Edmonds -- Thumbnail History

  • By Charles LeWarne
  • Posted 3/27/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8542
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The city of Edmonds rests along a shoreline and the hillside beyond about 15 miles north of Seattle.  Native Americans of the Snohomish people occupied coastal and river areas surrounding the site, and Euro-American explorers encountered their canoes, but they apparently had no permanent village sites in the immediate locale. Its founding father was George Brackett (1842-1927) (arrived 1876) and in its early decades Edmonds thrived as a mill town. During the late twentieth century the city became increasingly urban, while retaining elements of its small town character.

Early Years

On the first day of May 1841, Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) and his United States Exploring Expedition entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca to undertake the first Euro-American maritime survey of the Puget Sound area since Britain’s George Vancouver (1758-1798) had come a half century earlier. Along with overland explorations in the region, Wilkes organized his men into separate parties to survey the sound, assigning Lt. Commander C. Ringgold with his gun brig, Porpoise, the portion that encompasses Edmonds. The Wilkes expedition charted waters and land portions and bestowed names on many significant places, including Point Edmund and Point Wells, later to be identified with the environs of Edmonds.

Coincidentally, that very month, George Brackett, who is generally recognized as the founder of Edmonds, was born in eastern Canada (probably New Brunswick). Growing up in the logging industry, Brackett came west as a young man and logged at several Western Washington locations while acquiring sufficient funds to buy ox teams and additional equipment.  As he rowed along the shore of Puget Sound in search of timber in 1870, he was attracted to a hillside above a marshy area, the eventual Edmonds townsite. In 1876 he purchased 140 acres that stretched a half-mile along the waterfront and up the hill.  Pleasant Ewell had filed the original land claim there in 1866, but he had sold out to others from whom Brackett made his purchase.  Brackett moved there and over several years acquired much of the land that today encompasses the downtown (bowl) area of Edmonds. 

Creating a Town

Taking the lead toward creating a town, Brackett drained marshes, built a cabin, and started to log. In 1880 he established the first store and four years later when the settlement acquired a post office, he became postmaster. Conflicting tales relate that he named the post office and community either to honor Vermont senator George Franklin Edmunds (1828-1919) or to recognize Point Edwards, which had originally been named Point Edmund during the Wilkes visit.

As the population grew, Brackett built the first sawmill on the waterfront in 1889; it was later destroyed by fire. In 1890 he led a successful incorporation effort and became the first mayor (1890-1891). Over the years he helped to oversee the development of the community’s streets and infrastructure. The first school was held in his barn in 1884; he later donated land for a permanent school building. He sold much of his extensive land holdings to investors when the Great Northern Railway showed interest in building through Edmonds, but the land company failed and Brackett regained the properties along with improvements. He also acquired other land holdings during the depressed 1890s, much of which was later sold to a Seattle syndicate. Brackett worked toward securing automobile ferry service at Edmonds and is honored by a park adjacent to the present ferry dock. 

Brackett and his wife, the former Etta E. Jones (b. 1859), had six children and their home hosted social gatherings and prayer meetings. The couple divorced in 1905. George Brackett, long since recognized as the founder of Edmonds, died there at age 85 on December 12, 1927.   

Growing and Building

After Brackett arrived, other settlers began to fill in the bowl area and they started businesses and social organizations as the small town grew. Significant among them was Allen M. Yost (d. 1915), a carpenter who arrived with his wife and eight children in 1890. From his original vocation, Yost expanded to milling and then with his sons began to engage in virtually every endeavor that a growing town needed: street and infrastructure building, a water system, and a telephone company along with an automobile sales business, garage, and bus system. Allen Yost also was engaged in political and civic leadership, and family members continued town involvement over later generations.

By the early twentieth century Edmonds had become, according to Snohomish County: An Illustrated History:

“... the only south [Snohomish] county community of substantial size. The string of shingle mills along the waterfront was the community’s economic backbone, but there were additional industries also. The Washington Excelsior and Manufacturing Company and the Knowles Superior Wrench Company were among the other firms. The State Bank of Edmonds was created in 1907. The Edmonds Review newspaper attracted fame because its manager, Mrs. M. [Missouri] T. B. Hanna [1857-1926], was one of the first women to hold such a position in the United States. By 1908 the downtown included more than 50 businesses and professional establishments. There were four churches and a myriad of lodges and orders from Masons to Eagles. There were connections with Seattle by road, rail line, and passenger boat. Also in 1908 Edmonds was officially elevated from a fourth-class town to a third-class city. The census accompanying this action showed a population of 1546. In 1910 Edmonds was the recipient of a $5,000 grant for the construction of its Carnegie Library, largely through the efforts of city librarian Rev. John Lockwood” (Cameron et al, Snohomish County, 148-49). 

