On June 16, 1902, Burlington incorporates as a fourth-class town. Located in the west-central part of Skagit County, Burlington was born in the early 1890s as the junction of two major railroads that passed through the community. Incorporation did not come easily; an 1896 attempt failed miserably, though a second try six years later succeeded. Agriculture has played a significant role in Burlington's history, and a thriving commercial district developed in the western part of the city between the late 1980s and the late 2000s, though traffic has slowed in recent years as the result of the rise of online shopping. In 2017, Burlington's population was estimated to be 8,783.
A Town is Born
Burlington is said to have been named by area settler T. W. Soule after his native Burlington, Vermont. The city's roots date to 1882, when two loggers, John P. Millet and William McKay, established a logging camp north of the Skagit River, just a few miles north of the community of Mount Vernon. After serving as a logging camp during the 1880s, the site began to quickly morph into a town during 1890 when two railroads, the Great Northern Railway (which ran north-south) and the Seattle & Northern Railway (which ran east-west), built lines through western Skagit County. The tracks crossed in Burlington, and a townsite was almost a natural result. By the end of the year the town had been platted, and the plat was filed the next day, January 1, 1891.
As early as 1893 there was talk of incorporation. According to a 1910 memoir written by one of Burlington's first settlers, George Cressey, an incorporation petition was prepared in 1896 by T. W. Soule, Tom Wilson (one of Burlington's first settlers, and its first postmaster), and Cressey. Cressey wrote that there was little community support for the petition, and the county commissioners declined to call an election, claiming the boundaries of the proposed town were irregular and not clearly defined. (Part of the problem with the boundaries appears to have arisen from difficulties in mustering up the 300 residents required to incorporate, which led to the pro-incorporation forces drawing wildly gerrymandered boundaries in an attempt to rustle up residents.) A second attempt in 1902 was more successful. An election to incorporate in May 1902 passed with a solid majority, and it became official on June 16, 1902. Fred Weideman was elected Burlington's first mayor, while the first councilmembers were Mike Hogan, William Hurley, David Koch, Orson Pease, and Zachariah Warfield. George Knutzen became Burlington's first treasurer, and William Cressey Jr. became the first town clerk.
With incorporation now in the rearview mirror, Burlington began to grow rapidly. By 1920 its population had reached 1,360, and it had a thriving business district, an opera hall, and a library. Through the next several decades the little town continued to grow and develop into a pleasant community. Its first airport, the Bayview Airport (now Skagit Regional Airport), opened about three miles west of the city in 1933, and an annual strawberry festival was established in Burlington the following year, which continues to thrive as Berry Dairy Days. In the 1940s a cross was placed atop Burlington Hill in the northern part of the city, and it was replaced with a larger one in 1965. The cross has become an important part of Burlington's identity, and citizens will occasionally ask the city to light it in honor of a special occasion or in memory of a loved one.
Commercial boom ... and bust?
By 1980 Burlington's population had reached 3,894, but the city tended to be overshadowed by its larger neighbor to the south, Mount Vernon. This changed during the 1980s, and led to Burlington establishing a commercial identity of its own. The Port of Skagit opened an office at the Skagit Regional Airport in the late 1970s, and in the late 1980s developed the 325-acre Bayview Business Park next to the airport. But this paled in comparison to the development of Cascade Mall and the surrounding commercial district along South Burlington Boulevard, which began with the construction of the 450,000-square-foot Cascade Mall in the late 1980s. The mall opened in November 1989 and was followed in 1993 by a smaller mall nearby, Cross Court Plaza. Development proceeded apace, and by 2009 more than 5 million square feet of commercial real estate had been built.
The Great Recession of the late 2000s slowed this development, and it also slowed sales at the mall and in the commercial district. Though the economy recovered during the early 2010s, business in the commercial district failed to return to its prior robust levels. Cascade Mall was especially hard hit. The problem wasn't with the businesses themselves, which worked hard to remain relevant and vibrant, but instead resulted from the rise in online shopping, which became mainstream in the 2010s. Cascade Mall also received unwelcome publicity with a shooting in September 2016 that killed five shoppers. After the shooting, traffic to the mall kept dropping and businesses kept leaving, and by late in the decade it had so many vacancies that some wondered how much longer it would remain open.