Saturday, May 30, 2009
Snohomish and the alternative history of Pugetopolis
I just returned from a two-day conference in Snohomish where I met many kindred spirits when it comes to historic preservation. The event was the Historic Preservation and Cultural Tourism Symposium, a first-time event hosted in honor of the city of Snohomish's 150th birthday. I was a speaker and moderator of the event.
Snohomish is a gem of a town when it comes to preservation, with lovely restored homes and a downtown main street that looks in many ways remarkably the same as it did in the late 19th century. Like Seattle, much of the original commercial strip burned in the 1800s and most of the wooden store fronts were replaced by brick structures (though not all, a few originals remain). It's a bit like Port Townsend, but on a smaller scale, and even on a weekday, the downtown bustles. It's a place that's lived in. One sound the provides background "music" when you walk along through the commercial district: the constant rumble and grumble of the operating mill across the river. Snohomish was founded to make timber fortunes, and hasn't entirely turned into a museum yet.
One of the speakers at the conference was David Dilgard, a history specialist who works for the Everett Public Library. He spent part of an evening telling stories about the history of Snohomish County, from Native American animal tales to the shenanigans of early settlers who seem to have scammed Snohomish into existence. They fooled the the government into thinking that a road to town was passable by wagons. The military was looking for a way to move troops and supplies north in case of war with Britain (the Pig War). The road through Snohomish was was not yet passable, but local boosters made it seem better than it was bringing a wagon up the river by steamboat and parking it in town so inspectors would think the road was fully operational. A con job, or salesmanship?
Dilgard said Snohomish was really a speculative dream of a powerful clique of pioneers from Steilacoom, an early power on Puget Sound and in the Washington Territory. One reason for growth was it was thought that the military road would be good for business, so the site was an early example of the influence of the defense industry on the territory's growth patterns (military and defense spending continues to be huge in the region, a cornerstone of Puget Sound prosperity and jobs). Snohomish didn't boom from defense, however. The road became unnecessary when cooler heads prevailed and it was decided not to go to war with Britain over the death of a single swine.
One thing Dilgard's anecdotes reminded me of, however, was that there was nothing particularly inevitable about the ascendency of certain cities on Puget Sound. As I write in Pugetopolis, there was a tremendous amount of competition in the early days to determine which cities would dominate in the region. It is entirely possible that instead of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Olympia, for example, being regional power centers, an alternative history might have seen Snohomish, Mukilteo and Steilacoom as the dominant regional cities.
I plan to write more on some newsworthy things I learned at the conference at Crosscut.com