Snohomish -- Thumbnail History

  • By Warner Blake
  • Posted 3/10/2008
  • Essay 8508
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Snohomish, located in Snohomish County, is a small town of 9,000 residents, picturesquely sited on the slope of the north bank of its namesake river. Flowing northwest, the Snohomish River begins six miles upstream at the confluence of the Snoqualmie and Skykomish rivers, near present-day Monroe, and ends some 12 miles downstream where it empties into Port Gardner Bay (part of Puget Sound) between Everett and Marysville. The name Snohomish City was first used on the 1871 plat that joined the western and eastern claims at Union Avenue, then three blocks long. (The "Snoh-" [Sdhub-] may be related to the Lushootseed word for man [stub]. The "–omish" suffix means people in Lushootseed, the language spoken by the Snohomish and other indigenous people of the area.) Non-Native settlers filed claims on both sides of the river in 1859 thinking that traffic on a new military road would pay handsomely for a ferry crossing service. It was not to be. Instead, a steady increase in steamship service brought loggers and supplies to camps up and down the river, followed by family farmers. Snohomish grew to become the economic and cultural center of the county, and served as county seat for 36 years (which it lost to Everett in 1897). Since 1973, a 26-block area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Geography and Early History

Stretching from present-day Everett to Snoqualmie Falls, some 60 miles to the south, Glacier Lake Snohomish drained through the Redmond Delta approximately 14,000 years ago, and the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, and Skykomish rivers were incised into the valley floor. The town site is located on a low-elevation landform known as the Getchell Hill Plateau, flanked by the Snohomish Estuary to the west, the Pilchuck outwash channel to the east, and the Snohomish River Valley to the south. The river valley is wide and flat, created through thousands of years of glacial movement and flowing meltwater, and bounded by morainal hills with steep sides – often described in scientific literature as a "bathtub." The river itself is characterized by meander arms and oxbow lakes, which developed as the river flooded and changed course within the expansive valley. Hunter-fisher-gatherer sites identified along the Snohomish and Pilchuck rivers indicate human habitation beginning as early as 8,000 years ago. However, the sea level did not stabilize in the Puget Sound region until around 5,000 years ago; at that time salmon runs and shellfish beds became established and could be eventually harvested. 

On January 22, 1855, Chief Pat Kanim (ca. 1808-1858), representing the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, and Skykomish peoples, made his mark on the Treaty of Point Elliott, just below that of Chief Seattle. With that mark, the three bands agreed to exchange their lands of thick forests, threaded with the three major rivers bearing their names, for cash, and a reservation of land called Tulalip.   

First Settlers

One by one, Egbert H. Tucker (1833-1912), Heil Barnes (1828-1910?) and Edson Cady (1828-?) were the first white men recorded as making the 12-mile journey up the dark river that parted the thick forests of giant Douglas-firs and western red cedars.  Their mutual goal was to reach the mouth of the Pilchuck River, with the intention of staking claims on both sides of the Snohomish River. This location, where the Pilchuck drains into the Snohomish, was determined by reading rudimentary maps back in the south sound settlement of Steilacoom. Steilacoom was the site of the oldest military fort of the territory, established in 1847. There a group of frontier businessmen drew together over the prospect of providing a ferry service across the Snohomish River for the recently funded military road heading north to Fort Bellingham.  The imagined site for the ferry crossing was identified on a later map published by the United States Surveyor General as the Kwehtlamanish Winter Village. 

Edson Cady, for reasons lost to history, decided to establish a landing several miles downstream instead, either because of the established Indian camp or because the new site was a better location for a ferry crossing.  In any event, Cady applied for a post office permit with the name “Cadyville,” which today is called Cady Landing, a popular boat launch for recreational fishing.  Cady also established a trail heading east, eventually crossing the North Cascade Mountain Range at a location still known today as Cady Pass.

Heil Barnes, at the same time, staked a claim for Emory C. Ferguson (1833-1911) adjacent to Cady’s to the west, where he assembled a small, pre-fabricated cottage on a high bank facing down river, close to where it stands today as a private home, handsomely restored.  Built by Ferguson in Steilacoom, the cottage was disassembled and shipped north aboard the side-wheeler Ranger No. 2 in the spring of 1859.  Apprenticed as a carpenter in the place of his birth in in Westchester County, New York, Ferguson arrived a year later aboard the same side-wheeler with enough supplies to establish a store.

Meanwhile, across the river, Tucker sold his claim to John Harvey (1828-1886) from England via Seattle. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Regular Army abandoned both Forts Steilacoom and Bellingham and government funding for the military road dried up, leaving only a muddy trail through the woods stopping at the river’s edge on the south bank. There would be no immediate need for a ferry.  Tucker was probably relieved that he got even $50 for his claim; after all, Harvey had just received $2,000 for his lakefront claim on the future Lake Washington, and it had been destroyed in the 1856 episode of the treaty wars known as the “Battle of Seattle.” 

