Japanese Gulch (Mukilteo)

  • By Melinda Van Wingen
  • Posted 11/27/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22854
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From 1903 to the early 1930s, nearly half of the residents of Mukilteo were Japanese immigrants or of Japanese descent. Japanese men relocated to Mukilteo to work at the Crown Lumber Company, which recruited Japanese labor due to a shortage of qualified white workers to fill its jobs.Together with their wives and children, they lived in a separate community of company-owned housing in a ravine near the mill known as “Jap Gulch.” Although they lived in segregated housing, many of the Japanese worked to assimilate into white society by attending church, studying English, and sending children to the Rosehill School, while also retaining certain Japanese traditions. Despite periods of violence and hostility from the surrounding white community, the Japanese residents in Mukilteo were generally more warmly embraced and welcomed than Japanese immigrants in nearby towns. Descendants of “Jap Gulch” residents and the members of Mukilteo’s dominant white society remember this era as a time of racial peace and harmony. In 2000, a permanent marker was erected in Mukilteo to commemorate the city’s Japanese cultural heritage and model of racial harmony.

Japanese Immigration to Snohomish County

Japanese immigrants began arriving in the Puget Sound region in the 1890s to secure jobs in railroad construction, logging, mining, fishing, and agriculture. Japanese society was undergoing great social and economic upheaval, particularly for rural agricultural workers. Many Japanese people were drawn to the promise of a brighter future and a more prosperous life in the United States, and so migrated to Hawaii and the Pacific Coast. As their numbers grew, Asian immigrants faced increased hostility and resentment from white workers due to a combination of racism, xenophobia, and competition for jobs. Mukilteo's relationship with its Japanese community stands apart in the Puget Sound in the early twentieth century due to its relative peacefulness and tolerance. Mukilteo was the first community in Snohomish County to welcome Japanese immigrants and include them in mainstream society.

Mukilteo Lumber and Crown Lumber Companies

The Mukilteo Lumber Company was formed in 1903. It was sold to Charles Nelson of San Francisco in 1909 and renamed the Crown Lumber Company. The footprint of the mill dominated a large portion of the Mukilteo townsite and waterfront, and it quickly became the economic driver of the small community. With the capacity to produce 200,000 feet of lumber a day, the Crown Lumber Company was one of the most productive mills in the Puget Sound region. To satisfy the mill’s need for affordable labor, mill leadership recruited Japanese immigrants and provided them with modest housing east of the mill.

In 1905, approximately 350 people lived in Mukilteo, of whom 150 were Japanese. The Japanese men worked almost exclusively at the Crown Lumber Company. The mill owners considered its Japanese workforce to be “industrious and trustworthy employees” who needed minimal supervision (Kaiser, 23). They had a reputation as hard workers who were willing to work long hours for low wages.

"Jap Town" or "Jap Gulch"

The area of town where the Japanese workers and their families resided was commonly known as “Jap Gulch,” referencing the woody ravine where the housing was located, or “Jap Town.” This name persisted through much of the twentieth century, long after the sawmill closed and the Japanese residents dispersed. In 1966, The Seattle Times called the name “an embarrassment to local residents” and argued that “historical tradition more than a racial slur accounts for the continued usage of such names, a vulgar and offensive hangover from the country’s melting-pot era” (“New Name Needed”). Today the term “Japanese Gulch” is used as a more culturally sensitive label for this small geographic area and its long-ago residents, although it is not a historically accurate term.

Japanese Gulch consisted of several unpainted dwellings in a ravine down a dirt road off the main street east of the mill. Some houses on the east side of the road were elevated a few feet above a nearby creek and connected by wooden walkways and hand railings. The structures on the west side sat at ground level. The buildings had been previously occupied by other white workers and abandoned before being offered as housing to the Japanese workers. Single men lived in a two-story dormitory-style bunkhouse, while families occupied the other simple one-story structures (Kaiser, 23).

