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Local History

Native Americans — including members of the Skagit, Samish and Swinomish tribes — lived in Skagit County for thousands of years, enjoying the bounty of the land and sea, before Spanish and British explorers began touching down onto its shores in the late 1700s. In 1791, the Spanish Eliza expedition discovered and named Guemes Island and Padilla Bay. A year later, Joseph Whidbey of Capt. George Vancouver’s expedition discovered Deception Pass and Whidbey Island.

The explorers were followed by trappers and traders of the Hudson’s Bay Co. during the 1820s. Water served as the primary transportation system for people and goods. In 1858, white explorers made their first recorded trip up the Skagit River in search of gold. Major Van Bokkelen and his party paddled canoes up the Skagit to the Baker River, and then up the Baker to Baker Lake; they reportedly found the Native Americans friendly and some traces of gold in the river banks, but not enough to prompt them to return.

The first permanent white settler is believed to be William Munks, who set down roots on March Point on Fidalgo Island in 1859. The first white settlers to take advantage of the fertile soil of the Skagit Valley were Michael Sullivan and Sam Calhoun, who in 1863 diked off shore areas near La Conner. Calhoun claimed that their first crop produced 1,200 bushels of barley from 21 acres. Four years later, the first store was established in Skagit County, a trading post in La Conner.

Blocking the settlement up the Skagit River were two monster logjams that had accumulated over the centuries, one a half-mile wide and the other extending upstream for almost a mile. Government surveyors declined to offer funds to clear the logjams when they determined the bill would be $100,000. A local organization formed by seven loggers, with the help of local donations, in the late 1860s tackled the jams. It took them six months to cut a narrow channel through the first jam and two years to breach the second. The river was now clear, and homesteads began popping up along the river.

In 1870, the first steamer reached Mount Vernon, bringing settlers; within four years, regular steamer service was available from Seattle. Anacortes was named and got a post office in 1876, and Burlington was founded in 1882. Enterprising residents were catching salmon on the Skagit River, and the fish were processed at canneries in Anacortes. Other residents were launching timber and farming businesses.

The area was part of Whatcom County, and residents in 1883 petitioned the territorial government to become a separate county; that year, Gov. William A. Newell established Skagit County, named after the tribe.
H.P. Downs, F.E. Gilkey and H.A. March were named the first commissioners.

In 1889 — the year Washington became a state — the first steam locomotives moved up the rails into Skagit County. By 1901, Skagit’s main cities were connected on lines from Seattle, and the upper valley line had reached Baker, later named Concrete. Soon after, the line continued east on to Rockport.


Today’s scenic North Cascades Highway is the same corridor Native Americans used as a trading route from the Eastern Plateau country to the Pacific Coast for more than 8,000 years. The first state funding to explore a possible route through the Cascade Range was appropriated in 1895. The North Cascades Highway officially opened in 1972.

In 1883, a Confederate veteran platted the town of Atlanta on Samish Island to be “a sanctuary of persecuted Confederates and other sympathizers with the lost cause.” A staunch Unionist promptly platted the town of Samish immediately adjacent. (www.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Anacortes boomed, hoping it would be a railroad terminus. But the railroad magnates passed the city over, and dreams of becoming the “New York of the West” went bust.