Mount Vernon voters approve city incorporation on June 27, 1890.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/30/2010
  • Essay 9542

On June 27, 1890, by a vote of 87-25, voters approve the incorporation of Mount Vernon as a fourth-class city. The path has not been easy, and two attempts the previous year are rejected by a Territorial judge. This forces the townspeople to wait until Washington achieves statehood in November 1889, after which their efforts are successful.

In No Hurry 

Mount Vernon, a city of just over 32,000 residents, is located on the banks of the Skagit River in Skagit County, about 60 miles north of Seattle on Interstate 5. The area around the present-day city was first settled in 1869-1870 by David E. Kimble (1828-1908), Jasper Gates (1840-1923), and Joseph F. Dwelley (1839-?), but it was 1877 before Harrison Clothier (1840-1906) and partner Edward G. English (1850- 1930) founded the town through the simple expedient of giving it a name. Clothier and English bought 10 acres from Jasper Gates for $100, opened a store, prepared a plat that was neither filed nor recorded, and called their creation Mount Vernon, after the Virginia home of the nation's first president.

By 1879 two logjams that had rendered the Skagit River unnavigable were breached, and Mount Vernon started to boom. The clearing of the river opened to exploitation the mineral and timber resources that lay to the east of the town. Its status grew rapidly, and in 1883 the voters of the newly created Skagit County selected Mount Vernon to replace LaConner as the county seat. Although the residents had campaigned for this recognition, apparently no thought was given at the time to incorporating Mount Vernon under Washington's Territorial laws.

Six years later, in 1889, some of the town's leading citizens decided, in the words of an early history, to "lay aside the bib and tucker of infancy and put on the grown clothes of cityhood" (Illustrated History, 194). The law at the time had minimal requirements for incorporation -- a population of at least 250, a petition signed by 40 or more voters within the area to be included in the city or town, and presentation to a judge. Upon approval of the petition, the judge would appoint five commissioners whose sole job was to organize an election, with the ballot choices being "For Incorporation" or "Against Incorporation." If incorporation was approved, it became effective after publication of the results and the filing of an election certification.

The Judge Says "No"

Although the precise date of Mount Vernon's first attempt at incorporation is unclear, it had to have been in early March 1889, as the judge who would consider the matter, Cornelius Holgate Hanford (1849-1926), was not appointed to serve as the last chief justice of Washington Territory until that month. The learned and widely respected judge rejected the petition because he believed that the entire Territorial law on the establishment of municipal corporations was unconstitutional.

Given the fact that the judge's unhappiness was with the law itself, and not with any failure to comply with its requirements, the townspeople's next step seems inexplicable. They held a meeting on March 25, 1889, elected a five-man "board of trustees," and directed them to resubmit the petition to Judge Hanford. The trustees -- Charles Henry Kimble (1856-1922), J. B. Moody, Jasper Gates, George E. Hartson (1855-?), and Edward English (1850- 1930) -- did as directed. Judge Hanford was not persuaded that the addition of five trustees to the process made the law any less unconstitutional, and he rejected the petition a second time. The outcome should have been predictable, as neither the judge nor the law had changed in the two or three weeks since his first ruling.

This double setback slowed Mount Vernon's campaign for incorporation, but larger events would soon make the court's rulings irrelevant. On October 1, 1889, the voters of Washington Territory approved a state constitution, and barely a month later, on November 11, Washington became the nation's 42nd state. Judge Hanford was immediately elevated to become chief (and only) judge for the new federal judicial district in Washington, a revised statute for the creation of municipal corporations was in the works, and the townspeople could start over with a clean slate, a new law, and a different judge.

Any frustrated trustees who were still living 23 years later may have taken a degree of satisfaction from Judge Hanford's ignominious departure from the federal bench in 1912 during an impeachment investigation that accused him, among other things, of public drunkenness. Hanford's troubles started in May of that year when he annulled the naturalized citizenship of Leonard Olsson (sometimes spelled "Olsen" or "Oleson") of Tacoma on the questionable grounds that Mr. Olesen was a Socialist. This sparked a national outcry, and a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was sent to Seattle to investigate the judge and his connections to powerful corporate interests. Hanford chose to resign before the hearings were completed, a disappointing end to what had been a distinguished legal career.

