The City of Skykomish, located in the northeast corner of King County, began in 1893 as a rail town for the Great Northern railroad. Nestled in mountain forests, and supported over the years by rail, timber, mining, and tourism industries, Skykomish has prospered through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, while many nearby mountain communities have faded back into the green.
The Inland People
Although named for the Skykomish Indians (derived from the native words “skaikh” meaning “inland” and “mish” meaning “people”), little evidence exists of native habitation near the current townsite. The tribe’s territory was along the Skykomish River, but winter villages were located farther downstream, near the present towns of Monroe, Index, and Gold Bar. Native peoples most likely used the area surrounding Skykomish for temporary campsites during hunting and berry-gathering seasons.
The arrival of Euro-American settlers to the region in the 1850s introduced smallpox and other fatal diseases to many Western Washington tribes. Early estimates of the number of Skykomish Indians vary, but by the end of the century only a few hundred remained. Although they were one of the tribes who signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855, and were assigned to the Tulalip Reservation along Puget Sound, a native village of 240 people was still in existence near Gold Bar as late as 1900.
Hill and the Mountains
The Great Northern Railway was built from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. Owner James J. Hill (1838-1916) was in competition with the Northern Pacific Railroad (which chose Tacoma as its terminus) to capture the Oriental trade entering Puget Sound. As Hill’s rail lines slowly, yet inexorably, lengthened across the Midwestern plains, he sent engineers to the Northern Cascades to find a suitable route over the mountains and into the fledgling city of Seattle.
In 1890, engineer John F. Stevens explored the area along Nason Creek, a tributary of the Wenatchee River, on the eastern face of the range. An assistant, C.F.B. Haskell, was sent to find the headwaters of the Nason, and discovered them near the headwaters of the Tye River, which flowed down the western side of the mountains. He carved the name “Stevens Pass” into a tree, and the transcontinental rail route was primed for completion.
The Foresight of John Maloney
Another man accompanying Stevens and Haskell was packer John Maloney. Not one to miss an opportunity, he quickly staked a claim near the top of the pass, realizing that the many men who would build the rail line and clear the pass would need supplies, housing, and a post office. Initially his claim was known as Maloney’s Siding, but in 1893, soon after the rails were joined a mile upstream, the community was named Skykomish.
After completion of the line, Skykomish became an important stop for trains coming over the pass from the east, as well as for those crossing over from the west. A series of eight switchbacks led up from Skykomish: An engine in the front of every train pulled while an engine in the rear pushed. Twelve miles of track were required to get a train over three miles of ground. To rectify this, in 1897 construction began on a nearby tunnel.
Engineers carved out mountainsides. Timber workers made ties for the rail bed. Miners used the trains to transport ore to Puget Sound. Skykomish prospered. On August 11, 1899, Maloney and his wife Louisa Fleming filed a Plat of the Town of Skykomish. By this time, more than 150 people lived there, and the town was home to a hotel, a store, a restaurant, a school, a shingle mill, a planing mill, and many saloons.
The Central Community
Small towns and whistlestops sprang up nearby. Scenic, originally just a water tower, became the site of the posh Scenic Hot Springs Hotel, which catered to the well-to-do until 1928. Wellington grew up during the construction of the tunnel, and housed helper engines needed to pull the trains over the pass. Nippon (renamed Alpine in 1903), housed Japanese railroad workers. Other tiny towns included Grotto, Baring, and Berlin (renamed Miller River during World War I).
Skykomish remained the central community, and thus developed assuredly. A 1904 fire burnt down most of the town’s commercial center, but within a year a new hotel was built, along with a pool hall, three saloons, and a restaurant or two. Maloney’s Store, which survived the fire, expanded into a new warehouse across the street. In 1909, the Town of Skykomish incorporated, with John Maloney as its first mayor.
Prosperity and Decline
The need for timber during World War I brought many jobs to town, but an expansion of the railroad in the 1920s led to the most activity the town has ever seen. Starting in 1926, 1700 men worked around the clock for more than three years to build a new eight-mile tunnel through the mountains, and to electrify the entire route. Along with this, the completion of the Cascade Highway in 1925 (a narrow dirt road which was paved in the 1930s) contributed greatly to a Skykomish boom.
Estimates place the population of Skykomish during the mid-1920s at several thousand, but by 1930 the census listed it as 562. The completion of the tunnel phased out many jobs. The timber industry was beginning to wither and the mining industry, not strong to begin with, had by this time become uneconomical. A nationwide depression only added to the community’s downturn.
The railroad kept Skykomish going, but many of the nearby communities slowly became ghost towns. In the 1930s, the highway was rerouted to the other side of the river. Maintaining a grasp on the lifeblood of automotive transportation, the town built a bridge to it in 1939. Nevertheless, many folks now passed “by” Skykomish rather than through it.
Out with the Old, In with the … Old
Still, Skykomish persevered. Population continued to dwindle, stabilizing at about 200 in the 1960s. In 1970, the Great Northern merged with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to become the Burlington Northern railroad. The train yard was torn down until all that remained was the original depot, built in 1894, and the foreman’s house.
Very little else changed in Skykomish, which proved to be its saving grace. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Puget Sound residents became more mobile and more interested in their surroundings. Weekend trips into the mountains became a popular pastime. Ski resorts prospered at every mountain pass, including at Stevens Pass. With many of its older buildings still standing, Skykomish became a picturesque stop for new generations wishing to see the living history of a mountain community.
Unlike many other King County cities and towns, Skykomish is less likely to be engulfed by the “suburban ring,” which has been expanding ever-outward from Seattle. Tucked up into the corner of the county and surrounded by mountains, Skykomish thrives as a functioning museum piece of twentieth century history.