanish explorers logged in 1792. After correspondence with noted vulcanologists, we discovered that our hunch was correct.
      We hope that readers will share documents about the jams, and we expect more articles from the State librarian soon; we will transcribe and publish them when they arrive. If readers go to the collections in their attic, they may find letters from their family back home about the effect of the 1870s jams and the ones that built up in years following. [EN] indicates an endnote. You will also find links to other websites in the Skagit River Journal for key pioneers mentioned in the various accounts. And [unreadable] means that the copy of the article was so faint or blurred that we could not decipher the words.] The stories below include:

(Jam at the railroad trestle)
      This photo was taken in 1994 and we are looking southwest from a point on the north shore of the Skagit, showing logs and debris that regularly pile up at the Great Northern trestle, which was built in 1891. Photo from the collection of the late master, Roger Fox, and scanned by Larry Kunzler's website, which has many photos of the river.

(Log Jams map)
This map, courtesy of Larry Kunzler, shows the location of the log jams in the Skagit River near future Mount Vernon, as drawn by surveyors sometime before 1877. Does anyone know the name of the creek entering the river from the northeast? The stream entering the river from the south on the map would later be named Britt's Slough.
Pioneers clear the log jams at Mount Vernon by hand
Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties, 1906, p. 113-14
      Reference has been made in earlier pages to the initial attempts toward securing government aid for the great work of opening the Skagit river. The government agent estimated the probable expense of the work at a hundred thousand dollars. Great credit is due to certain citizens of the county for the initiation and final completion of this task. A company for the purpose was organized, consisting of James Cochrane, Donald McDonald, Marvin Minnick, Joe Wilson, John Quirk, Daniel Hines, Fritz Dibbern and Dennis Storr, Wilson and McDonald being the original promoters. To raise money for starting their undertaking, Wilson and McDonald mortgaged two lots in Seattle belonging to Mr. Wilson. The others joined at various times in the enterprise. Their first theory was to reimburse themselves by the sale of the logs which would be loosened from the jam, but the logs proved to be so badly strained by the pressure that they did not yield much merchantable timber.
      Another proposed improvement allied to the removal of the big jam was the building of a levee along the north side of the Skagit River from the Sound waters to the head of the jam. This improvement would be practicable if the jam were removed. It was estimated at that time that the total cost of the proposed levee would not exceed ten thousand dollars, but this proved to be a gross underestimate, as the work is not yet completed and the ten thousand dollars has proved but a drop in the bucket.
      The great jam consisted of two divisions, the lower beginning at the old [David E.] Kimble homestead below Mount Vernon and extending up the river to a point about opposite the present Kimble residence, a distance of perhaps half a mile. The upper part of the jam was considerably larger, beginning about half a mile above the upper end of the lower jam and extending over a mile. The upper part of the jam was believed to be at least a century old and was probably much older, while the upper one was to all appearance of comparatively recent formation. It was increasing in size very rapidly. Dennis Storrs to whom we are indebted for much valuable in formation respecting this matter, states that within three years after his arrival a quarter of a mile of debris had accumulated at its upper end. Beneath and between the tangled mass of debris the river was obliged to force its passage and in places beneath the lower jam there were twenty-four feet of water at the lowest stage. The material of the jam was mainly green timber, but in many places sediment had accumulated to such an extent as to permit the growth upon it of a perfect jungle of brush and even of large trees. At many points, often concealed from the view of the explorer by brush, there were open shoots into the sullen, treacherous depths below. David E. Kimble relates that on one occasion while he was at work on the jam with others, one of the party suddenly disappeared into one of those holes. The other men rushed a rapidly as possible to a larger expanse of water some distance below, but Mr. Kimble, remembering a small opening between the trees nearer by, hastened to it. Just as he reached it he saw an agitation of the debris at the place and thrusting his arm into the water he grasped the struggling man and succeeded in rescuing him from death.
      Not only was the big jam a great impediment to navigation, but it was also a continual menace to the fields and stock and buildings of the settlers on the lowlands on either side of the river. On account also of the great difficulty of making roads through the forest this impediment to river communication almost prevented settlement at points on the river above; furthermore, the removal of the jam was the sine qua non of the lumber industry above it. The scanty resources of the early settlers seemed to forbid their carrying the task to completion, but they made most energetic, even heroic and finally successful efforts to meet the emergency. The territorial legislature had sent memorials to congress urging an appropriation for the opening of the river and Orange Jacobs, the congressional delegate in 1875, secured the sending of General Mickler to investigate conditions, but nothing resulted from his visit, and it became apparent that the settlers must, after all, depend mainly upon themselves for accomplishing the heavy task. [Also spelled Michler or Miehler in a newspaper article we transcribed for the other story in this section.] The people of Mount Vernon generously supported the efforts of the company, whose initiatory work has already been described, and in the summer of 1876 subscriptions were started for its assistance.
      The Northern Star of December 16th notes the fact that the men had at that time been working nearly a year, had removed nearly a half mile of the jam and had reduced the portage distance one and one half miles. The paper describes the magnitude of the task by stating that the men were compelled to cut through from five to eight tiers of logs, which generally ranged from three to eight feet in diameter, representing a total cutting out of a space thirty feet deep. The following paragraph from the Star, well expresses the nature of the work in progress:

