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La Conner -- Thumbnail History
HistoryLink.org Essay 5655
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Located in western Skagit County, La Conner was once county seat and most populous town in the Skagit Valley. Bounded by farmland, the Swinomish Channel and the Swinomish Indian Reservation, it was an up-to-date town and lively terminus for river steamers bringing timber and lumber down from the upper Skagit, and port for farm commodities grown in the surrounding delta flatlands. Its brief county seat status was lost to Mount Vernon in 1883 and a series of economic misfortunes caused the town to slowly fade and be left in the backwaters for decades. With its sweeping waterfront and business district overseen by "The Hill," the wooded, residential midtown bluff, it's a scenic, historic time capsule. The inherent beauty of the environs, the atmospherics, and the cheap rent of the moldering town attracted artists and eccentrics. In 1937, Morris Graves (1910-2001), who was to become a painter of international renown, came to town and brought his artist friends. These bohemians mixed with rough and tumble fishermen, tow boatmen, and farm hands. Resident novelist Tom Robbins says of the town they created: "That this was an intersection of art and fishing and farming is what’s interesting and unusual and singular to this community” (Hood).
Beginning With Failure
In 1867, on the banks of the Swinomish slough opposite the village of the Swinomish tribe, Alonzo Low built a small trading post on the site of what was to become La Conner. Low's family was among the original party that landed on Alki point (when Alonzo was 2) went on to found Seattle; they resettled later in Snohomish where they were substantial pioneers.
The young Alonzo abandoned his failing effort after 14 months, but in 1869, John S.Conner came from Olympia and bought the land upon which the town subsequently grew. His wife, the former Louisa Ann Siegfried, 27, became the only white woman in the area.
Diking and Clearing
White settlers had been in the Skagit delta area since the mid-1860s. Nova Scotian Michael Sullivan and Sam Calhoun from New Brunswick and their large families had begun the monumental task of building dikes to claim rich new farmland from the marshy tangle of creeks and sloughs and protect it from high tides, and annual flooding.
There was an enormous natural logjam near the mouth of the Skagit River, which prohibited upstream access and travel. Settlers were forced to locate homesteads in the dense timber along the river below the jam, and few did until the logjam was cleared in the late 1870s. La Conner had early success because it was below the jam and a major part of its downfall was the clearing of the Mt. Vernon "Big Bend" jam.
Conner renamed the Swinomish Post Office and his new town site by combining Louisa’s initials with their surname to make a high-toned, French-sounding "LaConner."
A Thriving Port
In 1873, James and George Gaches purchased Conner's store and with Conner and others started brokering produce growing on the flats. Planted heavily with oats for the horses of Seattle and California, Skagit Valley provided a major energy source of the day. La Conner began to thrive.
Steam ships and freighters plying the coastline chose the new town for a snug harbor protected from the elements. Pioneer businessmen came to town; Joseph Dwelley opened a furniture store, the Gaches brothers ran a mercantile, Conner opened a hotel, as did John McGlenn. A. G. Tillinghast opened his seed company at the entrance to town in 1885, which served mail order catalog customers nationwide until 2003.
In 1873, a newspaper first published in Whatcom County as the Bellingham Bay Mail moved to La Conner. It became the Puget Sound Mail and the newspaper of record. It was the oldest continuously published weekly in the state until its demise in the early 1980s.
Towns and Counties Compete
At first, in the Washington Territory, Whatcom and Skagit were one county, but as Skagit generated more wealth, secessionist grumbling could be heard. Skagit County historian Dick Fallis says the major impetus for independence came about 1880, when the massive logjam that had blocked the Skagit River at Mt.Vernon was finally cleared. The river now could be used as a shipping artery between Puget Sound and the upriver forests and hills, which was good for mining and great for the logging market with its veracious appetite in the rapidly developing Washington Territory. Mount Vernon, incorporated in 1877, and little more than a soggy bend in the river, was now in position to become a major city.
After an October 24, 1883, vote in the Territorial Legislature quashing Skagit's hopes of independence, the powerful Whatcom representatives packed up and went home. But La Conner Council member (the Council was the territorial equivalent of the present state senate) James Power, and House member Orrin Kincaid of Mount Vernon pushed a quick measure through both houses on November 28, 1883, creating Skagit County.
It wasn't the cleanest method, says Fallis, but it worked. "There was a little chicanery, a little drama there," he says.
