Monroe -- Thumbnail History

  • By Nellie E. Robertson
  • Posted 11/23/2007
  • Essay 8325
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Monroe, located in southwestern Snohomish County about 50 miles west of the Cascade Range, came into being when Army scouts came to the area to establish outposts and began to settle. In 1860, Henry McClurg, the first settler, claimed land where the Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers met to form the Snohomish River. Four years later, he moved inland a mile or so and founded the settlement of Park Place (now a Monroe suburb on the west). When the Great Northern Railway completed its tracks through the area in 1893, Park Place was too far from trackside to suit store owner John Vanasdlen, so he literally picked up his store, including the Monroe post office, and moved it to trackside. Logging was the mainstay of Monroe's economy for many years. As the logging industry waned, agriculture grew, with berry farms taking the forefront, along with a proliferation of dairy farms, which in 1908 began supplying milk to a Carnation Milk condensery. The Washington State Reformatory was established in Monroe in 1907. With three rivers on its southern edge and at the hub of three major highways, Monroe was destined to grow. The city's 2007 estimated population is 16,290, including reformatory inmates.

First Peoples and First Settlers

Thirty-five miles inland from the sea and 50 miles from a set of formidable mountains, the town of Monroe waited to be born. Snohomish and Snoqualmie Indians had lived off the land for generations. Some of the cleared plains the new settlers found were fashioned by Indians. After the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty, the United States sent volunteers to establish makeshift forts along the waterways as a precaution against Indian uprisings. The volunteers found land ripe for the plucking.

Englishman Robert Smallman (1837-1903) came first in 1855. He returned to England, married Louisa, and brought her back to nearby Tualco. In 1865, he applied for a land grant in the Tualco Valley (located across the Skykomish River and just south of present-day Monroe) and received it in 1875. Henry McClurg, the first settler where the Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers meet to form the Snohomish River, carved his niche on the wooded knoll above the rivers in 1860. Four years later, he and an Indian woman named Martha moved to Park Place.

At the same time, Salem Woods (1839-1897) staked his claim northeast of present-day Monroe along the creek and in the prairie that still bears his name. In 1864 Charles Harriman (1829-1905) took squatter's rights in the Tualco Valley south of the rivers. The area was known as "The Forks" and the name Tualco came from the Indian word "squa'lxo" meaning "meeting place of two rivers."

John Elwell Jr. (1843-1895) originally settled in Duvall, but when his father, John Elwell Sr. (1819-1887), arrived from Maine, his son gave him the Duvall homestead. John Jr. and his Indian wife, Guaguiath (or "Susan"), then moved up the Skykomish River to a new homestead on Elwell Creek near Sultan, where they were soon joined by his two brothers. John Jr. was killed by a Great Northern train in 1895. The Elwells were typical in that whole families often worked together in business and in homesteading.

Charles Stackpole arrived on the Snoqualmie River south of Monroe in 1871 with Libb, his new bride. Stackpole kept factual diaries of his days on the river and on the rigors of pioneer life. In 1873, George Austin, the son of Grannis (1834-1906) and Amelia (1849-1908) Austin, became the first white baby born in the Tualco Valley. Few women had the impact on Monroe that Amelia exerted. She was instrumental in establishing the first church. Arial Welcome Foye received his land grant in Tualco Valley in 1877. He was the first settler to completely clear his 160 acres.

When Snohomish County had its official beginning on January 14, 1861, Henry McClurg was elected as one of three county commissioners. The commissioners appointed Salem Woods as county assessor and two months later, he became sheriff. Henry McClurg became the first county superintendent of schools in 1869 with only two school districts, one that met in the Snohomish City Blue Eagle Saloon, and the other at Park Place, organized as District Two on November 23, 1869.

A Community Grows Up

A community grew around Park Place with a hotel and store prominent in its makeup. Store owner John Vanasdlen petitioned the government for a post office. When he found that the post office department allowed only post offices with one name, he asked McClurg to choose a name. McClurg chose "Monroe."

The final plat of the Great Northern Railway put Park Place too far from trackside, so in 1892 Vanasdlen literally picked up his store along with the Monroe Post Office it contained and moved it to trackside at the corner in Monroe where a 7-11 convenience store now sits.

The Pattison ferry carried passengers to and from Monroe to Tualco Valley across the Skykomish River. In 1893, a contract was let to build a bridge across the river. With the Panic of 1893, the company filed for bankruptcy, stopping work on the bridge. Work began again and the bridge completed in 1894.

In 1893, Snohomish County chose Monroe as the site for the poor farm to care for the county's indigent. The two-story, wood-frame building had 20 beds.