      To say that the jam loggers are doing their work thoroughly and well conveys no adequate idea of the magnitude and thoroughness of the work done. What they have received from sale of logs taken from the jam and contributions from citizens will only partially pay actual expenses, vet these men should have more than this as a suitable recognition of their great work. We think the general government, even if it declines to grant them a money recompense for their services, could well afford to grant each of them a whole section of timber land to be located above the jam on its removal and upon proof of the fact at the general land office.
      In the progress of the work the jam loggers met with many narrow escapes from death by crushing or drowning and were subjected to constant losses of tools. Sometimes Nature assisted and sometimes hindered their work. Floods sometimes wedged the loosened logs still tighter and undid the work of many days, while on the other hand a flood in 1877 suddenly dislodged a section of the jam which they estimated at not less than five acres and carried it out to sea. Sometimes trees four feet in diameter were snapped off like so many pipe sterns.
      Six months were required of these faithful and enterprising loggers to cut a two hundred and fifty foot channel through the lower jam and over two years more were consumed in cutting a channel a hundred and twenty feet wide through the upper jam. On account of the narrowness of this it was two or three times closed tip again by the moving drifts, but with the aid of the loggers above, a passage way was maintained and gradually widened. By the summer of 1879 the drift was sufficiently open to allow of any ordinary navigation, although not for ten years was the vast accumulation of debris essentially removed from the river.
      It should be remembered as an added reason for paying an unstinted tribute to the men who performed this great task that at that early day they were destitute of the modern agents which would now be employed for such a task, such as dynamite, swinging frames, crushers, etc. Brain and brawn, patience and judgment, with scanty resources of money and little financial gain then or since, were the distinguishing features of this, the greatest undertaking of the kind in the history of the county. It is rather a melancholy reflection that the stalwart partners who had undertaken and successfully executed their work found themselves at the expiration of their three years of anxious and harassing toil for the public benefit rather than for their own, each a thousand dollars in debt. About the only return which they received was between eight and nine hundred thousand feet of timber, which was salable at from four to five dollars a thousand and subscriptions of eight hundred dollars from Seattle merchants and another of several hundred dollars from settlers in the flats. The vastly greater proportion of logs dislodged were worthless for commercial purposes. Although great interest was taken hr the general public in the work, and profuse expressions of praise and gratitude were lavished upon the heroes of the big jam, the actual contributions received amounted to comparatively little. Congress has been petitioned from time to time to make some recompense, but without avail and not even has opportunity been given those men to acquire public lands on any special terms. The old saying that republics are ungrateful is unfortunately illustrated in this, as in some more noted cases. Of the seven men who at one time or another expended their time and strength in the great task of removing the Skagit jam, three are still living, Joseph S. Wilson, Dennis Storrs and James Cochrane. Fritz Dibbern, Daniel Hines, Marvin Minnick, John Quirk and Donald McDonald have passed away. [A descendant of Mr. Storrs now owns the historic Donnelly house on Talcott Street in Sedro-Woolley.]

(Jam at Sedro-Woolley)
      This aerial photo taken in 2003, with a view to the north, shows the logs and debris that regularly pile up at the old Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern/Northern Pacific trestle, which was built to span the Skagit south of Sedro-Woolley in 1888-89. The tracks at both ends of the trestle were ripped out nearly 20 years ago. The bridge to the left, on Hwy 9 from Sedro-Woolley to Clearlake, was built in 1965 to replace the former Thompson/Third Street bridge, about a mile to the east. Photo from the collection of the late master, Roger Fox, and scanned by Larry Kunzler's website, which has many photos of the river.