A week later, three special commissioners organized the county government and made La Conner the county seat. On 2nd Street, in what is now known as the La Conner Civic Garden Club, the first County Auditor, H. P. Downs had his office and for want of a safe, kept official records in a soapbox nailed to the wall. The Garden Club, built in 1875 as a community building and over the years used as a grange hall, schoolhouse, federal court, district court, and church is still in use, a community building once more.
But La Conner couldn't hold on to the title of county seat. It was the largest of the three competing towns, Mount Vernon, Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley, but competition between the latter two split the county vote in a November 1884, election and Mt.Vernon won the county seat title by 250 votes.
Although healthy for a few decades to come, this defeat marked the beginning of a slide that would eventually lead to the era that a dog could (and often would) nap undisturbed midday in the middle of First Street.
In 1891, George Gaches built the Gaches Mansion, which since has been used as an art museum, hospital, and apartment house. It survived a near devastating fire in 1973. Restored by community efforts, it was the first home of the Museum of Northwest Art, now located on First Street. The Gaches Mansion is currently the La Conner Quilt Museum.
The Swinomish Channel is a navigable man-made cut through what was once called Swinomish Slough, a shallow collection of tidal sloughs, extensive salt marshes, and mud flats. In 1892, Congress approved a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging and diking project to make it an inland passage. Completed in l937, the 11-mile-long channel separates Fidalgo Island from the mainland connecting Padilla Bay on the north with Saratoga Passage to the south through a notoriously narrow opening called "Hole in the Wall." The Channel is used extensively by fishing boats, tugs, recreational craft, and shallow-draught freight vessels. Dredging the Channel made La Conner into a working waterfront and vital to such longtime employers as Dunlap Towing, with its log towing operations, which has been based in La Conner since 1925.
A faltering fishing industry, devastating floods, the Great Depression, and lack of rail access were reasons for the tailing off of La Conner's prosperity. By its location, it was always a port town, but while other towns scrambled for a rail link or terminus, La Conner spurned the idea. Resident historian Roberta Nelson wrote in the Skagit Valley Herald in 1974, "The early settlers, displaying a trait that has lasted to this day, opposed the railroad because they feared it would scare the cows and disturb the peace. The rejection of the railroad resulted in the business development of other Skagit towns" (Nelson). La Conner was by-passed by the railroad in favor of Burlington in 1889.
La Conner's Skagit Valley setting was a magnet for artists. Skagit-born Richard Gilkey, who lived most of his creative life on nearby Fir Island, described it eloquently for a 1982 exhibition of Northwest artists at Osaka's National Museum of Art.
"The landscape in which I work is a rural agricultural river delta, rich with sloughs, marshes, and farmland. Immediately to the East rise the Cascade Mountains, deeply forested and laced with waterfalls, which flow from snow-covered peaks to rivers running seaward. The nearby rocky, islanded coastline sustains ancient firs, wind-torn, gnarled, and dwarfed, bonsai in nature. Mosses and lichens soften the weathered stones while mists and rain shroud the grayed landscape a large part of the year. It is a landscape much like Japan" (Ament).
In 1937, Painter Morris Graves came to town, found a burned out house on the hill, moved in, and invited another young artist, Guy Anderson (1906-1998), to share it. They carted in beach sand to cover the floor and crafted furniture from driftwood.
Bearded, and with a rope holding up his pants, Graves lived poor by choice, and at first, says Novelist Tom Robbins (a La Connerite since 1970), "People didn’t know what to make of him. The words 'beatnik' and 'hippie’ hadn’t been coined -- the word 'bohemian' wasn’t known in Skagit County -- for awhile they called him a 'Nazi,' the only derogative term they could come up with. But he won them over, because Morris [was] a man of tremendous charm" (Hood ).
Graves's long life was lived all over the world -- in La Conner only briefly -- but he built a house and Japanese garden nearby on a nearly inaccessible, precipitous hilltop on Fidalgo Island that he called "The Rock." Over time this is where he did some of his most important painting. After Graves had broken the ice, other artists such as painters Anderson, Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Ken Callahan (l906-1986); sculptor/painters Clayton James, wife Barbara, and others came to La Conner and environs. Anderson moved to town permanently in 1959 and painted there until his death. Graves inspired locals like Richard Gilkey (1925-1997) and Anacortes sculptor Phillip McCracken to return to the Skagit (Ament).
