Sedro and Woolley merge on December 19, 1898.

  • By Noel V. Bourasaw
  • Posted 7/01/2008
  • Essay 8625
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In December 1898, the towns Sedro and Woolley, located adjacent to one another in Skagit County, merge. The two battling towns had stood side by side for nearly a decade, duplicating each other's government, industries, and railroad facilities.

Searching for History

Sorting out the merger facts from the myths and legends has proven difficult because all the volumes of local newspapers burned in various fires in the early decades of the town. Thus we had to piece together information from infrequent notes in area newspapers, early magazine articles, and diaries, letters, interviews various historians conducted with pioneers and their descendants.

All the speculation about the merger was knocked for a loop in 2005 when Clearlake historian Deanna Ammons discovered a copy of an 1891 newspaper that a local resident found in the walls of his house. Until that December 5, 1891, issue of the Skagit County Times surfaced, no one knew that consolidation was attempted that early.

Old Sedro and New Sedro

The two towns bordered each other, with crude city halls about a mile apart. What we call old Sedro was centered on Mortimer Cook's (1826-1899) general store and sternwheeler wharf, which he founded in 1885 as the town of Bug on the north shore of the Skagit River, about 25 miles northeast of the river delta. The little village was effectively only two blocks long, at the north end of what is now Riverfront Park.

In 1890, Norman R. Kelley (1861-1894), the son of a New York City investment banker, platted what we call new Sedro, a half mile northwest of Cook's village, on what is now the high school site. Occasional floodwaters already endangered the original site, so the two Sedros joined in the winter of 1890-1891 at the new Sedro site, which was above the bench, or the northern shoreline of an ancient channel of the Skagit. Sedro residents scheduled an incorporation vote for March 4, 1891, organized by George Hopp (1854-1928), the editor of the Sedro Press, which launched in April 1890. Incorporation passed and Hopp became the first mayor.

Woolley and Cokedale

Philip A. Woolley (1831-1912), a railroad construction agent and developer, moved his family to the Skagit River in December 1889. After consulting with the Washington Territory Attorney General James Bard Metcalfe, he learned that three railroads projected to cross north of Sedro, so he platted his own namesake company town in 1890. Woolley residents voted in favor of incorporation on May 11, 1891, and William Murdoch became the first mayor. Kansas natives, headed by Ambrose Ernst (later heralded as the father of Seattle playgrounds), launched the Times in January 1891, and the paper pushed hard for the consolidation, but the city attorney, A. W. Salisbury, quashed the effort, ruling that the legal mechanism was illegal.

Over the next seven years, residents of both towns conducted various elections and straw polls, most of which centered on the difficulty of residents agreeing on a name for the combined town. Meanwhile, another town rose four miles to the northeast. Cokedale was unincorporated but nearly equaled the other towns in population at its peak. The town sat on a hillside through which veins of coal stretched, starting near Nanaimo, British Columbia, and continuing southeasterly on a diagonal to the Hamilton area on the upper Skagit River. Nelson Bennett (1844-1913) first developed the mines, staring in 1888, later sold the rights to Montana mineral-king C. X. Larrabee (1843-1914), who then sold the operation to James J. Hill (1838-1916), owner of the Great Northern Railroad. Hill also bought Bennett and Larrabee's interest in the Fairhaven & Southern Railway, the railroad they launched from Bellingham Bay to Sedro in December 1889. Cokedale was not annexed, however, and today there is neither a stick nor stone to mark its location. Nearly a century has passed since as many as 50 beehive ovens produced coking coal for steel foundries.

We know from an 1896 letter that residents tried more than once to merge the towns under the name of Sedro, but that P. A. Woolley balked each time, holding out for his own name. Junius B. Alexander (1867-1952) and other pioneers of both towns set up the Twin Cities Business League to effect the merger, which was finally recognized by the County Commissioners on December 19, 1898.


Businesses in all the towns moved in succession from the river bank to new Sedro in 1892-1893 and then to Woolley's company town, which is now downtown Sedro-Woolley. Hotels and retail businesses clustered around a triangle where three rail lines met, just north of today's downtown. State Street was roughly the east-west boundary between the early towns and most businesses located north of there and along the main north-south arterials, Metcalf and Murdock streets.

When dueling petitions from signatories of both towns were submitted to the Skagit County government in the fall of 1898, a compromise was struck when the commissioners simply placed a hyphen between the respective town names.

Nevertheless, for the next 60 years, old-timers still retained the identity of each town. Town fathers attempted in the mid-1920s to change the name back to Sedro but their petition to the State Legislature failed on at least two occasions. The hyphen fell out of use at mid-twentieth-century but in the 1970s, the Evans family of the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times newspaper led the movement to restore it. In a symbolic gesture, Christine C. Elian and Mayor William Stendal convinced the U.S. Postal Service to officially restore the hyphen in 1995 and it was chiseled into the stone above the entrance to the post office.

Sources: Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1906), 219-27; Skagit River Journal Sedro-Woolley section, (by Noel V. Bourasaw), (accessed April 1, 2008); Frank Evans, "Territorial Centennial Edition" Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times, September 24, 1953.

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