Granite Falls -- Thumbnail History

  • By Janet Oakley
  • Posted 4/01/2008
  • Essay 8532
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The City of Granite Falls, located in Snohomish County, is situated in the foothills of the Cascades between two rivers: the Pilchuck and the South Fork Stillaguamish. The town is the gateway to the scenic Mountain Loop Highway. A center of  mining fields in the late nineteenth century and a busy center for shingle and logging mill operations in the twentieth, it has been also valued as a jumping off place for outdoor recreation. Granite Falls was incorporated in 1903. It has seen tremendous growth in the first decade of the twenty-first century (with a 2000 population of just over 2,300), yet manages to keep its small town flavor at its core.

Settling At the Big Burn

Granite Falls is set on a narrow plateau between Snohomish County’s largest rivers.  It was an ancient portage for Coast Salish people and early settlers called the area simply “the portage” (Whitfield, p. 618). When the town organized, many wanted to make the name official. Granite Falls won out, named for the falls a couple of miles north of town on the South Fork Stillaguamish.

Interest in the area may have come as early as early as the mid-1850s when plans for a military road were explored around present-day Arlington to the northwest of the plateau. But over the next two decades it was certainly prospectors who encouraged the arrivals of the first settlers. Surrounded by dense forests with rugged mountains to the east, the site of future downtown Granite Falls was a curiosity. Some time before, a forest fire had raged through, creating what settlers called the Big Burn. It left open areas for homesteading without the usual backbreaking task of clearing trees. Many claims were a mix of both burned out and forested areas.

The first permanent settler in the Granite Falls area was Joseph Sousa Enas, an immigrant from the Azores Islands. Arriving in Snohomish County in 1883, he took up a squatter’s claim south of the present-day town. The land had not yet been surveyed.  The nearest road was at Machias, 10 miles away. Enas had to pack in  all his supplies  through dense woods. A year later, Maine native George W. Anderson came up the Pilchuck River and filed a claim at the northeast edge of the burn. He was able to put in a small crop the first year. William M. Turner and F. P. Kistner came shortly afterward.

Turner found his claim at the southeast edge of the burn, and then lived in Machias as there was no road into Granite Falls. It took him four months to clear a six-mile trail from Machias to his claim. When it was done, neighbor Kistner could haul his hand-cut shingles down to Snohomish. Over the months, others joined Turner and Kistner. Civil War veteran and brother-in-law of Anderson, W. H. Davis and Robert Wright completed the cluster of claims in Section 18, Township 30 north, Range 7. Fred P. Anderson, George and Henry Menzel, and many more made claims beyond.

Granite Falls Get A School

By 1886, enough families lived in the area for them to petition the Snohomish County superintendent for a school district. Their wish was granted. The county created Granite Falls District No. 21 out of District No. 10. The first school session was held in the old Wright cabin and it was taught by Eva Andrus in 1888.  The next year, the students moved to a temporary shack on land donated by Kistner. By 1893, a new schoolhouse was built and 117 students enrolled with two teachers. Five years later, Granite Falls saw its first class of eighth graders graduate.

The number of students continued to grow, and a stronger curriculum was added. In 1904, a group of eighth graders took their eighth grade exams. Like modern middle-school students they had a reading circle. They were reading a book on the Louisiana Purchase, which was likely a popular book of the time, The Story of the Louisiana Purchase by James K. Hosmer (New York: D Appleton & Co. 1902). Not all of the students finished the assignment or passed the exam. The district also had a school at Sobey’s mill, known as the Lookout School. The quality of the schools continued to improve with teachers securing certificates of the first and second degrees. Wages ranged from $40 to $60 a month for a three-month term.

Open for Business

In 1889 gold and silver were discovered in the nearby Monte Cristo area, leading to a rush of miners and others attempting to get rich quick. Granite Falls, a gateway to the mine fields, increased enough in population in 1890 for the settlers to secure a post office. John L. Sneathan was chosen postmaster. Mail was brought in from Getchell on a regular basis. The same year the post office went in, Mark Swinnerton of Marysville opened the first store in Granite Falls near the “conjunction of the four original claims” (History of Snohomish County, p. 365). T. K. Robe, early pioneer and promoter, built the structure. Fred P. Anderson became involved with it and eventually W. H. Davis bought it. Anderson would be involved with many mercantile concerns, including the Granite Falls Cooperative Union. With the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad coming through the county, hopes were high for real business.

