HAMILTON — Tim Bates leaned against the white latticed fence that lines the Hamilton Cafe and Store’s porch on one of the few warm summer days this August.
Bates — mayor for more than 20 years — was “on break,” smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with lifelong Hamilton resident LeRoy Wyatt, who joked, “I’ve been on break since 1989.”
A stream of smoke drifted past Bates’ face while he stared out at Maple Street. Wearing a sleeveless Wrangler denim jacket with a green pack of menthol Marlboro cigarettes in his pocket, Bates doesn’t look like a typical mayor. He’s as quiet and reserved as the town he leads.
The town’s rich industrial history is still present in the 100-year-old houses that line Maple Street and the patches of short, young trees visible on the once-logged mountains to the south.
In its heyday, when mining, logging and paper companies dominated the area, the town was expected to become the “Pittsburgh of the West.” But ask anyone who lives here what brought them to Hamilton, and they’ll likely give the same two-word answer:
“It’s quiet,” said Dennis Sanders over coffee at the cafe. That’s a sentiment echoed by Mayor Bates before a Town Council meeting; his daughter, Mandy Bates, taking a break between running the cafe and her hair salon; and Postmaster Sharon Dills.
Some of the 300 residents who call Hamilton home have a decades-long history with the area. Others landed here to find affordable housing against the backdrop of the Skagit River and the shadow of the Cascade Mountains.
But that river is a constant threat to the town’s existence.
Loss of industry
Hamilton was founded in the late 1800s, just before Washington became the nation’s 42nd state.
Pioneers settled here to harvest the wood, iron, gold and olivine found in the nearby hills. The population increased to 1,500 and spawned a number of logging and mining businesses.
Monuments of that era can be found in the remaining homes that have stood along Maple Street for some 100 years. Town Hall is in what’s known as the Slipper Mansion. Today, the Town Council meets in the front room, surrounded by photos spanning the 120 years of industry and development.
Town Clerk and Treasurer Susan West-Mani pointed to a large poster of an early-1900s Fourth of July celebration advertising “orations from prominent speakers” and music by the Hamilton Brass Band.
She pulled out an old copy of the Herald-Recorder from the early 1900s with a story that read, “This weather can not be improved on. All the camps are running, and prosperity stares us in the face.”
“You can imagine what it might be like in the 1800s growing up in this house,” West-Mani said, surrounded by family portraits and photos of workers from the Hamilton Logging Co. and Hamilton Iron Mountain. “Those must have been really, really happy times.”
But as logging and mining left the area, so did much of the population. And while Janicki Industries recently built a plant in Hamilton, other industries are still fading from town.
Unimin Corp., a mineral-production company based in Connecticut, shuts its doors in December.
Wyatt said he still remembers the exact date he retired. It was the same day Scott Paper shut down.
“July 7, 1989,” Wyatt said, smoking a cigarette in front of the Hamilton Cafe. “That was the last day I got paid by Scott Paper.”
While industry and business moved west, closer to Interstate 5, the town grew all the more appealing to folks who wanted to know their neighbors and live like a family.
They also came — many in RVs — for the relatively affordable housing. About 50 RVs sit on lots next to the century-old homes or in the three RV parks in and around town. For many people in Skagit County, Hamilton is known as the “town on wheels.”
That has proven useful when the Skagit River rises above its banks.
The median family income in Hamilton is 65 percent of the median U.S. income level, according to the American Community Survey.
Town Councilman Andy Jensen said everyone in town has a skill and a need, so they pool their talents to help everyone get by. He compared Hamilton to Mayberry, N.C., the fictional town of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“This town is kind of like that, only we don’t have a sheriff,” Jensen said.
Often wearing a motorcycle-themed T-shirt, Jensen hops on his John Deere 1100 riding lawn mower every couple of days and drives around town in search of any lawn needing a trim.
“The barter system works great, or just plain donation,” Jensen said. “Somebody has a need, we have a solution.”
The town has had its share of rising river problems over the years, which bolsters the atmosphere of community support.
“We’re like a family,” Mayor Bates said. “We fight tooth and nail, and then when the flood comes, we work together.”
Ron Edwards, pastor at Hamilton First Baptist, got his first taste of life on the river when he came to lead the church in 2003. Just a few months on the job in October 2003, he experienced one of two major floods to hit the town in the past decade.
Edwards welcomed RVs into the church parking lot and provided families with food and home furnishings after the water receded. The church hosted Thanksgiving at the Hamilton Fire Department, serving 28 turkeys to area families. That event prompted the church to help establish the Hamilton Food Bank.