All of the Steilacoom investors pulled out of the deal except Ferguson -- who went on to become a popular after-dinner speaker with his stories about the founding of Snohomish City, and the county.  In an extemporaneous speech given in 1889, Ferguson told his audience that Snohomish County was created  "because there were more politicians than there were counties and the matter was adjusted by making another county instead of killing some of the politicians” (Dilgard).  

Snohomish County was established on January 14, 1861, when it was separated from Island County, but it was not until July that the votes for the location of the county seat went Ferguson’s way, and he returned from Mukilteo with the county records in his vest pocket, making his little cottage overlooking the river the first county courthouse.  The settler population was 49 men and 0 women.  But by the time Ferguson built and opened his Blue Eagle Saloon in 1865, Mary and Woodbury Sinclair had purchased the Cady claim and established a store of logging supplies across the steep path to the river. 

Mary Low Sinclair (1842-1922), daughter of John and Lydia Low, was one of the youngest members of the Denny Party that arrived at Alki Point in 1851, only 11 years old; and now she was the first white woman to take up residence in a riverside landing that was “a small clearing in unbroken timber,” to use her words, and still referred to as Cadyville up and down the river.

River travel settled this place. There were no roads in early Snohomish, only winding, muddy paths cut through the woods.  Ferguson reminisced in an interview later in life about his first trip upriver in 1860:

“The Snohomish River was at the time a very weird place, the trees along the banks with their long branches extending out over the river, in many places meeting, with long strings of moss hanging from the branches, which nearly shut out the sunlight”  (Dilgard).

The authors of River Reflections (Vol. 1) list the names of 69 steamships that answered the call to move both passengers and freight -- and the mail!  The idiosyncrasies of the ships, the personalities of their captains, and the moods of the river were reported on extensively in the newspapers.  And if column inches of ink in the Northern Star (est. 1876), and later The Eye (est. 1882) were tallied up, the sternwheeler Nellie would come out the favorite. 

First Plat and First School

In 1868, Emory C. Ferguson married Lucetta Morgan (1849-1907) from Olympia, Washington, and three years later, they platted their claim, giving streets running east-west a number, and the north-south-running avenues a letter; whereas, the following year, Woodbury and Mary Sinclair, named the avenues of their eastern claim after trees.  Three months later, on June 5, 1872, Woodbury B. Sinclair (1826-1872) died of unknown causes, leaving Mary to raise two children whose estate now owned half of the newly named city.  Her first official act as guardian of the estate was to donate three acres that bordered along the Pilchuck River for the city’s first cemetery formally governed by an association (today the site is suspected to have been a well-established Indian burial ground). 

Mary is reverently remembered as the “mother” of Snohomish Schools for opening her home as the first classroom and donating land for the first schools.  In 1869, the county superintendent paid Miss Ruby Willard $188.59 for three months of school held in the Sinclair home for some 20 students ranging in ages from 4 to 21.  Since many of the children attending school in her home were of mixed marriages, it follows that Mary Sinclair became proficient in the indigenous language and dialects, so much so, that she was often called upon to translate for visiting government officials and reporters.  For example, in 1920, when a reporter from Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer called on Snohomish’s most famous Native American resident, Pilchuck Julia, Mary Sinclair went along as translator. The resulting article estimated Julia’s age to be about 80 years: "[S]he is very energetic, cultivates her garden, fishes in the Pilchuck river, and regularly walks to Snohomish, a distance of nearly two miles.” Julia died in 1923.

Atheneum Society

Shortly after Snohomish was officially named and a school begun, a meeting was held “to organize what was one of the most unique and noteworthy literary associations in the early history of Washington territory” (Whitfield). Most likely, the inspirational leader of the Atheneum Society was Dr. Albert C. Folsom (1827-1885), a former army surgeon with experience in the Civil War, who, now in his 40s, arrived in town with a scientific collection of more than 100 fossils, gems, and bones; plus, it seems, the first doctor of Snohomish County arrived with a broken heart from a failed marriage back in Wisconsin -- so it was explained upon his death in a moving elegy written by his friend Eldridge Morse (1847-1914), who looked upon Folsom, with his two degrees from Harvard, as a mentor. 

Morse, a young lawyer from the Midwest, just happened to fall into a conversation with Ferguson in Seattle, which resulted in him moving his young family to the riverside settlement to become its first lawyer.  A month later, Folsom arrived in town, and within two years, the first doctor and the first lawyer of early Snohomish produced the first handwritten newsletter of the Atheneum Society, which continued on a twice-monthly basis for a year and a half and led to the founding of the first newspaper, The Northern Star, in 1876. 