The interior of the family homes often included a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. By the 1920s, some homes had electricity, running water, cold water storage for refrigeration, and a few even had telephones. Women washed clothes by hand on washboards (“Interview with Mas Odoi”). Although the housing contained some modern amenities, the location and conditions of the buildings in Japanese Gulch were not entirely agreeable. The dense cluster of wooden buildings in the woods was a significant fire hazard. Remarkably, there were no significant fires in the community’s 30 year history. In 1924, one worker named Kobayashi told a researcher, “We don’t like it down here in hollow where it’s damp” (Asaka, 94-95).

The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, an informal immigration policy established between the United States and Japan, curtailed the wave of immigration of unmarried Japanese men, who competed for paid employment with American men and other immigrants. Women and children continued to immigrate, joining men and forming families. As a result of this policy, Mukilteo’s Japanese community was dominated by families rather than single male laborers. The presence of many women and children played an important role in bridging the cultural divide. They also helped to establish a true sense of community and instill a strong sense of shared values.

According to one early resident, the first Japanese immigrants to Mukilteo established a constitution to govern the lives of men who would be working in the sawmill. “Gambling, prostitution and such vice were to be prohibited. And I remember at the entrance to the camp there was a large plaque with writing in Japanese, the Constitution as such” (“Memories of Growing Up…”).

Segregation and Assimilation

The Japanese population in Mukilteo was met with initial resistance and hostility from their white neighbors. In 1905, Anti-Japanese activists were hopeful that a change in ownership from the Mukilteo Lumber Company to the Crown Lumber Company would eliminate the reliance on unwelcome Japanese labor. It was hoped that the construction of an additional fifteen worker cottages would help recruit white men to the sawmill and ensure that “Jap labor will be a thing of the past at the Mukilteo mill” (“Fire Japs…”). Japanese workers used rifles to defend themselves against the angry white mobs who harassed and threatened them. Historians disagree as to how they obtained the firearms. Some claim that sawmill management supplied their Japanese employees with weapons. Others assert that the workers themselves smuggled guns into the community for self-protection (Asaka, 90).

The anti-Japanese campaigns failed in Mukilteo but were more successful in other Snohomish County communities. In 1904 and 1907, Japanese workers were driven out of the Clark Nickerson Mill in Everett by unionized workers unwilling to compete with Japanese laborers. In Darrington, 100 citizens signed a 1907 manifesto demanding a total rejection of Japanese or Chinese laborers. In 1910 Darrington’s United States Mill employed 20 Japanese workers, and they were quickly run out of town by angry locals (Cameron, 161-162).

Despite the initial hostility and resistance to the Japanese workers in Mukilteo, the mill owners actively recruited, housed, and employed a workforce of Japanese immigrants as a cost-efficient solution to a labor shortage. The sawmill was highly productive and had more jobs available than qualified white candidates. Gradually, the white community adopted a more tolerant attitude toward the immigrant population. Meanwhile the Japanese community established their own tender balance between segregation, assimilation, and the retention of some Japanese cultural traditions. 

Some of the homes in the Japanese Gulch doubled as small stores for food, fishing equipment, and other essentials, which provided the Japanese community a measure of self-sufficiency. Many of the Japanese men developed reputations as excellent fishermen. They were often seen fishing on the bay before and after work. At least one family maintained live fish boxes in the creek beneath their home, meaning they could catch and keep many fish alive and fresh for some time (Kaiser, 24). The Crown Lumber Company also employed a Japanese “book boy” to represent the Japanese employees in anything related to employment, recruitment, families, and housing.

To the white residents of Mukilteo, the many married Japanese workers and their families seemed far less threatening than rowdy single men. Many Japanese women immigrated after the men, often through arranged marriages or as Japanese picture brides. The Japanese women adhered to strict social norms that mirrored their lives in Japan and pleased their white neighbors. The women devoted themselves to their husbands and spent time gardening, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, and preparing their homes for their husbands’ comfort after work (“Memories of Growing Up…”). With lives defined by tranquil domestic routines, the Japanese families were more readily accepted than other immigrants. One white Mukilteo woman stated, “I would rather have those Japs for neighbors than Greeks and other foreigners” (Asaka, 108).