“It became real apparent to us that this was a need that wasn’t going to go away,” Edwards said. “The flood pushed us right into the forefront of that. Just because the water’s drawn back doesn’t mean everybody is OK.”
Every Tuesday at 9 a.m., 20 to 25 volunteers show up at two buildings donated by the Hamilton Fire Department to sort food and prepare for more than 100 families.
The volunteers take a break in a little sitting room for prayer just before the food bank opens at 11 a.m.
Edwards said the small church community has held tightly together to meet the area’s need.
The other town hall
One of the food bank’s volunteers, Ed Lipsey, said the work is made easier thanks to the support of Mayor Bates, his family and his business.
The food bank collects donations on Mondays from county and regional food suppliers, and stores the chilled items in the Hamil-ton Cafe and Store.
“Without them, we would be in trouble,” Lipsey said.
At the corner of Maple and Cumberland sits the small market and cafe that has been run by the Bates family for decades. Through-out the years, it has been a specialty meat shop, a grocery store and a cafe, and hosted weddings, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and prayer groups — the town hub.
With the Town Hall open one hour a day, much of Hamilton’s governing happens there, too.
During a recent lunch hour, the mayor smoked cigarettes outside while discussing business with his daughter, Mandy; met with the town’s maintenance supervisor, Tom Selin; and recounted the events of that week’s council meeting.
Residents like Wyatt visit the cafe several times a week. Sanders, 64, who was drinking coffee and reading through the classified pages, said he visits the cafe for coffee “about every day.”
“A lot of people just like to stop by to have a cup of coffee, ice water and a visit,” Mandy Bates said. “We have a lot of them come early in the morning and have breakfast, and they have the same breakfast every day.”
Tim Bates reopened the cafe about six months ago after the previous managers left town. Residents say Maple Street almost died when the cafe was closed.
“There was no activity,” said Dills, the postmaster who works just across the street. “We weren’t getting any traffic. It helps me and them and everyone in town to have something going on.”
Residents are committed to keeping Hamilton’s center active. After hearing two weeks ago that Willy’s Hi-Lead Inn could close, Larry Benjamin stepped in to manage it. He said he’ll buy the bar if he can get the business moving.
“I could not see the town losing a business,” said Benjamin, who moved here six years ago. “I don’t want to see the town go away … I’m invested in the community. We can’t succeed if the few businesses we have in town go under.”
He updated the menu and prices and is promoting the bar’s karaoke on Saturdays. He even sings.
“I do country western,” he said. “I do some Journey, but it’s not that popular up in this neck of the woods.”
Moving the town
Maple Street may be protected by its residents, but even they can’t keep away the floodwaters.
Wyatt stood against the front door frame at the Hamilton Cafe and pointed at his shoulder, indicating how high the waters rose in 2006.
Consistent flooding has prompted plans to move the town north across Highway 20, outside of the flood plain — plans that have persisted for more than 30 years.
Town Council members say the town has to move. During each flood, houses are damaged and families are forced to leave.
“If the town isn’t going to move, the town will die within 30 or 40 years,” said Councilman Dale Bonner. “The town will not exist.”
Bonner said moving the town could hurt its appeal as a historic, affordable place to live. No doubt, he said, new homes across the highway will cause rents to increase.
Sitting on his back patio attached to a double-wide trailer on Noble Street, he pointed at his large, trim lawn and lush foliage.
“Where could I live with what you see right here for $450 a month?” he said. “Move to Sedro-Woolley, a place like this would run you $1,000 to $1,200 a month.”
Tim Bates said the move — and all the time and work it would require — is why he’s remained mayor for 20 years.
“I have an agenda,” he said. “I like this town. I want to see this town survive, either here or across the highway.”
But none of that can happen until the town gets the money to buy the acres needed to relocate and the infrastructure to support homes.
Pete Pitts, owner of the Hi-Lo RV Park and one-time council member, said he’s seen the cycle over and again in Hamilton: Little sources of money come along to help, but none large enough to finish the job.
“The federal government gives (the county) enough money to talk about it, but not enough to move it,” Pitts said.
No place like it
Even with floods forcing RVs and businesses to higher ground every few years, residents say there’s no place like it.
“Hamilton, it’s a beautiful place to be right next to the river,” said Benjamin, who moved into one of the oldest houses in town six years ago. “We have issues, but we’ve got a good quality of life for people who put their energy out. So we get a little water in our backyard.”
Mayor Bates said he loves the town, even though he’s not sure he’ll live to see Hamilton moved across the highway. Staring out from the cafe, he shared stories about locals who mowed lawns across the town all day, drove their riding mowers to the bar, then headed home, only to get ticketed for drunken driving.
“I think I could write a book on Hamilton, and you’d still never get it all down,” he said.