This reminiscence of growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in Snohomish County's Robe Valley was written by Joan Rawlins Biggar Husby. Robe Valley is located about 10 miles east of Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway. Husby writes, "Growing up in the forties and fifties surrounded by Robe Valley history and the changes it wrought gave us Rawlins kids a hands-on perspective."
History, History Everywhere
The familiar road that ran the length of the valley provided an example of change. When Delbert and Marie Rawlins, our parents, arrived, they bumped along a twisting dirt road in an old Essex, me (the first born) in my mother’s arms, their cook stove strapped on the front bumper.
By the time I started school, low-lying spots along the route had been filled in, high spots cut down to grade, and kinks straightened. Cutoff stretches of the old road reminded us of how it used to be. The lane that passed in front of the old school house was one such place. Another piece descended the side of Robe Hill to the old Robe townsite. We children often followed a section that led past the Verta homestead, the empty Nichols’ store-post office building, and across the railroad grade to our favorite swimming hole.
The Way It Was
Logging trucks raised clouds of dust on the gravel road that replaced the dirt until crews put down asphalt paving around 1943. In the summer, we kids tramped up and down the asphalt on our way to one swimming hole or another or explored the neighborhood in the company of our friends. If we got tired, we lay down on the sun-heated road to rest, being careful to avoid bubbles of melted tar. We played Indian with our ears to the road, listening not for the vibration of horses’ hooves but for the tires of oncoming vehicles. One could hear a log truck grinding its gears a long way off under the weight of logs that were larger in diameter than a man was tall.
Daddy was a logger and most of our neighbors were connected in some way with the logging industry. Today, much of the valley population streams toward the lowland cities every morning -- the children in multiple school buses to their classes in Granite Falls, their parents to jobs at Boeing, technology centers, or to offices or stores.
In the decades of the forties and fifties, most mothers still worked at home caring for their families. Parents usually stayed together, no matter what. In our community, everyone knew us, and we expected our neighbors always to be there. The closest town, Granite Falls, never seemed to change. Following World War II, precursors of today’s housing developments sprang up across the country for returning soldiers and their young families, but we weren’t familiar with such “instant” communities. In the Robe Valley, old orchards and abandoned cabins quietly went to ruin, so imperceptibly we scarcely noticed. Our own homes stayed comfortingly the same.
When change did happen, it happened slowly. Mama and Daddy finished our house while we lived in it, but only as they could afford the materials. At the foot of Robe hill, the abandoned Kosmoski farmhouse and its orchard fell into the Stillaguamish after we had watched the river chew away the tall bluffs for a number of years. Sometimes the river overflowed and altered the landscape. But that too, seemed an expected part of life.
The Robe Valley
Life in the valley was easier for us than for previous generations. We saw the proof wherever we explored. The collapsed railroad tunnels in the Robe canyon and the trestle remnants in the river told of the labor necessary to keep the railroad operating. Saplings growing into trees on the old grade demonstrated the constant vigilance needed to keep the rain forest from taking back its domain.
The earliest settlers pushed into the valley by foot and on horseback. The railroad and its accompanying wagon road came in the early 1890s to carry ore from mines at Monte Cristo and Silverton. Logging and milling soon kept the railroad busier than did the mines. When the mining operations failed, partly because of the poor location of the railroad, summer tourists continued to marvel at the mountain scenery. They came even when gas cars, like trolleys with wheels fitted to the rails, replaced the locomotives.
We neighborhood kids liked to follow the cutoff section of the old road that intersected the highway midway up Robe Hill. The hike led us down through the woods to disintegrating, weather-grayed buildings tilting on the riverbank. They once housed the homes and businesses of old Robe. Remains of some clung to the steep hill above the canyon, hidden in the overgrowth. They are long gone, and the mill was already gone, though the silted-in mill pond still marks the town site. The community stood at the canyon’s entrance. Crews worked hard to keep the rail bed clear of slides and to open the tunnels after floods. Hikers still enter the canyon as we children did then, but can only pass through the first couple of the six tunnels. The others collapsed, or were cut off by slides shearing down the steep hillsides. The returning forest has once again made the Robe Canyon a beauty spot.
