Concrete -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 1/17/2024
  • Essay 22802
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The town of Concrete in northern Skagit County is located on the Skagit River at the mouth of the Baker River. Nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Range, Concrete is known as the gateway to the North Cascades. A few homesteaders began settling the area in the 1870s and 1880s, and more arrived over the next couple decades as two communities grew up, Baker on the west side of the Baker River and then Cement City on the east side. The discovery of large deposits of clay and limestone brought two large cement plants to town by the early 1900s, and in 1909 residents and company officials decided to merge the two communities into one incorporated town, which was named Concrete. The town's cement industry flourished into the 1960s but production ended in 1969. Concrete's population declined from its peak, but has remained relatively stable in the twenty-first century at slightly under 800.

Early Settlement

Amasa Everett (1849-1938) was one of the early settlers in the area along the Skagit River that would become Concrete. In the fall of 1874, Everett, a native of Maine by way of Minnesota, was looking for coal in the North Cascades along with two other Skagit Valley settlers, Lafayette S. Stevens (1848-1919) and Orlando Graham (1824-1900). While he was drinking from a creek near where the town of Hamilton would develop, a dozen miles downriver from the future site of Concrete, a large boulder struck Everett's leg and broke it. Infection set in, and Graham took Everett to Seattle to be treated by a doctor.

The leg had to be amputated, earning Everett the nickname "Peg Leg." During his recovery, he made himself a prosthesis and then headed back to the Skagit River. Everett made an extraordinary recovery. In the fall of 1875, he took up a claim on the east bank of the Baker River where it enters the Skagit. He put in a garden and built a cabin, clearing the dense forest around the cabin despite his peg-leg.

In 1885, Everett made a discovery that would play a major role in the community's history. He found substantial clay and limestone deposits on his homestead near the banks of the Baker River. Everett learned that these were the raw materials used in manufacturing cement, and were quite valuable. Everett met and married German-born Mary A. Seeger (or Zeiger) (1872-1948) in 1891 in Seattle. The couple had five children: Leonard, Nina Mary, Elva, Edward S., and Ruth Charlotte.

In 1888, Richard Challenger settled on the west side of the Baker, across the river from Everett's claim, and built a cabin. On June 20, 1891, Challenger platted his property, naming it "Minnehaha," a Sioux Indian word that meaning "waterfalls" or "laughing water." Challenger sold the property to Magnus Frederick Miller Sr. (1848-1932), a blacksmith from Denmark who had been living in Seattle since 1889.

Miller renamed this property "Baker" for the river. Miller's home served as a hostel for travelers, a general store, and a community center. He mapped out streets and then sold lots to newcomers. Miller became a wealthy property owner of the town. The first school in the area had been built by 1891 as a log cabin on John Benson's land on the Skagit a short distance from Baker. The first school teacher was Carrie Hastings Leggett (1870-1947). Miller donated some of his land for the next schoolhouse and also donated land for churches over the years. Miller was appointed postmaster on June 30, 1892, and his home became the Baker Post Office. Miller and his wife Dorothy Andersen Miller (1848-1915) lived in town, running a hotel and livery stable until 1912, when they moved back to Seattle.

Wilson A. Aldridge (1856-1912) came to Baker in 1900 and opened the first general store. The Great Northern Railway built a line through Baker in 1901, continuing east some nine miles to the town of Rockport. Boom years started for Baker. Products including logs, shingles, and lumber were brought in and out of the town via the railroad, as was the mail. By 1901, Baker flourished with a shingle mill and company store.

In 1902, when the town had a population of 28 residents, Daniel Dougal Dillard (1857-1932) and Rudolph Roggenstroh (1856-1922) came to Baker from Arizona. Roggenstroh, who was working as a contractor in mines for the Dominion Mining Company, had met Dillard and they became associates in the business. On November 4, 1902, they purchased the Baker Lumber Company shingle mill, the first industry on the west side of the Baker River. Roggenstroh became president and Dillard secretary of the company. A company store and other buildings sprang up around the mill.

Founded on Limestone and Clay

Everett's discovery a decade earlier led to the creation of the Washington Portland Cement Company (WPCC) on June 1, 1905, on the east bank of Baker River, financed by a bank in New York. Everett surveyed and platted his land. He named it Cement City on July 21, 1905. The community's primary industry, which had been lumber, soon switched to lime quarrying and cement manufacturing. The Great Northern Railway began building the Washington Portland Cement plant in September 1905, putting in side tracks and a foundation. The cement company office was built on Everett's land. It became the center of the community, producing the first cement in the state.