In 1953, Life magazine, a hugely popular magazine not known for chronicling art, much less the godforsaken Pacific Northwest, featured Graves, Tobey, Callahan, and Anderson in a four-color spread dubbing them the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" and their work, the "Northwest School." It was the first flicker of recognition of artists from the West by the East Coast art establishment and suddenly they were acclaimed internationally.
It was more than the physical beauty that pulled a new generation of artists and bohemians to La Conner. Novelist Robbins, and painters like Charlie Krafft, Bill Slater, Paul Hansen, and others arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. Locals, by then, had a name for such folk: hippies. La Connerites had grown accustomed to perplexing eccentrics in their tiny town and had, in the meantime, been producing a few homegrown ones.
Empty Storefronts, Rotting Pilings
This era is the one that Robbins and many residents still harken to. Most of the storefronts were empty and boarded up, the pilings beneath the waterfront were rotting. Los Angeles Times reporter Bette Thompson thrilled LA urbanites describing First Street in 1978:
"A horse drawn wagon carries Pioneer Day celebrators down the street. Warm smiles appear on the wrinkled faces of an Indian man and his wife who sell carvings and necklaces. At the Den of Antiquity, yellow curtains strung on the outside of the windows move gently in the breeze ... a sign invites customers to ring the doorbell; if the proprietress likes their looks she will open up the shop.
"Barefoot youth stroll the main street beating a bass drum and proclaiming another performance of their sidewalk vaudeville troupe ...[after the performance] Hesitant applause comes from the crowd, and a young woman in granny glasses and Shirley Temple ringlets passes a faded satin tap-dancing slipper among the spectators for donations."
A cranky yet beguiling mutt named Dirty Biter was owned and maintained by the whole town. He died in 1982 in a tragic dogfight and a First Street park now bears his name. The 1890s tavern shook with live rock music and the city fathers decreed that only waltzing was allowed because of the condition of the building's rotting pilings. The La Conner Tavern (still very much in business) played country music and bluegrass and catered to a blue-collar crowd salted mightily with the hip and the hirsute.
Local cronies sat daily in the funky North American Scandinavian ambience of the dining room of the Nordic Inn & Old Planters [sic] Hotel at the notorious Round Table gossiping and shooting dice for coffee. Thompson wrote "Indians sell their catches of king salmon to the Lighthouse Inn, and the chef puts on a sidewalk show grilling the steaks over wood he cuts himself."
Former mayor, "Red" Reynolds, a local character in his 70's could be seen in a fright wig lounging barelegged in front of his dusty "Hole in the Wall" antiques store, sound asleep every afternoon (Duncan).
"You could be yourself to the fullest extent, the town had a high tolerance for people who liked an easier way of life where their eccentricities -- dress and unusual behavior were tolerated no matter how vile..." says Robbins (Hood).
The Sewer Wars
Civic singularity, crankiness, and the rejection (or robust questioning) of conventional wisdom, and authority (especially out-of-town authority) marked the history of La Conner and is alive and well today.
Whether "La Conner" should be spelled as one or two words has always been a contentious topic. Some old-timers, the local paper, the State of Washington and the U.S. Post Office use the one word John Conner originally coined; but the incorporated town itself, other old timers, and many modern entities such as the Chamber of Commerce, La Conner school district, and Skagit County all insist on "La Conner," which, in French at least, is more correct.
In 1957, residents liked the international red base coat so much on the new bridge connecting the south end of town with Fidalgo Island and the Swinomish Reservation, they insisted on a topcoat of the same color. After much wrangling and finger shaking at state officials, the arching steel span that's come to be known as the Rainbow Bridge became the only orange bridge in a state full of green bridges. (Duncan)
A major factor in La Conner's years of stubborn stagnation was its lack of sewers. Septic tanks bubbled up in back yards at high tide and First Street toilets flushed directly into the Channel. Old structures were grandfathered in, but without modern sewer disposal, new construction could not be underwritten by lending institutions and was banned by state environmental laws. This preserved the town's old buildings, made for cheap rents and "an easier way of life," but economic growth was stifled for more than 40 years.
As always, La Connerites were sharply divided on the subject. Many opposed it on the grounds that life would change forever. Roberta Nelson, whose sentiments were on the side of commerce, wrote, "Many stumbling blocks were placed along the way in hope of preventing the realization of the sewer project" (Nelson).
Tom Robbins, reflecting the view of many residents who still fight commercial growth in the town says, "When they put the sewer in, that’s when this town started going wrong."
The pro-sewer forces led by Mayor Fred Martin were victorious and the sewer lines and waste water facility was completed in 1974. Sleepy, backwater, bohemian La Conner started to reawaken to twentieth century realities.