Newcomers began to arrive. Henry Dennis moved into his new barbershop on E Main Street in early 1890. The shop he built had living quarters behind it and he gave dance lessons in the back room. Herman Steffen came to town in 1900. He acquired a couple of registered Holstein heifers and a bull near Port Townsend, ferried them across Puget Sound and hiked with them from Mukilteo to the farm. Thus began the oldest continually registered Holstein herd in the state. The farm is still in the hands of Steffen's descendants.

Logging and Shingle Mills

The Monroe area attracted millmen. By 1894, several shingle mills dotted the Skykomish River and in 1897, the Stephens brothers built a sawmill in the Woods Creek area just north of Monroe. The community surrounding the mill became known as Stephensville.

By 1903, four sawmills and five shingle mills dotted the landscape around Monroe. The mills employed 400 men with another 500 working in the logging camps. The Stephens brothers sold their operation to Wagner and Wilson, Inc. The new owners were brothers Harry and Ed Wilson, and George and Charles Wagner, father and son. The Wagners eventually bought out the Wilsons.


Major Benjamin Franklin Smythe started Monroe's first newspaper, the Monroe Monitor, in January 1899 and it has been in continuous publication since that date. A copy of the first paper went to everyone whose name Smythe could find.

Ten publishers have been at the helm of the Monroe Monitor, in its many guises, since its inception. Ken and Debbie Robinson began as publishers in 1990. The Monroe Monitor/Valley News now (2007) has a circulation of 4,000.


The railroad boosted Monroe's commerce. The Great Northern Railway superintendent said, "The Company does more business at Monroe than any other point on the line, outside of larger towns." The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (Milwaukee) line joined the transportation scene in late 1910,  paralleling the Great Northern tracks to Monroe and  then constructing a track south through Tolt to Cedar Falls. That line paralleled the Cherry Valley line. The Milwaukee trestle across the Skykomish River at Monroe was the longest covered railroad trestle in the world.

In 1911, the Great Northern took over the Cherry Valley line. In 1936, the Milwaukee Road abandoned its 18 miles of track between Monroe and Everett and used the Great Northern tracks instead.

In 1926, the Great Northern had greenhouses in Monroe. At Christmastime, two thousand corsages were made so that every lady boarding the train on Christmas could have a corsage. Workers wrapped a thousand Easter lilies at Easter time for decorating the cars and depots. Yearly, 70,000 geraniums were grown and potted for the summer months. The greenhouses were dismantled and sold in 1962.

The Great Monroe Fire

Monroe citizens continually called for a fire department to protect their homes and businesses. Their predictions of catastrophic fire came true in 1901. The only complete block of businesses went up in flames in September 1901.

The town rallied to try to save what it could, but to no avail. The Monroe Fire Department became a reality in 1903. The town ordered a hose cart capable of carrying 500 feet of hose and two hydrants.


Monroe's most important event in 1902 was the town's incorporation. The petition for incorporation went to the Snohomish County commissioners, who determined there were 300 inhabitants in the area. An election for incorporation and city officers was set for December 20, 1902. Monroe voted overwhelmingly for home government. Mayor N. P. Heintz won with a four to one majority.

In a 1908 town council meeting, councilmen decided to build a new city hall. The new two-story city hall was completed in November. When the city built a new city hall on West Main Street, the old city hall eventually became the property of the Monroe Historical Society and today (2007) houses its museum.

Educating the Children

The first local school district started in Park Place in 1869. The schools grew in size and in numbers, and residents agitated for better and closer schools for their children. The number of school-age children continued to grow and in 1885, 18 school districts dotted Snohomish County. Among them were Park Place No. 3, Tualco No. 8, Stretch Farm No. 9, and Stackpole's mill.

Citizens called for a union high school. The call bore fruit in 1909 when seven districts formed the Monroe Union High School. The cornerstone was laid on September 13, 1910, and dedicated in 1911. School began in the new quarters on September 5, 1911, and the older students from eight school districts attended. 

A major earthquake struck the region in March 1965, and damaged the school. A new school built on the same site opened in 1967.

A special election in November 1937 gave the school directors the right to erect a junior high school. After federal approval, the PWA grant totaled $60,340.90 out of a total cost of $134,090.90. The remainder of the cost was borne by an outright gift of $30 thousand from Frank Wagner to build the auditorium in his father's name along with a share-in-aid grant by the state and a contribution from the local district.

Hospitals and Churches

In 1893, Snohomish County chose Monroe as the site of a home for indigents. When the program was no longer needed, private investors started Monroe General Hospital. It fell into disrepair and Snohomish County Public Hospital District #1 was formed in 1960.

