Skykomish, located in northeastern King County just 18 miles west of Stevens Pass on U.S. Highway 2, was the first incorporated municipality to contract with the King County Library System (KCLS) to provide library services. The geographically isolated community, which began as a railroad town and saw its growth spurred by logging, has a boom-and-bust economic history. It reached its population peak in the 1920s and has been largely declining in size since the Great Depression. Throughout the town's history, the Skykomish Library and the local school have been the two principal public institutions providing residents with a strong sense of community as well as access to culture, learning, and connections beyond city limits. KCLS has done some of its most important work by ensuring continuous library service in Skykomish since 1945. The people of Skykomish have responded with an extraordinarily high per capita usage of library materials.
A Brief History of Skykomish
In the late nineteenth century, the Great Northern Railway was in competition with the Northern Pacific Railroad for transcontinental routes to the Pacific Northwest. In 1890, the Great Northern's owner, James J. Hill (1838-1916), sent his chief engineer, John F. Stevens (1853-1943), to reconnoiter the eastern side of the North Cascades range in search of a suitable railroad pass for the transcontinental line. Stevens's assistant, Charles Frederick Beals Haskell (1856-1895), was sent up to the summit and over to the west side and is credited with carving the name "Stevens Pass" into a tree. Accompanying Haskell was John Maloney (ca. 1857-?), who in 1891 staked a claim to flats along the Skykomish River less than 20 miles west of the pass, a spot that he and Haskell identified as suitable for a railway depot.
Workers drove the Great Northern's final spike on January 6, 1893, a few miles east of Maloney's claim, and the first train arrived at what was at then called "Maloney's Siding" on June 18 of that same year. Maloney preferred that the quickly growing town be named after the longtime inhabitants of the region. Their name, derived from the Lushootseed words (as approximated in English) "Skaikh" (meaning upriver) and "mish" (people), and written by the settlers as "Skykomish," was attached to the new town.
Thanks to the railroad, Skykomish thrived. Much of it burned down in 1904, but it was quickly rebuilt on a larger scale, with a new hotel, a pool hall, three saloons, and at least one restaurant joining Maloney's store, which had survived the fire. In 1909 Skykomish was incorporated as a town, with Maloney as its first mayor. The town continued to grow during World War I because of the demand for timber. Then with an expansion of the railroad in the mid-1920s Skykomish reportedly reached its population peak -- never reflected in the decennial census -- of "several thousand" ("Skykomish -- Thumbnail History"). By 1930, with the boom-bust cycle headed in the other direction at the onset of the Great Depression, the U.S. Census tallied the considerably smaller figure of 562, and even that was higher than in any subsequent count.
The 1940 census showed a population of 479. In 1950 it had bumped up very slightly to 497, in 1960 it had dropped to 366, and the most recent available figure, in 2014, was only 204. While the 1940 population was already a tiny nine one-hundredths of a percent of the population of King County, with Skykomish shrinking and the county growing in 2014 the Skykomish population represented only about one one-hundredth of a percent of the total county population. Despite the population decline from its railroading heyday, the community remains proud of its heritage, which it preserves in the Great Northern and Cascade Railway, a nonprofit organization that operates a museum and visitor center that offer scale-model railroad rides and other attractions.
The Library Comes to Skykomish
As authorized by a countywide vote the previous November, on January 4, 1943, the Board of County Commissioners established the the King County Rural Library District -- later known as the King County Library System (KCLS) to provide library services to rural county residents. In addition to providing services in unincorporated areas of the county where no local government existed to do so, KCLS contracted with local municipal governments (towns or cities) to operate libraries in those incorporated areas. Although Skykomish was not the first community to join the new library system, in November 1944 it became the first incorporated municipality to contract with KCLS for library services. As far as can be determined, there was no other public library in Skykomish prior to this time, although there may have been a school library for the children.
KCLS opened the Skykomish Library in February 1945. The library at that time occupied approximately 500 square feet within the one-room Skykomish City Hall building on 4th Street. There is no record of who served as the first librarian. Tora Freestad was an early librarian who served during the 1950s and possibly into the 1960s. She was followed by Barbara Wise, whose husband was a teacher at the Skykomish School. Kimberly Pollow (b. 1954) served from 1976 to 1985, followed by Linda Cyrus (b. 1951), who was still serving as of 2017. The Skykomish Library has also benefited from the services of Laura Boyes as young-adult librarian in the 1980s, and Kathy Huber as children's librarian in the 1990s and early 2000s, among others.
