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A Historic Guide to Snohomish

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?" -Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

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Adrift in History

Taylor Russell, tour guide, walks the historic streets of Snohomish, Washington, shifting in and out of time.

In one sense, she exists in the modern world. The folks on her tour take smart phone photos of repurposed buildings like the Carnegie Library, the Spada Farmhouse Brewery, or any number of vintage boutiques in the brick buildings downtown. 

In another sense, Taylor is seeing the buildings as they once were. Today’s restaurant is yesterday’s auto shop. This boutique was once a vaudeville theatre. Yonder Civic Center used to be a library. 

Seen through Taylor’s eyes, the familiar city has more dimensions, more context, and thus more depth. Billed as the Antique Capital of the Northwest, Snohomish prides itself on its historic preservation while trying to adapt to modern sensibilities.

“I love studying and sharing history because it makes me feel embedded in a place and a community... when you’re rooted in the past it helps you appreciate the growth and evolution of Snohomish.”

Yet for all of the lovely old buildings, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the history of Snohomish without understanding the river of the same name.

In fact, Taylor insists, this waterway is central to the essence of the city.

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The Lifeblood

Before the bowler hats and mustaches, before the elegant Victorian facades and brothels, before the old-timey baseball clubs and steamships, there was the immutable river.

The waterway predates humans, even the earliest migratory tribes who first inhabited the banks of the Snohomish 8,000 years ago.

It was the lifeblood of the city even before it served as transportation, irrigation, and the fuel for industry. It offered an abundance of migratory salmon as its waters curved their way through the floor of the river valley. It led Native Americans to the river delta and beyond, to the sea, and to beds of edible shellfish.

And this is how it was for almost 5,000 years; a wild river traversed by cedar bark canoes of the Sdocohobcs. These American Indians spoke Lushootseed, a Coast Salish dialect. They were the first residents.

Thus, the earliest white settlers, travelling up the river from Possession Sound, experienced a river much different, much wilder and raw, than the Snohomish we see today. Prone to meandering. Today you may glimpse a harbor seal or otter as far inland as the Lowell District in Everett. But the riprapped, channeled, dredged, and diked modern Snohomish is different from the river of 200 years ago -- a river originally darkened by Douglas firs and western red cedars on either side.

The City of Snohomish began as a calculated gamble. Settlers anticipated the extension of a proposed military road to Bellingham. The idea was to proactively create a ferry river crossing for military wagons. The road never went through, and the river crossing was instead used by loggers and millers in the area.

Small settlements cropped up and down the banks of the Snohomish. As industry came to the area, the river became a popular navigable route for steam ships. These boats carried folk from Snohomish, to the city of Lowell, to Everett, and out into the Salish Sea.

The original name for the town of Snohomish was Cadyville, named after Edson T. Cady, who homesteaded at the confluence of the Snohomish and Pilchuck Rivers. Together, these freshwater flows help to define Snohomish. The Pilchuck borders the city to the east. The name “Pilchuck” comes from Lushootseed and means “red water.” The source of the river is near Mount Pilchuck, and the water does indeed appear reddish-brown.

The Pilchuck River was also the home of Pilchuck Julia. A famous member of the Coast Salish Tribes, Pilchuck Julia was noteworthy for her photographic portrait, which adorned a widely-distributed postcard in the early 1900s. Arguably, she became the face of the Coast Salish Tribes for people outside our region.

Pilchuck Julia was present for the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, which established the Tulalip Tribal Reservation. The most wide-spread myth about her is that she had powers of strong precognition and intuition, accurately predicting major weather events before they happened. Today, the memory of Pilchuck Julia is honored by a commemorative plaque and a 20-acre riverfront park with a boat launch -- a nod to the history of the river and its people.

Cadyville was soon filled with prominent steamboat owners and operators. They dredged the river to clear snags and woody debris, allowing for easier passage up and down the waterway.

The early city was populated by colorful characters like Charles Low, a steamboat captain on the Nellie. He was even married on the boat in 1879 to Ms. Mary Kincaid.

Daniel Bachelder (D.B.) Jackson, a shipping magnate, also owned the Washington Steamboat Company. Bachelder transformed a small fleet of secondhand steamboats into one of the great inland navigations systems of the Northwest. He built a wharf at the foot of today’s Maple Avenue in 1875, so steamboats could dock, then load, and unload people and supplies.

A number of sternwheeler and propeller ships were built in Snohomish: The Cascade (1904); The Mame 1887; the Ruby sternwheeler 1867; the Ruby propeller 1871.

Steamboats carried Sunday picknickers from Everett to Snohomish and vice versa. Local mills were closed on Sundays and the workers wanted to catch baseball games with rival cities. Afloat, they sipped lemonade, ate sandwiches, and sang songs. A popular form of transportation, indeed!

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Past, Present, Future

Today, the Snohomish River is no longer primarily a source of food for Snohomish residents. But it is a source of transportation for kayakers and boaters. The Pilchuck is a popular recreation spot in summer as residents and tourists flock to sandbars and wade into the red-brown waters to cool off.

Environmental groups and biologists are working hand in hand to restore many of the damages inflicted upon the river by early white settlers. They are restoring salmon habitat by adding woody debris, and creating side channels for fish breeding. They are removing dikes in the delta, allowing for more flooding and tidal movement. The Pilchuck River Dam has also been removed, allowing for an easier flow of water for fish spawning.

The idea is to restore the Snohomish River Valley as a healthy riparian zone. A riparian zone is a transitional area between a body of water and the surrounding land. In fact, the term "riparian" comes from the Latin word "ripa," which means "riverbank." Riparian zones provide several important ecosystem services, including water filtration, nutrient cycling, erosion control, and habitat for wildlife. That’s good for the whole valley.

In many ways, the health of the Snohomish River is the health of the city, too. It’s a tourism asset. It offers beautiful views, access to water-based activities, and a strong sense of community. From the very beginning Snohomish has been a river town. It’s part of the city’s essence, its character.

Today you can experience the history of Snohomish with Taylor Russell and her monthly SnohomishWalks tours (www.snohomishwalks.com). You can explore the many historic resources that the town has to offer.

Or you can simply stand by the river and close your eyes. Let time slowly flow around you as you listen to the white noise of moving water. Maybe you, too, will find yourself adrift in time when you strain to hear the steam whistle and splash of a sternwheeler paddling up the Snohomish once again.

All black-and-white photos comes courtesy of the City of Snohomish. Color images come courtesy of Seattle NorthCountry.

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There's so much to do in Snohomish. Plan a trip today!

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Learn more about the Snohomish people at the Hibulb Cultural Center.


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