Baseball was a favorite sport among both the white and Japanese communities in Mukilteo. The shared pastime helped them forge connections. The Japanese Gulch residents had enough players to form their own team and compete against the two white Crown Lumber teams as well as against other Japanese lumber mill teams throughout the Puget Sound region. The Japanese population also developed its own community center and recreational activities: playing games like Go, basketball, tennis, and swings and slides for children, and tending to vegetable gardens  (“Interview with Mas Odoi”).

As the Japanese immigrants settled more steadily into Mukilteo, the families worked to assimilate within the larger white culture. Many Japanese families attended the local Presbyterian church and sent their children to the nearby Rosehill School for a formal American education. J. Walter Dudder (1887-1940) and Hazel Dudder (1889-1962) taught English lessons, Sunday school, and music lessons at the Japanese community center (McConnell, 121). Clara Kane (1895-1974) taught private English lessons in her home. In addition to offering language lessons, Kane introduced her students to other aspects of American culture. Her student George Tokuda (1912-1895) particularly loved her homemade bread and spaghetti. “I learned about American home life, watched her can food, pick wild blackberries ... in other words, the American way of life that our parents knew nothing about” (“Memories of Growing Up”).

The schoolhouse was an important place of social and cultural connection for the Mukilteo white and Japanese communities. When the new Rosehill School was built in 1928, members of the Japanese community purchased dark green velvet curtains “... in appreciation for the goodwill shown to themselves and their families by the Mukilteo townspeople” (“Green, Velvet …”).

As a young teacher at the Rosehill School in the mid-1920s, Mary Lou Morrow taught many Mukilteo children. At any given time, about 15 percent of her students were Japanese. She said her Japanese students possessed “artistic skills in art, were thoughtful, well behaved, and performed well in their school subjects – truly, the kind of student every teacher hopes to have” (Asaka, 147). The teacher recalled that some of her white female students also helped the Japanese women. The girls earned money by helping the Japanese mothers practice English and help them shop, read recipes, and buy dress patterns.

George Tokuda was one of the first children to be born in the Japanese Gulch. He said, “I am grateful to dad that he had the foresight to send me to a nun’s home from about five years old to learn to speak English” (“Memories of Growing Up …”). Younger children had an easier time learning English than older children. A 16-year-old boy who immigrated from Japan was put in the first grade. Tokuda recalled, “He felt so foolish playing London bridge and ring around the rosy with the first graders that he quit in disgust” (“Memories of Growing Up …”).

Over the years, the Japanese community learned new hobbies and skills, thanks to their white counterparts in Mukilteo, while still retaining distinctly Japanese interests and traditions. Residents in the Japanese Gulch celebrated New Year’s Day in America with traditional Japanese mochi cakes, sweet black beans, and rolled sushi (“… Happiness and Peace”).

A Prohibition-era raid of the Japanese Gulch community in 1921 resulted in the arrest of seven men for the illegal manufacture and possession of saké, a Japanese rice wine (“Held in Booze Raid”). The Japanese bootleggers fled armed federal agents through the woods before their arrest. The men were released on $1,000 bail and hired taxis to take them back home after their release from jail in Mukilteo.

For the nearly three decades that the Japanese Gulch community existed, residents increasingly participated in mainstream social life through language lessons, sports, church, and school. However, full economic equality in society remained perpetually out of reach to the Japanese community. By 1920, nearly two decades after Japanese immigrants began arriving in Mukilteo, the Japanese still lacked significant economic mobility. The vast majority resided in shoddy company-owned rental homes in the muddy ravine while other European immigrants and white community members had purchased their own homes in more desirable areas (Asaka, 108).

The Great Depression and World War II

The Crown Lumber Company closed in 1930, an early victim of the Great Depression. Hundreds of residents of Japanese Gulch lost their jobs and homes. Mukilteo’s tight-knit Japanese community dissolved and residents moved back to Japan, around the country, or to other parts of Washington state in search of stability. The ravine once again became an overgrown natural area, and the simple wooden structures deteriorated, leaving few traces of the community behind.

