Burlington -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/28/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20786
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Burlington is located in western Skagit County, just north of the county seat of Mount Vernon. The community was first established in 1882 as a logging camp, developed into a small town during the early 1890s, and incorporated in 1902. Agriculture has always been one of the biggest industries in the city, though extensive commercial development along Burlington Boulevard between the late 1980s and late 2000s changed this to some extent. The city had an estimated 8,783 residents in 2017, and in 2019, Burlington remained a pleasant, small community, one that was proud of its small-town appeal. 


During the autumn months of 1882 two loggers, John P. Millett and William McKay, built a shack and set up a logging camp in a cedar and spruce forest a mile or two north of the Skagit River just north of the community of Mount Vernon. It was the birthplace of Burlington, but even as the camp grew during the 1880s, a town on the site would have been hard to foresee. An account from 1887 describes it as "many rudely constructed bunkhouses of cedar shake ... clustered around a large long building known as the cook-house" ("Early History of Burlington, Washington").

The scene changed, and fast, in 1890. Development was beginning to transform the western part of Skagit County -- which was a mere seven years old in 1890 -- from wild, untamed woods into small communities and quiet farms. This transformation accelerated in 1890 when two railroads, the Great Northern Railway and the Seattle & Northern Railway, built lines through western Skagit County. The Great Northern line ran north and south while the Seattle & Northern line ran east and west, and the tracks crossed in Burlington, spawning an early nickname for the community, "the Hub City." Burlington itself was named by area settler T. W. Soule after his native Burlington, Vermont.

William McKay filed the plat for Burlington on January 1, 1891. The city's original downtown was at Anacortes and Orange avenues, and to underscore their importance, they were the only planked streets in town. This didn't last long. The railway tracks of the Great Northern and the Seattle & Northern intersected about a quarter mile northwest of the original townsite, and almost immediately the town's business center shifted in that direction, to an area encompassing Fairhaven Avenue and Spruce Street. Meanwhile, the little town quickly grew. A Methodist Church was built in 1891, and a post office and grade school opened that year. T. G. (Tom) Wilson was the city's first postmaster, while Clara Garl was its first teacher. The town's first saloon also opened about this time. Finally, to further cement Burlington's transformation from logging camp to town, its first fraternal organization, the ubiquitous Independent Order of Odd Fellows, built a hall on Anacortes Avenue in 1892.

It was also in 1892 that Burlington had its first recorded flood, though it would hardly be the last. The city is located on a flood plain, and the Skagit River makes up the city's southern and southeastern boundaries. Flooding from winter rains has always been a threat in Burlington, especially in its southern section. Some of the worst floods in the city's history occurred in 1909, 1917, 1921, 1990, and 1995. Dikes set up throughout Skagit County to try to control the problem have in some years exacerbated it instead by trapping the floodwaters in place.

By 1892, Burlington had become sure enough of itself that the locals submitted a petition to the county's male voters to move the county seat from Mount Vernon to Burlington. It lost, and another attempt in 1909 similarly failed. To add insult to injury, an 1896 attempt to incorporate Burlington also failed. A second attempt several years later was successful, and Burlington was officially incorporated as a town of the fourth class on June 16, 1902.

Coming into its own

Burlington rapidly grew from a town just barely large enough in 1902 to have the required population of 300 to incorporate to a town of 1,302 just eight years later. A vivid description of Burlington from 1906 concedes that while "no municipal works have as yet been undertaken" (An Illustrated History ... 231), progress was nonetheless proceeding apace, with preparations being made to macadamize (a primitive early method of paving, using crushed stone) some of the main streets in the town. The 1906 account says that Burlington had three shingle mills, three hotels, two lodging houses, various general stores, a bicycle shop, a drug store, a new bank, even a practicing attorney. A local newspaper, The Journal, was seven years old in 1906, while the town's commodious opera hall, opened in 1905, was a source of considerable pride for local residents.

