Snohomish : Small Town, Big History

1857, Wagner & McGuigan, from WA State Archives.

In 1855, Washington Territory started work on a military road to connect the 135 miles between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham. Army surveyors hacked through the dense Pacific Northwest forests, building a road as far north as Seattle. Beyond that construction stalled, as federal funds dwindled.

So early settlers took up their own tools and carved a crude muddy trail through the remote wilderness, along a path near to today’s Highway 9.

Emory C. Ferguson, a New York native transplanted to Steilacoom and searching for work as a carpenter, took interest in the new road. He studied maps of the proposed route with the hope of finding the perfect site for a lucrative ferry crossing.

In the summer of 1859, he located a spot along a dark and heavily forested river and sent three of his friends to survey and stake homestead claims. Some storefronts were quickly built and a hand-operated cable ferry strung across the river. It was “a very weird place,” he said. “Trees along the banks with long branches extending out over the river… with long strings of moss hanging from the branches, which nearly shut out the sunlight.”*

A few months later, Ferguson built a small one-room cabin and had it shipped upriver by boat. Placed on a cleared hillside overlooking the Snohomish River, he moved in in March 1860 and stayed for 20 years: “It wasn’t a palace, but it was home sweet home… and I never have been happier than when I lived there.”*

The house still stands today: catch a glimpse from the Riverfront Trail.

*David Dilgard - "The Adventures of Old Ferg, Parts One and Two." Journal of Everett & Snohomish County History.

1890 view of the cottage with Ferguson seated in the middle,
from UW Special Collections.

Pilchuck Julia & Jack, ca. 1897, from UW Special Collections.

Coast Salish people known as the Sdoh-doh-hohbsh were Ferguson’s first neighbors. They had lived in the area for thousands of years, with seasonal encampments stretching from the Everett waterfront to today’s Monroe. For the Coast Salish and upper Snoqualmie tribes, the river provided a vital link for trade and transportation.

Though the military road never fully materialized, a trading and shipping hub did. The outpost was nicknamed Cadyville and comprised a store, tavern, and a handful of rough log homes at the site of today’s Cady Park. It was named after Ferguson’s friend Edson T. Cady, who freighted supplies on his steamboat to logging camps up and down the river. Within a few years, a wharf and hotel had been built at the water’s edge, quickly followed by multiple mills busily processing the area's vast logging supply.

In 1871, Ferguson officially formed the town and gave it a name inspired by the native population: “Snohomish City.”

Inscription on back reads, "Snohomish in 1866. The Eagle Saloon (Ferguson) on the left, Sinclair and Clendenning store on the right. Taken from south bank of Snohomish River." From Snohomish Historical Society archives.

Postcard, ca. 1911, from author's collection.

The lumber industry converted the landscape's firs and cedars to boards and shingles, shipping them to big markets in San Francisco and beyond. The region’s mining and timber potential attracted investment and entrepreneurial emigrants from New England and the population grew.

The valley floor, once covered in swamps and trees, was cleared and drained. Farmers tilled the rich soil for their homesteads, transforming it into the active agricultural area we see today. 

By 1900 Snohomish was a bustling town, with a river exchanging people and goods by canoe or steamboat. Railroads arrived in 1888 with the tracks running along the same route as today’s Riverfront Trail. Fortunes were made and the town blossomed, with stately homes built to house the lumber barons, shipping magnates, and dairy kings. A 1911 article described,

A city of five thousand souls, thoroughly modern. Gas, electric lights, paved streets, modern business buildings… a city of beautiful homes. She outnumbers the rest of us in years but none of the decrepitude of age is noticeable. She does not aspire to be a metropolis but she will always be what she is today, a healthy, progressive, essentially home city.”

-"Snohomish The 'Hub City.'" The Labor Journal, June 9, 1911.

Though threatened by flood, fire and a 1960s mall redevelopment, a significant number of Snohomish's historic homes and buildings remain. Its authentic feel and quintessential small-town charm provide a welcome home for visitors and residents alike. 

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