The unincorporated town of Cement City was built around the new plant, where Everett blueprinted streets and lots. The small city included a hotel, stores, and housing for employees. With the new plant came a large population of young single men. WPCC started shipping cement out in May 1906 on railroad cars. In October 1906, a new county bridge was completed across the Baker River, connecting Cement City with Baker.

A second cement plant was established on July 22, 1908, in Baker on the west bank of the river by John Carman Eden (1864-1929) and his Superior Portland Cement Company (SPCC). Clearing for the new plant had begun in 1906 in a rough and desolate-looking spot. The plant employed an estimated 50 men and it began to thrive. The first shipment of cement from SPCC was made on August 5, 1908, headed to Seattle. The railroad ran behind the store buildings on the north side of Main Street then down Main Street to the plant.

In 1908, a conventional wooden schoolhouse was built as a grade school on West Main Street. An addition was soon added as student enrollment in the growing town increased and the building became overcrowded. Classes were taught there until 1910.

The two cement factories now dominated the small community in the center of the Skagit Valley. There was also a shingle mill, along with two hotels, three general stores, three saloons, two restaurants, two pool halls, a shoe shop, meat market, bakery, confectionary, drug store, blacksmith shop, tailor shop, and a Presbyterian church. By this time an estimated 400 men were working for both WPCC and SPCC. More housing was provided and shanty towns sprang up as jobs attracted more workers. The cement plants provided material for many roads, bridges, waterways, and hydropower dams on the Baker, Skagit, and Columbia rivers.

The Quackenbush Sisters

Born in New York, sisters Katherine (Kate) Quackenbush Glover (1866-1944) and Nellie Grace Quackenbush Wheelock (1877-1969) arrived on the upper Skagit River in 1908. Kate Glover, the older sister, was hired by SPCC to manage the local telephone exchange. After a period of time, she purchased the telephone system and renamed it Skagit River Telephone and Telegraph Company. Her sister Nellie Wheelock bought the existing telephone exchange building from SPCC. Wheelock climbed the poles and strung wires to expand service in Baker.

The sisters expanded their talents. Glover was a trained nurse who assisted in childbirth as a midwife. They claimed a vacant lot between their home and their telephone office and built a chicken house, where they raised thousands of chickens and sold eggs. They were also musicians and played the violin and drums at various events, and they would later own and operate a tugboat and a fishing-boat resort.


In 1909, after much discussion between officials of the two cement companies and among residents, it was decided to merge the communities of Baker and Cement City and to incorporate the town under the name Concrete. The population was estimated at 1,200, more than enough to incorporate the town. A vote on whether to incorporate was held on April 27, and it passed by a large majority. On May 8, 1909, Concrete was officially incorporated when the commissioners' order certifying the election results and incorporating the town was filed in the office of the Secretary of State. Daniel Dillard was elected as the first mayor and his business partner Rudolph Roggenstroh as treasurer, taking office on May 10.

The town continued to grow, and its namesake concrete (of which cement is the major ingredient) was used everywhere. The first bank and dental services opened in 1909. Dr. M. J. Power was the first dentist. The State Bank of Concrete opened on Monday June 21, 1909, with S. A. Post (1870-?), a real-estate investor from Bellingham, as the manager. A hospital on the east side of the Baker River served injured employees from both cement plants. A two-story structure, it had medical services on the first floor. Dr. Ezra Franklin Mertz (1873-1946) and his wife Minnie Mertz (1876-1946), a nurse, lived on the second floor. Dr. Mertz was the only doctor in that area of Skagit County at the time.

The Superior Portland Cement Company formed the Baker River Power, Light, and Water Company, which provided electric power and water to the newly incorporated town. SPCC had extra power from its station at Bear Creek so it began installing electric lights for the town. First to come were five arc lights for Main Street, then 17 poles for the street lights. Soon the lines were extended to all homes and businesses. Shortly afterward the company installed water lines and developed a water system that provided water for the plant and other residential and commercial water users.

Magnus Miller managed a show house that by 1910 exhibited early motion pictures and hosted a range of activities from talent shows to boxing matches. Wooden sidewalks and street lights were installed the same year. In 1910, the Concrete District School was constructed of cement on a hill overlooking Main Street, replacing the wooden schoolhouse built just a few years earlier. Over the years, the cement building also served as a library, senior center, and town hall.