When the library opened the next year the town offices, including a jail, were moved from a small frame building just to the north to the library basement. 

From Village to Hub

Various forms of transportation enabled Edmonds to emerge from an isolated shoreline village to the hub of a larger area.  It was most commonly reached by small ships of Puget Sound’s fabled “mosquito fleet” that linked many communities. By the spring of 1923 that era had passed its prime, but maritime transportation endured when Edmonds acquired automobile ferry service with Kingston and occasionally other sites across Puget Sound, an activity for which the community would remain indelibly known regionally and to cross-sound passengers. Also, the Great Northern Railway had built into Edmonds in the 1890s, providing rail links with Seattle and Everett and connections with eastern sites. Overland transportation was originally long and arduous over difficult trails, but road building commenced early in the twentieth century, and as more people acquired automobiles, the building and paving of roads and highways created enduring links with the surrounding area. North to south highlights included the construction early during the twentieth century of what would become State Highway 99 and in 1965 the Interstate 5 freeway east of the town. All of these in their time changed aspects of life and communication for the community.

For many years the string of mills along the shore that mostly produced cedar shakes, were the most identifying feature and the economic backbone of the town even as other businesses appeared -- and often disappeared -- along that stretch.  Logging trucks carrying their huge cargo navigated city streets and many of the town’s workers were employed by the mills. The downtown stores and shops and offices, arching out from the 5th Avenue and Main Street intersection catered largely to this local population. But over time, the area’s timber sources gave out, other building products competed with wood, and other industries came to the town, some for brief periods only. Then, as publisher-historian Ray Cloud (1893-1974) noted, “June 1, 1951, saw the end of a long industrial era for Edmonds” for on that memorable day “the fires went out for the last time under the boilers of the Quality Shingle Company’s mill” (Cloud, Edmonds, 215). The last of the mills thus closed and its machinery was soon dismantled.

In the middle 1920s, historian William Whitfield noted that Edmonds had an isolation from the rest of Snohomish County that “forced the people of Edmonds to rely almost wholly upon themselves and gave them a spirit of independence and local pride and patriotism” which he found commendable (Whitfield, History of Snohomish County, 2: 574). Ties to Seattle were growing closer, and by that decade Edmonds, like many small American towns, was being permanently affected by wider national affairs and circumstances. Radio, movies, advertising, and the increased transporting of people and goods were among factors making the United States more homogenous and altering towns that had once seemed isolated. Prohibition, a national phenomena, brought some unique situations to the Puget Sound era with its proximity to Canada and opportunities for rum running. Legends are rife about illegal stills, saloons, and suspect roadhouses throughout the area and occasional federal raids upon them. One of the most notable seizures of illegal cargo took place from a boat on a beach north of town near Meadowdale.  

The opening of the Princess (in 2008 the Edmonds) Theater in 1923 marked a new era of entertainment for the town, and increasing numbers of households enjoyed radio programs  Friendly rivalries even developed among listeners boasting of the number of distant stations their sets were able to pick up. Another characteristic of the decade, the increased role of women in civic affairs, was dramatized in 1924 when Edmonds voters chose Alice U. Kerr (1858-1949) as mayor, one of the first women mayors in the state. As previously noted, automobiles developed needs for services, and road improvements also characterized the twenties. 

The Great Depression of the next decade also affected Edmonds, but at least at its outset local problems seemed minimal because the mills continued to operate although their number had reduced to only two, and recently built oil-storage plants were functioning. Moreover, many residents benefited from the still-rural atmosphere and raised their own vegetables, fruits, and chickens.  New businesses continued to open on Main Street. Eventually “make work” projects of such federal agencies as the Works Progress Administration aided the city as workers graded and paved streets, installed water and sewer lines, and improved the City Park. Significantly, the WPA also created a new athletic field and the federal government constructed an art-deco auditorium and other structures at the high school. Despite economic hardships suffered by many persons, most aspects of civic and social life seemed little disrupted by the Great Depression, and life continued on its customary pace.

War Years and After

World War II was a different matter. Even before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Edmonds men were drafted into service and Defense Savings Bonds were on sale. Soon after Pearl Harbor word arrived of the first Edmonds serviceman killed in action; James Howard Kerr (1915-1941), grandson of former Mayor Kerr died in the Philippines. The list of local enrollees and of fatalities would mount. Homefront activities, meanwhile, included concerns for potential air raids and the creation of civil defense units, the rationing of many products, blackouts, scrap drives, “victory gardens,” and campaigns to sell war bonds. Although the town had few Japanese American residents, an Edmonds family interned at Tule Lake in California included the first girl ever elected student-body president at Edmonds High. 

