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Covington -- Thumbnail History
HistoryLink.org Essay 10337
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Covington is a small municipality located in King County, about 20 miles southeast of Seattle. Originally a stop on a railroad line connecting Kanasket to Auburn, Covington began to grow in the early twentieth century as lumber mills sprang up around Jenkins and Soos creeks. After the timber trade died out, dairy and berry farming became more popular in the area with improved irrigation practices. In the late 1990s, Covington residents made a push for incorporation to seize some control of their development away from King County. Formally incorporated in 1997, Covington still struggles to balance growth and its former rural identity.
Farms and Rail Stop
Originally, Stkamish, Smulkamis, and Skopamish people inhabited the area around what is now Covington. Later, all three tribes would be lumped together under the name of other groups along the White and Green rivers, as "Muckleshoot." The area was rich for farming, aided by the sediment of the prehistoric Osceola Mudflow that had slowly filled the valley where Covington and nearby Kent would develop.
The earliest European settlers came to the area in the 1850s, and their interest in the land was not entirely welcome. When the Muckleshoot and Klickitat tribes refused to be moved to reservations in 1855, they clashed with white settlers about 10 miles west of Covington (between present-day Auburn and Kent). Nine settlers were killed in the fight.
While settlers moved in to farm, an even more significant addition came in the 1880s: the Northern Pacific Railroad, looking to complete a western rail line from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Auburn. Needing a short leg between Kanasket (about 10 miles east of Covington) and Auburn, Northern Pacific sent a surveyor by the name of Richard Covington to the area to define a route that's now known as the Palmer Cutoff. (Far more evocatively, the code for the line was "Rodent Frugality" in old Northern Pacific telegrams.) A stop was named for Covington, and soon after the area (earlier referred to as Jenkins Prairie) took the name of the stop.
The construction that went into the line between Kanasket and Auburn was substantial:
"At the last station, Covington, the standard 2,850-foot passing track was put in, along with a 700-foot loading. The same size section house was used in conjunction with the larger, 24-man bunkhouse. Water was provided via box tank and standpipe. The only costs listed were for the section houses; $1,000 for each building's construction; $100 for a privy for each; and $50 in furnishings per house. Wells were sunk at each station at a cost of $65 each" (Phillips).
Not long after the Palmer Cutoff was complete in 1900, an even more lucrative business was added to Covington when the Covington Lumber Company was founded. It was the first mill in the area. At the junction of what are now Soos and Jenkins creeks, Emil Bereiter (1873-1913) and John W. Sandstrom erected a mill in 1901. Known originally as the Bereiter Mill (perhaps unfairly to Sandstrom), it preceded a small working community of men who were employed in mill operations. In a collection of stories recalling Covington's past, resident Stella Wenham described the little settlement that sprang up around the mill and the Covington Lumber Company operations:
"More than thirty small houses huddled together on each side of the road which led to the mill, together with a bunkhouse and cookhouse to shelter the more than one hundred men employed at the mill. A small group of houses across Soos Creek housed Japanese mill workers. A footbridge led across the stream to the mill" (Wenham).
A few changes had to be made to the surrounding area to get the mill operating at full speed. A 30-foot high dam was erected to create a log pond -- complete with a salmon ladder, per the Game Department. But the construction seemed to pay off. The Covington Lumber Company produced 6,000 board feet of lumber per hour, and also was home to a shingle-making operation.
By the early 1900s, the town had grown to include a fair amount of infrastructure. Mill carpenters built a small school big enough for a few rows of desks, with one teacher to keep all the grades on task. Significantly, a post office was added in 1891 -- a sign of the area's growth and worth to the region. A general store, fire station, and feed mill were also Covington-based around the turn of the century.
But it was timber that kept the town growing. In 1901, Calhoun Mill opened at what is now the junction of Highway 18 and Highway 516, next to Soos Creek. Horse-drawn cars transported lumber to the Covington landing dock for shipping out by rail. Not long after, in 1905, Charles Meredith opened his Meredith Mill. The mill was originally near Kent, on Clark Lake, but by 1910 was moved to Jenkins Creek. The mill was between the creek and the railroad, with 13 outbuildings for camp.
One notable story in Covington occurred in 1902, when outlaw Harry Tracy (1877-1902) -- on the run after escaping from the Oregon State Penitentiary -- made his way through the area on his way east. After he invaded a home near Kent and gathered supplies from the household, there were reports of a shootout between Tracy and a few men near the Covington Mill Company. The next day, a nearly breathless Seattle Daily Times reporter rode with a posse of men to catch Tracy's trail, and reported that the men who narrowly missed Tracy in the shootout were understandably upset: "J. A. Bunce is madder than a wet hen. First, because he did not kill Tracy when he had him so close by, and, second, because [Sheriff] Cudihee did not send reinforcements last night. Bunce said if he had four men that Tracy would be dead today" (Sefrit). But the posse was too late: Tracy made it to Lincoln County before dying in an August 1902 shootout.