In February 1942, Executive Order 9066 called for the forced internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans throughout the Western United States. The former residents of Mukilteo’s Japanese Gulch were forced into remote relocation centers and deemed to be national security threats despite their American loyalty and patriotism. They were forced to surrender their jobs, homes, land, and other assets. Many people from the Japanese community in Mukilteo were interred at Minidoka Internment Center in Idaho. The legacy of mass incarceration of Japanese Americans further compounds the difficulty of tracing and collecting Japanese Gulch stories and memories. The Japanese population had been forcibly stripped of rights and forced to relocate, further fraying those old connections to life in Mukilteo.

The People of the Japanese Gulch

Clues to the identities, lives, and beliefs held by individual residents of the Japanese Gulch community exist throughout the historical record. Most of the readily available sources were created by white residents or journalists who reflected on the Japanese Gulch community through a different lens than the community members themselves. A separate Japanese burial site is believed to have existed near the buildings. There are three marked Japanese graves and at least one unmarked Japanese burial in the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery that provide insight into the community.

Three married men, all workers at Crown Lumber Mill, and all immigrants from Japan, are buried in the cemetery: Rikimatsu Okamura (1883-1913); Tokumatsu Shirai (1878-1908); and Goro Wadatani (1872-1908). Tokumatsu Shirai was killed in the lumber mill when an entire log rolled over his body. His cause of death is a grim reminder of the harsh working conditions in the mill. A fourth, unmarked burial in the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery belongs to a 40-day-old baby girl named Kaijo Tamai (1918), daughter of Japanese immigrants J. K. Tamai and Kiyo Kodoma. Baby Kaijo accidentally suffocated in her sleep. The infant was tended to by Mukilteo’s white physician Dr. C. E. Chandler and funeral arrangements were provided by the local undertaker Eli Rousseau (“Cemetery Corner”). 

The Tanabe family was among the last to leave Japanese Gulch after the mill closure, and they stayed in Mukilteo until about 1935 (Ramstad). The Tanabe family retained connections in Snohomish County and Seattle. Midori Tanabe (1935-2023), the daughter of original Japanese immigrants to the area, penned a tribute to her parents’ generation and to the white people of Mukilteo. She wrote, “We, the last of the Mukilteo born Japanese Americans of this window in time, honor our mothers and fathers for their courage, their spirit of adventure, and their dedication so that we may, indeed, live a better life in this ... the land of opportunity when they decided to settle in Mukilteo ... We would like to thank the kind people of Mukilteo, who did so much for them during those difficult times.” (“Mukilteo Japanese Memorial”).

The Tanabe family was remembered as being quite talented. Michiko Tanabe (1919-2012) graduated from Everett High School and established a career in cartography. Her father, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, ran the Japanese store in the Gulch where many families shopped. Michiko’s brother David Tanabe (1913-2005) was credited with building and operating the first English language ham radio station in Mukilteo.

George Tokuda and Family

The Tokuda family is remembered for the success and prominence they achieved after World War II. The Tokuda family’s photos and documents help us understand the lived experience of the Japanese Gulch community.

George, his brother Floyd, and their parents and his family enjoyed fishing in the Japanese Gulch. George attended school in Mukilteo and graduated from Everett High School in 1929. He later studied pharmacy at the University of Washington. George met his wife Tama Inouye (1920-2013) in the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho. Together they raised five children. George became known as a pillar of Seattle’s Japanese community after the war. He owned a pharmacy called Tokuda Drug for many decades. Their children include Kip Tokuda (1946-2013), who served as a Washington state legislator and Wendy Tokuda, a celebrated news anchor in Washington and California. George and Tama’s early relationship in Minidoka was even depicted in a children’s book, Love in the Library, written by their granddaughter Maggie Tokuda-Hall.

George Tokuda recalled, “Living inside camp was just like living in a Japanese village transplanted” (“Memories of Growing Up …”). In a 1976 letter to his children, Tokuda reminisced about the people, places, and events from his Mukilteo childhood. As the village’s oldest child, Tokuda held a variety of jobs. He escorted Mr. Tanji, the manager of the boarding house for single men, to the Mukilteo post office two miles away to retrieve mail for the entire community. In the winter, Mr. Tanji pulled young George to town on a sled. When he was about 9 years old, George was given the job of shopping for the Japanese wives at the butcher shop and company store on Saturday mornings.

