Stanwood -- Thumbnail History

  • By Karen Prasse
  • Posted 4/05/2008
  • Essay 8557
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Stanwood is located in northwest Snohomish County at the mouth of the old channel of the Stillaguamish River.  Most of the town is on the river delta and in recent years it has begun to grow to the east above the river's flood plain.  It is the commercial center for residents of Camano Island in Island County to the west and those of the river valley east of Interstate 5 and north of the Tulalip Reservation.  The town was platted in 1888 and incorporated in 1903.  A second community, "East Stanwood," located one mile east of the of the waterfront business district, was platted in 1906 and incorporated in 1922.  Two large lumber mills operated on the waterfront with several small shingle mills in surrounding areas. Hay and oats from valley farms were shipped out on steamboats as cash crops. As lumber mills closed in the 1930s, the agricultural economy grew.  After World War II, Twin City Foods changed from a cannery to a freezing plant and expanded along the waterfront.  Stanwood and East Stanwood consolidated in 1960.  Today, 2008, the town is still surrounded by farm fields, wildlife-rich shorelines, and views of the Olympics and Cascades -- attractive as a small community with many natural and economic assets and  with many people who are involved in helping it grow and change sensibly.

Stanwood’s Beginnings

Stanwood’s settlement began about 1866 near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River and was first called Centerville. There was a saloon and trading post there serving farmers and loggers who were staking claims upriver and in the river’s delta. Coast Salish people of the Stillaguamish Tribe had an encampment near the site of the first trading post and other villages upriver and along the shoreline of Port Susan. The word Stillaguamish means “people of the river.” Neighboring tribal groups were the Kikiallus at Conway and on Camano Island, and the Skagit people and the Snohomish people to the south, among several others. They, both men and women, were often crucial in transporting early settlers and their belongings to every area of the Puget Sound using their expert canoeing skills.

Visitors and new residents are barely aware of the river that was the commercial connection for new farmers and businesses in the lower Stillaguamish River Valley. But they can see it in the distance as they ride over the bridge on State Route 532. In its earliest days, the river was wide enough to allow steamboats to navigate its winding route through its tideflats six river miles up to Florence, the site of another early river community. The oldest part of Stanwood near the river still has many of its earliest buildings -- a few built soon after the 1888 Plat of Stanwood was recorded.

The post office was established and designated Centerville in 1870 and that became the first name of the small commercial trading post at the mouth of the river. The mail arrived via Utsalady on a launch or canoe; steamboats weren’t yet a regular service. In 1873, the post office was moved to a lodging house on the northern shoreline of the Stillaguamish River to a hotel where the Twin City Foods Company is now located. Four years later, in 1877, D. O. Pearson (1846-1929) arrived with capital and goods for a store worth $4,000 (Whitfield, Vol. p. 490). He also built a wharf to make it possible for a steamboat to dock along the Stillaguamish River. He became the sixth Postmaster in seven years. Pearson also gave the town a less common name -- his wife Clara’s maiden name, “Stanwood.” Pearson and his father, mother and sisters came to Puget Sound on the Mercer Expeditions and settled on Whidbey Island.

It was about this same time that two prominent Norwegian settlers arrived, Oliver B. Iverson (1845-1940) and Rev. Christian Joergenson (1847-1929) who in turn encouraged relatives and friends to immigrate and to farm or work in the logging camps. O. B. Iverson was a surveyor and became a territorial legislator. He left written accounts of his exploration of the area. Christian Joergenson came to the community as the Lutheran minister and later served for two years as a Snohomish County Commissioner, farmed, and was one of the founders of the Stanwood Cooperative Creamery Association among several other accomplishments. His son, Gustav, wrote an extensive series of articles in the Twin City News that appeared in 1848 and 1949.  Both men were influential in bringing Norwegian friends and relatives to the area.

To make farming possible, land was cleared and the homesteaders built dikes along the sloughs and the river. In the 1880s logging camps surrounded the Stillaguamish River Valley area. Farmers were growing hay and oats for cash. Some had large ranches with many cattle but they all had a few cows, chickens, fruit trees, berries and survived as they could doing this back breaking work. Some were also loggers or mill men who settled after the mill at Utsalady on Camano Island closed down in 1891.

Tale of Two Towns

In 1891, the Seattle & Montana Railway (controlled by Great Northern Railway interests) ran its tracks one mile east of the Stanwood town plat and established a depot there connecting the valley with Bellingham to the north and Seattle to the south. This was not convenient for shipping grain or shingles that had been oriented towards using water transportation and for some Stanwood businessmen this was considered a setback. Despite the railroad bypassing it, a fire in 1892 that destroyed 13 buildings in Stanwood, and a national depression, the area slowly began to grow. By 1895 the Stanwood Cooperative Creamery was started and built its building on the highland east of the depot, beginning the story of the two towns, Stanwood and East Stanwood.

