In 1863, Michael H. Sullivan (1840?-1912) and Samuel Calhoun build the first dike in Skagit County. They prove that the treeless flats between the Sullivan and Swinomish sloughs, once thought useless marshland, are potentially rich farmland.
Samuel Calhoun came to the LaConner area in 1863. He was familiar with diking marshland and decided to settle on an open area he had spotted from a tree up on a forested ridge. When he came to build a cabin, however, he discovered he wasn't alone. Up the slough later named for him, Michael Sullivan was already clearing and diking his claim.
The two men decided to help each other. First they worked on each other's cabins, then they undertook draining and diking Sullivan's 40 acres. They used shovels and wheelbarrows as there were no oxen or horses. They worked at low tide when water wasn't pushing up the slough. The mud of the marsh was hard to handle but standard practice was to make a dike eight feet wide at the base and four feet high. Behind it a trench and sluice boxes under the levee helped to drain water from the fields. When they were done, they worked on diking Calhoun's claim.
Sullivan was scoffed at first for farming on the muddy flat, but his hard work paid off when he grew and exported the first crop of oats in Skagit County in 1868. Around 1870, he raised a crop of barley on his farm and sold it for $1600 from his dock on the slough. In 1873 few acres on the flat were left to claim. Everyone was diking.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.