La Conner is situated on the east bank of the Swinomish Slough a few miles north of where the Skagit River flows into Puget Sound. The first non-Natives to venture into the Skagit region were Spanish, British, and Russian explorers and fur traders. A few homesteaders arrived in the mid-1850s, but it was not until 1863 that farming began in earnest after the first dike holding back the Skagit River was built on the nearby "flats" to reclaim tidal marshlands.
In 1867 Alonzo Low (sometimes spelled "Lowe"), who at age six had arrived with his parents at Seattle's Alki Point in 1851 as part of the original Denny Party, opened the fledgling community's first commercial enterprise, a trading post. Two years later, in 1869, John S. Conner and his wife Louisa Anne (Siegfreid) Connor arrived. Connor bought an existing trading post and post office started by another early settler, Thomas Hayes. Then known as Swinomish, the nascent community became LaConner when Conner combined his wife's first two initials with their last name. It has remained so ever since, although there is very little agreement as to whether the name should be written "LaConner" without a space, as Conner did, or "La Conner" with a space, as the legislature did in the 1883 act of incorporation, and as the town government continued to do.
By either spelling, the town continued to grow, and at first it had the appearance of a family operation. An early account noted:
"J. S. Conner and family, keeping a store and post office in their residence building which stood on the spot now occupied by the Gaches brick block; Archibald Siegfried and family [Louisa's brother], conducting a boarding house in a building on the site of the Corner saloon; J. J. Conner, a cousin of John, operating a little trading vessel, the True Blue, with headquarters at the village ... " (An Illustrated History, 102)
Others soon came, however. In 1872, A. G. Tillinghast arrived at La Conner and later established the first seed company in Washington Territory. Over the next few years the town sprouted a schoolhouse (1873), a Catholic church (1874), and a Grange Hall (1875), which housed the first federal court north of Seattle and was to briefly serve as Skagit County's courthouse and seat of government. By 1878 La Conner was a relatively prosperous community, supported primarily by agriculture, logging, and fishing. Soon professionals and tradespeople of many stripes -- doctors, lawyers, barbers, tailors, shipwrights, blacksmiths, and even a photographer -- set up shop in the little town on the Swinomish Slough.
A Brief Reign
La Conner continued to grow and prosper, and its citizenry eventually petitioned the Territorial Legislature for incorporated status, which was granted on November 20, 1883. The act of incorporation set out the boundaries of the newly recognized "city":
“An act to incorporate the city of La Conner, approved November 20, 1883 ... All of the plat of the town of La Conner as recorded in the office of the auditor of Whatcom county, together with an addition of six hundred feet on the southern end of said plat of the same width as and extending in the same general direction as said plat; also an addition of sixty rods on the northern end of said plat of the same width as and extending in the same direction as said plat; all of the above described land being and lying in section thirty-six, township thirty-four (34) north, of range two east, in Whatcom county. The inhabitants of the city of La Conner, within the limits above described, shall he and they are hereby constituted a body politic and corporate, in fact and in law, by the name and style of the "City of La Conner” (Abbott, 644).
Although incorporated as part of Whatcom County, that status would last for only eight days. On November 28, 1883, the same Territorial Legislature carved off the southern part of Whatcom County to create Skagit County, which included the area around La Conner. As the leading town of the day, La Conner was named the county's judicial headquarters and county seat. But this was an interim appointment only, as the Legislature made clear:
"Sec. 5. That the county seat of said Skagit county is hereby temporarily located at La Conner, at which place it shall remain until located permanently elsewhere in said county, by vote of the qualified electors thereof: for which purpose a vote shall be taken at the next general election in 1884. and the officers of election shall receive said vote and canvass the same and announce the result in like manner as the result of the vote for county officers, and the place receiving the highest number of votes cast shall be declared the permanent county seat of the said county of Skagit ... " (Laws of Washington, 518).
Mount Vernon, located on the Skagit River just north of La Conner, had seen its development held back for years by a massive logjam that rendered the lower Skagit impassable to commerce. After years of effort, the logjam was largely cleared by 1879, and Mount Vernon was rapidly coming into its own, although it was not to incorporate until 1890. Although the citizens of both towns worked to gather support for the creation of Skagit County, Mount Vernon then ran an aggressive campaigned to replace La Conner as the seat of county government. In 1884, after a countywide vote, Mount Vernon won the title. La Conner's brief moment as the center of Skagit County government came to a quiet end. County Commissioners moved their meetings to Mount Vernon at the beginning of 1885, but La Conner stubbornly held on to the district court for three more years. Mount Vernon was finally forced to lobby for a state law requiring that county courts be located in county seats.
Two years later, the voters of La Conner decided to disincorporate the town. While the reasons aren't entirely clear, one local historian makes a strong case that the decision was driven by anti-temperance forces.
According to researcher Thomas Robinson, La Conner's first town council election in 1883 appears to have resulted in a local government that was, for the most part, anti-saloon. La Conner already had anti-saloon laws, but they were largely unenforced. The incorporation vote, and the election of the first town council, was during the period between 1883 and 1888 when Washington women had the right to vote. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was active in the La Conner area, and "dry" forces appear to have won sufficient seats on the council to demand enforcement of the laws. The owners of saloons and other businesses, believing that the availability of alcohol attracted customers to the town, would have had a strong interest in getting rid of the temperance-dominated council. The most direct way to accomplish this was to convince the voters to disincorporate the town, and this is exactly what happened on January 6, 1886, when the Territorial Legislature, acting on a petition from the citizens of La Conner, approved an act of disincorporation. When the town no longer existed as an incorporated area, the council was disbanded and saloons were left unmolested. Others, of course, sought a simpler explanation, claiming that the town had merely gone to sleep after Mount Vernon took away the county seat.Whatever led to disincorporation, on December 10, 1888, the town was reincorporated by court order (the method by which towns could incorporate kept changing). This appears to have been one step in an aggressive campaign to revitalize La Conner by restoring the town council, creating an Improvement Company and Chamber of Commerce, and persuading the federal government to dredge the Swinomish Channel.
Life Goes On
Losing the county seat was a setback, but La Conner had other assets to carry it through. Agricultural and timber sectors grew over the following decades and the town became a center for commercial salmon and cod fishing. Although the railroads never arrived, the Swinomish Slough was dredged in 1937 to provide an all-season working waterfront. Even during the Great Depression, La Conner's lumber and fishing industries afforded the town a prosperity not shared by many.
But lumber and fish were finite resources, and as their role in the town's economic life diminished, La Conner came to rely more heavily on its agricultural sector and on tourism and the arts. Painters of what became known as the Northwest School began moving to the area as early as 1937, and later generations of artists and writers followed. There were some very lean years, but in 1974 a substantial portion of the town was declared a historic district and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Capitalizing on its long history, La Conner now began to exploit its nineteenth-century architecture and beautiful natural setting to build a year-round tourist industry that has become a mainstay of the economy.
The Swinomish Tribe, whose reservation is just across the slough on Fidalgo Island, works with the town to sponsor an annual Tribal Days Festival every September 25th, a date that La Conner has declared "Native American Day." Several other annual festivals, ranging from art to tulips, have helped secure the town's economic well-being. La Conner may have only briefly been the seat of Skagit County government, but it has secured a lasting place as a regional center for tourism and the arts.