Darrington -- Thumbnail History

  • By Janet Oakley
  • Posted 1/17/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8798
See Additional Media

The town of Darrington, located in Snohomish County 30 miles east of Arlington, was once known as the Burn or Sauk Portage. Darrington got its name from the flip of a card. With settlement beginning in the early 1890s, it gained its reputation as a jumping-off place for mineral exploration and later, logging. Never incorporated until 1945, it remained a rough and tumble place well into the 1950s. Today it is the gateway to exceptional outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor recreation, and hosts an annual bluegrass festival and an annual rodeo. Currently it numbers 1,500 citizens.

Sauk-Suiattle Byway 

The town of Darrington is located on a gravelly plain five miles long and one to one-and-a-half miles wide. This low divide is set between the Sauk River and the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. Traditionally used by Skagit Indians as a portage and tribal gathering place known as Kudsl Kudsl, its low elevation of 500 feet hunkers down under the towering mountains surrounding it. The Sauk-Suiattle had a village at Sauk Prairie northeast of Darrington and a summer site at Bedal. 

Called the Burn or Sauk Portage in English, Darrington was an unknown land until 1888, accessible only by canoe and fish trails that followed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River from Arlington. Along the way were abandoned bachelor cabins from earlier attempts to settle. The first real wagon road was built around Cicero in 1887.  It was so rough and heavily forested that a portion between Arlington and Oso required a block and tackle to get through. Eventually, a few miners made their way in and began to settle on the plain.

At the same time, James Bedal came to the Darrington area by way of the Skagit River. While exploring the Sauk River Valley, he decided to homestead on the Sauk Prairie. There he met Susan Wa-wet-kin, the only daughter of the Sauk-Suiattle chief John Wa-wet-kin. After marrying her, he started a logging business that eventually failed due to the difficulties of moving logs on the river. In the spring of 1891, he moved his wife and baby son to a new homestead claim 18 miles upstream from what is now Darrington. The Bedals and their offspring, Edith Bedal, Jean Bedal Fish, and Harry Bedal would leave a lasting legacy in the Darrington area and Snohomish County. 

In 1890, S. B. Emens arrived and “located and proved up on a homestead” in Darrington (Whitfield, p. 552). The following year, there were enough settlers in the area to ask for a post office. A committee of five settlers, including early miner Knute Neste, gathered to choose a name for a post office.  “Darrington” -- the maiden name of a Mr. Christopher’s mother -- “Bellingham,” and “Portage” were in the running. When there was a tie between Darrington and Portage, the names were written on the opposite side of a card. The plan was to flip the card and choose the name that landed on top, but someone who was a supporter of Darrington wrote on both sides. Darrington won. Befitting its rough and tumble image, “Daring-town” sometimes appeared as a nickname.

The year 1891 also saw the filing of some of the first claims in the area. Knute Neste found the Morning Star Lode and the Jumbo Mine on White Horse Mountain, a 7,000- foot white-capped peak three-and-a-half miles out of Darrington.  Other early miners included Loren Robinson, Charles Burns, William Geisler, John Robinson, C. C. Scholman, and George Knudson.

Big Enough for a School and a Store or Two 

In September 1892, a petition was filed with the Snohomish County superintendent, asking that a new school district for Darrington be formed from Arlington District No. 16. The petition was heard on October 22, 1892, and approved. District No. 64 was born. To help the new district get started, the county gave the board of directors $94.80. The first school was built in 1893.

Sam Stom, a native of Norway, arrived in Darrington at the same time the school went up. He learned English by reading an English dictionary during the long winters and would become the regional constable, serving 14 years. In 1894, the Knudson brothers, also Norwegian, settled in Darrington. Brother George proved up on 160 acres right in the heart of the Darrington townsite, constructing a “commodious two story log building” that housed a store, hotel, post office, and private quarters  (Whitfield, p. 552). Fred Olds, whose lost white horse was the story behind the naming of White Horse Mountain, settled in with his family. His wife was the town’s first postmistress. Lester K. Alvord took 160 acres in town and built a “comfortable log house, barn and other improvements” (Whitfield, p. 552).

Darrington continued to be an isolated place until the end of the 1890s, freight coming by canoe or pack horse.  Then in July 1899, the first freight on wheels arrived by way of the north fork. Less than a year later, miners in the town promised the Seattle & International Railway 75 percent of their ore shipments for the next 15  years in order to support the building of a rail line up the Stillaquamish Valley.  Before the work was finished, the Northern Pacific took over the S & I. The railway used a new technology, a rail-laying machine to complete the 28 miles.

The completion of the last bridge into Darrington and the arrival of the first train on May 31, 1901, produced a boom in the town. By now, the town was laid out with 60-foot-wide streets running east and west through the center. More settled businesses came in. John Montague came up from Oso and with Charles E. Moore started a store. The United States Mill employed 100 men and cut 23,000 board feet per day.