Society members also pooled their private collection of books to establish the county’s first lending library, then embarked on the ambitious plan to build a two-story building, named the Atheneum, to house their collection of some 300 books, Folsom’s scientific specimens, and a grand meeting hall on the second floor.  The women of early Snohomish supported this vision by somehow purchasing an upright piano, the first one in the city, which is still available for use to this day at the local library.   

Snohomish Logging Personalities

The first board milled at the first mill in Snohomish was ceremoniously used in the Atheneum building.  The Bennett & Witter Mill began operation on the Pilchuck River in 1876. Ferguson was an owner for a short while but sold it to his father-in-law, Hiram D. Morgan (1822-1906), and the mill was in business well into the new century as the Morgan Brothers Lumber and Shingle Mill.

Isaac Cathcart (1845-1909) most likely arrived in town following a footpath through the forest rather than by steamship. A large-framed Irishman, recently from Michigan, who immigrated in 1864, Cathcart had been working in the county since 1869, felling trees in isolated logging camps. He arrived in town four years later with enough money saved to build the Exchange Hotel at the west end of town.  It stood across the street from the unfinished Atheneum building, which he eventually purchased from the suddenly bankrupt society, renaming it the Cathcart Opera House.  By 1890, Cathcart owned his own logging business, a store on the first floor of his opera house, and several large farms. He served as county treasurer, eventually becoming the richest man in the county.

The Blackman Brothers -- Alanson, Elhanan, and Hyrcanus -- filed for bankruptcy in Bradley, Maine, and migrated west with their wives -- Elizabeth, Francis and Ella -- to the rich Snohomish River Valley of the new Washington Territory, where the stories of the giant trees must have seemed like tales from the bible.  They established their  first logging camp around 1875 on Stillaguamish Lake, which today is ringed with expensive homes for the most part and renamed Blackman Lake to honor the first family of Snohomish’s lumber industry. Their first mill was located at the river, west of Avenue D, an easy walk from the lakeside camp. 

This mill is where they began cutting shingles with Elhanan’s invention of a tripper shingle machine, in which a carriage holding a block of cedar is tripped by a rachet action, moving the block in and out from the saw, creating a shingle with each pass.  Within two years, the mill was producing 10 million shingles a year.  The brothers introduced the first drying kiln, used to reduce the weight of the lumber.  A dried bundle of shingles, for example, weighs 60 pounds less than a bundle of green ones, and the fact of lower freight charges only increased the popularity of Snohomish’s red cedar shakes on the East Coast. 

And to get the huge cedar logs out of the forest, Alanson and Elhanan invented a steam-powered logging engine capable of pulling several loaded log trucks on wooden tracks -- tracks that were quick to install over uneven terrain, and proved very popular with logging operations as far south as Olympia.  Hyrcanus, the youngest brother, kept the books and involved himself in the civic affairs of the new town, wining the first election for mayor of the newly incorporated city in 1890 -- receiving  218 votes to Ferguson’s 164.

Hyrcanus died in the home he built at 118 Avenue B in 1921, just a few months after his 37-year-old son Clifford was taken by the 1919 flu epidemic.  Eunice, Hyrcanus's and Ella’s only daughter, lived in the home with her husband, Dr. William Ford. Eunice survived William by many years. She died at her daughter’s home in California, but not before agreeing to sell the family home to the newly formed Snohomish Historical Society in 1970. 

In Everett's Shadow 

The Seattle Herald reported in 1884 that Snohomish was an old town of about 700 inhabitants, with a two-story courthouse, a new sawmill producing 20,000 feet of lumber each day, one good school building, six saloons, and one church (and that church had a bell).  Products as listed by the Herald were “fruit, logs, hay and skating rinks” -- there were two. When the first train pulled into the new Snohomish station on Lincoln Street four years later, the city boasted a million dollar economy -- fourth largest on Puget Sound. 

On May 23, 1888, the four-star, three-story Penobscot Hotel opened and that date should be remembered as the beginning of Snohomish’s life in the shadow of a young town growing to the west.  The harbor town was founded by men bringing money from the east -- the same money that paid for their individually heated rooms, the largest one facing 1st Street -- and the men named their nascent town after one of their sons, Everett.  Ten years later, in 1897, Snohomish lost the county seat to the ambitious new town following a bitter, three-year contest of civic wills fought in smoky backrooms, voting booths, and the courts, until finally the records were moved to Everett in the middle of night using 37 horse-drawn wagons. 