This expansion continued in the 1910s. In 1911, a library reading room was established in the little town. These were precursors to actual libraries and were not uncommon in small towns in the early 20th century. Books were typically provided by the state circulating library and by local residents, and though selections were usually limited, it nonetheless represented an opportunity that most rural residents had never seen. In 1916, Burlington built a Carnegie library (so called because it was built with funds donated by the well-known businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie), which served as the city's library until 1979. The library has since moved twice, and in 2019 was operating in a modern, spacious 22,000-square-foot structure. The Carnegie library building, located at 901 East Fairhaven, was subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places and has served the city in several different capacities since.

The Bellingham and Skagit Interurban Railway arrived in Burlington in 1912. This was an electric trolley line operating between Mount Vernon and Bellingham, running part of the way along the scenic Samish and Bellingham bays. (The route included a four-mile overwater trestle just off the Samish Bay shoreline, which gave the interurban the nickname "The Trolley That Went to Sea.") A second line extended five miles east from Burlington to Sedro-Woolley. The trolley was built to better connect the more rural parts of Whatcom and Skagit counties to each other, and for the first 10 years or so of its existence it did exactly that. However, better roads and improvements in automobile and bus technology in the 1920s made the trolley obsolete by late in the decade. Difficulties in maintaining the tracks and trestles helped seal the line's fate. Passenger service ended in 1928, and freight service two years later. A part of the route survives today in southern Whatcom County as a walking and biking trail, aptly named the Interurban Trail.

Further improvements in transportation benefitted Burlington during the 1930s. The Bayview Airport (today known as the Skagit Regional Airport), located about three miles west of Burlington, opened in 1933 with a single runway. More area roads were paved, and a new highway opened between Burlington and Bellingham in 1936. Though scenic Chuckanut Drive between the two cities had been open for 20 years by 1936, it was limited in the amount and type of traffic it could handle and it was also subject to episodic closures from rockslides. The new route, part of U.S. Highway 99 but known locally in its early years as the Lake Samish Highway, proved to be a considerable improvement. This was particularly true for local farmers, who needed a dependable, sturdy road to haul their crops north to Bellingham.

Festivals and the Burlington Hill cross

Agriculture has always been one of Skagit County's (and Burlington's) main industries, and this industry grew considerably during the 1920s and 1930s. Oats, hay, and peas were early mainstays, but during the 1920s seed crops came into vogue. Initially spinach, mustard, beet, and cabbage seeds were grown, but cabbage seed soon became the dominant seed crop. Another crop, hardly unique to Burlington or Skagit County but an important crop nonetheless, was in full bloom by the 1930s: strawberries.

Strawberry farms were common throughout the state and throughout much of the United States in the 1930s. Many communities had strawberry festivals, and Burlington joined them in 1934 with the advent of its annual Strawberry Festival, usually held in June. The festival provided a terrific opportunity for local farmers to ply their wares, and simply for people to get together. In an era in which opportunities to socialize were scarcer than they were nearly a century later, the importance of these local festivals to the community and the excitement that they generated can't be overstated. "The world's biggest shortcake parade" was the featured event in 1938 (80 sheets of shortcake were prepared for it), and in 1939, more than 6,000 people chowed down on the "world's biggest ice cream sundae," made from 200 gallons of ice cream and a half a ton of strawberries. The festival was later renamed Berry Dairy Days, and is still held each June.

Burlington's population remained stable between 1910 and 1940, drifting up slowly from 1,302 to 1,632, but more people began moving to the city after 1940. By 1980 its population had more than doubled, to 3,894, and the city had added more essential services. A new hospital (located east of Burlington on Highway 20) opened in 1960, and the city's Chamber of Commerce incorporated a year later. The Port of Skagit was formed in 1964 and became sole owner of the Skagit Regional Airport in 1975. In the late 1970s the Port built a small terminal and office building on the site and improved access roads there, which later aided additional development near the airport. The Port maintains its offices at the airport today. The airport remains a smaller airport, used mainly for charter flights, though it has grown to include two runways.

