Take a hike to explore Northwest history

Apr 18, 2018, 6:19 AM | Updated: 8:09 am
The forest along the Coal Creek Trail in Bellevue and Newcastle includes evidence of the area’s coal mining days, such as a ventilation shaft from an old mine. (Judy Bentley) The Duwamish River Trail affords views of the North Winds Fish Weir, what author and historian Judy Bentley describes as part of the “mythical landscape” of Native American history along the river. (Judy Bentley) Centuries ago, Skagit Indians burned vegetation near what’s now Ebey’s Landing to create prairies where camas bulbs, a source of food, would more readily grow. (Judy Bentley) A 19th century blockhouse stands near Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island. (Judy Bentley) Centuries ago, Skagit Indians burned vegetation near what’s now Ebey’s Landing to create prairies where camas bulbs, a source of food, would more readily grow. (Judy Bentley)

April’s record rainfall amounts might make this month one for the history books.

But with spring weather finally here – hopefully – it’s time to put down those history books and instead put on some comfortable shoes and get outside and experience local history in real life.

And for this, there’s no better guide than local author and historian Judy Bentley.

UW Press published Bentley’s book “Hiking Washington’s History” back in 2010, and she’s currently working on a new edition that will be out in 2020.

Bentley took a break from her research and writing (and hiking) to share four favorite Puget Sound area hikes that are each steeped in their own particular chapters of local history.

What inspired Judy Bentley to write “Hiking Washington’s History” in the first place?

“I was always curious [about] who had gone before me, why this trail was here, who made it, what was its original purpose,” Bentley said by phone earlier this week.

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“And of course, the fascinating history in the Pacific Northwest and the Cascades particularly of all the Native American trails that went over the passes in the Cascades. Some of these trails are thousands of years old,” Bentley said. “That’s pretty impressive.”

To hear Bentley describe the work she does to explore and write about local history as a form of outdoor recreation, it’s clear that this is something that comes naturally to this retired educator who was born in Indiana, and who worked in New York City in publishing before coming to Seattle in the 1980s.

“It’s just curiosity, I think, about who’s been here before and what are these features in the landscape that seem a little unusual,” said Bentley, who’s currently serving as president of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild.

Coal Creek Trail

Bentley’s favorite hike is along Coal Creek, just off of 405 and I-90 in Bellevue, between Coal Creek Natural Area and Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. She says that evidence of this now suburban area’s forgotten coal mining history — from the 1880s to the 1920s – starts to appear to the careful observer along the trail almost right away.

“You begin to see chunks of brick and coal in the creek, [and] if you look carefully at one creek crossing, you can see coal seams along the bank, rusty machinery, wheels leaning against the tree, and a grade of the trail that seems unnatural,” Bentley said.

“And, in fact, it’s raised up above a hillside, it’s covered with ferns, and what you’re walking on is the old railroad grade that took the coal from the mines to Renton,” she said.

“It becomes a little more unmistakable,” Bentley said. “You see a big old black hole in the earth, and that’s the air tunnel to the mine.”

“It’s pretty dramatic.”

Duwamish River Trail in Tukwila

Judy Bentley is also a big fan of the paved trail along the Duwamish River.

“That’s really an urban trail,” Bentley said. “It’s a biking trail, and it goes along the Duwamish Waterway for the first five miles, and then up the river — the natural river — another five and a half miles. So it’s easier to bike than walk, but there are some good walking portions.”

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“I love the contrasts here between the contemporary, fairly ugly industrial landscape and the mythical landscape history, which is told through legends from Duwamish ancestors, especially around the North Winds Fish Weir, which was a natural stone formation across the river,” Bentley said. “And there’s a site called Beaver Monster Hill which was kind of a lookout area, and both of these sites are part of a story of how we got our rainy weather.”

For history hikers, Bentley recommends a stretch of the bike path that begins at Tukwila Community Center and goes to the North Winds Fish Weir. She especially appreciates the variety of sights along this part of the route, and the sheer amount of transportation that seems to have always been taking place along the Duwamish.

“You’ll see farmlands history,” Bentley said. “There were Italian truck farmers along the river, a Swiss dairy farm, riverboat landings … this Duwamish corridor is just a transportation hub. There were riverboats on the river, there was an Interurban line, now Highway 99, I-5 goes through there, light rail goes through there.”

“Everything goes through this transportation corridor,” Bentley said, “so you get that sense of its centrality to the region.”

Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island

The next history hike is on Whidbey Island not far from Coupeville at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, which was settled by Isaac Ebey back in the 1850s.

“Isaac Ebey said he had found paradise,” Bentley said. “He had canoed around the Duwamish River and Puget Sound looking for the best place to make a claim for his homestead, and he found it on Whidbey Island and brought his family there.”

But not long after, Bentley says, Ebey became caught up in the conflicts of that era with Native Americans.

“In 1857, he was sought out as a chief among white men, and beheaded by a Northern tribe in retaliation for the killing of one of their own by the US Navy,” Bentley said.

With that violence now in the distant past, Judy Bentley says that the most remarkable features that are still able to be appreciated at Ebey’s Landing are the prairies which were burned centuries ago by Skagit Indians to help grow camas bulbs, which was a food source.

“This is a beautiful hike that begins on Ebey’s Landing which is where the water landing was on Admiralty Inlet,” Bentley said. “You hike up the bluff, you walk along one side of the prairie, go past the blockhouse that was built during those conflicts [between Native Americans and settlers], reach a cemetery where settlers’ gravesites are.”

Bentley says the trail is about one-and-half miles, one way, with “beautiful vistas … if the weather is nice.”

Sequalitchew Creek Trail in DuPont

In the forthcoming edition of “Hiking Washington’s History” due in 2020, a new hike Judy Bentley highlights is from DuPont in Pierce County to the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek.

“It leaves from DuPont, and it’s a three-and-half mile round trip,” Bentley said, with a “walk along a railroad grade again that carried explosives from the DuPont factory [for which the community is named] to the dock on Nisqually Reach, which is an arm of Puget Sound.”

“They used the dock to import sodium nitrate from Chile and then export the explosives,” Bentley said, from 1906 until the late 1970s. “Then Weyerhaeuser bought the land, and more recently built the golf course on the contaminated gunpowder works site.”

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But before that, Bentley says, the area has ancient history, and a Native American Sequalitch and Nisqually village had been at the mouth of the creek for thousands of years. It was also the place, Bentley says, where the British-backed Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Nisqually trading post in 1832 – in the years when the US and Britain were jockeying for control of the Old Oregon Country, and before the 49th parallel became what’s now the US border with Canada.

Bentley says that this hike is a “very gentle walk about one and a half miles down to the beach where you can really linger at the site of where trade has gone on for centuries in many forms … then walk back up and visit the historic village of DuPont.”

“It’s just rich in all layers of history,” Bentley said.

And the same could be said about all of the hikes that Judy Bentley recommends.

More from Feliks Banel

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Take a hike to explore Northwest history