Born on the Fifth of July

But back in February 1890, with Judge Hanford safely on the federal bench, the people of Mount Vernon decided to try again. Another public meeting was called, to revive the incorporation drive. Whether from pique, poor legal advice, or both, "the sentiment of the meeting was in favor of incorporation under the old law ... " (Illustrated History, 194), which of course had already been ruled unconstitutional, twice, by Judge Hanford. Cooler heads prevailed, and a new, four-man board of trustees was selected, which included Gates and Moody from the first board, together with Otto Klement (1852-1942) and Captain David F. Decatur (1838-1913). Their job was to prepare a new petition, circulate it for signatures, then present it to a Skagit County judge identified only as Winn, and to the county Board of Commissioners, for approval.

In April 1890 a petition bearing 106 signature was submitted to the court and the commissioners, but the law was not done toying with the hapless Mount Vernon incorporators. This time the problem was not the judge, or the law itself, but rather a failure to comply with one of the law's technical requirements. The trustees had simply shown up at the county board with their petition in hand, neglecting to first file a mandatory notice stating the date and time they would be coming. Without such notice, the matter was not formally on the Board of Commissioner's official calendar, and not being on the calendar, it could not be considered.

Since the board's next regular meeting was some time off, and Judge Winn was soon due to rotate to another part of the county, the Mount Vernon representatives were facing another substantial delay. But things were worked out -- the proper notice was promptly filed, the judge signed off on the petition before moving on, and the commissioners sat in special session to vote their approval. The city's first election was scheduled for June 27, 1890. The voters would be asked to either approve incorporation and elect the city's first government, or disapprove, in which case things would just go on pretty much as before.
On June 27, 1890, the citizens of Mount Vernon went to the polls and approved the city's incorporation by a wide margin, 87 for and 25 against. Charles Kimball was elected mayor. (This is the same person as the Charles Henry Kimble who served on the 1889 board of trustees; he changed the spelling of his last name, apparently after a falling out with his father, who subsequently disinherited him.) Five city councilmen were also elected: J. B. Moody, George E. Hartson, Lincoln R. Martin (1860-1935), Michael McNamara (1847-1937), and William Murdock (who one year later became the first mayor of the town of Sedro). V. E. Campbell was elected city treasurer.

The process was not quite finished, however. The county commissioners verified the vote on June 30, and the Skagit County auditor, H. P. Downs, certified the election and sent the incorporation papers to the Washington Secretary of State's office on July 1, where they were received on July 5. The name of Mount Vernon was promptly entered in Book 1, Page 3 of the State of Washington Register of Incorporated Cities and Towns as a fourth class city, and the lengthy ordeal was finally over. The new city council met the following day and appointed Fred G. Pickering as city clerk, Fred Pape as police court judge, and E. H. Vaughn as city marshal.

Mount Vernon's incorporation was just one of more than 40 that were filed in that first post-statehood year. The city still has the mayor/council form of government that it started out with, and today (2010) the council still meets on Wednesdays, just as it did in 1890. 

Sources: An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1906) 194-195; "Historical Documents," Evergreen State College website accessed August 27, 2010 (; "Hanford Resigns; No Impeachment," The New York Times, July 23, 1912, available at (; J. M. Taylor, History and Government of Washington (St. Louis: Becktold Printing and Book Manufacturing Company, 1898), 144; C. H. Hanford, General Claxton (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1917); C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, 1852-1924 (Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1924); Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington: The Rise and Progress of an American State (New York: Century History Company, 1911), 5-10, 30; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hanford, Edward (1807-1884)" (by Junius Rochester and Priscilla Long), (accessed August 28, 2010); " Biographies and Obituaries of Skagit County Pioneers and Their Descendants," Skagit River Journal website accessed August 27, 2010 (; Noel V. Bouresaw, "Captain David F. Decatur," Skagit River Journal website accessed August 27, 2010 (
Note: This essay was revised on September 24, 2012, to give complete dates for David Decatur.

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