Tokuda recounted many happy memories from his childhood in the Japanese Gulch. But in a letter to his children, he wrote, “Some day I should elaborate on the prejudices I faced ... some very unpleasant. It still exists and always will but you should be more prepared than I to face the situations. You don’t have to take anything from the nobodys.” (“Memories of Growing Up …”).

Mas Odoi and Family

Masaru “Mas” Odoi (1921-2013) was born in the Japanese Gulch and spent his earliest years there. Late in life, he became a leading advocate for the historical preservation and commemoration of the Japanese Gulch community. Odoi’s efforts on behalf of the Mukilteo Historical Society create a rich record from which to understand the history and experiences of a typical Japanese Gulch family.

Mas’s parents were born and raised in Fukuyama in western Japan in the late nineteenth century. His father, Teichi Odoi, raised wheat and rice outside town. As the second son in the family, Teichi could not inherit his father’s land and had limited opportunities in Japan. Like thousands of Japanese men before him, Teichi traveled to the United States in search of a better life. He arrived in Mukilteo in 1903 and found a well-paying job as a bookkeeper at the Mukilteo Lumber Mill. Teichi traveled back to Fukuyama and entered an arranged marriage to Chikaye Kobayashi, the daughter of an urban merchant class family. Together the young couple traveled to Mukilteo to establish a new life together (“… Happiness and Peace”).

Back in Mukilteo, Teichi renamed himself George to better fit in with his white colleagues at the sawmill. Chikaye never learned to speak English, and she clung more tightly to Japanese norms than her husband. But Chikaye ensured that her children would learn English and participate in American cultural traditions. Chikaye, a Buddhist, sent her children to Sunday school at the Mukilteo Nazarene Church. Together with their older sister Hisako and younger brother Saburo, twin boys Masaru and Hiroshi “Hiro” Odoi (1921-1993) spent their childhoods in the Japanese Gulch, worshiping with white families, playing with white children, learning English, and all the while enjoying their mother’s traditional Japanese cooking.

The Odoi children loved spending time in the woods and at the beach, searching for crabs, clams, and seaweed, and fishing in the streams. The boys loved celebrating American Independence Day each summer. Mas enjoyed participating in school and church, and he particularly liked performing in school plays. He recalled that in 1929, the 25 children in his third-grade class performed a comedy about a Chinese cook in a California gold mining camp, with Mas in the lead as “Fat Sing” (“Japan Town Mukilteo”).

When the Crown Lumber Company closed, the Odoi family relocated to Ilwaco, on the state’s southwest coast. Mas and Hiro worked in a factory shucking oyster shells after school. The twins graduated from high school and earned spots at the University of Washington.

In 1942, most of the Odoi family was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, along with many others from their old Mukilteo community. Hiro was spared, as he was living in Chicago at the time. Both Hiro and Mas jumped at an opportunity to prove their unwavering patriotism by volunteering for military service. The twins were surprised to be reunited in August 1944 at Camp Blanding, Florida. They had each enlisted in the army as soon as Japanese Americans’ eligibility for military service was restored (“Mukilteo JA’s…”).

Several young men from the Japanese Gulch reunited during World War II by serving in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in France and Italy. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was a segregated Japanese American unit and one of the most decorated units of its size and length of service in United States military history. Among its members included Mukilteo men Tokuo Wakabayashi, Yukio and Bob Takeuchi, Hideo Onoda, and Hiro and Mas Odoi (“Mukilteo JA’s …”). According to Odoi, it was important to these men to demonstrate honorable military service because “our unconditional loyalty made the American people aware of the injustice of their wartime mistakes” (“Japan Town Mukilteo”).

After the war, Mas Odoi settled back into the rhythms of civilian life far from Mukilteo. He attended radio repair school and raised a family in Illinois and California. Mas Odoi eventually retired to Renton, but visited Mukilteo often. He became a spokesperson and advocate for Mukilteo’s Japanese heritage through his work with the Mukilteo Historical Society. In his senior years, Odoi was nostalgic for his peaceful and happy childhood in the Japanese Gulch. He wrote, “But let it be recorded, that we JA’s [Japanese Americans] have lived up to the high American ideals we learned from Rosehill school, our churches, and friendly relations with our neighbors” (“Mukilteo JA’s…”). Certainly a childhood lived in a tight-knit community in the woods was more peaceful and happy than what came after: the Great Depression, internment, and combat.