The Darrington Mercantile Company responded to the boom and was incorporated July 6, 1904, “to engage in a general merchandise business; to buy and sell merchandise, and to mortgage the same if necessary” (Incorporation papers). Owners Jay Q. Austin, G. G. Burns, and E. E. Burns had high hopes that the mines would pan out and their businesses would do well.

By 1906, Darrington boasted a population of 100. It had two hotels including the Hotel Darrington, two stores, several mining companies, the Sauk Lumber Company, Seymour Brothers sawmill, a railway depot, and the Darrington Commercial Club. The club was incorporated on February 1, 1906, as an “establishment for social, benevolent and education purposes.” Albert Hawkinson, B. A. Gallagher, and Jesse Price were board members. They intended to “establish and maintain a social club in order to promote friendly relations and cultivate pleasant social intercourse; to aid in making people out of said Darrington and in every way to foster the best interest of the community at large” (Darrington Commercial Club Incorporation papers). The club was open to all, but the papers stated “but no person shall become a member except on vote of a majority of board of trustees.” The latter statement hinted at a darker issue.

Troubles, Intolerance, and Trying to Stay Wet 

During the first decade of the twentieth century, there was a growing movement against labor organizations and immigrants in the Northwest. Sometimes it led to violence on both sides. In isolated Darrington, the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) agitated for the eight-hour day and other reforms. When the owner of the Danneher Company at Darrington agreed to IWW’s demands, he mysteriously ended up dead.

There was also intolerance and racism directed against Asians. Although few lived in the town, in 1907, 100 Darrington residents signed a manifesto requesting “every citizen, employee and merchant of Darrington and vicinity to cooperate by absolutely refusing said Japanese or Chinese laborers employment of many” (Cameron, p. 160). Others did not sign the manifesto and in 1910, the United States Mill hired 20 Japanese workers and kept them.  

The year 1910 was also the year Snohomish County prepared to go dry. Some enterprising folks in Darrington, some of whom turned out not to be residents of the settlement, tried to incorporate Darrington into a fourth-class city so that they could vote to keep the town wet. Though the county commissioners approved their petition for a vote, the United States Mill and several prominent citizens of Darrington protested and won. Darrington would remain unincorporated for another 35 years. All the saloons the loggers and miners dearly loved would close. Spirits most likely went underground until after Prohibition ended across the nation in 1933.

Into the Twenties and Thirties 

Few communities in Snohomish County were as remote as Darrington, existing on mining and logging concerns, but once it passed into the 1920s, the tiny settlement began to grow. The arrival of an automobile road brought new amenities for its citizenry. In 1922, Standard Oil opened an auxiliary supply station “for gasoline and stove oil” by a stage line (Cameron, p. 195). The following year, silent films came to Darrington at the Rex Movie Theater, though how they were run is speculation. It was not until 1926, when electrical power was brought up river by two local citizens, the Donaldson brothers, that some sort of service was provided.  Even that was undependable at first. Some homes had only enough power to run a single light bulb. There was not enough for an electric range.   

The 1920s also brought governmental and social improvements to Darrington. The rowdy crowd of bootleggers, drunks, and others breaking the peace led to a campaign by Sam Strom in 1923 to secure a proper jail for them. Up to this time, a railcar box had been used for the purpose.

The formation of the Darrington Improvement Club in 1924 spurred projects such as planting shade trees and putting in street lights. The club cut a road to the elementary school and in 1925 helped form a 29-member volunteer fire department.  It raised funds for fire equipment for use on a light truck, bought 20 acres of virgin timber (with the help of the Arlington Commercial Club) for a park, and distributed an illustrated brochure, “Darrington, Where the Trails Begin,” promoting the outstanding recreational opportunities for the average American with their newfound use of the automobile (Camero, p. 196). Fishing, hiking, and camping were the draws to Darrington, activities still cherished today.

The Depression came hard to Darrington as to many other parts of the country, but the federal government responded with WPA projects and the opening of the first Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in the area. Camp Darrington opened on May 20, 1933, a half-mile north of the town of the town. It provided work for many local young men. Citizens in the town responded to the  economic crisis by creating the Darrington Pioneer’s Cooperative. They “donated their time for credit in order to come together and create jobs, sell firewood for cash, purchase food supplies, build a small sawmill and erect housing” (Cameron, p. 28).

Finding New Roots 

Darrington’s population in the early twentieth century was a mix of Scandinavian and other western European backgrounds. When the hardwoods gave out back in North Carolina, a new group came to call the town home -- the “Tarheels.” One of these was John R. F. Jones and his wife, Ollie Mae, with their four children. They drove out to Darrington from Whittier, North Carolina, in September 1937, camping along the way. They arrived in Darrington 10 days later, coming up the road from Arlington.

Frankie Nations, Ollie and John Jones's daughter, wrote about that time:

“The first two miles was paved and the next twenty eight miles was gravel with big chuck holes ... . On September 17, 1937, we arrived in Darrington, at that time the streets were gravel and the sidewalks were wood, Mom looked out the window and saw a few drunks hanging around a post and she said 'John Jones you take me back home'" (Nations, p. 2).

