Gertrude Dowd was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 29, 1903, and moved to King County with her family as a young girl. After earning a teaching certificate at Holy Names Academy in the 1920s, Dowd moved to the town of Nagrom, in Southeast King County, and taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She taught the first five grades, and had up to seven students, all from three families.
In 1929, she began teaching in Lester. The town was the largest community along the upper Green River, nestled deep in the Cascade Mountains. Like nearby settlements, Lester was developed in the 1880s to house crews needed to help trains climb the steep grade to the Stampede Tunnel. Later, logging operations helped the small communities grow. By the time Gertrude Dowd arrived, Lester was home to hundreds.
While in Nagrom, Gertrude had become friends with Frank Murphy, owner of the general store. They went on hikes together, but according to Gertrude, "There was no carrying on, of course." At the time, each of them was engaged to another person. They soon broke off these engagements.
Then World War II intervened. Frank was drafted and made it through the war, but soon after his return he was injured while working on a purse seiner. His leg got caught in a seine line, and was mangled so badly it had to be amputated. He returned to Lester to recuperate and to care for his father.
Gertrude left Lester in 1942 to care for her ailing mother and to teach in the Highline School District. She returned on weekends and vacations to see Frank. The two continued on with their friendship, and eventually, in 1956, got married. Gertrude moved back to Lester, and commuted to Highline until her retirement in 1963. The retirement didn’t last long, and soon she was teaching once again, this time in the Lester school.
Last in Lester
Big changes were happening to the town of Lester. The City of Tacoma had acquired the upper Green River for use as a watershed, and was buying up nearby land to keep it pristine. The last logging company closed down in the 1970s, and the rail line became less used. People began leaving town to find work elsewhere.
Tacoma Public Utilities bought up the last of the railroad property in 1980. By this time, only 26 people lived in Lester, one of them being Gertrude Murphy. Her husband had since passed away. Gert remained active with the school, serving on its board.
In 1985, the state legislature determined that the education costs for such a small population were too expensive, and shut down the school. Gertrude traveled to Olympia to prevent the closure, but lost. Town residents kept moving away until only Gertrude Murphy and her niece, Mary Aucourt, remained.
Lester No More
As the last resident of Lester, Gertrude received notoriety of sorts. Reporters would often make their way up the river to interview her, and at one point she was invited to appear on David Letterman’s show. That interview was cancelled, which displeased Gertrude greatly. But old students would sometime drive up for a visit, bringing a smile to her face.
While the City of Tacoma was dismantling buildings throughout the town, Gertrude fought to put the 1886 train station on the state’s historic register. Sadly, vandals burned the building down. In 1993, Gert’s home burned down, and she moved to a small cabin a mile and a half from what had once been the center of town. “I call this a suburb of Lester,” she said.
In her 80s, Gertrude Murphy stayed in town until the winter, when she would then live with family members in Kent. But she couldn’t wait for the snows to end, as she was always "chomping at the bit" to return to Lester where the air was clean and it smelled so pretty. Each spring she'd return, until failing health made her trips less frequent. As she neared her century mark, her ailments became too great and she moved into the Bethany of the Northwest nursing home in Everett.
Gertrude Murphy passed away on September 29, 2002, and in some ways, so did Lester.