The Log Jams near Mount Vernon
Otto Klement memoirs, recorded beginning in 1926
      What constituted the first school in Skagit County was in progress in 1873 in a log stable on the homestead of the late David E. Kimble, a short distance below the present site of Mount Vernon. A half dozen pupils were in attendance. Miss Ida Lanning, popular little lass of sixteen, presided over this educational institution.
      At this point the river came to a sudden end, at least so it would have appeared in a person not familiar with the situation. A jam of driftwood here spanned the river for a distance of a mile and a half upstream. This jam had existed so long that it had become water logged and had sunken to varying depts.
      Its surface was in an advanced state of decay and overspread by a heavy coat of river marl and supported a forest growth scarcely distinguishable from that prevailing on the river's banks. This forest rose and fell with the rise and fall of the river.
      In times of flood, owing to the settling and shifting of the mass in the upper regions of the jam, a weird note of groaning was produced not unlike that of a monster in pain, while sharp reports of breaking timber could be heard for miles around.
      A rude skid road around the jam built by the Indians, over which they hauled their canoes, was the only road in the valley worthy of the name. Jasper Gates, living in a shake house with his family, was holding down a homestead now occupied by the main district of Mount Vernon. Mary, Mr. Gates's daughter, was born the day the writer arrived in the valley, October 12th.
      Alvin R. Williamson, a hop grower near the present site of Lyman, was the only permanent white settler above the jam, and the writer was the second, having settled on a claim on the east bank of the river at the point where the Great Northern bridge now spans the stream. Rev. B.N.L. Davis had previously made a location on the west bank (of the river) at this point, but did not occupy it until later in the season.
      Working in the harvest fields on the Swinomish for Samuel Calhoun in 1876, the writer made the acquaintance of the late Harrison Clothier and E.G. English. Finding that they were in quest of a location for a store, he reviled upon them to accompany him to the Skagit.
      The [south] jam [of two] had been removed to the point where Mount Vernon now stands. A number of logging camps had moved into the district, and pleased with the business outlook they purchased five acres of land from Jasper Gates and erected a two-story frame building and occupied the lower story with a small stock of merchandise. A small hotel, owned and operated by the late Mrs. Shott, and a saloon operated by John Bieble, soon followed, and those constituted the first steps in the building of the little city of Mount Vernon. These occurrences happened just fifty years ago almost to a day. A post office followed almost immediately with Harry Clothier as a postman.
      [Ed. note: with the help of Carla Rickerson of the University of Washington Suzallo Library, we found Otto Klement's diary and letters in the stacks of the Allen Wing back in 1992. Parts of this information have been excerpted in various publications. Unfortunately he never compiled his memoirs into a book. They are instead in bits and pieces, included in letters to the Mount Vernon Daily Herald and notes that gave to Ethel Van Fleet Harris, a daughter of Skiyou pioneers, Emmett and Eliza Van Fleet. A handful of his letters to the Herald were not at the library, but luckily the late Maxine Meyers of Lyman saved them in a scrapbook and allowed me to make copies before her death in 2003. You will find a link below to the Journal biography of Klement and other excerpts from his memoirs. We plan to eventually post the entirety. When re-reading this portion, we discovered two facts from Klement's accounts that will require updating of two other Journal stories. First is the timing of the Clothier and English in the fall of 1876 and second is the coincidental date of Klement's arrival in the valley as one of the first permanent settlers.]

Removal of log jams opened up the river
By Beverly Crichfield, Skagit Valley Herald, Dec. 29, 2004
      The canoes came up the river, paddled by rough-and-ready, eager settlers determined to find a patch of land and a new life in the fertile Skagit Valley.
      In the 1860s and early 1870s, the Skagit Valley was a mixture of Native tribes, farmers on the Skagit flats and prospective timber barons eying the thousands of acres of virgin timber that could build homes and fortunes. But progress was trapped behind two massive heaps of gnarled, tangled logs, plugging the river near what is now Mount Vernon. Early settlers surmised that clearing the jams would open the river to navigation, giving them better access to the upriver forests.
      "Clearing the jams was maybe the single most important event in Skagit County history," said local historian Dick Fallis as he pored over stacks of historical documents and old newspaper clippings in his Mount Vernon home. "Most of what's up there now, Sedro-Woolley and Burlington, they really began to take off after the jams were cleared."
      The two log jams were most commonly referred to as the lower and upper jams. The lower jam was a half-mile-long clump of logs about 14 feet deep that hugged an area near what is now Edgewater Park on the west side. Historians say the lower jam was most likely created in the 1600s, when Mount Baker erupted and sent a mass of debris tumbling down the river. The upper jam was much larger — about a mile-and-a-half long stretching south from the bend near present-day Burlington to what is now the north section of downtown Mount Vernon.

