The Lost Cities of Skagit
Mari Anderson-Densmore, Skagit County Historical Museum | Mar 26, 2017, 2:20 p.m.
Cokedale was another early settlement. Located among the foothills of the North Cascades a few miles east of Sedro-Woolley, Cokedale was also known as the Bennett Mine (in honor of the man who discovered coal there in 1878). The mine operated intermittently from 1891 to 1922 and had the only extensive quantity of high-quality coking coal in the state. A group of shacks at the mine housed 75 workers and their families. Cokedale had a population of 131 in 1900. According to the book Skagit Settlers: Trials and Triumphs, “It was unique in Skagit County for its dreary ugliness, and its disappearance left no mourners.” By the mid-1950s, the coal deposits were exhausted and the site had all but vanished. All that remained were the railroad grade, a refuse dump from the mine and coal stains on the ground.
South across the valley, several miles northeast of the town of McMurray, lay the Finn Settlement. Thirteen Finnish families settled here in the dense forest land from 1891 until the early part of the century. The residents were skilled woodworkers who built their homes of split cedar, each with its own sauna, and worked in the nearby logging camps. These Finns made and used the first skis in the county and constructed ice skates by shaping the runners from the steel of old cross-cut saws. The community was unified by its isolation, its language, its own school and by its unique traditions. By 1913, the residents could ride the railway to distant camps, and eventually roads and cars provided opportunities outside of the tiny community. As the outside world drew closer, some members moved away and non-Finns bought their homes. The group gradually lost its cohesion, but the settlement remains a warm memory.
Moving west, the settlement at the south end of Fidalgo Island just inside Deception Pass was first known as Deception (later Fidalgo City and finally renamed Dewey). In 1891, there were 341 surveyed city blocks, stores, saloons, a 40-room hotel, a mill operating full blast and six steamboats that stopped every day on their runs between Seattle and Bellingham. One settler wrote, “Fidalgo City! It’s like the Promised Land! The water wheel is over 40 feet high! Keeps the mill humming, turning out lumber. I’ll have building contracts for the rest of my life.” The national economic depression of 1893 ended those dreams, and the town with so much promise faded away. A scattering of private homes marks the area today.
According to Steve Herold, author of Where the River Ends: Art & Poetry of the Lower Skagit, Fishtown (near LaConner) “began in the 1860s when a group of fishermen built their cabins on the north bank of the North Fork near its mouth… left to go halfway to a ghost town by changes in fishing regulations.” In the 1930s, “local artists such as Guy Anderson and Clayton James discovered the broad delta and stayed. Then in the 1960s, a new generation of artists and poets showed up…Even though it was on the maps, Fishtown was next to impossible to get to unless you had a boat. It was frequently looked for by friends, and later by travelers on the hippy trail, but they were usually told, ‘it’s there, but you can’t get there from here.’ ”
For more on Skagit County’s “Lost Cities,” call 360-466-3365 or visit the Skagit County Historical Museum at 501 S. 4th Street in La Conner. You can also visit the museum’s website at www.skagitcounty.net/museum for an interactive “Lost Cities” map. If you plan to visit the museum, check out their exhibit “Washington Remembers World War II” on display through June 25.
Mari C. Densmore is the archivist at the Skagit County Historical Museum. She has written articles for Peninsula Magazine, the Spokane Spokesman Review, Skagit Valley Herald, and was a former staff writer and interim editor at Target Communications.