Development of La Conner's present tourist-driven, service-based economy began in earnest. The Port of Skagit County built a marina on the north end. Shelter Bay, a gated community of aging and affluent outsiders sprang up just over the bridge on the Swinomish Reservation. Renovation of old houses and crumbling storefronts began, and vacant lots started filling up with new construction. Hotels, bed & breakfasts, and fine dining restaurants, were established. As Puget Sound salmon fishing wound down, the marina filled with yachts. Moore-Clark, a hatchery fish-food processing plant and longtime industrial employer, closed in 1992. The building lost its industrial zoning, and stands ready for commercial development. (O'Donnell)
Tourists for Tulips
Tulips, planted for bulbs in the surrounding flatland by Dutch immigrants, had been blooming away in masses of vibrant colors for 50 years, but no one paid much attention In 1982, after a Seattle travel agent "discovered" the blooms, the first tour bus rolled into town. La Conner is in the direct path of a tulip tourist tsunami that provides a much-needed cash influx in early spring for the retailers, but drives residents crazy with traffic gridlock in the narrow streets and on farm roads.
In 1965, a La Conner landmark was hauled into town on a barge to a prominent waterfront location. Dunlap Towing had bought the old Bellingham Yacht Club clubhouse and installed the funky rambling wooden structure with its decks and faux lighthouse tower, which became a destination restaurant called the Lighthouse Inn.
In 1968 Skagit County Historical Museum was built at the very top of the La Conner hill. Once known as "Autoview Hill" for its spectacular 360 degree view of Skagit Bay, Swinomish Channel, Mt Baker, and the flats, the site had been a tourist site since the invention of the auto. An observation deck is a feature of the excellent museum, which features lively exhibits and a good research library.
In 1981, the Valley Museum of Northwest Art, devoted to presenting the works of major Northwest artists, opened on the second floor of the Gaches Mansion. An intrepid La Connerite, Art Hupy (1924-2003) had a vision of a small regional museum in La Conner, a venue so important as "place" for so many Northwest artists. Hupy, a former free-lance photographer for United Press International, Sunset, and Time, had a reputation for warm, powerful photos of Northwest artists. For years, he and his wife Rita doggedly raised money, built membership, plagued patrons, and cajoled artists, all the while searching for a permanent location.
Now located on First Street and known as the Museum of Northwest Art, it is recognized as a serious museum devoted to preserving and displaying the exceptional art of the region including works by Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. It also has continual exhibitions of contemporary artists and is a source of education on Northwest art.
Cheechacos All: The Pioneering of Skagit County ed. by Margaret Willis (Skagit County Historical Society, 1973); The Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (1906, Interstate Publishing); Deloris Tarzan Ament, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002); William Cumming, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930's and the Northwest School (University of Washington Press, 1984); "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" Life magazine, September 28, 1953 p. 84; Bette Thompson, "Norse and Indian Lore Blend in Fishing Town," The Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1978; Roberta Nelson, "LaConner Legends: Long History of Starts, Stops," The Skagit Valley Herald, December 20, 1974; Roberta Nelson, "Tillinghast's in LaConner: Seed Firm Maintains Tradition," The Skagit Valley Herald, April, 1975; "LaConner Is State's Most Colorful, Past and Present," Puget Sound Mail, March 15, 1962; Michael Hood, "Blooming Hell," The Seattle Weekly, June 9-15, 1999; Michael Hood Interviews with Dick Fallis, January 2004; Michael Hood interview with Dan O'Donnell, December 2003; Michael Hood interviews with Tom Robbins, January 1983, June 1998, September 2002.
Note: This essay was revised on April 10, 2014.
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Rainbow Bridge, Swinomish Channel, LaConner, November 2005
Photo by Priscilla Long
Bird's Eye View of LaConner, 1889
Courtesy WSU Special Collections
Gaches Store, LaConner, ca. 1880
Courtesy Eva Gaches Collinson
Courtesy Skagit Settlers
Courtesy Center for PN Studies (Jeffcott Collection)
LaConner, ca. 1970s
Tulip field near LaConner, Skagit Valley, 2002
Photo by Janet Oakley
Swinomish Channel (Rainbow) Bridge connecting LaConner and Fidalgo Island, LaConner, 1960s
Swinomish Channel (Rainbow) Bridge connecting LaConner and Fidalgo Island, May 11, 1994
Courtesy Washington Department of Ecology