Jams hinder development
      In the 1860s, white settlers began filtering into the Skagit Valley, first via the Skagit Flats in search of the fertile soil where they planned to farm grains. Many were from the East Coast and had attempted to settle on Whidbey Island before being chased out by local tribes.
      Two enterprising young men named Samuel Calhoun and Michael Sullivan traveled to the flats and saw the potential for vast farmland. They began a campaign to dike 32,000 acres of land along the La Conner flats. Settlers began digging out farmsteads on Fir Island between the north and south forks of the Skagit River. Calhoun and Sullivan's settlement, called Skagit City, became a small economic engine for the area. Steam boats could easily shuttle up to the small town — complete with a school and post office — and transport crops and other resources along the water.
      While many settlers were content on the south end of the Skagit River, others decided to explore the possibilities farther east. In 1869, David Kimble, one of the earliest Skagit Valley pioneers, traveled up the river and claimed some land at the edge of the lower jam.
      Kimble's description of the jam, recounted in the 1906 book, Illustrated History of Snohomish and Skagit Counties, said it was so solidly packed it could be crossed at any point. Steam boats could navigate several river sloughs, channels and the river itself up to the lower jam, but no further.
      Other settlers came soon after Kimble, including Jasper Gates, who staked a claim south of Kimble near what is now downtown Mount Vernon at Gates Street. By 1876, enough settlers had taken claims for land that a small school was opened in a shed on the Kimble property.
      A young teacher, Harrison Clothier, of New York, came to the Skagit Flats and began teaching at the school. After working some time at the school, one of Clothier's former students, Ed English, came to take a job teaching with Clothier.
      The two men — both highly educated and visionary — could see the site at the bend of the river had a realistic potential for a thriving city. But the jams had to be cleared. They weren't the first to consider the possibility.
      In 1874, according to the Illustrated History, settlers petitioned Congress for $25,000 to "improve" the river — meaning clear a path through the jams. But the government turned them down.
      "They said there weren't enough people out here and there's not enough money to do it," Fallis said.
      Settlers decided to take matters into their own hands. A permanent group of eight members came together to raise money to clear a path through the jam. They thought they could reimburse themselves for expenses by selling the logs that were pulled from the river.
      The workers used hand tools, including saws, picks, levers and rope — brute muscle — to break the logs apart and pull them out of the water. Some of the logs measured 6 feet in diameter. After a year of steady work, they had hacked through five to eight tiers of logs 30 feet deep and managed to clear much of the lower jam, according to a newspaper account of the time.
      By 1879, workers had managed to clear a 250-foot-wide channel through the lower jam and the steam boat Wenant [actually the Wenat] reportedly made the first trip to Mount Vernon. Later that year, workers cleared a 120-foot-wide channel through the upper jam.
      The clearing of the lower jam opened Mount Vernon to the rest of the world. Suddenly, settlers were able to buy land from the resourceful Clothier and English, who had platted the city in 1876. A store opened up and a post office. A few years later, a hotel was established. Heavy boat traffic was reported on the Skagit around Mount Vernon and what is now Burlington in 1880.
      Supplies could be brought in larger quantities to logging camps that sprung up near Burlington, Sedro-Woolley, Hamilton and Concrete. Meantime, those same boats carried vast board feet of timber west along the Skagit. Coal had been discovered in Hamilton in 1874 and needed to be shipped down the river. Clearing the jam made that possible.
      So what did the faithful river clearers receive for their trouble?
      "Although great interest was taken by the general public in the work, and profuse expressions of praise and gratitude were lavished upon the heroes of the big jam, the actual contributions received amounted to comparatively little," according to the History of Snohomish and Skagit Counties.
      Historic documents say they each ended up about $1,000 in debt. Most of the logs they planned to sell from the jam were rotting and unusable. Seattle merchants, who benefited from the clearing, only kicked in about $800. Settlers nearby contributed a few thousand dollars.
      "It's a sad thing for them," Fallis said. "They were real heroes."

Skagit City
      You can more about Skagit City, originally known as The Forks, at this Journal website and then follow the link from that newspaper issue to more information about the village. And look for Issue 39 of the Subscribers Magazine for a more detailed story about Skagit City. [Return]

Joseph Wilson
      Wilson, like Otto Klement, lived in and had considerable influence on both western and eastern Skagit County. Sometime after the log-jam work, he either homesteaded or bought land in the Skiyou region directly north of the old Skiyou School. In fact, we discovered that the school district was originally called Wilson District. Oddly, there is little information about Wilson. Even Bob Harrison, grandson of the original Harrisons for whom the road in Skiyou is named, was unaware of Wilson. We hope that a reader can provide information about this pioneer who also invested in Seattle property that would eventually become very valuable. [Return]

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Story posted on March 25, 2006 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them

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