During the 1940s a cross was mounted by the local fire department on top of Burlington Hill, a small but prominent 450-foot hill located in the northern part of the city. On special occasions such as Christmas or Easter the city would light it at night, making it easily visible to residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. One resident, 4-year-old Marc Beaton, was especially fond of the cross. After he died in a tragic accident in 1964, his mother wrote an area newspaper explaining how much her son had enjoyed the cross and asking if it could be improved. The community came together and raised donations for a new and larger cross, which has graced the top of Burlington Hill since 1965. Known simply as the Burlington Hill cross, it has become an important symbol for city citizens, who will contact the city occasionally to ask that it be lit in memory of a loved one, or sometimes to celebrate a happier event.  Maintenance and electric costs for the cross are covered by donations.

Boomtown and slowdown

These changes were dwarfed by what came to Burlington beginning in the 1980s. In 1986 the county approved the Port of Skagit's development plans for the 325-acre Bayview Business Park, located next to the Skagit Regional Airport. By the early 1990s several large employers had offices at the site, including Tri-County Truss, which was still there nearly 30 years later as a part of a larger entity, The Truss Company. But the business park wasn't all business -- other amenities there in 2019 included a brewery and the Washington State University Skagit County Extension (WSU). 

The true catalyst for Burlington's commercial development came in November 1989 when the 450,000-square-foot, $30 million Cascade Mall opened on 80 acres in the western part of the city. The mall kicked off widespread commercial development along South Burlington Boulevard and the adjacent area. One of the more notable projects that followed included the smaller Cross Court Plaza, which opened in 1993 just north of the Cascade Mall. A Fred Meyer store followed across the street soon after. This development continued into the new millennium, and expanded to total more than 5.3 million square feet of commercial space by 2009.

By 2009 the financial crisis known as the Great Recession had been underway for more than a year, trimming sales at Cascade Mall and other stores and outlets. Though the economy recovered in the early 2010s, this recovery did not come in equal strength to Burlington's commercial district. Cascade Mall was particularly hard hit, the same victim of declining mall sales worldwide as online shopping became mainstream in the 2010s. A 2016 shooting at the mall did not help, though a subsequent investigation found that by the time of the shooting, Cascade Mall already had more vacant stores and lower sales per square foot than the average American mall.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on September 23, 2016, 20-year-old Arcan Cetin walked into the women's department of the Macy's department store. Armed with a Ruger 10/22 rifle, he fatally shot five shoppers: 16-year-old Sarai Lara, who had survived an earlier bout with cancer, Wilton (Chuck) Eagan, Shayla Martin, Belinda Galde, and Galde's 95-year-old mother, Beatrice Dotson. Cetin was captured the next day and committed suicide in April 2017 while in jail awaiting trial. Though mass shootings -- including mall shootings -- had become far more common by 2016 than in earlier years, Burlington was rocked by the tragedy.  Remarked its mayor, Steve Sexton, "The city of Burlington is probably changed forever, but I don't think our way of life needs to change in our community" ("Cascade Mall shooting ... ").

Traffic at Cascade Mall continued to decline after 2016, but the city itself fared considerably better. Aided by jobs created by its rapid commercial development, Burlington's population nearly doubled, from 4,349 to 8,388, between 1990 and 2010, and the city was still growing, with an estimated 8,783 residents in 2017. Twenty-seven percent of these residents were identified as Hispanic or Latino, double the overall statewide ratio and an indication of those who still do much of the work at local farms.

Local Grains Garner Attention

Burlington by 2019 had gained national recognition for a very local enterprise -- growing specialty grains for nearby breweries and bakeries. The idea of a grain terroir -- characteristic flavors produced by specific environmental conditions analogous to that of regional wine grapes or coffees -- was part of the newer iterations of artisan food production. Skagit Valley potato and flower bulb farmers for generations have grown grains as part of the crop rotations for their main moneymakers. If sold at all, these grains were mixed in the mass grain production from Eastern Washington. Skagit farmers instead found ways to market these supplemental harvests at a premium as a regional specialty. "There is a marked difference in how this stuff tastes," said Scott Mangold, owner of the Breadfarm bakery in nearby Edison, about the locally grown wheat. "It's sweeter and richer, with layers of flavor. It's got this earthiness" (Bay).