In August 1891, the town was platted with 18 blocks, six on Wright’s place and 12 on the Davis homestead. George C. Monroe put in a grocery store. A few months later, work began on the Granite Falls Hotel, a two-story wood-framed building. The Blackman Brothers erected a tie mill near the town for Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad. Both opened before the railroad arrived in town. T. K Robe and others opened stores that came and went for a while as the town expanded.

On November 8, 1903, the settlement became a “town of the fourth class” (Whitfield, 621). By then it had Dr. Chappell’s drug and hardware store, two general stores, Parminter’s and Boyd’s, the railroad station, a couple of saloons, and a newspaper, The Granite Falls Post.  Burt Chappell was its first mayor. Councilmen were J. H.  Fox, J. G. Luckey, D. I. Carpenter, L. H. Messner, and W. H. Earl. The town doctor, Dr. Frank Chappell, also served as town treasurer. L. A. Clinton was the first city marshal.

Shingles and Mines

In 1892, Fred P. Anderson erected the first shingle mill in Granite Falls. By 1900, the community had a population of almost 60 people and four shingle mills. By 1906, the population had jumped to 400 and there were 10 shingle mills: the Sobey Manufacturing Company, Robe and Menzel, Chappell Shingle Company, Sullivan Brothers, Fred Johnson, Ewal Brothers, Swartz & Stacey, Best Shingle Company, the Starr Logging Company, and the Lane Logging Company. Several hundred men were employed, making Granite Falls an important lumbering and shingle center.

In addition to the shingle mills, the Blackman Brothers built a sawmill at Blackman’s Lake in 1893, but it burned to the ground a year later. In 1909, the Robe-Menzel mill was sold to the Waite Lumber Co. The Waite firm never operated it, but built a new mill at Schwartz’s Lake south of the town. Waite Lumber Co. would be an important employer in the area for decades, employing 100 to 150 men at the mill alone and operating three logging camps.

With so many loggers and shingle weavers in the vicinity, various entertainments were sought for them outside the saloons. Granite Falls had a baseball team made up of young men from the mills, but baseball and working in the mills did not always mix well. John Meyers, “Granite’s crack baseball pitcher” from Robe-Menzel mill lost the end of his right thumb and damaged his hand in at accident at the mill. He was out for the season (Granite Falls Post, July 13, 1905).

Mining was another important industry in Granite Falls. Excitement began back in 1889 with the discoveries at Monte Crisco and the surrounding mining districts. Close to home, Tom Humes, F. M. Headlee, and Fred P. Anderson discovered the Wayside Mine two miles outside of Granite Falls. It had two veins of ore able to produce  copper, gold, and silver. Granite Falls also boasted a lime quarry and kiln. Granite Falls stores supported the miners with gear and mining supplies.

Lights and Water

On December 27, 1904, the town of Granite Falls “duly granted the Granite Falls Electric Company to furnish electric power for light and other purposes to the citizens” (Granite Falls Electric Company v. City of Snohomish, 1914). It also had a franchise with Snohomish County to furnish “electric power and light to the citizens of county.” Though the town appears to have electric power by 1906, everything was threatened in 1914 when the City of Snohomish started diverting water from the Pilchuck River. Granite Falls Electric Company needed the river’s water from June to October to make electricity. They diverted it into their powerhouse and returned it one mile down river. (Affidavit, Granite Falls Electric Company v. City of Snohomish) Snohomish continued siphoning off water when the electric company's lawsuit against Snohomish was dismissed in court.  Nevertheless, the electric company in Granite Falls soldiered on.

As soon as the town incorporated, people explored the possibility of a water system, a process that dragged on after the lights went in. In the beginning the town didn’t want a municipal plant and gave the franchise to W. H. Earl, which surprised him because he hadn't asked for it and “had no use for it” (Granite Falls Post, September 9, 1959). Eventually, plans were made for a small dam across a creek near Iron Mountain to make a reservoir. Poor construction resulted in a useless system clogged with plant matter that could be smelled 12 to 15 feet away. Eventually, the problem was fixed. A high-pressure water system was installed in 1908 to help combat fires. In 1914, a sewer was put in. It emptied into the Pilchuck River.

Cars and Telephones

Ralph Pullen opened the first auto agency in Granite Falls and sold two-cylinders cars. In 1909 James and Frank Ashe Jr. opened the City Cyclery and sold motorcycles, Model T Fords, and eventually GM cars, especially Oldsmobile. They were noted for their repair shop as well. A man named Miller operated the first auto stage with a two-cylinder Cadillac.