When President Truman (1884-1972) announced Japan’s surrender in 1945, church bells rang and fire sirens, mill and ferry whistles blew. Thanksgiving services took place at local churches.

As with many communities, the war’s end ushered in a new period of accelerated growth and prosperity. For about 40 years, the population of Edmonds had hovered between one thousand and two thousand people. In the 1950s the population of Edmonds zoomed past that of Snohomish to become (behind Everett) the second most populous city in Snohomish County. The position, aided by annexations, fixed that rank even as neighboring towns such as Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace were created. 

Expanding and Flourishing

By 1970 the population was just shy of 24,000 and it increased another 5,000 during that decade. These years of growth were well reflected by growing pains in the school district because of the many young families who moved into the area, although the district also embraced four neighboring towns. New elementary schools opened frequently; when Edmonds High School was relocated more than a mile east of downtown, its 1909 building became a junior high. The district’s  second high school was opened in the postwar town of Mountlake Terrace in 1960, and others followed. The long held goal of a community college was realized in 1967. Named Edmonds Community College, it was located, ironically, in Lynnwood on former federal property just east of the Edmonds boundary.  

With growth, Edmonds’s small-town character underwent noticeable changes. New housing developments -- and there were many -- often forsook the town’s original street grid pattern in favor of roads winding along hillsides. Well-designed homes with nicely landscaped gardens took advantage of water and mountain views. Directly east of the downtown bowl, for instance, Emerald Hills emerged on a sometimes steep hillside where fields and stands of trees had long stood. Such other new developments as Talbot Park occupied logged-over slopes above Puget Sound to the north.  

The arrival of many new residents created a community that was essentially suburban, and Edmonds largely moved more within the orbit of Seattle and King County than within that of Everett and Snohomish County. The cultural atmosphere expanded and flourished. In 1957 club leaders established the Edmonds Arts Festival which grew over the years to be one of the largest and most highly regarded such events in the state. The first of several local theater outfits was the Driftwood Players which also started in 1957; it later moved to the distinctive Wade James Theater named for the local architect who designed it. The Cascade Symphony Orchestra started in 1962, a regionally lauded orchestra led for several decades by its founder, Robert Anderson (b. 1918), and in the twenty-first century by Seattle Symphony violinist Michael Miropolsky. In 1972 the Dorothy Fisher Concert Dancers was established; acquired in 1981 by John (d. 2003) and Helen Wilkins, it became the Olympic Ballet Theater and continued to enhance the local cultural scene. In 2006, the 1930s art-deco high-school auditorium was renovated to become the Edmonds Center for the Arts, a first-class venue for arts and entertainment even as the adjacent original high school building was demolished. The Edmonds-South Snohomish County Historical Society celebrates the town’s heritage with numerous activities centering at their museum, the former Carnegie Library. Other cultural groups and activities continue to grace the city and its environs. 

There were other aspects of a growing urban community. Stevens Memorial Hospital opened in 1964 and over the years a firm medical and professional complex developed in its neighborhood. The Edmonds Yacht Club was organized in 1960, and in time the Edmonds Port District, created in 1948, built a sizeable marina and the state’s first public salt-water fishing pier. The development of a fine city parks system highlighting but not confined to the waterfront placed sculptures and other art works throughout the city and created an innovative underwater park popular with scuba divers north of the ferry landing.  Sports programs and athletic teams have tended to center on high school, college, and youth leagues, although local basketball fans enjoy noting that the early practices of the Seattle SuperSonics took place in the old high-school gymnasium.

With all this, a number of writers, artists, and athletes make their homes in the Edmonds area. Notable hometown products who grew up in Edmonds include actress Bridget Hanley (b. 1941), best recalled as star of the TV series Here Come the Brides; Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Jerry Gay (b. ca. 1947); world champion and Olympics silver medalist ice skater Rosalynn Sumners (b. 1964); and travel guru Rick Steves (b. 1955). Edmonds is, in 2008, the home of Steves and U. S. Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958).

Growth and Controversy

According to the 2000 federal census, Edmonds had a population of 39,544 and was the 19th largest city in the state, long second to Everett in Snohomish County. Seven years later the state estimated a population of 40,560, but the growth and incorporation of other towns lowered its rank to number 22. The downtown bowl remained the hub of the city. Businesses still extended along Main Street west from 7th Avenue to the waterfront, and over several blocks south and north along 5th Avenue. But most of the population lived outside that area; the city’s boundaries stretched south to the King County line and north along the shoreline in a narrow, irregular pattern. The adjacent municipalities of  Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and Woodway, along with Brier, helped create a single metropolitan complex, roughly contiguous with Edmonds School District No. 15. Each  city had a government and personality of its own, although efforts continued to unite them in certain functions.

