Everett to Stevens Pass
A journey from northwest Washington state to East Wenatchee, along the central Columbia River to Umatilla, Oregon, west to Portland, north to Olympia, onward to Port Townsend, a ferry ride back to Whidbey Island, and home again, this was my first post-Covid-19 shutdown overnighter. The first step, from Everson to Everett, is at Cascades, Columbia, Capital, and Cannons – 1. This post takes us from Monroe, through several small towns along US 2 that were built by railroad, gold mining, and the timber industry, Sultan, Startup, Gold Bar, and Skykomish. The third post in the series will travel up and over the North Cascades at Stevens Pass, and down through Leavenworth to Wenatchee and East Wenatchee.
The bridge below carries travelers on US 2 across the South Fork of the Skykomish River to the small mountain town of Skykomish.
After traveling south on I-5 and crossing the Snohomish River and up the bluff to Everett, I took the first off ramp, turned left under I-5, and started east on US 2. My destination – the high, snow-capped North Cascades.
The first city eastbound on US 2 is Monroe, with a population of about 19,000. Monroe is about 30 miles northeast of Seattle and sits at the confluence of three large western Washington Rivers, the Snohomish, Skykomish, and Snoqualmie.
Just before US 2, known as the Stevens Pass Highway, enters Monroe, a sign on the right points to the Monroe Correctional Complex, a Washington state men’s prison a short distance south. Monroe’s principal claim to fame is as the home of the Evergreen State Fairgrounds which is on the left just before the road enters the shopping area along US 2. In more normal times, the Fairgrounds hosts the Northwest Washington State Fair in late August and early September, the Evergreen Speedway, the Western Heritage Center, and an Equestrian Center. At various other times during the year, the Fairgrounds hosts RV shows, gun shows, garden shows, and a variety of other gatherings and celebrations. In mid-April, 2021, a parking lot at the Fairgrounds was filled with lines of cars with people who had Covid-19 vaccination appointments.
Beyond the Fairgrounds, a series of big box stores, restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, and other commercial places line both sides of US 2 for a half mile or so. For travelers headed over the mountains, Monroe is a good place to stop for food, gas, and other needs. Midway along this commercial strip, Chain Lake Road is on the left, which is North Lewis Street on the right. Lewis Street passes through the older commercial center. Lewis becomes State Route 203, crossing the Skykomish River at the edge of town. The Skykomish parallels and swings back and forth across US 2 from Monroe east to the mountains.
Seven and a half miles east of Monroe on US 2 is Sultan, the first of a string of three small towns that were built by and for the Great Northern Railway. The highway passes the Sultan Boat Launch at Sportsman’s Park, on the left, then crosses the Sultan River at the confluence of the Sultan and the Skykomish River. A new pedestrian bridge crosses the Sultan River a short distance north of the highway bridge. The BNSF Rail bridge parallels the highway bridge, just south of the roadway.
Beyond the bridges, the town of Sultan, pop 5,200, spreads along the left of the highway. The town, incorporated in 1905, was founded on logging and mining. The Great Northern railway built a construction and supply site at Sultan in the early 1890s that employed some 800 men during construction of the railway. On the right of US 2, a park stretches between the road and the railroad tracks. The Skykomish flows west on the far side of the tracks. Town, highway, railroad, river.
The current Sultan City Hall was built in 1954. The library upstairs is part of the Sno-Isle Library system. The sturdy brick building is on the corner of Main and 4th Streets. The image on the right shows Kiss the Sky Books, two-story, pitched roof building, center of the image. Coffee and conversation are offered. The City Hall and Library are beyond the book store. The Flat Iron Gallery on the right sells home furnishings and gifts.
The other two corners of the Main and 4th intersection support the Post Office and the Visitor Information Center. The first Post Office was approved in 1885, and John Nailor, an early settler, was named the first Postmaster. The Sky Valley Historical Society Museum is now located on the second floor of the Post Office. The Information Center was a bank in a previous life. A staff person at the Sultan Visitor Center told me she remembered when this building was the only bank in town, and had been for decades. The bank closed in the 1980s, was vacant for a long time, and had various other lives. It became the Visitor Center and Chamber of Commerce building some eighteen years ago.
The historical importance of timber to Sultan’s long long relationship with the dense forests of the Skykomish Valley is represented by a the plaque on this massive Douglas Fir slab in Sultan’s Traveler’s Park. The plaque reads: “Douglas Fir 1000 Year Old from the Sultan Basin.” Traveler’s Park is on the narrow strip of green between US 2 and the Great Northern tracks in Sultan, to the right of the image. At one time, this strip of land was the location of the railway depot and maintenance and construction yard for the railroad.
Startup is 3.7 miles east of Sultan on US 2. Startup is another one of the several towns along this stretch of US 2 that owes its existence to the lumber industry, to gold mining, and the Great Northern Railway, which merged to become the Burlington and Northern, which later became the BNSF.