As of 2019, Skagit Valley Malting in Burlington was supplying dozens of regional craft breweries with barley grown nearby and malted on site, while Cairnspring Mills was grinding premium baking flour from a variety of local grains. King Arthur Flour of Vermont crossed the continent to open its second Baking School at the WSU Extension in Burlington, where professional and home bakers experiment with local grains and classic techniques. An annual Grain Gathering, sponsored by WSU and the Port of Skagit, brings researchers, farmers, and grain-based businesses together for workshops, speakers, and networking.



An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1906), 228, 231-233; "6,000 Consume Giant Sundae at Burlington," The Seattle Times, June 25, 1939, p. 10; Jessica Lee, "Cancer Survivor, 16, Among Dead at Cascade Mall, Victims' Families Grieve," The Seattle Times, September 24, 2016 (https://www.seattletimes.com/); Rebekah Denn, "King Arthur Flour Teams With the WSU Bread Lab to Roll Out a Community-Minded Baking School in Skagit County," Ibid., October 30, 2018; "Cascade Mall Tops Burlington Projects," Skagit Valley Herald, March 8, 1991; Kurt Batdorf, "A Look Back at Some of the Skagit's Worst Floods," Skagit Valley Herald,  November 10, 2013 (https://www.goskagit.com/all_access/a-look-back-at-some-of-the-skagit-s worst/article_97b4a1a1-0188-596c-99ba-814926c0111e.html); Casey McNerthney, "Cascade Mall Shooting in Burlington: A Timeline of Events," KIRO-TV, September 26, 2016 (http://www.kiro7.com/news/local/cascade-mall-shooting-in-burlington-a-timeline-of-events/449864123); Lindsay Cohen, "Burlington Icon a Beacon in the Night for Half a Century," KOMO-TV, April 26, 2014 (https://www.komonews.com/news.local/burlington-icon-a-beacon-in-the-night-for-half-a-century); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bellingham and Skagit Interurban Railway" (by Phil Dougherty), "Burlington Northern Overpass (Skagit County)" (by Phil Dougherty), "Port of Skagit is created on November 17, 1964" (by Phil Dougherty), and "Arcan Cetin kills five people at Cascade Mall in Burlington on September 23, 2016" (by Casey McNerthney), http://www.historylink.org (accessed March 1, 2019); "Early History of Burlington, Washington," Skagit River Journal website accessed February 17, 2019 (http://www.stumpranchonline.com/skagitjournal/ WestCounty/Burl-NW/Burl/Burlington03-Hartman.html); "Early History of Burlington, the Hub City," Skagit River Journal website accessed February 17, 2019 (http://www.stumpranchonline.com/ skagitjournal/WestCounty/Burl-NW/Burl/Burlington04-Cressey1910.html); "Berry Dairy Days," Burlington Chamber of Commerce website accessed February 22, 2019 (https://www.burlington-chamber.com/berry-dairy-days); "Airport History," Port of Skagit website accessed February 21, 2019 (http://www.portofskagit.com/skagit-regional-airport/airport-history); "City of Burlington," Skagit Watershed Council website accessed February 22, 2019 (https://www.skagitwatershed.org/swc-member-organizations/city-burlington/); "Quick Facts: Burlington city, Washington," United States Census website accessed March 6, 2019 (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/ burlingtoncitywashington); "Decennial Census Counts of Population for Cities and Towns," Washington State Office of Financial Management website accessed February 28, 2019 (https://www.ofm.wa.gov/search/google/Decennial%20Census%20Counts %20of%20Population%20for%20Cities%20and%20Towns); Cody Bay, "Going Against the Grain," The Bread Lab website accessed May 15, 2019 (http://thebreadlab.wsu.edu/local-farmers-going-against-the-grain/); Stefan Milne, "Skagit Valley Malting Is Changing Washington Beer," Seattle Met website accessed May 15, 2019 (https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2017/8/8/skagit-valley-malting-is-changing-washington-beer).

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