Mason County encompasses the southern reach of Hood Canal and many bays and inlets of southern Puget Sound and once extended to the Pacific Ocean. After settlement, the mainstay of the economy was logging. Simpson Timber became not just the main employer, but the largest source of jobs in the state. As the importance of forest products declined, the county became an important recreation destination and bedroom community to Olympia and Tacoma. The county's largest employer is the Squaxin Island Tribe, and the State of Washington operates a prison and the State Patrol Academy at Shelton. The estimated population of the county in 2013 was 60,497.
The Coast Salish peoples who made their homes along the watershed of upper Hood Canal called themselves Tuanook (also Twana Twanoh, and Skokomish Twana) or "Big River People" (Thompson) and spoke the Central or Coast Salish or Salishan language common to Western Washington. They lived in six permanent winter villages along the Skokomish River, at other small settlements along Hood Canal at Hoodsport, Tahuya, and Vance Creek, and as far north as Port Gamble Bay.
During the warmer months, families living in shelters woven out of reeds and branches ranged along the shorelines and woodlands fishing, gathering shellfish, digging roots, picking berries, and hunting game. Hunters traveled on foot as far as the Olympic Mountains to take elk and gather bear grass. Immense cedar trees provided split lumber for their long houses, and logs from which they carved canoes.
The indigenous people who resided along the shores of upper Puget Sound, what would become southern Mason County, were generally called the Se-Heh-Wa-Mish or Sawamish, but they named themselves after their individual waterways; Noo-Seh-Chatl of Henderson Inlet, Steh Chass of Budd Inlet, Squi-Aitl of Eld Inlet, Sawamish/T'Peeksin of Totten Inlet, Sa-Heh-Wa-Mish of Hammersley Inlet, Squawksin of Case Inlet and S'Hotle-Ma-Mish of Carr Inlet. They spoke Lushootseed, of the Salishan language family. The Coast Salish peoples spoke a common language and traded together. Women generally married outside their village, which created great harmony among the people who could trace family ties to any number of neighboring settlements.
Like the Skokomish Twana, the Sawamish lived in long houses of cedar and slept on cedar, fern, or cattail platforms. They wove blankets from the wool of mountain goats, and from the coat of a species of dog. Some lived in floating homes, which could be moved to oyster beds to harvest shellfish.
Exploration and Settlement
Beginning with the first contact with Europeans in the eighteenth century, diseases such as smallpox decimated the Indian populations from thousands to just hundreds. In 1792, George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Royal Navy mapped Hood or Hood’s Canal and named it after a colleague. In 1842, surveyors from the United States Exploring Expedition under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) mapped southern Puget Sound and attached names to the bays and inlets there. In the 1830s, fur traders built a "Block House" (Deegan, 37) on a bluff at what would become Union City, where the Skokomish River emptied into Hood Canal.
American settlers arrived in Puget Sound country in the 1840s and in about 1852, Thomas Webb (also written as Wells) took land around the fur traders’ block house on Hood Canal. He was joined in the area by his father-in-law, Moses Kirkland, and by his son-in-law, Frank Purdy. The family established three prosperous farms in the Skokomish Valley.
Major Hugh A. Goldsborough took up a donation land claim in the Cota Valley near present-day Shelton in March 1853 and he and Olympia pioneer Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867) and Wesley Gosnell built a water-powered sawmill on the south shore of Big Skookum (Hammersly Inlet). Even before the mill was complete, Missouri natives David Shelton (1812-1897) and Tillman Shelton chose a spot for David’s 640-acre donation land claim in the Cota Valley at the head of the inlet. A clear stream emptied into the salt water between two bluffs and offered open ground for cultivation. The Sawamish people already had a settlement there, but there was apparently enough room for Shelton and his field of rye. Tillman staked a claim too, but the following year he moved to Oregon.
At the first session of the Washington Territorial Legislature in March 1854, David Shelton represented Thurston County in the House of Representatives. The few dozen white residents north of Olympia chaffed at traveling overland to Hammersly Inlet and then 20 miles by boat or canoe to the county seat on Budd Inlet to file land claims. Shelton put forth an act to form Sa-heh-wamish or Sawamish County -- named after the first residents -- out of Thurston County. The bill became law on April 15, 1854. The new county encompassed all the land west to the Pacific Ocean. (In 1864, the Legislature renamed the county after the late Charles Mason (d. 1859), Territorial Secretary of State and Acting Governor during the Indian Wars.)