In 1898 Friday Fish Cannery was established on the waterfront. It was shortlived but a great boost to local morale. The most influential event was the money from the ventures in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Several Stanwood men went to Alaska and from there to the Klondike and returned with the means to buy farms or invest in businesses.

Five years later, in 1903, the Town of Stanwood and the Stanwood Lumber Company were incorporated. Stanwood Lumber Company was located at the mouth of the river where the river forks north to Skagit Bay and south to Port Susan. Associated with the mill was the boom company that handled logs coming down the river. East of the mill was the granary. Near the depot (the future East Stanwood one mile east) the People’s Union operated a general store and meat market. Its new hall was dedicated in 1904.

In 1904, The Bank of Stanwood was incorporated and the H & H Railroad Co. was built. To make use of the Great Northern, the H & H Railroad was established to connect Stanwood mills and passengers with the depot one mile east. Often called Hall & Hall, the H & H Railroad was run by John W. Hall (1870-1931), his wife Alice, and later, his son Jesse. They operated the Stanwood Feed and Livery that provided carriage service to and from the depot and in the early years also operated a streetcar. The railroad engine was often affectionately referred to as the “Dinky.” During the 1930s it achieved some notoriety as the “Shortest Railroad in the World” (Essex, v. 1, 25,26, 62,92-93; v. 2, 110). With H. C. Anderson (1865-1914) as a primary investor and the Stanwood Lumber Company as its major early customer, it carried passengers and products between Stanwood and the Great Northern Depot in East Stanwood. Sometimes school children used it to get to school. News accounts heralded the H & H part of the modern age of the streetcar which was starting in other parts of Snohomish County. This small railroad started with a used steam engine and trolley in 1905 and ran until the 1930s. It changed engines and didn’t carry passengers in its later years. In the late 20s and 30s its operation depended on the needs of the mills.

The waterfront was still important for many years as the site of the two large mills and the location of the granary. Later known as the Stanwood Grain Company that brokered the grain for the farmers as it was shipped out, the company moved to the depot site about 1914. About 1941, it became the Twin City Grain Company. Today (2008) the Wolfkill Feed and Fertilizer Company still operates a grain elevator at this site.

Irvine Slough and Hamilton Stack

On the east end of the waterfront, the Irvine Slough entered the river. It was named for John Irvine who had a ranch and the second general store in Stanwood near the mouth of the slough. In the early days, the slough carried logs and barges from the uplands and shingle mill at East Stanwood. It was near the mouth of this slough that the second large mill was established on the site surrounding the current “Hamilton Stack” where there had been a succession of small shingle mills from the 1880s to 1916. In 1916 George Kunze (d. 1922) of the Wisconsin Timber Co. completed a new 160,000-square foot mill with four large fireproof dry-kilns on this site. In 1923, the mill was purchased and operated by the Clough Lumber Co.

The “Hamilton stack,” a smokestack, was built by Clough in 1927 to elevate the smoke from the burning refuse so it wouldn’t blow into town. It is still a major landmark, seasonally decorated with lights by volunteers from the Lion’s Club and Fire Department. The mill stopped running in early 1930s and the property was then taken over by the Hamilton family in about 1945. They operate the current lumber company by that name and until 1960 also had a small mill. The mill at this site was continually plagued by fires, destroying attempts to upgrade until the 1960s when it was closed in anticipation of new State Route 532 proposed through the area. The slough was diverted at that time to enter the river farther east through pump station drain pipes.

East Stanwood Beginnings

In East Stanwood, after the establishment of the People’s Union, the community slowly began to grow. Upon his return from gold mining in 1904, Francis Giard (1872-1956) bought his farm east of Stanwood and grew fruit and berries on what is currently the land east of QFC to Viking Village. He was an early partner of the Bank of Stanwood. In 1906, he registered the plat of East Stanwood adjacent to the depot and just east of his large farm.

In 1922 that East Stanwood became an incorporated town with Giard as its first mayor. In 1907, a relative newcomer, Carl J. Gunderson (1876-1976), arrived. After a couple years in Cedarhome, he became manager of the People’s Union Store. He was instrumental in establishing the People’s Bank in 1910, which later became the State Bank of East Stanwood.

Roads and Road-Building

In 1906, the local chapter of the Washington Good Roads Association was organized to promote road building. The road to Camano Island was created when the bridge was built in 1909. At that time the mile of road between Stanwood and East Stanwood (271st Ave NW) was paved with the first hard pavements of vitrified brick laid in Snohomish County. The first experimental mile of concrete pavement was laid the following year, 1914, from Stanwood north towards Skagit County, now 102nd Ave NW. It was at the time the main highway.

Auto stages (early-day public transportation) connected with the streetcars in Everett and Mt. Vernon and cars had to go through Stanwood. In the 1920s the Pacific Highway was built,  bypassing Stanwood east of the depot. Two remaining sections of these early brick roads still add character and a unique sense of place to the growing community.