The medical community grew in 1902 when Dr. L. L. Stephens announced plans to build a hospital in town with separate apartments for men and women. The three-story Stephens Hospital became a reality in 1903 and still stands at the corner of Blakely and West Main Street as an apartment house.

The first Sunday school met in Austin's Tualco barn, according to Mary Emma Hibbard, who chronicled the history of Monroe's first church. After two years of hard work, the Methodist Episcopal Church was completed in 1896 on the site of the current Monroe United Methodist Church on S Lewis Street. Other denominations joined the first church through the years.

The Fair

Townspeople decided Monroe needed a fair of its own and on September 4 and 5, 1903, the fair became a reality. On an empty lot in the south end of town, the stock exhibits taxed the fairground’s capacity. A special effort was made to interest the women with displays and competitions that they would enjoy.

Soon the fair became known as “Cavalcade of the Valleys” and prospered well into the 1930s, maintaining its bucolic theme with livestock competitions and highlighting homemaking skills. The event included a competition for a queen and a parade through town. The Cavalcade of the Valleys was the platform on which the Evergreen State Fair was built. The Evergreen State Fair, held in Monroe every year in late August and early September, is celebrating its centennial in 2008.

Banks and the Commercial Club

The Monroe State Bank organized in 1904 and in 1908 took steps to change from a state to a national bank. The institution became the First National Bank of Monroe in 1909.

The new National Bank, formed in 1909. It became the First National and became a branch of First National Bank of Everett in 1940. It merged with Seattle First National Bank in 1969 which later became Bank of America.

The Monroe Commercial Club became a force for promoting growth. It's members were responsible for two major acquisitions: the Washington State Reformatory and the Carnation Milk condensery.

Monroe Reformatory

In 1907, the state Legislature appropriated money for a state reformatory in Snohomish County. Monroe was one of three communities to vie for the institution. The Monroe Commercial Club went to work and secured the reformatory for Monroe. The state began construction in late 1907 and temporary buildings housed the first inmates in December. Superintendent C. B. Roe assumed his duties in April, 1908.

Violent reformatory events, such as a hostage-taking attempted breakout in 1959,  made news, but there was a gentler side, too. Community celebrations were held in the administrative building and in the superintendent's mansion.

In 2006, the Department of Corrections' population in Monroe totaled 2,481.

Carnation Milk for Monroe

In 1907 word passed about locating a milk condensery in Monroe and in early 1908, the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, manufacturers of Carnation Milk, spent two days in town. The Commercial Club received a definite proposition with the understanding that the town would donate the land.

Work commenced on the condensery in April 1908 and in mid-August 1908, the manufacture of Carnation Milk began in Monroe. Condensed milk was produced in Monroe until 1912, after which the firm began skimming the milk, sending the cream to other plants for making butter, and manufacturing casein from the skim milk. Casein is a hard, clear protein used in the manufacture of an imitation ivory used for the handles of hairbrushes and the like. 

Autos and Roads

The push for paving Monroe streets hit high gear in 1912. The council adopted a resolution ordering the pavement of Main and Lewis streets. The resolution provided for parking strips in the center.

In 1928, the city council voted to discontinue parking in the center strips and approved putting cement curbs around them. Those two center strips became Monroe's hallmark. They are planted seasonally and provide a warm welcome to town visitors.

World War I

War news and the home front filled the Monroe Monitor pages throughout 1917 and into 1918. Citizens participated in all sorts of drives and followed mandates issued by the government. Men between the ages of 21 and 31 were ordered to register for military duty.

When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the condensery whistle and the shrill shrieks of the Monroe fire siren announced the glad tidings to Monroe residents. Five million men had died in the war, including 50,000 Americans. Eight men from Monroe paid the ultimate price. Pvt. Arthur Kincaid, who died in the last stages of the war, was honored when his name was given to Monroe's American Legion Post.

Frye Lettuce Farm

In 1929, more than 400 railroad cars of lettuce were shipped from Snohomish County, each valued at about $450. Charles Frye purchased most of the lettuce farm located just west of downtown Monroe, in a foreclosure sale. In 1933, Minerva Lucken went to work on the farm. She said in an interview that there were about a thousand workers on the farm during its peak. It became the backbone of the local economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The going wage ranged from 12 to 14 cents an hour for a 10- to 14-hour day. In the late 1930s lettuce hit a bad year and the lettuce spoiled. Frye's Monroe operation was foreclosed.