The world of communication came to Granite Falls too. In 1904, franchise was granted to the Skagit County Telephone Company. Later on, the Puget Sound Telephone Company became the provider for the town. Local and long distance phone calls were possible in the 1920s.

As Granite Falls entered its second decade as an organized community, it displayed the typical temper of small towns: disagreements to the point of litigation. In 1912 the town sued Cyrus Willoughby and Beaty Gallaugher for an unsafe wooden sidewalk. They were charged $157.85 and had 30 days to fix it (Granite Falls v. Cyrus Willoughby and Beaty Gallaugher, 1912). In another court case, the Granite Falls Producers Union bought land with a shed on it full of 15,000 shingles on it. It took a while to get ownership figured out. (Granite Falls Producer Union v. F. I. Anderson, 1914). There were unpaid bills and some of the work was faulty.

Gateway to Recreation

As the twentieth century unfolded, Granite Falls added recreation to its list of industries. At an elevation of 396 feet, the town was not only a gateway to the mining fields, but also its meadows, rivers, and creeks provided outdoor opportunities for fishing, hiking, and hunting.

With the advent of the automobile as an important part of family adventuring, campgrounds and vacation get-a-ways took hold. As early as 1918, the Canyon Creek Lodge offered a rustic place to stay for such adventures. The Big Four Inn was another attraction farther up the valley. Trains developed as the failed Monte Crisco mining district found new money in providing weekend excursion for these nature seekers and the wealthy.

In 1936, the railroad shut down and its grade was made into an automobile road. Two years later the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed a narrow mountain route from Barlow Pass to Darrington. Today, this is the final stretch of the Mountain Loop Highway. 

The Great Depression and Beyond

There is no doubt that the onset of the Depression had a profound effect on the town. In 1928, the Waite Lumber Company closed, heralding a timber shutdown that lasted a long time.  Between 1925 and 1935, the population of the town dropped to half. Businesses closed up. Families moved away. A few programs such as a WPA provided make-work jobs for the town such as building the athletic field and city hall, and the CCC offered young men a chance to help their families by working at camps at Verlot and Darrington.

Still, even after World War II, there were concerns that the town would not come back. Many buildings stood vacant. Great relief greeted the Farmer’s Union purchase of the grade school gym in 1951. “It is now assured that the gymnasium building will not be torn down for salvage ... . It has started a trend we hope others will follow, new enterprises coming to Granite Falls” (Granite Falls Post, January 25, 1951, p. 2).

A bright spot was the opening of Miller Shingle in 1946. The firm grew in size after the war, and would get the largest share of contracts for national forest harvest. Today, it is the largest specialty mill in the country and a major employer.  

Granite Falls Today

Today, Granite Falls continues its role as the gateway to the wilderness of the North Cascades. In the summer, the Mountain Loop Highway offers access to trails and a beautiful drive through some of Washington state’s most scenic byways. The falls and parks outside of town attract visitors year round.

With a passion for its past displayed in its new museum and an interest in downtown historic structures, Granite Falls is growing, with new twenty-first century industries and with the addition of new residents coming to live as retirees or as an expanding bedroom community. Granite Falls has a bright future.

Sources: History of Snohomish County, Washington Vols. I and 2, ed. by William Whitfield (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), p. 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]), p. 517;  School District Boundary Record, Record of Eighth Grade Graduation 1898-1903, and Snohomish County Register of Teachers (p. 83), Educational Service District (ESD) 189, Snohomish County Public Schools, Mulitple Series Box 1, Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch; David Cameron, email to Janet Oakley, March 3, 2008, in possession of Janet Oakley; “Bad Accident,” Granite Falls Post, July 13, 1905, p. 2;   "Welcome to Granite Falls," Granite Falls Post, January 25, 1951, p. 2; Granite Falls Post, September 9, 1959, p. 1; “Early Days in Granite Falls District,” Granite Falls Post, September 17, 1959; "History of Granite Falls, WA 1917-1918," typescript (author unknown) in the collection of Granite Falls Historical Society; Snohomish County Superior Court Civil Case No. 20396, Granite Falls v. Cyrus Willoughby and Beaty Gallaugher, 1912, Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch; Snohomish County Superior Court Civil Case No. 14384, Granite Falls Producer Union v. F. I. Anderson, 1914, Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch;  Snohomish Superior Court Case, Civil No. 11808, Granite Falls Electric Company v. City of Snohomish, September 11, 1911, Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch; State of Washington, Office of Financial Management. Census 2000 Results, Summary File 3, Area Name: Granite Falls City (

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