Legacy: The Japanese American Memorial

Mas Odoi’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the long-ago Japanese Gulch community began in 1989. Odoi was motivated by memory and the desire to preserve a slice of local heritage. He wrote, “As countless years went by Japanese Gulch became a wilderness of bushes and giant trees. However long we JA’s had been gone from our birthplace, the Mukilteo spirit still lingered in our hearts and minds. Wherever we and our children settled down, we never found another environment as perfect as our childhood homes in Mukilteo” (“Japan Town Mukilteo”).

Odoi’s dream finally became a reality on May 30, 2000, when a bronze origami crane sculpted by Daryl Smith was unveiled in Mukilteo’s Centennial Park. The marker reads, “This memorial commemorates the warm friendship of Japanese American children with their Mukilteo peers” (“Mukilteo Japanese Memorial”). Mas Odoi was joined by other descendants of the Japanese Gulch community as well as Mukilteo citizens to commemorate the town’s Japanese heritage.


James Kaiser, Crown Lumber Company and the Early Growth of Mukilteo, (Oak Harbor, WA: Packrat Press, 1990); “New Name Needed,” The Seattle Times, page A, June 23, 1966; “Interview with Mas Odoi,” April 14, 1998, oral history transcript from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; Megan Asaka, Seattle from the Margins: Exclusion, Erasure, and the Making of a Pacific Coast City, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022); George Tokuda, “Memories of Growing Up in Mukilteo,” Tokuda Family Collection, Densho, item no. ddr-densho-383-621 accessed November 10, 2023 (ddr.densho.org); “Fire Japs from Mukilteo Mill,” Everett Daily Herald, February 9, 1905, newspaper clipping from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; David Cameron, Chuck LeWarne, et. al, Snohomish County: an Illustrated History, (Index, WA: Kelcema Books, 2005); Opal McConnell, Mukilteo Pictures and Memories, (Seattle: The Ballard Publishing Company, 1977); Mas Odoi, “Green, Velvet Curtain – Thanks from Japanese Immigrants,” manuscript from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; Mary Lou Morrow, School Belle, (Mukilteo, WA: Snohomish Publishing Company, 1988); Yoshiaki Nohara, “A Place of Happiness and Peace: Mas Odoi remembers Mukilteo’s Japanese Gulch,” The Everett Herald, December 3, 2006, A-1, A-10; “Held in Booze Raid,” Seattle Daily Times, March 14, 1921, p. 2; Margaret Summitt, “Cemetery Corner,” MHS Newsline, Summer 2017, Mukilteo Historical Society website accessed November 6, 2023 mukilteohistorical.org; “Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery: Honoring Our History,” City of Mukilteo website accessed November 6, 2023 (storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/f4b9b474845349a69e36e4859e8a9e78); Dave Ramstad, letter to David Dilgard, July 7, 1986, from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; “The Mukilteo Japanese Memorial,” pamphlet published by the Mukilteo Historical Society, from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; Mas Odoi, “Japan Town Mukilteo – A Garden of Eden for Japanese Americans in the Early 1900’s,” pamphlet published by Mukilteo Historical Society, from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; Mas Odoi, “Mukilteo JA’s Served Proudly in World War II,” manuscript from the Everett Public Library Northwest Room “Mukilteo” subject files; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Japanese Immigration to the Puget Sound Region” (by David A. Takami), and “Monument in Remembrance of Mukilteo’s Early Japanese Community is Dedicated on May 30, 2000” (by Margaret Riddle), historylink.org (accessed November 6, 2023); Peter Anderson, “Our Japanese Cultural Heritage,” the Mukilteo Beacon, May 27, 2018, Mukilteo Historical Society website, accessed November 6, 2023 (www.mukilteohistorical.org).

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