The new company started freezing local produce with Pictsweet as the brand name. In 1958, the company moved to Mt. Vernon and used the local plant for storage until 1966, when Pan Alaska Fisheries bought it for its freezing capability. During peak employment, 150 people processed seafood.

War Again 

More than 250 Monroe men between the ages of 21 and 35 registered during the nation's first peacetime conscription. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, young men flocked to the recruiting offices eager to get into the fray. The home folks endured food and gas rationing, bought war bonds, collected scrap metal, and followed the war news.

When the announcement came that Japan had surrendered, virtually every store and business establishment in Monroe closed. Sirens and whistles sounded and vehicles paraded sounding their horns. Almost everyone participated in the impromptu celebration.

Monroe Today

With the completion of the US 2 bypass, not one traffic light slowed the traffic between Everett and Wenatchee. That didn't last, however, as regional franchises flocked along the highway in Monroe. Hills were leveled, shopping centers built, and industry expanded.

Based on information provided by the Washington State Department of Transportation, Monroe staff has calculated the following traffic volumes: US 2 at SR 522 -- 74,443 average daily trips; SR 522 at US 2 -- 20,608 average daily trips;  and SR 203 at Fremont Street -- 14,859 average daily trips.

According to Monroe's senior planner, Kate Galloway, Monroe's population is estimated at 16,276 in 2007. Although the city's population continues to grow, the annual growth rate has been decreasing since 2000. The height of Monroe's growth occurred in the 1990s.

The Monroe Police Department currently has an authorized commissioned strength of 36, including a chief and assistant chief, according to police spokesperson, Julie Holmes.

From the original hose cart with 500 feet of hose and a small band of volunteers, the Monroe Fire Department has grown into a big city installation. According to Administrative Secretary Linda Schwartz, the department has 40 firefighters on staff and 17 pieces of mobile equipment. In 2006, the department responded to 3,552 calls.

The Monroe School District has 353 certificated personnel along with 182 classified employees. According to communications specialist, Rosemary O'Neil, the district has 40 buildings in all, with 12 schools numbered among them. Total expected enrollment for the 2007-2008 school year is 7,000.

Valley General Hospital grew out of the poor-farm structure. It has the third largest payroll in Monroe. There are more than 400 employees and about 250 physicians on the medical staff, according to hospital spokesperson, Monica Sylte. The site contains the main hospital, Sky River Medical Center, which houses some Valley General Hospital departments and the Recovery Center for substance abusers.

New additions to Monroe's fabric are the YMCA and the Snohomish Explosion, a semi-professional basketball team. The YMCA opened its largest facility in Snohomish County -- 40,000 square feet, including an Olympic size swimming pool.

The basketball team will play its 2008 season at Monroe High School. Courtyard Media, the company that owns the team, will build a stadium in 2008 within Monroe's service area. Team owners say, "Monroe is growing and it's a destination town."

Sources: History of Snohomish County ed by William Whitfield (Chicago-Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1926);  William H. Mason, Snohomish County at War (Everett: Mason Publishing Co. Inc.); The Everett Herald; Monroe Monitor; Monroe Transcript: A.D. Gaisford; Monroe Monitor-Transcript; Monroe Monitor/Valley News: Washington Transcript: A.D. Gaisford; Monroe Independent, J.J. Reardon; Diaries of Charles Stackpole transcribed by Blanche Shannahan, Monroe Historical Society; Robert Monroe, excerpted and edited diaries of Philip Clayton Van Buskirk, “Sailor on the Snohomish,” Journal of Everett and Snohomish County History (Everett Public Library), No. 5 (Winter 1983); River Reflections (Snohomish: Snohomish Historical Society, 1975); Carlos Schwantes, Katherine Morrissey, David Nicandri, and Susan Strasser, Washington Images of a State’s Heritage  (Spokane: Milior Publication, 1988);  Riverside Remembers III (Everett: Greater Riverside Organization, 1987); Margaret McKibben Corliss, Fall City in the Valley of the Moon (Fall City, WA: n.p.,  1972; Doug Brokenshire, Washington State Place Names (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1993); Robert E. Ficken and Charles Le Warne, Washington: a Centennial History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage of Washington State ed. by Robin K. Knight (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); Mary W. Avery, Washington, A History of the Evergreen State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965); Nellie E. Robertson, Monroe: The First Fifty Years (Monroe:  N. and B. Robertson, 1996); Nellie E. Robertson, Monroe:The Next Thirty Years (Monroe: N. and B. Robertson, 2002); Jim Knapp, email to, October 1, 2012, in possession of
Note: This essay was modified on October 4, 2012, to provide corrected and additional information on the Elwell family.

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