East Stanwood

With road improvements, East Stanwood could grow. In 1912 the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company started its Stanwood operation on the waterfront but in 1914 it moved to a new processing facility on the hillside above the railroad tracks. It was a 35,000-square-foot facility for sterilizing and canning milk from area farmers. A year later it changed its name  to Carnation Milk. Eventually this facility became a vegetable cannery sited on the hillside east of the railroad tracks, convenient for shipping by rail. It now serves as a cold storage facility.

That same year, 1914, the East Stanwood Post Office was established and the town began to come into its own. When the high school building was completed next to the North Street School in Stanwood it drew students from the surrounding communities of East Stanwood, Camano Island, Cedarhome, Florence, and Norman. The location of this school was controversial because many East Stanwood residents preferred to see it in a more central location. A deal had been struck to put it between the two “towns,” but that fell through. Resentment over this continued until after East Stanwood formally incorporated and formed its own school district just months later. In 1922, a bond issue of $8,000 was passed for construction of a two-room grade school on land acquired from Peter Henning (1868-1955) on the hill east of the depot. By 1925, the mission style Lincoln School was dedicated. This building is now the local senior center.

Twin Cities Become One City 

Over the years the two communities acquired the familiar name, the “Twin Cities.” During that time, "Stanwood" referred to the area by the waterfront. After 1910, the river began to require the clearing of snags and dredging to be navigated safely. The waterfront declined as steamboats declined as viable transportation. As logjams were cleared, the river’s main flow had gradually diverted into Port Susan through the Hatt Slough channel. The river that was once deep enough for steamers is now considered little more than a tidal slough.

In 1918, Lien Bros. Packing Co. was established on the waterfront located between the two mills. This was the predecessor canning company of the current Twin City Foods., Inc., that became a major employer replacing the mills on the waterfront as they closed. The rail connection was still necessary so Twin City Foods Company built its own railroad spur north of town. Today it is one of the country’s leading private-label frozen vegetable processing facilities.

The two towns consolidated in 1960 after years of complicated rivalries over school issues, commercial interests, and perhaps clashing personalities.  The river was a major character in the drama when the railroad bypassed the waterfront and whenever it flooded.  Finally the costs of providing public works forced the two towns to consolidate. 

After the merger in 1960. the waterfront was all but forgotten. New development was occurring in East Stanwood and between the towns. In the following decade, State Route 532 bypassed the old highway through the town to Camano Island. The new road was built high enough to act as a levee to divert water and keep it from threatening town except for the highest-water-level events, but surrounding residents still suffer. Though Stanwood has not been flooded since 1959, the threat continues. Early photographs document floods that townspeople and farmers endured with a sense of humor -- even appreciating the rich silt that they felt fertilized their fields. Yet they serve to remind the community of its precarious existence.

The city limits of Stanwood had only 1,961 people in the 1990 census. In 2005, it had 4,580. Not until the 1990s did new commercial and residential development begin with the annexation of land to the east and above the floodplain on the hill, beginning a third phase of Stanwood’s history.

Sources: Alice Essex, The Stanwood Story Vols. 1-3 (Stanwood: Stanwood News, Vol. 1, 1971, Vol. 2, 1975, Vol. 3, 1998);  An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties; Their People, Their Commerce and Their Resources, with an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Chicago: Interstate Pub. Co, 1906), p. 268-9; Dennis Conroy and Carol Husby Ronken, Pioneers of the Stillaguamish (Camano Island: Cascade Writing, 2005); David M. Buerge, The Builder: The Life of Peter Henning, 1868-1955 (S.l: s.n, 2003?); Doug Welch; “Huff and a Puff! That’s about all,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 1938, Part 2; Oliver B. Iverson, "Experiences and Observations On Two Continents," Stanwood Tidings, series of articles published between 1920–1922; Gustav B. Joergenson, "History of the Twin Cities Country," Twin City News, 1948-1949;  Eldridge Morse, “Stillagaumish River,” The Northern Star, April 8, 1876; Karen Prasse, River, Rail, & Road: A Pictorial History of Stanwood & East Stanwood, Washington (Stanwood: Stanwood Area Historical Society, 2003); “Paving Work on Highway Brought to a Close,” Stanwood Tidings, September 26, 1913, p. 1; “Population, Land Area, and Density for Cities and Towns, April 1, 2005,” Washington State Office of Financial Management website accessed 3/11/2008 (; Washington and Snohomish County Public Works, Stillaguamish River Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan (Everett: Snohomish County Public Works, 2004) ( Divisions/SWM/Library/Publications/River_Flood_Hazard/Still_River_Comp_FHMP.htm); William Whitfield, History of Snohomish County, Washington, Vols. 1 and 2 (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Pub. Co., 1926); Brad Broberg, "Frozen-food Processor Hopes Business Heats Up," Puget Sound Business Journal, June 23, 2000, Vol. 21, No. 7, p.  59.
Note: This essay was corrected on February 23, 2009.

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