Catherine Montgomery, Federation Forest State Park, and the Pacific Crest Trail
November 16, 2023 at 10:55 a.m.
Washington’s Federation Forest State Park boasts hundreds of acres of old-growth trees and level hiking trails bordered by towering, moss-covered giants. Sitting next to the White River, you can find the day-use park between Enumclaw and Crystal Mountain.
Federation Forest is also home to the Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center, which tells the story of how a group of women worked together to help preserve the state’s rapidly disappearing old growth forest, eventually leading to the establishment of Federation Forest.
This preservation effort is thanks to the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, a group formed in 1896. (This club was later renamed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs–Washington State.) Crosscut’s Knute “Mossback” Berger described the club as “a voice for women’s political and cultural power in the civic sphere — and one that gained clout as women regained the right to vote in Washington in 1910.”
One club member, Catherine Montgomery, had an outsized role in continuing the preservation of the forest. She also sparked the creation of the Pacific Crest Trail, a scenic trail that spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.
A Washington State Parks blog post discusses the formation of Federation Forest State Park. You can read that post below, entitled The Women Who Dreamed of Preservation at Federation Forest. But the story doesn’t end there. Keep reading to learn more.
The morning dew wraps itself around the old growth forest at Federation Forest State Park. Rolling down from the surrounding mountain ranges a thick blanket of fog encroaches. Pine needles are raining down from the towering coniferous old growth giants blanketing each side of the walkways leading to the Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center.
As we enter the building, a large information board is spotted detailing the story of the women, history, and founding of Federation Forest State Park. This is all thanks to the General Federation of Women's Clubs – Washington State (GFWC-WS).
“The members of General Federation of Women's Clubs–Washington State deeply appreciate the park staff who care for Federation Forest State Park. Without a doubt, the prescient Clubwomen of the 1920’s who saw a need to preserve old growth forest and donated the land for the first location of the park would be pleased to know that future generations continue to be able to walk among the gentle giants as was their intent at the time of their gift."
The Women Who Made History
From its earliest days, members of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs have understood the importance of preserving natural resources.
Minutes from a meeting in 1898 reflect that importance; one of the founders pleaded “for the preservation of forests because they purify the air and water, modify climate, prevent freshets and keep up supplies for springs”.
How It Started
Two years later, the fundraiser was successfully completed, and the vison and dream of Jean Caithness Greenlees was a reality. The name “Federation Forest” was chosen to honor the work of the GFWC-WS.
Today, a bronze plaque is dedicated with the names in the park's upper picnic area. “Save a Tree” pins are currently being sold at the Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center.
Rebirth of the Park
A decade later in 1938, a turbulent windstorm devastated Federation Forest State Park and it was condemned as a safety hazard.
On January 16th, 1941, the deed to an old growth tract of land along the White River was transferred from the White River Lumber Company to Washington State Parks. This tract of land would expand over the next few years. On July 16th, 1949, the present-day location of Federation Forest State Park was dedicated.
Almost a decade later, in 1958, Catherine Montgomery, a member of Washington State Federation Women's Clubs and pioneer educator who had dreamt of preservation and lived a life exploring, left an enormous sum of her estate for interpretation at Federation Forest.
On August 20th, 1964, the Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center was completed and dedicated in her honor.
Women of the GFWC-WS have a lengthy recorded history of contributing prolific monetary donations and hosting fundraisers to Federation Forest State Park. They take a personal interest in park maintenance as well and host an annual “clean up” party at the Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center and vicinity.
Here is a link to the original article from Washington State Parks blog: The women who dreamt of preservation at Federation Forest | Washington State Parks
The Story Continues...
“Single women were spinsters,” begins the excerpt from The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail by Mark Larabee and Barney Scout Mann.
“...in 1899, 32-year-old Catherine Montgomery came to Bellingham, Washington. She’d accepted a top-end position, $70 a month, as one of the founding faculty members of what would become Western Washington University. Montgomery was tall, with her dark hair tied in a frizzy bun. Her accent declared her parents’ heritage as Scotch.”
While her parents were from Scotland, Montgomery was born in Canada, on Prince Edward Island. At age 20, she moved west to begin her teaching career, which included time in Chehalis, Washington and ultimately, Bellingham.
Catherine Montgomery was a teacher at the New Whatcom Normal School. It later became Western Washington University. (Public Domain)
The article described Montgomery’s great love of “tramping” – hiking the Northwest’s forests, hills and mountains. When she read about the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile trail from Maine to Georgia along the skyline of the Appalachian ranges, an idea was born. Montgomery was later talking to Joseph Hazard, a famed Seattle mountaineer, who had come to Bellingham for his day job, selling textbooks. After the sales pitch, Montgomery changed the subject... “Why do not you Mountaineers do something big for Western America? A high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and shelter huts...from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Boundary Line.” Hazard recorded the conversation for posterity in a book about the Pacific Crest Trail.
After his conversation with Montgomery, Hazard took the idea directly to the Bellingham mountain club and later to other mountain clubs, which then promoted the idea to all the outdoor organizations in the Pacific Northwest.The rest, as they say, is history, and the Pacific Crest Trail was born.
Montgomery, the “spinster,” lived a long, full life. In addition to her career as an influential educator, she was a well-known outdoor adventurer. She traveled widely. She chaired an arts & lectures program in Bellingham, founded the Progressive, Literary, and Fraternal Club—a women’s group working to improve the world. She supported women’s suffrage, labor reform laws, prohibition, and was active in the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs. When Montgomery retired in 1926, the educator had somehow been able to accumulate a million-dollar estate in today’s dollars. After she died at the age of 90, she bequeathed her estate to the Washington State Federation Forest and the Catherine Montgomery Nature Interpretive Center was created.
Read the full post about Catherine Montgomery from the Pacific Trail Association here: Meet the mother of the Pacific Crest Trail: Catherine Montgomery.
On March 21, 2010, Catherine Montgomery was inducted into the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame. In addition to her support of the Federation Forest, the induction speech concluded, “Of her many legacies, perhaps most enduring is her vision of a hiking trail along the ridges of the Pacific Coast that she began to champion starting in 1926. Others took up the cause and today, that 2,650-mile-long trail that runs from Canada to Mexico attracts thousands of hikers. She is justly called ‘the Mother of the Pacific Crest Trail.’”
Learn more from Crosscut’s editor-at-large, Knute Berger. His “Mossback” series feature two pieces about Catherine Montgomery and the Federation Forest:
- Mossback’s The woman behind the Pacific Crest Trail
- The suffragist who helped preserve WA’s biggest trees.