By the beginning of the new century, the handsome courthouse, built of brick from Snohomish’s own brickyard, found new life as the Snohomish High School. It was filled with the sounds of bells and laughter for the next 30 years until it had to come down. The historic first city on the river continued to grow as a logging and agriculture center, while quietly thankful perhaps that it had been spared the worst of urban growth about to arrive via Eisenhower’s National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

E. C. Ferguson’s son, Cecil, and Cecil's wife, Clara, founded the Ferguson Canning Company in 1914 to take advantage of the excellent fruit-growing conditions of the climate and soil. However, the fruit-growing season is short, so the company expanded to preserve in cans corn, smoked fish, and even clams.  Innovations continued as Emory A., then his brother Burdett, joined the company, so that by the time the Seattle World’s Fair came around in 1962, they were ready with a new item called “Puget Sound Air” -- a legal canning of air -- sporting an unique label, and now a prized collectors’ item.

Noble Harvey, son of John who took possession of the claim on the south bank in 1860, established a family-owned airfield in 1945, which the family still operates as Harvey Airfield.  Noble had a long tradition of firsts beginning with his birth as the first boy born to white parents.  In 1911, Nobel purchased the first automobile in the county, the same year he hosted the first airplane flight.  Fred J. Wiseman, who held the record for a sustained flight of more than six minutes, arrived by train with his Curtiss-Farman-Wright biplane, billed as the “Fastest Machine in the World” -- once it's unloaded and reassembled of course.  Wiseman’s flight in Snohomish was cut short by rain-soaked, fabric-covered wings and it ended in a muddy but safe nose-dive after reaching only 60 feet in altitude.  The amazing machine was repaired, continued to break records, and is currently hanging in the Smithsonian Postal Museum as the first plane to carry the mail.

In the late forties, the Poier Motors building at 1105 First Street collapsed into the river due to a foundation compromised by repeated flooding.  For some 15 years, the block-long row of brick storefront buildings sat empty, boarded up, until the city planners found some urban renewal funds to study the future of the historic downtown core.  The architect’s fancy drawings were finally presented at a citywide meeting on October 21, 1965, and it proposed tearing down the old buildings, opening up the south side of First Street to the river, and remodeling the remaining buildings to give Snohomish the look of an up-to-date riverside mall.  The Planning Commission rejected the proposal.  Community feelings were probably summed up in one sentence from an editorial in the Snohomish County Tribune that read, “Snohomish hasn’t sunk that low, yet.”

Historic Snohomish Today

This was the same year, 1965, that Snohomish began its growth north by annexing the southern section of the Bickford Corridor named after Bickford Avenue, which in turn is named in honor of the family owned Ford dealership initially located on 1st  Street, a block west from Poier’s Chevrolet store. On the eve of Snohomish celebrating 150 years since its founding,  the city’s first super shopping mall, Snohomish Station, will open on this road, five miles north of the river on the site of a former gravel quarry.  A second high school to the south will be open by then, alongside a new elementary school to serve a school-district population of more than 40,000 students.     

And it was the late sixties, after the boarded-up buildings on 1st Street were finally torn down and the riverside park was created in their place, that a group of citizens met in the basement of the 1910 Carnegie Library to start a historical society.  This led to the first appointment and election of two women to the city council, Anne Eason and Ione Gale, who successfully supported the society’s proposal to establish Snohomish’s Historic District. Since 1973, a 26-block area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Snohomish was the first city government of the county to pass an ordinance establishing such a district.  This also led to the establishment of the Design Review Board. 

The recently organized Historic Downtown Snohomish organization is working with the national Main Street Program and collecting assessments to re-energize what was once the heart not only of the city but of Snohomish County as well.   Today the Snohomish River continues to rise and fall with phases of the moon and drainage of the North Cascade Mountain Range 60 miles to the east, just as each generation walking the River Trail (completed in 2006) will come to understand the river as the gift of nature that created the city of Snohomish.


Warner Blake, Early Snohomish (South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Snohomish County: An Illustrated History ed. by David A. Cameron (Index, Washington: Kelcema Books LLC., 2005); David Dilgard,  “The Adventures of Old Ferg,” Parts 1 and 2, Journal of Everett & Snohomish County History (Everett Public Library), 1981-1982; History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington (Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company, 1889); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History “Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855” and “Mary Low Sinclair arrives in Cadyville (future Snohomish City) on May 1, 1865” (by Warner Blake) (accessed February 2008); River Reflections, Part I: 1859-1910 and Part II: 1910-1980 (Snohomish: Snohomish Historical Society, 1976 and 1981);  History of Snohomish County ed. by William Whitfield (Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926); Eldridge Morse, “Life of Dr. A. Folsom,” The Eye (Snohomish, Washington), May 1885; Amy Dugas and Jeffrey Robbins, Snohomish Riverfront Trail Project Snohomish County, Washington Cultural Resource Assessment (Seattle: Compliance Archaeology LLC, 2001).

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