The first meetings of the county commissioners took place in the homes of Hugh Goldsborough near the Shelton claim, and mill owner Michael Simmons near Gosnell (Mill) Creek. After elections, the new commissioners placed the county seat at the head of Skookum Bay and named it Mount Olive. The next year they renamed the seat Oakland after the claim of Kentucky Baptist minister and County Auditor William Morrow.
Oakland was two miles up the beach from the Shelton claim and quickly became home to seven families. In the absence of an official county building, the county seat was Morrow’s cabin. Oakland had the post office, a store, and a school. Morrow forbade the use of alcohol on his property, so loggers with cash to spend found Mac Simmon's floating saloon and the Kelty Hotel at David Shelton’s claim -- Sheltonville or Shelton’s Point -- more to their liking. Settlements at Arkada (Arcadia) and Kamliche featured general stores and other businesses. The little steam scow Capitol connected the tiny communities.
Treaties and Reservations
In 1855, the Treaty of Point No Point with the United States gave the Skokomish Twana a reservation on Hood Canal to be shared with the S’Klallam and the Chemakum. The tribal representatives objected at first, but accepted the arrangement when Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) assured them that they could continue to gather food at the accustomed locations. Not all the Indians moved to the small reservation and as late as 1881, there were still Indian settlements along Hood Canal.
Under the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, the Sawamish of the South Sound were ordered to move to a reservation on Klah-Che-Min or Squaxin Island, four-and-a-half miles long and half a mile wide. During the Indian War of 1856-57, the island was used to confine hundreds of Indians suspected of warlike activities even though none of the Squaxins or Skokomish joined in the fighting. Squaxin Island had no drinking water and was practically untenable. Water had to be imported by canoe. By 1862, only about 50 people resided there. Other members of the tribe moved away for jobs in logging camps and in hop and berry fields.
When tribal frustrations with the Stevens treaties exploded into war, the white settlers crowded into the Arcada Stockade -- Fort Skookum -- and the men formed a militia unit. But the Sawamish and Suquamish did not join the hostilities, and the only recorded settler loss was Alfred Hall’s crop of potatoes.
For the first settlers, the dense stands of fir, hemlock, spruce, and cedar represented a barrier to settlement. The great trees had to be removed to make agriculture possible. In the early years, the Puget Sound country could not support itself with locally produced foodstuffs. But Californians paid cash for all the lumber the Puget Sound mills could cut. Loggers felled trees close to water so that they could be floated in rafts to mills. As the cleared land advanced, oxen and horses dragged the bucked logs over skid roads. Animal power limited operations to about one mile from the beach.
In the 1880s, mechanization in the form of steam geared locomotives and donkey engines greatly improved efficiency and profitability in the woods. Logging operations expanded and capitalists built railroads at Shelton, Clinton, and Kamilche to feed mills at Port Blakely, Port Gamble, and Seabeck. The community at Shelton’s Point grew and in 1885, David Shelton platted the town of Cota, renamed Shelton. Shelton grew at Oakland’s expense and in 1888, Mason County voters moved the county seat down the beach to the new, larger town.
Other dreamers saw Union City (later Union) on Hood Canal as a logical terminus for the transcontinental railroad. Three railroads produced plans to serve the little settlement, which boosters touted as the Venice of the Pacific. A construction crew from the Union Pacific Railroad had just landed to begin work when the Panic of 1893 scrapped all progress.
The Panic of 1893 was the most severe economic crisis in the nation’s history and many logging and milling operations shut down for lack of capital and markets. Banker Alfred Anderson (1867-1914) partnered with loggers to get them back to work. He joined up with Sol Simpson (1844-1906) to organize the Simpson Logging Company. They also formed Lumbermen’s Mercantile, the principal supplier of logging equipment and logging camp supplies. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 1898 that the four largest logging companies in the state operated in Mason County.