Startup had about 600 people in 2010. The population has diminished since that census. Startup has not had a public school for many years. Students ride a bus to Sultan for elementary, middle, and high school, and to attend an alternative high school, all part of the Sultan School District. Gold Bar has its own elementary school, but older students also attend in Sultan.
The two-story building was the Startup K-8 school. It is now a community center. The building on the right had classrooms, and is now the Startup District Water Office.
Gold Bar is the last of the three small towns along US 2 east of Monroe within a space of six miles. All three were dependent on gold mining, timbering, and the railroad. Although the population in 2010 was 2,075 in 2010, it dropped to 1,858 by 2019. The town straddles US 2, and is bordered on the south by the Skykomish River.
According to ABC News, Gold Bar was on the verge in 2012 of either disincorporating, meaning it would become just a census place in Snohomish County, filing bankruptcy, or raising taxes. The cause of the financial problems was a series of disputes between the city and a local journalist and activist named Anne Block who had filed a series of information requests over several years. The city was forced to hire a sixth employee to do document searches and a private attorney to defend against the lawsuits. In 2012, the cost of gathering the documents and defending the suits was $90,000, a sixth of the city’s budget. The city was reduced to plowing only the major roads. Residents were divided in their opinions. Some considered Block a champion of open government and others were driven to make threats of bodily harm. Block reported that she had received a number of threats and her door had been kicked in, and that she had purchased a gun in self defense.
The city is still incorporated and did not file for bankruptcy, though the tax levy was defeated by the voters. As I write this in May, 2021, I cannot find a resolution to the quandary. If I do, I’ll update this blog.
Gold Bar does have at least one attribute that is welcomed by travelers on US 2. The Gold Bar Family Grocer is at the east end of town, next door to the Post Office. The store is the last place for groceries for miles going east over the mountains. It’s also the last rest room for quite a while. Easy to find, the sign is next to the highway.
About a block beyond the grocery store, US 2 crosses a branch of May Creek, a shallow waterway that spreads out into a swampy area in wet weather, which is much of the year. A short stretch of sidewalk, perhaps 50 feet long, has been named to honor Lee J Gerry who died in Gold Bar in 2011. The somewhat unusual memorial is a tribute to a well-known local man. The sidewalk runs along the bridge that crosses the marshy area formed by May Creek. Beyond the sidewalk memorial to Gerry, US 2 stretches towards the North Cascades.
Twenty-one miles east of Gold Bar, the small railroad town of Skykomish is across a steel girder bridge on the right.
The road across the bridge is named 5th Street North. Built in 1939, the 5th Street bridge Ts at the Stevens Pass Highway, US 2. A gas station and convenience store is on one corner and a deli and pizza shop is on the other. a brewery and restaurant is a short distance beyond the bridge road. Both the pizza shop and the brewery are fairly new, though the buildings have been there for years. I think the brewery building had been vacant for a long time. Now that public places are able to have guests, the three businesses welcome visitors to Skykomish. US 2 is just beyond the left end of the bridge below. The right image is looking east, upriver, towards the North Cascades.
Skykomish is a historic town, like many North Cascades towns,it was born of a marriage between the railroad and the timber industry. Fir and cedar covered the mountain slopes and milled into lumber and shingles to be used for growing towns downriver, some going as far as Seattle, some even farther, to rebuild San Francisco. The Great Northern Railroad, nicknamed the Iron Goat because it climbed like a mountain goat, was extended from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, by James Hill, a nineteenth and early twentieth century railroad tycoon. In 1970, GN merged with three other railroads to become the BNSF. Sky City is now an important maintenance and supply yard for the railroad, though it retains its connection to the Great Northern Railway.
Railroad Avenue parallels the tracks for the four or five short blocks of the town. West Railroad Avenue starts at 5th Street with a 1907 building that started life as Maloney’s General Store, on the right in the image below. The three-story, flat roofed white building in the next block is the combination High School and Grade School according to sign on the building. It is now the K-12 school for the Skykomish School District. The first school was a one-room school house built in 1893, the year the Great Northern connected the town to the world.
East Railroad Avenue began with the Skykomish Hotel, built in 1905 by DJ Manning. The hotel is being renovated and the front is hidden by tarps. Across Railroad Avenue from the historic hotel, a grassy strip between the street and the tracks is decorated by a steel silhouette of an iron goat.
The Iron Goat of the Great Northern Railway, the emblem of the town of Skykomish, is on the front wall of the Whistling Post, a restaurant and bar, and on the west end of the Cascadia Hotel and Cafe, the other principal businesses in town. Skykomish is small, but a charming place to visit and explore, both for the beauty of its natural setting and for its history.
The next post in this series, Cascades, Columbia, Capital, and Cannons – 3, will take us from the top of Stevens Pass to East Wenatchee on the mighty Columbia River in central Washington state.
My images are copyrighted, and are available for purchase as wall hangings (paper and canvas archival prints) and household stuff, like cups and towels. You’re welcome to stop by and browse at US Highway 2 in Washington State.