All Over The Map: The phantom riverside community of Skagit City
Skagit City – named for the river, which comes from an Indigenous word for the native people who have called the area home for millennia – was described by historians in 1906 as the “the oldest settlement and business point on the Skagit River.”
In its heyday, which was from about 1869 to 1879, it had “hotels, stores, saloons, school, church and other public buildings.” The town secured a post office in 1872, and a wharf was constructed along the river. In the 1870s, regularly scheduled steamboats connected Skagit City to destinations such as Port Townsend and Seattle.
A visit to Skagit City in 2021 reveals that much has changed there since that heyday, and even since 1906. The townsite, which nowadays consists of about a dozen homes lining acres of active farmland, is south of Mount Vernon on Fir Island.
It doesn’t take very long to drive through the phantom riverside town Skagit City pic.twitter.com/gcMMCSxci9
— Feliks Banel (@FeliksBanel) May 21, 2021
Fir Island is a sprawling chunk of river delta between the north and south forks of the Skagit River. Drivers who exit I-5 at Conway and head toward LaConner are driving on the outskirts of what used to be Skagit City; a right turn just past the Skagit River bridge between Conway and Fir is all it takes to reach the once-bustling phantom riverside town.
The reason that Skagit City was sited there in the first place was mainly because just upriver, a huge log jam blocked the Skagit, preventing travel by even the smallest boat. By some accounts, the log jam was half a mile long, and many layers thick. It had been there long enough, perhaps decades, perhaps hundreds of years, that enough sediment had filled in gaps between logs. Where the sediment was thick enough, huge trees grew from the middle of the river channel.
By about 1874, settlers sought funding from the federal government in order to begin trying to remove that jam, and an even longer one – maybe a mile long – upriver from where Mount Vernon was founded in 1877. Once the lower jam and then the upper jam were cleared – projects that took about a decade to complete, with many setbacks, injuries, and even deaths along the way – then steamboats could go farther upriver. It wasn’t too long before up-and-coming Mount Vernon robbed Skagit City of its prominence.
When Skagit County was created in 1883 – the area had previously been part of Whatcom County – LaConner became the provisional county seat. An election was held, with Anacortes, LaConner, and Mount Vernon competing to become the permanent county seat; Mount Vernon prevailed.
That same 1906 historian wrote that only one general store remained in Skagit City at that time, though the county still operated a ferry for crossing the river. The Skagit City post office had been shut down in 1904, with mail for the community now coming through Mount Vernon.
As recently as the 1990s, an old schoolhouse from Skagit City was still standing. Old newspaper clippings report that from the 1950s until around the year 2000, there was a “pioneer picnic” held at the old Skagit City townsite (and school) on the third Sunday in July. The Skagit City Community Club, organizer of the picnics in the 1990s, officially went out of business in 2006.
For those wishing to visit Skagit City, there is a public fishing area along the river where you can park if you have a valid Discover Pass. It’s called Skagit City River Access Site; there’s no facilities or improvements, and it’s managed by the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, who acquired the .27-acres of land in 1957.
Along with a few short trails in the woods and access to a stretch of sandy riverbank, there are great views of the Skagit to the north and south. A quick inspection of the grounds revealed no apparent artifacts from the old steamboat wharf or other evidence that the area was once a townsite.
That same 1906 historian summed up Skagit City this way:
Skagit City is associated with so much of importance and interest and connection with the early days of Skagit’s settlement that it will always live in local history. Its mission as a town, however, seems to have been fulfilled.
If boosters wanted to bring Skagit City back to life, they could – as KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross suggests – bring back the log jam as a way of icing Mount Vernon for once and for all. A less extreme measure would be that old reliable method of coming up with a new tourism slogan.
Might I suggest: “There’s a lot more SKAGIT – than there is CITY – in Skagit City!”
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.