Despite the excitement, Covington continued to expand slowly. Around 1912, another schoolhouse was built. To reflect the expanding area, this one was upgraded to two rooms; the "little room" for the smaller children (grades one through four), and another room for grades five through seven. After the consolidation of the Meridian and later Kent school district, the two-story building was converted into the Covington Community Center, which eventually burned down in 1976.
Dairies and Berries
As the lumber and timber industry died out, dairy farmers moved in. These so-called "Soos Creek stump ranchers" saw that the clear-cut land that could support herds of cattle. A cheese factory also came in with the cattle, after World War I. By the 1920s, farming was made even easier by the introduction of irrigation practices. With extremely dry conditions in the spring of 1922 (The Seattle Daily Times recorded "virtually no rain since May 21st" in its July 23rd edition), the ground was set to test whether 1,250 acres near Covington could benefit from irrigation by way of canals from Jenkins Creek ("Great Value of Irrigation ..."). According to The Times, the results were very promising, in particular for berry farmers in the area:
"New land under irrigation is yielding abundant crops of vegetables. Strawberries continued to yield two weeks after the crop on unirrigated land was finished. New loganberries are making a phenomenal growth. All of the experimentation this year has been on newly cleared land" ("Great Value of Irrigation ...").
The area continued to grow as a farming community in the post-World War II years, along with nearby towns like Kent and Auburn. As these suburbs around Seattle swelled, Covington began to look promising as a bustling suburban retail hub. By 1992, the Covington area was designated an "urban activity center" by King County, which meant an area that would be well-suited for future growth (Murakami). But there was little doubt that Covington still had a whiff of the sticks in the early 1990s.
The Seattle Times even reported a member of the King County Boundary Review Board (which oversees the incorporation and annexation process by which cities are formed and expand their boundaries) asking during a hearing, "Is there a town called Covington?" (Ervin). Indeed, there was -- and the town was moving to consider incorporation. By 1992, with a $30 million medical plaza slated for a 1993 opening (it would later become the MultiCare Covington Clinic), Covington residents were having initial inklings that incorporation might be favorable.
In 1994, the first push for Covington incorporation was officially launched with a signature drive. King County jurisdiction meant local residents lacked control of planning and growth (or lack thereof); by incorporating, advocates felt they would be gaining control to steer Covington's development themselves. But first the exact boundaries of the proposed city had to be determined and in doing so there were several hurdles to jump over, including a fight with the existing City of Kent over control of the Lake Meridian area.
Lake Meridian had some swank real estate, about 9,000 residents, and a ritzy country club. Kent officials thought it a good idea to annex the prime property, but Covington boosters tried to lure the residents to their side, with the promise of an impending incorporation. When a pro-Covington group discovered in March 1994 that the signatures they gathered were largely invalid, the issue seemed dead. When the Covington group tried again, there was little use: The Kent annexation was moving along at a nice clip. King County growth plans already designated the Lake Meridian area as Kent's to annex, and annexation was usually favored over incorporation in state law. (Lake Meridian did join Kent eventually.)
In 1996 -- with boundary fights largely over -- the King County Boundary Review Board voted to allow citizens to vote on incorporating Covington. Citizens for Covington Incorporation head Rebecca Clark expressed relief that the long battle was nearing an end: "My whole objective through the whole three years was just to put it to a vote to the people, so the people can make the decision" (Schubert). Another resident, Roxanne Durbin, explained why Covington was eager to incorporate: "We chose this area because it was a rural area and we thought it would be a better place to raise our children. I don't want to see it change" (Schubert).
The time was right for cities to form. Just a week before Maple Valley, bordering the eastern edge of Covington, had also gotten the go-ahead for an incorporation vote. When the Covington measure appeared on the November 1996 ballot, the area up for incorporation was roughly six square miles and included about 12,200 residents. The choice seemed rather stark to a lot of citizens, who saw the alternatives to incorporation as either being annexed by Kent or being developed into oblivion by King County.
On November 5, 1996, Covington residents were fairly united in their support of incorporation, with 73 percent of the vote in favor. Covington Neighbors' Council president Bob Clark cited the need for the town to control its own development as a reason for the support. "I think that bringing that control back to the local area was the real driving force. It will work, now that Covington residents have their destiny in their own hands" ("Cityhood Backers Winning ..."). The formally rural one-railroad-stop town of Covington officially became a city on August 31, 1997, when incorporation took effect.
But incorporation didn't mean the end of Covington's debate about growth and development. The newly elected seven-person city council was firmly divided between those who wanted to keep the rural character of the city and members who saw the potential tax revenue of developing businesses along Highway 18. By 2000, hundreds were showing up at Covington's city council meetings, which had become quite contentious and heated. The Seattle Times reported one council member called another a Nazi; when a citizen applauded the name-caller, the target of the epithet threw the citizen out of the meeting.
At the heart of the controversy was the effect of Initiative 695, a 1999 statewide repeal of the motor-vehicle-excise tax, replaced by a $30 flat fee. This tax-revenue reduction drained funds from Covington's state sales-tax revenue. Pro-growth residents were eager to make up some of those dollars by attracting big retailers like Home Depot -- which in turn displeased those residents who were pushing for a small urban core, centered around small businesses. In 2007, Covington did pass a utility tax to fund services, which generated about $2 million in revenue for the city. The tax also helped fund the city's Parks and Recreation services, which were cut drastically after a 2006 levy to form a Metropolitan Parks District was defeated soundly at the polls. Retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart are now part of Covington's commercial core.
