Workers begin removing a logjam from Skagit River during the summer of 1876.

  • By Janet Oakley
  • Posted 2/15/2004
  • Essay 5652

In the summer of 1876, partners Joe Wilson and Donald McDonald begin removing a massive logjam on the Skagit River. For nearly 100 years, its lower section, located a half mile below the fledging town of Mount Vernon, has blocked the flow of "ordinary" river traffic upstream. A rude skid road built by Upper Skagit Indians to haul their canoes around the jam is the only way around it. A second section one mile above Mount Vernon is newer, but is rapidly increasing in size at the rate of a quarter mile every three years. To finance the operation, Joe Wilson mortgages two lots in Seattle, thinking he can get money back with the sale of the logs in the jams. The wood proves to be too rotten.
Old Logs Groaning

"Its surface was in an advanced state of decay," pioneer Otto Klement wrote years later, "and overspread by a heavy coat of river marl and supported a forest growth scarcely distinguished from that prevailing on the river’s banks. This forest rose and fell with the rise and fall of the river … [A] weird note of groaning was produced, not unlike that of a monster in pain" (Van Fleet Harris).

The work was grueling. By December 16, 1876, using crosscuts saws and axes, they had cut through five to eight tiers of logs three to eight feet in diameter, totaling 30 feet deep. Eventually they cut a 250-foot channel through the lower jam. Floods, which sometimes wedged the logs together, complicated their progress but by the next summer, the men were cutting into the upper jam.

It took three years to complete the project. In the summer of 1879, the drift was sufficiently opened to permit navigation. Joe Wilson and Donald McDonald did not, however, come out ahead. They were each $1,000 in debt.


Otto Klement to Ethel Van Fleet, October 19, 1926 in Ethel Van Fleet Harris, "Early Historical Incidents of Skagit County" typescript dated 1926, p. 4, Bellingham Library, Bellingham, Washington; History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties of Washington, (Seattle: Interstate Publication, 1906) p. 113; Chechacos All: The Pioneering of Skagit ed. by Margaret Willis (Mount Vernon: Skagit County Historical Society, 1973).

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