The City Hall Library
The Skykomish Library remained in the City Hall building for nearly 50 years. When a visitor entered City Hall, the city government's space was to the left and the library's space was to the right. Kimberly Pollow recalled in 2017 that the noise of city services and the "chain-smoking city hall clerk" competed with the peace and quiet desired by the librarian (Pollow interview). The library was often overflowing into the city's space for the simple reason that, as Pollow put it, "we had more stuff" (Pollow interview). The library shelves were on wheels and could be pushed aside for city meetings or when the building hosted movie nights, which were especially popular back in the 1970s before the advent of videos, DVDs, and streaming media.
Long-time Skykomish resident Teddy Jo Ryder (b. 1949) recalled that when she was a schoolgirl, Skykomish students made weekly visits to the library. Ryder, who in 2017 owned the Whistling Post Bar and Grill, always looked forward to library day. A photograph hanging on the wall of the Whistling Post showed 1950s schoolchildren walking to the library. Ryder recalled that the librarian, Mrs. Freestad, was very strict and did not tolerate voices above a whisper in the library, adding that to this day she still keeps her voice low when she is in the library.
Because the building housed the City Hall, there was a jail downstairs. Fortunately it was rarely used, but both Pollow and her successor Linda Cyrus recalled occasional loud noises and profanity emanating from downstairs when the jail was occupied. Cyrus noted that one time when a child in the library heard an inmate screaming and banging on the cell door, he asked, "Is that where you put the kids who don't bring back their books?" (Cyrus interview).
A New Library
In 1993, the Skykomish Library moved to new larger quarters at 100 5th Street, renting an 842-square-foot space on the first floor of a building owned by Lorna Goebbel. The hours of operation were extended from two days a week to three days a week.
In 2004, King County voters approved a $172 million bond measure to fund an ambitious program that including building 15 new KCLS libraries, expanding 11 existing libraries, and renovating many others. The first project completed with bond funding was an expansion of the Skykomish Library. Completed in 2006, the project increased the library's size to 1,042 square feet, occupying the entire first floor of the Goebbel building.
As of 2017, the Skykomish Library was open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Many Services Offered
In addition to lending books, the Skykomish Library has provided its community with access to a wide selection of periodicals and to the latest movies and music. Many local residents who commute long distances have filled the hours listening to books on tape from the library. While the Skykomish Library occasionally offers children's programming, relatively little regular programming from KCLS has been provided because of the limited space at the library and the distance that performers or presenters would have to travel (nearly 60 miles from the Bellevue Library for example). However, several programs a year have been sponsored by KCLS at the Skykomish School, including magic shows, puppet shows, and arts and craft activities.
During Pollow's time as the KCLS librarian in Skykomish, she also served as librarian for the school library. In the summer months, KCLS offers an always-popular summer reading program for school-aged children, as well as children's performers as part of the Skykomish Music in the Park celebration. There is an ongoing book-sale rack in the library, sponsored by Skykomish Friends of the Library.
There are four public-use computers in the Skykomish Library and they are used regularly. During summer and fall, the library is often visited by hikers who come down from the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses U.S. 2 at Stevens Pass a short drive from the library. They are able to pick up supplies, check and send email on library computers, and rest before continuing their hiking adventures.
The Big Picture
Although the Skykomish Library's circulation is the lowest of any KCLS library -- just 13,207 in 2016, and slightly less than 12,000 in 2014 -- that level of circulation represents more than 50 items per resident per year. In contrast, the Redmond Library's KCLS-leading circulation of more than 1.3 million items in 2014 amounted to only about 24 items per resident per year. On a per capita basis, tiny Skykomish is a library-using powerhouse.
Yet libraries are about so much more than numbers. When asked about KCLS's ongoing commitment to the small community of Skykomish, Mary Comstock (b. 1951), KCLS Library Services Manager for the Carnation-Duvall-Redmond-Redmond Ridge-Woodinville-Skykomish service area, noted multiple reasons. First, serving Skykomish was an important policy decision made by the KCLS administration based on the fact that Skykomish is part of King County and the county as a whole has a tax base that allows it to support even its most distant or economically disadvantaged areas. Second, supporting the Skykomish Library fulfills the broader mission of KCLS, which is to provide free, fair, and equal access to information in all its formats to all people of the county. Third, Comstock said, KCLS has continued to support the Skykomish Library because it was simply "a great feeling" to be able to serve a community that lacked access to most other county institutions and cultural resources, but was "no less deserving of library services than any other community" (Comstock interview).