Mark Reed (1866-1933), Sol Simpson’s son-in-law and manager of Lumbermen's Mercantile, took over the Simpson interests in 1914. He was elected mayor of Shelton and to the State Legislature and energetically pushed his vision for the county and the state. In Olympia, Reed was a champion of Washington’s groundbreaking Workmen’s Compensation Act and he pushed legislation that benefited workers, taxes to fund reforestation, and public ownership of electrical utilities. Reed became one of the most powerful politicians in the state in the 1910s and 1920s and could have been elected governor, but for his duties at Simpson.
Mason County grew as immigrants flooded into the logging camps and mill towns. Shelton was the economic center. In 1907, a hotel fire devastated the town's downtown and killed 11 persons and injured 20. Seven years later, on an August night in 1914, 17 buildings went up in flames. Under Reed's leadership, the town rebuilt a fireproof downtown.
In 1924, Reed teamed up with lumberman Henry McCleary to build two new lumbermills in Shelton, one for hemlock and one for fir. Simpson built the Rainier Pulp and Paper mill to make better use of waste wood that was otherwise just burned. The Northern Pacific Railroad extended its branch line to Shelton in 1926 and the city enjoyed regular passenger train service. The new mills reversed a loss of population and by 1930 the number of residents in Mason County had doubled to more than 10,000. Shelton’s population tripled.
The Shelton pulp mill impacted one of the county’s original industries, oysters. Native Americans had earned part of their livelihoods off the tasty Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida). When Americans discovered the delicacy, Seattle and San Francisco became big markets. Settlers gathered oysters from the tideflats and like the Indians, just waited for the tide to go out to go to work. When Washington became a state, the legislature allowed Indians and oystermen to file claims on tide flats just like farmers could for upland locations. With title came efforts to cultivate shellfish rather than just collect them, involving such methods as top floats and dikes.
In the 1890s, the locals were joined by Willapa Bay oystermen who had depleted stocks there. When the State tried to lease out tidelands already allotted to Squaxin tribal members, they went to court in 1903. The Indians won, retaining ownership and access to their island.
Over-harvesting, pollution from logging and industrial development, and human occupation pushed the small Olympia oyster into decline. The red liquor discharged by Rainier Pulp mill beginning in 1927 devastated the beds in Oakland Bay. Fish swam up Hammersly Inlet and rolled over dead in the discharge plume. The growers sued the pulp mill and the community split between the need for mill jobs and the oyster business. A citizens' committee raised $166,000 (Mark Reed was the top contributor) to buy up the oyster beds in Oakland Bay and Hammersly Inlet. Nonetheless, 350 jobs moved to Hoquiam.
Other growers tried transplanting the Eastern oyster (Ostrea virginica), without success. The larger species Ostrea gigas from Japan took well to the Northwest and did not require as much work as the Olympia oyster. The Japanese oyster eventually dominated the market.
The collapse of new home construction during the Great Depression (1929-1939) cost the county the jobs and prosperity it had enjoyed in the 1920s. When Mark Reed's son, Sol, was killed in 1930, Reed seemed to lose his energy and vision for Shelton. Reed died in 1933 and the county and the state lost a dedicated and charismatic leader.
In 1934, Mason County Public Utilities District (PUD) No. 1 in the Hoodsport area became the first PUD in Washington to go into the electricity business when it took over the assets of a rural electric cooperative. Public dissatisfaction with corporate monopolies led to the public power movement in the 1920s supported by, among may others, the Washington State Grange and Mark Reed. Voters passed an initiative in 1930 providing for the formation of PUDs, which could then negotiate a purchase or use eminent domain to condemn private property. In 1940, Mason County PUD No. 3 in Shelton negotiated the purchase of assets of Puget Sound Power & Light and bought power first from Simpson then from the dams on the Columbia River.
The loggers became victims of their own success as they exhausted the once limitless stands of timber on private lands. Mills and camps closed during the 1930s as the supply of logs ran out. Federally owned forest land remained untapped though. In 1946, the U.S. Forest Service signed the Cooperative Sustained Yield Agreement with Simpson, which guaranteed a steady supply of logs to the mills in Shelton for 100 years. The whole forest would be managed as a single unit until the logged-over Simpson lands had a chance to grow back. Many criticized the deal, which excluded companies in neighboring counties and which sold public timber for a song.