With the population of Covington reaching nearly 18,000 people in 2013, the debate about growth continued. The City of Covington's website reminded citizens that the Covington city council cannot "stop" growth: "King County's decision to include Covington in the Urban Growth Area (UGA) prior to the City's incorporation is the primary reason for rapid growth in Covington. The City Council can only manage growth to some degree by working with city staff to ensure that zoning codes are in effect which allow growth that is consistent with the Council's vision or with the image the City would like to portray" (City of Covington).
HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Covington Post Office Opens on June 18, 1891" (by Greg Lange), "Muckleshoots attack settlers along White River between Kent and Auburn on October 28, 1855" (by Walt Crowley and David Wilma), "Muckleshoot Indian Tribe" (by Alan J. Stein), "Kent -- Thumbnail History" (by Alan J. Stein), and " Harry Tracy invades the E. M. Johnson home near Kent, and escapes into the Cascades on July 9, 1902" (by Alan J. Stein), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 17, 2013); "Covington," The Covington Chamber of Commerce website accessed February 2013 (http://www.covingtonchamber.org/); Louis B. Sefrit, "Tracy Seen Today," The Seattle Times, July 11, 1902, p. 1; "Pets of the Ring Relieved of Taxes," Ibid., November 04, 1904, p. 1; "Body of Kent Man Found in Far North," Ibid., June 28, 1911, p. 10; "Great Value of Irrigation Being Demonstrated," Ibid., July 23, 1922, p. 11; Keith Ervin, "A Double-Edged Sword," Ibid., January 23, 1992, p. F-1; Charles Aweeka, "Maple Valley Residents Weigh Incorporation," Ibid., June 15, 1990, p. C-1; Kery Murakami, "Covington Hopes to Keep Its Quiet Life," Ibid., July 26, 1994, p. B-1; "It's Official: Covington City Drive is Under Way," Ibid., October 17, 1994, p. B-2; "Covington Wants to Form City," Ibid., July 2, 1994, p. A-9; Stephen Clutter, "Kent, Covington Clash Over Suburb," Ibid., June 19, 1995, p. B-1; Ruth Schubert, "Cityhood Ok'd for Ballot," Ibid., August 21, 1996, p. B-1; Emelyn Cruz Lat, "Covington's Cityhood Faces a Vote," Ibid., October 23, 1996, p. B-3; Emelyn Cruz Lat, "Cityhood Backers Winning Approval," Ibid., November 6, 1996, p. B-11; "Final, Official Election Results," Ibid., December 6, 1996, p. A-14; Catherine Tarpley, "City's Growing Pains Puts Tempers on Edge," Ibid., July 13, 2000, B-1; Stuart Eskenazi, "Covington Faces Identity Crisis," Ibid., February 22, 2000, p. B-3; Susan Gilmore, "End of the Road for Covington Post Office?" Ibid., February 1, 2002, p. B-1; Keith Ervin, "Covington Gets Pool; Sewer Debate Goes On," Ibid., September 21, 2004, p. B-2; Cara Solomon, "Covington Seeking Park District," Ibid., October 23, 2006, p. B-2; Cara Solomon, "Group Steps Up to Help as Parks Department Closes," Ibid., February 1, 2007, p. B-2; Covington Washington and Its Surrounding Areas ed. by Virgina Levack, Katherine Cullman, and Bob Nelson (Covington: Covington Neighbors' Council, 1995); Stella Wenham, "Covington Railroad and Mill History," in Covington Washington and Its Surrounding Areas (listed above); "City of Covington," City of Covington website accessed on February 20, 2013 (http://www.covingtonwa.gov/index.html); "Community Study, Covington Library," King County Library System website accessed February 20, 2013 (http://www.kcls.org/about/communitystudies/); David Sprau, "Auburn and Its Railroads," White River Journal, April 2002, (http://www.wrvmuseum.org/journal/journal_0402.htm); John A. Phillips III, "Rodent Frugality," The Main Street of the Northwest website accessed February 20, 2013 (http://pw2.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/cv.html); "Covington Lumber Co. Circa 1890-1830?" Black Diamond Now website accessed February 20, 2013 (http://www.blackdiamondnow.org/2012/10/covington-lumber-co-circa-1890-1930.html); Marce Edwards, "MultiCare Approved to Build New Hospital in Covington," MultiCare website accessed February 20, 2013 (http://www.multicare.org/home/news/article/multicare-approved-to-build-new-hospital-in-covington).
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Logo for City of Covington
Courtesy City of Covington
Covington Mill and workers, Covington/Kent area, ca. 1920
Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. 878)
Class photo, Berrydale School, Covington, ca. 1922
Courtesy Maple Valley Historical Society
Interior, Covington Branch, King County Library System, Covington, ca. 2007
Courtesy King County System