The growth of several decades was bringing a new set of issues that yet had overtones from the past. The bowl with its small business district retained a familiar culture despite population growth. It was an inviting complex of small shops, eating places, the familiar movie theater from the 1920s, and galleries radiating from the circle intersection of 5th and Main where a sculptured fountain sought to reflect the city’s heritage and culture. Locals and visitors alike admired the “small town” character that pervaded downtown Edmonds. 

But other persons, however much they admired this atmosphere, considered parochial attitudes to be a hindrance to development and future growth; if Edmonds was to thrive, it needed more services and opportunities, and the present atmosphere had a stifling effect, they contended. Arguments often focused on the issue of building heights, with many locals believing the present two-story limit enhanced the ambience while others argued that taller structures were essential for the city to be active and viable.  One widely publicized effort to build a structure directly on the waterfront that would thwart neighbors’ views was blocked, and by 2008 much discussion had turned to what to do with a sizable parcel of acreage reaching from downtown to the marina.  

Meanwhile, however, changes were visible within the bowl. New condominiums and apartments were built surrounding the stretch of 5th Avenue south of Main Street, and the old Union Oil tank farm long visible on the hill south of town was converted to upscale condos and housing. Downtown had become an increasingly pricey place to live. Farther out, other neighborhood shopping areas of varying sizes were busy, including the Westgate intersection southeast of downtown, Five Corners to the east, and Perrinville to the northeast. 

An interesting series of developments also centered on the stretch of Highway 99 (long called Aurora Avenue N) where a number of stores and other facilities catering to Asian American tastes had surfaced over the years. City planners proposed developing the flavor of this burgeoning international area. Yet, when it came to serious shopping, with a few notable exceptions, customers were drawn to the Costco complex at the onetime Aurora Village in neighboring Shoreline or to the large Alderwood Mall and its extensive environs to the east in Lynnwood. The old Edmonds downtown retained a legendary charm with specialty shops, boutiques, antique stores, offices, and eateries that catered as much to out-of-towners as to local citizens. There was a single grocery store, no drug store or pharmacy, and no gas station.  

By 2008 Edmonds was undergoing a considerable amount of self-analysis concerning its future, centering on the traditional downtown, but also on the extension of neighborhoods and services in outlying areas.


BOLA Architecture + Planning, A Historic Survey of Downtown Edmonds, Washington ...  (Seattle, 2005); David A. Cameron, Charles P. LeWarne, M. Allan May, Jack C. O’Donnell, and Lawrence E. O’Donnell, Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index, WA: Kelcema Books, LLC, 2005); Delmar H. Caryl, With Angels to the Rear: An Informal Portrait of Early Meadowdale  (Edmonds: The Dilemma Press at Meadowdale, 1960); Ray V. Cloud, Edmonds, the Gem of Puget Sound: A History of the City of Edmonds     (Edmonds: Edmonds Tribune-Review Press, 1953); “Founder of Edmonds Comes To the End of Life’s Journey,” Edmonds Tribune-Review, December 30, 1927, p. 1; “Historic Edmonds: Brackett’s Landing,” The Enterprise (Edmonds, WA), February 19, 1973, p. 13; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Wilkes, Charles (1798-1877)” (by Junius Rochester); “Edmonds is incorporated on August 11, 1890,” (by Alan Stein); "George and Etta Brackett file a plat for the first townsite in Edmonds on August 23, 1884" (by Charles LeWarne); “Brackett, George (1842-1927)” (by Charles LeWarne); and "Kerr, Alice U. (1858-1949)" (by Charles P. LeWarne) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 29, 2008); Robert Hitchman,  Place Names of Washington ([Tacoma]: Washington State Historical Society, 1985), 80, 233; Joyce Koerner, A Historical Study of Edmonds, Washington ([Lynnwood, WA]:  Edmonds School District, 1964); Tracy Pierce, Olympic Ballet Theater, email to Charles LeWarne, March 17, 2008, in possession of Charles LeWarne, Edmonds, Washington;  Edmonds “100 Years for the Gem of Puget Sound”: A Look Back at the First Century in Edmonds ed. by Harry Reinart (Edmonds: The Edmonds Paper and the Edmonds/South Snohomish County Historical Society, 1990); Archie Satterfield, Edmonds: The First Century (Edmonds: The City of Edmonds, 1990); Calvin F. Schmid and Stanton E. Schmid, Growth of Cities and Towns, State of Washington (Olympia: Washington State Planning and Community Affairs Agency, 1969); State of Washington: Office of Financial Management, Forecasting Division, "2001 Population Trends" and ...  "2007 Population Trends" website accessed March 4, 2008 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/poptrends/poptrends_07.pdf, p. 23; Wm. Whitfield,  History of Snohomish County, Washington Vols. 1 and 2 (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1926), Vol. 2, p. 682-685.

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