After World War II, the Simpson mills hummed and Shelton boomed until 65 percent of Shelton's residents owned their own homes, compared to 51 percent nationwide. The high point of every summer was the Simpson-sponsored Forest Festival, first celebrated in 1934. Loggers, bands, and floats paraded through town and woodsmen staged competitions of traditional skills such as scaling spar trees and wielding axe and saw.
In the 1920s, the Navy Yard road from Bremerton reached the south shore of Hood Canal, opening the area for recreational development. Resorts with names like Olympus Manor, Sunset Beach, Happy Hollow, Fryberg's Cabins, and Twanoh Park beckoned vacationers, who could now easily drive into what had been almost wilderness. After World War II, city dwellers flocked to Mason County in their cars just to frolic at resorts and to buy vacation homes. As roads improved so did Mason County's benefits from tourism.
In 1964, the State of Washington opened a corrections facility on land donated by the Chamber of Commerce. The Washington State Patrol then sited its academy nearby and the local economy began to diversify.
In the 1980s, the business of Mason County shifted dramatically. Simpson had closed the Shelton pulp mill in 1957 and its Insulating Board Plant in 1974 because of pollution problems. The plywood mill ceased production. As the high-country public timber was harvested, operations shifted to Simpson's reforested land. During an economic downturn in 1981, the company laid off 400 loggers and mill workers. Another 600 got pink slips in 1985. As the timber played out, Simpson camps at Grisdale and Govey, the last resident logging camps in the nation, closed. Mill No. 4 in Shelton, designed to cut old-growth trees, was shuttered and Simpson shifted to second-growth logs.
Environmental concerns caused the Hood Canal Environmental Council and the Skokomish Tribe to sue to block Forest Service timber sales. During the 1980s, the Forest Service limited and then virtually eliminated timber sales to protect the Northwest spotted owl. Jobs in the woods and in the mills evaporated. But Simpson invested $25 million to update its remaining mill in Shelton. Two new festivals were organized -- the Oyster-Fest and the Washington State Seafood Festival.
The loss of jobs in forestry was balanced by the hundreds of beds added to the prison in 1981 and 1982, which added hundreds of jobs. Recreation also became an important sector in the county as retirees and vacationers moved in and built homes. People who worked in Tacoma and Olympia could commute on freeways to homes in Mason County. In the 1990s, the population grew by almost 29 percent to 50,000.
Beginning in 1994, a 102,000-square-foot WalMart store and the Kneeland Plaza mall provided a magnet for business at the expense of downtown. Leaders used the increased sales tax revenues to create a local improvement district (LID) to rejuvenate downtown with new sidewalks, a repaved Railroad Avenue, and period streetlights. Owners restored, renovated, and recycled the buildings into new uses. Kneeland Plaza employed more people than did Simpson and the prison at that time was the county’s largest employer.
In 1974, the Boldt Decision upheld tribal treaty rights to fish in state waters. These rights were extended in 1994 to the shellfish on tidelands. Beginning in the 1970s, the Squaxins purchased lands in the Kamilche area for tribal facilities and purchased the Hartstine Island Oyster Company as one of its enterprises. A casino built in 1992 provided a steady income to benefit tribal members.
The Skokomish on Hood Canal lost the much of their fishery to pollution from logging and to the construction of City of Tacoma hydroelectric facilities on Lake Cushman in 1930. When the federal license for the project was issued (the dams had been built without a permit) in 1998, provisions were made to maintain flows and passage for fish stocks, but the tribe continued to seek better protections for their resources.
The Squaxin Island Tribe also established Island Enterprises, Inc. to manage its economic development and generate revenues to support tribal programs and services. Subsidiaries and related businesses as of 2015 included several Trading Post gas stations and convenience stores, Salish Seafoods, the Ta-Qwo-Ma Business Development Center, Skookum Creek Tobacco Company, Skookum Creek Distributing, SI Distribution, and Island Search & Consulting. The Tribe's commercial activities have made it the largest employer in Mason County.