Skagit City

Skagit City was the biggest metropolis of the lower Skagit area from the 1870s to the 1890s.

Although the town has all but disappeared, Skagit City was the biggest metropolis of the lower Skagit area from the 1870s to the 1890s.

It was located on Fir Island on the south fork of the Skagit River, a mile below the point where the north and south forks divide.

When log jams blocked the river, all the mail for upriver points was left in Skagit City and distributed from there.

Skagit City was an important river stop for all sternwheelers. In 1883, Mount Vernon was considered a rough, uninviting little town, overshadowed in population and cultural amenities by La Conner and downright rivaled by Skagit City.

The city was the site of a number of activities that drew people from all over the county, including the first Pioneer Association. A ferry connected it to the left bank of the river.

The town had churches, a school, hotels, saloons and numerous places of business facing the riverbank.

One story of a Christmas celebration at Skagit City was told by Ethel Van Fleet Harris to Ray Jordan in his book “Ray’s Writin’s — Yarns of the Skagit Country.”

“Picture, if you can, a family living in a small split-cedar cabin lost among towering firs, vine maple thickets, and dank, head-high ferns of the banks of Hansen Creek near Skiyou in the Upper Skagit area. And Christmas was approaching.

“The year was 1880 and the Emmett Van Fleets were facing their first Yuletide in Washington Territory after moving here from their home in far-off Pennsylvania. The prospects were not too cheerful.

“Then a letter came, brought by some good neighbor from the nearest post office at J.B. Ball’s logging camp at Sterling, inviting them to a Christmas celebration at Skagit City, then the metropolis of the Skagit Valley.”

With no roads, the only choice for transportation was by canoe. Ethel remembers, “Mama said ‘we can’t go, but Papa said, ‘we will go,’ and go we did.”

On Christmas morning, Emmett Van Fleet loaded his wife Eliza and their 4-year-old daughter in a shovel-nose canoe almost at their door and paddled the three-quarters of a mile down Hansen Creek to the Skagit River.

Keeping to the middle of the river and maintaining a sharp lookout for jams and snags, they made good time and arrived safely in time for the party. The distance was about 12 or 13 air miles — and how far by the windings of the Skagit could only be a guess.

At a ramshackle building passing for a hotel, these company-starved pioneers had a great time dining and dancing, the memory of which would brighten many a gloomy and monotonous day in the future.

The Van Fleets had planned to spend the remainder of the night at the hotel, but David Kimble, who had a homestead at the lower end of what had been the big log jam near Mount Vernon, wouldn’t hear of it.

“Just follow us home in your canoe and spend the night with us,” he invited.

After a pleasant night and visit with the Kimbles, the Van Fleets set out on the not-so-easy canoe trip back up the tree-lined Skagit, glowing with recollections that would last for a lifetime.

The town’s decline began with the erosion of the steep river bank against which the sternwheelers tied up. Once the river jam was cleared at Mount Vernon, and nearby Conway and Fir grew in importance with the coming of the railroad, Skagit City became less important.

When its ferry was discontinued in 1929, the town evaporated. Today Skagit City School and a road of the same name are all that remain, along with a road sign bearing the name of what was once the busiest settlement of the lower Skagit Valley.

— Mari Densmore is an archivist with the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner.

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