They spent the first night in Bennetville, a place north of the town in Skagit County, moving eventually into a house in Whitehorse. Jones was able to find work right away with the WPA, cutting timber.  When that job was finished, he went to work with Sauk River Lumber Company. The family went back to North Carolina to visit once, but when World War II broke out, all travel ended.

During the war, Ollie Jones was an Air Raid Warden. She would go to all the homes in Darrington and instruct the householders in how to hang the blackout drapes.

Community Spirit After World War II 

In 1945, Darrington was finally incorporated as a city, but not long after that achievement, it seemed destined to become a ghost town when a couple of the largest logging mills moved out. A lot of the forests had been logged out. Fortunately, another company came in and found work in the winter blow downs. In 1953, logging trucks were busy. Still, the town was on its own. 

Nels Bruseth, a forest ranger, naturalist, historian of Snohomish County, and citizen of the Darrington area, wrote that the state and federal governments weren’t about to help them, so they helped themselves. When someone asked him how the little community built so many public amenities, he wrote:  “We can only answer: Someone gets the bright idea -- others fall in line. Willing and able leaders were selected. The rest of us promised to help. That is how we got the airfield, the City and Fire Hall, the fire trucks, the ambulances and other things. Perhaps we have quite a bit of the old Pioneer spirit” (The Arlington Times, January 7, 1954).

Darrington was always proud of its community. It might be isolated, but it had spirit. A regular column in the Arlington Times reported on activities at the Mansford Grange, the churches, the Lion’s Club, and the elementary school.

Darrington Today 

Darrington today is a community of roughly 1,500 people. Its streets are paved and there is a modern school, parks, a library, a small airport, and a helicopter service. Its largest employers are the U.S. Forest Service; the Darrington School District, which oversees 570 children grades K-12; and a local wood-products mill. Other small businesses include restaurants, a motel, an outdoor supply store, a hardware store, auto repair shops, and a grocery store.

Darrington is host to a popular bluegrass festival that convenes at the Darrington Bluegrass Music Park for its 33rd year in 2009. The festival and the Darrington Bluegrass & Country Music Makers Association were founded in the mid-1970s by musicians Samuel Nations and Bertha Nations (later Whiteside), among others. Musicians in Darrington get together to jam at the Darrington Community Center on the second Sunday of every month.

The town is also host to an annual classic rock festival and a rodeo.

Because of its close proximity to three wilderness areas, 328 miles of hiking and horse trails, numerous picnic sites, scenic roads, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and old growth forests, Darrington is still the place where the trails begin.

Sources: Fred Beckley, Range of Glaciers (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003), 282; History of Snohomish County, Washington Vols. I and 2 ed. by William Whitfield (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 525- 526; History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties of Washington (Seattle: Interstate Publication, 1906); Robert M. Humphrey, Everett and Snohomish County: A Pictorial History (Norfolk, VA: Donning Co, 1984); 1901-1902 R.L. Polk Oregon, Washington and Alaska Business Gazeteer (Portland, Oregon: Polk, 1902), 517; Louise Lindgren, "Jean Bedal Fish: Elder of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe," The Snohomish County Women's Legacy Project website accessed August 1, 2008 (http://www.snocoheritage.org/wlp_35Bedal.html); Darrington Commercial Club incorporation papers, February 1, 1906, File 1095, Box 3, Northwest Regional Archives, Bellingham; Frankie Nations, "My Journal: 'Good Old Days," 2008 in possession of Frankie Nations, Darrington, WA; “Darrington,” Darrington website accessed August 3, 2008 (http://darringtonwa.org/); Jan L. Hollenbeck. A Cultural Resource Overview: Prehistory, Ethnography and History: Mt Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest (Portland, Oregon: U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, August 1987); Dan Rankin, “About the Town of Darrington,” Darrington website accessed August 3, 2008 (http://town.darrington.wa.us/about/); "School District Boundary Record," "Record of Eighth Grade Graduation 1898-1903," and "Snohomish County Register of Teachers" (p. 83), Educational School District (ESD)  189, Snohomish County Public Schools, Box 1, Northwest Regional Archives; Nels Bruseth, "Darrington in 1953," The Arlington Times, January 7, 1954, p. 6; “How Local Towns Got Their Names” The Arlington Times, July 3, 2002, p. 6; Monte Crisco Preservation Association website accessed July 31, 2008 (http://www.mcpa.us/); Chuck LeWarne email to Janet Oakley September 7, 2008 in possession of Janet Oakley; Lea Thompson (Darrington Historical Society) email to Janet Oakley, March 3, 2008, in possession of Janet Oakley; David Cameron email to Janet Oakley, August 8, 2008, in possession of Janet Oakley; "Darrington Bluegrass Festival Kicks Off Friday," MarysvilleGlobe.com, July 16, 2008, MarysvilleGlobe.com website accessed January 17, 2009 (http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/north_sound/mar/entertainment/25473579.html); Darrington Bluegrass and Country Music Makers Association website accessed January 17, 2009 (http://www.glacierview.net/bluegrass/).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You