In the summer of 1871, William Moore (1833-1913) and other farmers commission work to begin building a major portion of a three-mile dike from Stanwood (northeastern Snohomish County) north toward Milltown. The dike will be built just inside the Stillaguamish Slough shoreline north of Stanwood. When it is done, 880 acres will be available for cultivation.
Settlers seemed undaunted by the fact that the river deltas were often swampy or marshy. They saw fertile, rich soils that could be farmed profitably if they could be freed of tidal saltwater inundation. They immediately diked their farm fields to protect them from tidal flooding and then all they needed to worry about was the seasonal river flooding.
In the early days of settlement, the river flooding was not considered harmful and though there was maintenance (such as cleaning up logs and debris), the floods were thought worth the fertilizer the silt provided. The Stillaguamish flats or delta extend north of Hatt Slough (located just south of Stanwood) along West Pass and Skagit Bay.
The 1871 diking project was not the first dike in the area but this northern section was one of the largest areas of the rich Stillaguamish River delta land put into cultivation in one continuous diking project. In Skagit County by 1865, four farms were already diked. An early newspaper account referred to these farm fields as tide prairies.
These dikes are now permanent and costly features of the landscape and it is hard to imagine the Stanwood area shorelines without them. An early government report (Nesbit, p. 89-99, 211) published in 1885 describes the early diking in Washington and the benefits of improving the lands through reclamation. The report gives some specific figures for those years of crop yields.
To Fit This Land for Cultivation
Hay was the principal crop but oats, barley, and wheat were also mentioned. According to this report, it was "Mr. Laque's [Leque's] opinion that newly diked land after a number of year makes wild grass hay quite as good as tame hay and that the improvement in the quality of the pasture is sufficient to pay the cost of diking for that use only. This report indicates wages for diking were about $1.50 to $2.00 per day and board and cost the farmer about $2.75 per rod.O. B. Iverson (1845-1940) describes the method of early diking “To fit this land for cultivation, dykes were built to exclude the high water. These dykes are mud walls of various size. Those on the Stillaguamish flats will average about four feet high. To build them a ditch was dug on each side of the dyke, twelve feet apart, the sod regular with a slant of 45 degrees and set along the ditch two feet from it, grass side out ... . For the purpose of drainage sluice boxes were put in to drain into some channel. (Iverson, p. 1).”
Another famed diking achievement was that of Swedish immigrant, Bengt Johnson (b. 1844), who arrived in the area in 1877 and began working on dikes near Hatt Slough. Soon after, in the company of two other men he built 400 rods of dike for Mr. Francis Hancock (1826-1904), another prominent farmer. Later he diked his own 120 acres nearby just over the Snohomish/ Skagit counties border.
In the early days, Stanwood had a “town diker” who trudged through the streets at the end of the day with his spade and hip boots after repairing dikes on the waterfront. Later slip scrapers were used. This was a wheelbarrow-shaped shovel that was pulled by a horse. The operator used the dual handlebars to dig, shovel, or dump.
By 1900, thousands of acres had been diked between Hatt Slough and the Tom Moore's Steamboat Slough. They have changed locations over the years to accommodate the river, roads, the railroad, and development in general. The farmers worked to maintain drainage systems that were often at odds with the new development.
In the 1930s there were W.P.A. Projects to improve the dikes. When they began to be constructed with machinery they were also built higher. The most recent dikes reclaimed about 50 acres north of Stanwood and about 180 acres just north of Hatt Slough.
The latter included the seeding with spartina grass, a non-native species of grass that has since spread to other areas of tidal marsh and has accelerated the siltation of many other tidal flats in Port Susan, Camano Island, and Skagit Bay. Recent efforts have begun to eliminate the spartina in many areas of these shorelines.
Leque Island and Hatt Slough
Sections of the state-owned wildlife recreation areas on Leque Island at the mouth of the Stillaguamish have been allowed to revert to their natural state because of loss of funds for dike maintenance. One hundred and ten acres are planned to be returned to estuary. This is expected to limit hunting areas but provides more wildlife and salmon habitat. Setback dikes are planned however to protect some of the hunting areas.
The Port Susan Preserve at the mouth of Hatt Slough involves the Nature Conservancy purchase of more than 4,000 acres of Port Susan Bay to be designated protective wildlife habitat. The habitat includes 160 acres of diked tidelands.