The Concrete Herald

The Hamilton Herald had been launched by F. J. Wilcox on November 23, 1901, as a weekly newspaper in the nearby town of Hamilton. By 1902, the four-page paper was published every Saturday. Norwegian-born Hans Julius Bratlie (1858-1910) took over in 1903 and became editor of the paper, which he called the Hamilton Herald-Recorder.

In 1912, Bratlie changed the name to the Concrete Herald when he moved to that town, which was booming with its two cement plants. Ownership of the newspaper changed hands multiple times. In 1929, 21-year-old Charles Muth "Chuck" Dwelley (1908-1993) was sent by Frank Evans, publisher of the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times, as editor of the Herald. The stock market crashed in October 1929 and the paper went bankrupt. In March 1930, Dwelley and Evans became co-owners of the Concrete Herald. Dwelley served as the publisher-editor for more than 40 years. The newspaper survived the turbulent years of the Great Depression and World War II, although publication was briefly suspended from November 1944 through May 1945 while Dwelley served in the United States Navy during the war. Dwelley retired in September 1970 and sold the paper.

Bridge Over the Baker

By 1914, the steel-truss bridge that crossed the Baker River connecting the two sides of Concrete needed to be replaced after it was condemned by Skagit County Engineer A. L. Strong. Some residents believed that British-born carpenter and builder Henry Thompson (1852-1918) would be in charge of building the new bridge. In fact, at the time Thompson was a Skagit County Commissioner who voted with his fellow commissioners on May 1, 1916 to approve the lowest bid for building the new bridge. That bid, for $21,946.50, came from the J. R. Wood Company of Seattle, which was awarded the contract.

Construction began in April 1916 and work was completed on January 13, 1917. Thompson eagerly anticipated a dedication of the new bridge planned for the summer of 1918, but in January 1918, he and five other people were killed in a train accident in Sedro-Woolley. The Thompson family had arrived in Grassmere, just west of Concrete, around 1890, and Thompson was well-liked, often called "Uncle Henry" by those who knew him. When the bridge was dedicated in June 1918, it was renamed the Henry Thompson Bridge in his honor. At the time of its dedication, the bridge was the longest single-span concrete bridge in the world.

Like most early settlements in Washington, the communities that became the town of Concrete had originally been built of wood. And like so many others, the town was the victim of devastating fires that burned many early wooden buildings. Gradually, the structures were replaced with concrete. The year 1915 was a bad fire year. Early in the morning of March 9, a fire began on the top floor of a three-story building. That floor was not occupied and the start of the fire was never determined. The building burned to the ground and the fire leveled much of downtown Concrete. During the 1920s, after a series of fires that destroyed much of the town, local businesses chose to rebuild in the readily available and fire-resistant concrete.

On January 1, 1916, Prohibition took effect took effect in Washington, outlawing the manufacturing and sale of liquor. At the time, Concrete had 11 saloons. Saloons began converting their facilities to cigar rooms, pool halls, and card rooms, switching to serving soft drinks instead of alcohol. Soon Concrete, like other cities and towns in Skagit County and around the country, was preparing for World War I. In 1918, as many male workers entered the armed forces following U.S. entry into the war, Superior Portland Cement hired women for the first time, to mend and care for cloth bags used for the cement. The first casualty from the area was Lloyd Parker of Hamilton, who was killed at Marne.

In 1919, Superior Portland Cement Company bought out Washington Portland Cement Company and closed WPPC's plant on the east sideĀ  of the river, relocating the equipment to the SPCC plant. SPCC had grown until it was the largest cement producer on the Pacific Coast.

Baker River Dam

In 1917, Puget Sound Power and Light Company announced plans to build a hydroelectric plant on the Baker River just a mile above Concrete. Construction of the Lower Baker Dam began on April 15, 1924. Damming the river created Lake Shannon, which did not exist before the dam was built. The dam was completed nineteen months later on October 19, 1925, and it went into service began on November 19. Lower Baker Dam is 285 feet high and 550 feet long.

The new lake provided opportunities for both industry and recreation, and the Quackenbush sisters were among those who took advantage. They purchased a tugboat to tow logs to a lumber mill on Lake Shannon and operated a fishing boat franchise. They had around 50 fishing boats available to rent. Nellie Wheelock managed the tugboat for the mill operation and Kate Glover ran the fishing boat operation on the weekends. This allowed them to run their telephone company during the week.