One of my favorite places in the spring was an old homestead that bordered the Blythe’s north cattle pasture. To get there we climbed down the road embankment to the pasture. Then we hopped over the creek flowing from Green Mountain that divided Will Blythe’s farm from his brother Fred’s before emptying into the river. We balanced on tussocks of bunch grass to keep from muddying our feet until we reached the door yard of an old house. Winter snows had crushed it into a heap of broken boards, but a blossoming snowball tree still stood guard, and jonquils and narcissus spread wild through the overgrown clearing. I liked to imagine the lady of the house gazing up at Mt. Pilchuck while she planted the slip of snowball bush she’d carried to the valley. I wondered if she knew how the bulbs she tucked into the ground around her cabin would someday spread over acres of pasture.
Once a couple of us wandered into the woods near our friend Billy Davisson’s home. Among second growth firs, only yards from the road, we discovered a collapsed log cabin. Enough of the walls still stood to show it was hardly large enough to hold a double bed. Perhaps some lonely homesteader had lived there through the dark winters, listening to rain dripping from the tall trees and wondering if the sun would ever shine again.
On the hill west of where we lived, the remains of a sawmill and its pond sat beside a spur of logging railroad, the one that once ran to the pulpwood camp where our parents lived for their first months in the valley. In 1985, I met Verna Germaine, an elderly neighbor in Marysville. Before the Great Depression, she and her husband owned and operated that sawmill. The Germaines shipped their lumber to Old Robe on the spur, where a train carried it to market.
Verna told tales of the school house at Robe, still used for community activities when we were growing up. A gymnasium next to the schoolhouse hosted neighborhood dances for a number of years. After a long day of bookkeeping for the sawmill, Verna would join other valley residents and people from lowland towns for a lively evening of dancing. Verna’s mother baked cakes and sold them to earn money for a player piano. When the dances ended, the piano stayed in the schoolhouse. Our teachers used that same piano for Sunday school, years later.
Another mill operated at Gold Basin, a few miles up the road. Mill workers, loggers and their families lived near the present park. The father of our friend and fellow exporer Marcella Stone, whose name was Otto Stone, helped build the Gold Basin mill as a young man, and her mother attended a nearby school at 22 Creek. Remnants of the mill pond still exist. A sign explains how logs were flumed down the mountain. The workers’ homes and the mill itself have vanished.
But one can walk through Gold Basin Park, past trees that are big by today’s standards, and see among them the rotting stumps of the virgin forest. It’s a challenge to reconstruct in the mind’s eye a forest with trees the size indicated by those stumps!
Mountain Loop Highway
One of the depression era’s New Deal projects extended our road to connect with the Darrington-Monte Cristo route up the Sauk. Completed in 1941, it became known as the Mountain Loop Highway. Working for the Bureau of Public Roads, our father helped remove wooden ties from the old rail bed in preparation for the road builders who followed the route of the Everett and Monte Cristo railway from Verlot east. They graveled the road as far as Barlow Pass, where a four-mile spur led to the Monte Cristo town site. Beyond the pass, the Mountain Loop Highway changed into a one-lane dirt road with turn outs. This road and a number of logging roads opened a vast area of recreation to many thousands of tourists, hunters, and hikers. Snohomish County historian David Cameron says this network “made free outdoor recreation available to almost everyone capable of driving.”
We lived right in the middle of it all. On summer Sunday afternoons, we often drove upriver to Red Bridge, Silverton, Big Four, or one of the other picnic areas or hiking trails along the Mountain Loop. Reminders of valley history dotted the way.
Even now, people fishing under Red Bridge cast for trout hiding among broken-off pilings from the railroad trestle that crossed there. Nearby, the Black Chief mine adit, or entrance, yawns in a rockface, attracting those who aren’t afraid of dark, drippy, spooky places. Though it only extends back into the hillside about forty feet, it gives a feeling for the early gold miners’ work.
Further up the river is Silverton. In 1905, the town boasted a sizable population. It had a newspaper, a school, hotels, and stores, even a library. Eleven mining companies dug copper and silver, a little gold, and cinnabar from which they extracted mercury. By the forties and fifties, the town was a collection of mostly empty homes on both sides of the Stillaguamish, connected by a suspension bridge. Two elderly brothers, Eric and Albert Shedin, kept a tiny store that sold drinks and snacks. They were among the few people who lived there year around. Mercury retorts, the ruins of the concentrator, and ore buckets from the tram lines leading up into the peaks were available for inspection to anyone brave enough to cross the swinging bridge. The mercury retorts were confiscated and removed from location by the EPA in October, 2007, citing fears of environmental contamination.
