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Fire destroys the Big Four Inn (Snohomish County) on September 7, 1949.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8543 : Printer-Friendly Format

On September 7, 1949, the Big Four Inn, a well-known resort located in Snohomish County about 25 miles east of Granite Falls, is consumed by fire. Built 28 years earlier, the resort has been closed for more than a year because of road construction in the area. The early morning blaze destroys the imposing, block-long mountain lodge and its nearby annex. Inn caretaker F. F. Watts, with the help of forest rangers and the highway construction crew, is able to keep the fire from reaching the resort's cabins and its gasoline tank and pumps. Those will later be removed, but the remains of the inn's large fireplace and the resort sidewalks are still visible at the site, which is now (2008) a Forest Service picnic area and trailhead for the popular trail to the ice caves at the foot of Big Four Mountain.

Mountain Destination

The Big Four Inn opened on July 2, 1921. The lavish resort was the brainchild of Wyatt and Bethel Rucker, who settled in Everett in 1890 and ran a sawmill in Lake Stevens. In 1915, the Rucker brothers began operating the branch railroad that ran from Hartford, near Lake Stevens, to the mining town of Monte Cristo, deep in the Cascade range. They did so primarily to transport timber from east of Granite Falls to their Lake Stevens mill, but the railroad, which they named the Hartford Eastern, also provided passenger and cargo service to the settlements, lumber camps, and mines along the route from Granite Falls to Monte Cristo.

The Hartford Eastern proved popular with tourists because it provided the only access to some spectacular mountain scenery (the railroad's grade would later provide much of the route for the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Barlow Pass). Taking note of the increased tourist ridership and the success of their hotel in the old mining town of Silverton, the Ruckers decided to build a new upscale resort in the wide valley beneath the precipitous 4,000-foot-high north face of Big Four Mountain, about four miles east of Silverton. The area had previously been known as Camp Glacier, for the icy snowfields at the base of the mountain, or Trout Marsh homestead, but the Ruckers named their inn after the mountain, which is called Big Four because at certain seasons a snowfield high on its eastern face appears in the shape of the number 4. (The "4" snowfield is not visible from the site of Big Four Inn).

The Rucker brothers spent $150,000 constructing Big Four Inn and its surrounding amenities in the spring of 1921. They dammed Perry Creek to provide water and produce electricity to heat and light the resort. All the rooms and cabins had hot and cold running water. In addition to the grand main lodge and cabins, the resort featured a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, and an artificial lake. The Ruckers used "gas cars" (buses designed to run on rail tracks) to bring guests to the inn over their railroad line. They kept the line open through the winter as far as Big Four, making the inn a year-round resort and a destination for winter sports enthusiasts.

Changing Fortunes

Big Four Inn and the Hartford Eastern railroad flourished during the 1920s, when rising prosperity and improved transportation allowed more Americans to travel farther from home. Visitors came from across the state and around the world. Many celebrities of the day signed their names on the inn's lobby walls.

The hard times of the 1930s, combined with the frequent flooding that had plagued the rail line since its construction in the 1890s, led to the abandonment of the railroad and the decline of the resort. The Big Four Inn changed hands several times. U. M. Dickey, a former officer of the Hartford Eastern, bought it in 1932. In 1938, Oscar Hellstrom, a well-known sportswriter and owner of a Swedish newspaper chain, purchased the resort. The Hartford Eastern tracks were removed in 1936 to make way for construction of the road that became the Mountain Loop Highway, but it was several years before the road reached the resort. In the spring of 1941, the Arlington Times was able to describe the 23 miles of gravel road leading to Big Four as:

"[A]ll fairly good except the last three miles which is a one-way pioneer road with turnouts. This is chucky at some spots, but is entirely passable."

Noting that Hellstrom had invested $60,000 in improvements, the Times concluded that Big Four Inn "seems to be facing a more roseate future after several years of serious transportation handicaps."

However, the resort's rosy future was quickly overshadowed by the onset of World War II. Civilian access to the area was restricted and Big Four Inn was taken over by the United States Coast Guard as a rest center for service men between active duty assignments. The somewhat dilapidated resort reopened after the war. But by 1949 Big Four Inn, then owned by William O. Petraborg of Seattle, was closed again as a result of further road construction in the area.

Fiery End

Early in the morning of Wednesday, September 7, 1949, a fire broke out in the inn's main building. Caretaker Fay "40" Watts discovered the fire at 6:30 a.m. The 53-room, three-story wooden inn building "burned like kindling" (Woodhouse). Neither the inn nor its somewhat smaller annex could be saved. However, with help from forest rangers and the highway crew working nearby, Watts averted greater disaster by keeping the fire from reaching the resort's gas pump and tank. They were also able to save the cabins and to keep the fire from spreading to the surrounding timber.

The fire marked the end of the Big Four resort. Within a few years, the Forest Service required the owner to remove the remaining improvements, all of which, like the inn itself, had been constructed on Forest Service land. All that remains of the Rucker brothers' mountain resort are the inn's large fireplace and some sidewalks. They are now part of the Forest Service's Big Four picnic area along the Mountain Loop Highway.

Sources:
"Fire Destroys Big Four Inn," The Seattle Daily Times, September 7, 1949, p. 1; "Big Four Inn Destroyed By Early Morning Blaze," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 8, 1949, p. 1; "Big Four Resort -- In Alps of America," The Arlington Times, May 29, 1941, p. 1; Philip R. Woodhouse, Monte Cristo (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1979), 237-41, 247, 255; "Darrington Ranger District," Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website accessed March 19, 2008 (http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/about/drd.shtml); "A Brief History of the Everett & Monte Cristo Railway," Washington State Steam Railroads and Locomotives website accessed March 19, 2008 (http://wasteam.railfan.net/emcr/emcr.html); "Washington Place Names," Tacoma Public Library website accessed March 19, 2008 (http://search.tpl.lib.wa.us/wanames/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "A key part of the work to build the scenic Mountain Loop Highway linking Granite Falls to Darrington (Snohomish County) begins on March 23, 1936" (by David A. Cameron) and "Everett -- Thumbnail History" (by Janet Oakley), http://www.historylink.org (accessed March 18, 2008); David A. Cameron, email to Kit Oldham, March 21, 2008, in possession of Kit Oldham, Seattle.


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Hartford Eastern gas car in front of Big Four Inn, early 1930s
Photo by J. A. Juleen, courtesy Everett Public Library, Northwest Room Collection


Big Four Inn Lobby, ca. 1920s (fireplace remains standing in 2008)
Juleen Studio photo, Courtesy Granite Falls Historical Museum


Caretaker Fay "40" Watts in front of charred remains of Big Four Inn, ca. 1949
Courtesy Granite Falls Historical Museum


Big Four Inn wreckage after fire, September 1949
Courtesy Granite Falls Historical Museum


Big Four picnic area, with fireplace of old Big Four Inn, Mountain Loop Highway, Snohomish County
Courtesy Northwest Trails Inc.


 
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