Clarence Dee Stickley (1861-1932) and his wife Rose Anna Rigor (1865-1947) managed the Concrete Theater, which had a large stage, an orchestra pit, and balcony seating. Silent films, talkies, and multiple other events were held at the theater.

The original Concrete High School was built in 1923, as an addition to the grade-school building overlooking Main Street, for graduates of the eighth grade who previously had to take their high school courses in Sedro-Woolley. The first graduates from the new high school were Emma Williams, Maida Bride, Mae Elkins, and Wesley Howard. The Concrete Municipal Airport (later named Mears Field) opened to the public in July 1938.

Mars Attack in Concrete?

On Sunday October 30, 1938, a young Orson Welles (1915-1985) caused an unexpected panic around the world with the broadcast of his play "The War of the Worlds." Some listeners believed its descriptions of a Martian invasion were actual news reports rather than a radio play. Coincidently, in the town of Concrete, where the radio broadcast could be heard on KIRO and KVI, the power went out during a thunderstorm and plunged the town into darkness just when many people were listening to the broadcast of New York being destroyed by aliens. Residents began running into the streets screaming and yelling. Several days later an editorial in the Concrete Herald noted:

"Our city is taking a lot of kidding this week because of the radio scare Sunday evening. Nationwide newspaper stories, radio comments, and even a dramatized playlet on the air depicted Concrete's residents in panic when the combined horror of a realistic radio play and the coincidence of a power failure brought hysteria. If folks in other cities and towns also went wild, the local citizens who had to stand the sudden darkness, too, can't be blamed for exhibiting alarm" (Banel).

End of an Industry

Concrete High School was constructed in 1952, with part of it extending over a roadway. South Superior Avenue passes beneath the building, which remains in use in 2024.

In 1959 Upper Baker Dam was completed by Puget Sound Energy nine miles upriver from Lower Baker Dam at the west end of Baker Lake. The upper dam served the purpose of generating electricity and providing flood control. The dam is 312 feet high and 1,200 feet long.

During the 1960s and 1970s Concrete's population began to dip, leaving the town seeming semi-abandoned. There were rumors that health problems of some people caused by cement dust could have contributed to residents leaving. As travelers got close to Concrete, the cement dust coated the trees for several miles down the highway. Cement production halted in 1969 as a result of the tons of dust produced. Operating costs were high and air quality standards were not met. The plant facilities were eventually dismantled. A lot of former workers took on different jobs or retired.

The cement industry in Concrete was coming to a close. In 1973, the Superior Portland Cement Company smoke stacks were torn down. The plant's large concrete silos remained, and the former plant location is now the town's Silo Park. The long-abandoned Washington Portland Cement plant came to be called Devil's Tower. It has become a popular site for graffiti artists and photographers. The name came from stories of spooky chatter, with the site reportedly "a hot spot for 'satanic rituals' ... and paranormal activity" ("Devil's Tower "). Sections of the ruined buildings still stand as of 2024.

Hollywood Comes Calling

By the 1990s, with the cement plants long closed and timber jobs now scarce, times were changing in Concrete. Then Hollywood unexpectedly came calling. In 1989 Tobias Wolff (b. 1945) had published This Boy's Life, an acclaimed memoir about his life growing up in Newhalem, a small town on the Skagit River some 30 miles northeast of Concrete, and attending high school in Concrete. It tells the story of his boyhood travels across the country with his mother and then their life with his strict stepfather who moves them to Newhalem.

A few years later, the book was made into a Warner Brothers movie starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio (b. 1974), Ellen Barkin (b. 1954), and Robert De Niro (1943). The movie was largely filmed in Concrete, "which is conflated with Newhalem in the screenplay" (Beck). Filming began in 1992 and the town was transformed back to the 1950s. The studio was not short on decades of merchandise and artifacts for restoring buildings to their condition during that time. The transformation left town residents, many of whom were extras on the set, feeling nostalgic. They were impressed at the detail that went into the set designs.

The movie opened on April 23, 1993, with Concrete taking its 15 minutes of fame as the backdrop to This Boy's Life. The "Welcome to Concrete" sign painted onto the old Superior Portland Cement Company silos for the filming remains there in 2024.

Concrete Heritage

The Town of Concrete celebrated its 100th anniversary on Saturday, May 9, 2009.

Concrete's population has remained fairly stable over the past few decades, at 790 in 2000, 705 in 2010, and 797 in 2020. Today, Concrete's history can be experienced at the Concrete Heritage Museum. The community continues to plan for the future while preserving its past. The town owes it name and much of its development to the concrete industry.


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