Silverton today is a picturesque little community of restored 1890s era homes and others that fit the ambiance. A sturdy wooden bridge now crosses the river. Although the area had telephone service in 1927 to the Silverton Ranger Station, residents did without for decades. As of 2006, telephone service has been available to the community.
Big Four Resort
In 1921, between Silverton and Barlow Pass, the Rucker brothers of Everett built a first-class resort at Big Four Mountain. They dammed a stream to make a pond and produced their own electricity. Tourists came by train to enjoy the breathtaking views of Big Four, Dickerman, and other peaks. When the trains ceased to operate, visitors came by gas cars, which were like trolleys fitted with special wheels to run on the rails. Tourists could golf, hike, camp in tent cabins, or enjoy the luxury of the big hotel.
The tracks were removed in 1936, the year our family came to the valley, but during the war years, we sometimes saw convoys of military personnel traveling the new Mountain Loop Highway for R & R at the resort. (The resort was used by the U.S. Coast Guard as a temporary duty station for service men awaiting active duty assignments. One winter not long after the war, the building burned. The big stone fireplace still marks the spot where it stood.
Until the winter of 2006-2007, thousands of hikers every summer followed a plank trail across the beaver swamps where the pond used to be. They crossed the river on a footbridge to reach one of the most unusual attractions anywhere: the Big Four Ice Caves. Water cascading down the sheer face of Big Four Mountain flows under the snow avalanches at the foot of the cliffs, forming tunnels beneath the ice. That winter, the raging river slammed drift trees against the heavy-duty footbridge and carried the center span away. The brave (or foolhardy) can still wade the river to reach the trail, but the bridge’s loss was a huge disappointment for sightseers that come from as far away as Japan and for locals alike.
The area’s mining days were not that far in the past when we were growing up. We could easily drive to the ghost town of Monte Cristo. The town sat at 4,000 feet elevation, with surrounding glacier-carved peaks thrusting much higher. The railroad trestles and some of the buildings still stood. We enjoyed visiting a former cookhouse that had been made into a restaurant-museum. Its walls displayed artifacts found in the town site and mines. We could follow steep paths that had once been its streets to look through the windows of crumbling buildings, or climb the almost-vertical slopes to the mine adits (entrances).
Vandals burned the museum building one winter. The forest service blocked entry to the dangerous mine tunnels. The remaining buildings collapsed under heavy snows, although a few people still keep cabins there for summer use. Because of frequent flood damage to the road, it’s not been possible for the public to drive to the area for a number of years. The Monte Cristo Preservation Association worked hard to protect the town site and rebuild the washed out bridges every spring. But in 2006, floods scoured away the road itself. The Sauk changed its channel and left the bridges high and dry. Determined hikers still get there, but most people can only read about the bustling boom town that once was Monte Cristo.
About once a summer we made the leisurely drive around the Loop. Whenever cars met on the single track road, one would back up to the nearest turnout so the oncoming car could pass. The Sauk River plunges over massive rocks, augmented by dozens of streams tumbling down the mountainsides. It widens in one place to what we called Monte Cristo Lake. We sometimes stopped there to picnic and wonder about the red-streaked cliffs above the lake. We were told that Indians once came from eastern Washington to hunt elk. The legend was that they stampeded the animals over the cliffs, leaving bloody stains on the rocks.
After our picnic, we would continue along the dirt road, trees making a tunnel overhead through which we caught glimpses of surrounding mountains, until we came out at Darrington. We still had a long drive through Arlington, Granite Falls, and back home to the Robe Valley. Often we barely beat the sunset.
All this was part of a wonderful system of outdoor recreation that reached its peak in 1980. That was the year Snohomish County ran out of money to pay for rebuilding the road to Monte Cristo. Money dwindled for parks and trails as federal funding fell sharply. Recession hit the logging industry and winter storms increased in strength, cutting off access to many trails. For several years, recreationists couldn’t drive the length of the Mountain Loop. The October storm of 2003 washed large sections of the highway into the Sauk, leaving only one way into and out of the Robe Valley. Those who wanted to rebuild the road battled those who thought rebuilding would hurt the salmon. As always, keeping the system in repair depends on funding available.
These things are happening at a time of burgeoning population and increasing need for outdoor recreation. How will we meet these challenges in the years ahead? Those who went before us left an example of hard work and vision for the future. We must do our best to leave a similar heritage.