Edmonds’ heritage built on cedar dreams

The Old Man House, located near what is now Port Gamble, was built by the Suquamish of western red cedar logs. This painting of the house, titled “Potlach,” is the work of Raphael Coombs.

All who live in Edmonds, ax-wielder or no, share a heritage of western red cedar. The timbermen and women who came in the late 19th Century harvested the cedar for shingles and shakes used to build homes across America. The Coast Salish native people who came earlier — thousands of years earlier — used cedar for canoes, totem poles, long houses, masks, clothing, rope and much else.

Teams of oxen at work during Edmonds’ early days. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

George Brackett paddled his canoe from Seattle to Edmonds in 1870, liked what he saw, and later came back to build a town. Photos from Edmonds’ logging days show teams of oxen hauling massive trunk bolts of cedar down to the water and sawmills.

Stories of coastal tribes describe longhouses of cedar on both sides of Puget Sound, and raise the tantalizing possibility of Edmonds logs lashed to canoes for the journey west. If this ever happened, Edmonds cedars may have stood as totem poles of Old Man House, the enormous Suquamish longhouse south of Kingston that was home to chiefs Seattle and Kitsap.

A cedar carving of Suquamish carrying a 300-year-old cedar canoe, with modern tribesmen in front, ancestors in the middle and otters in the back. The work is on display at the Suquamish Museum south of Kingston.

Today these western red cedar giants are mostly long gone. A few can still be seen in Yost Park. Otherwise, what remains are memories, or, in the apt phrasing of Seattle artist Benson Shaw, “Cedar Dreams”:

Tell me a Cedar Dream of the Forest Primeval

To grow tall and dense

In the rain and the fog.

And the First People? Tell me of their Cedar Dreams

A forest full of life’s materials.

Sustenance for body, family and spirit.

What of Cedar Dreams from the Frontier Village?

Timber and land for houses and families.

Fortunes to gather.

A City to build….

Shaw wrote the poem in 2000 as part of his winning entry for a fountain and sculpture that sits at the center of Edmonds on Main Street and 5th Avenue.

Edmonds’ western red cedars reached hundreds of feet into the sky and a thousand years or more in age. They spilled a cathedral forest down the slopes of the Edmonds Bowl. The long, straight grain of their wood, reddish brown in color, fed the imaginations of carpenters, artists and home builders. Air spaces between the wood cells made cedar boards good for insulation, and lighter than other conifers used for building. Mature western red cedars even produce their own fungicide, a protection that can last for many years after the tree has fallen.

A botanist might prefer a different spelling – western “redcedar” or “red-cedar”. That’s because the tree is a member of the cypress family, and isn’t even a cousin of the blue atlas cedar or the cedars of Lebanon.

But the popular name of the tree that brought Edmonds into being is not likely to change. Western red cedar is much more than a source of wood. One of its alternate names is giant arborvitae – tree of life.

A legend among the Coast Salish natives living along Puget Sound held that a weary traveler could gain strength just by leaning against one.

“It’s sacred, sacred in so many ways,” said Jeremy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe. “It’s how we traveled on water, how we created places to live. It’s how we clothed ourselves. It’s our art. Our tools.”

The western red cedar’s natural habitat stretches from northern California to southeastern Alaska, and from the Pacific coast to Montana. The tree reached its zenith on the Olympic Peninsula, along a lush strip from Port Angeles to the open sea.

Until a year ago, the single largest western red cedar tree grew in the Quinault rain forest on the Pacific shore. It was 174 feet tall. At chest height, its girth was 61 feet. Winds, saturating rains and the tramp of thousands of visitors on shallow roots all seemed to play a role in the fall of this giant on July 8, 2016.

A western red cedar in British Columbia grew 233 feet high before its demise in 1972.

Western red cedar grows alongside Douglas fir, western hemlock and other conifers. Unchanged by logging or fire, the climax of such a forest will be dominated by red cedar giants.

Edmonds was one such forest.

Today there is no archeological evidence in Edmonds of a permanent settlement of the Coast Salish people. Tribal elders with the Snoqualmie told the Sierra Club some years ago [1986] of a fishing village in what is now Edmonds. Tribal researchers and leaders say the Snohomish, S’Klallam and Suquamish camped and foraged for food around Edmonds in the saltwater marsh and forest.

“We fished and harvested there,” said Port Gamble S’Klallam chairman Sullivan.

I met chairman Sullivan in June on the Port Gamble shoreline, as he was beating a drum and singing. Two S’Klallam cedar canoes rested on the gravelly beach. Women wearing cedar basket hats mingled in a clambake crowd.

Port Gamble S’Klallam canoes on the cleaned up shores of the town. (Photo by Jim Landers)

The June 8 celebration marked the completion of the water cleanup of the Port Gamble saw mill, where Douglas firs and red cedar were cut for houses in San Francisco. Pope Resources, prodded vigorously by Washington’s Department of Ecology and the S’Klallam, removed more than 8,600 creosote pilings and thousands of tons of toxic sediments. Clean sand was put down on the sea bottom, sand that will hopefully bring back the clams, oysters and fish that were once abundant before the mill.

As in Edmonds, “a lot of Indians came” to Port Gamble before the mill to fish and forage, Sullivan said. But in the 140 years before the mill closed in 1994, Port Gamble lost much of its bounty due to industrial pollution.

A cedar-bark dress made by Peg Deam in 2012 is on display at the Suquamish Museum

Maia Bellon, director of the Department of Ecology, was at the June 8 Port Gamble celebration. She is a Mescalero Apache descendant and the first Native American to head a Washington executive cabinet agency, and she choked up a bit as she told the cleanup story. Her first day on the job, her first call was from Sullivan, asking when the state would act.

“This day is not just about healing this land, this water and beach,” she said. “It is about mending and healing among people.”

Robert Walls, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and a part-year Edmonds resident, argues there is healing to be done among people in Edmonds, too.

Native Americans are practically invisible in the histories of Edmonds. Newspaperman Ray V. Cloud’s “Edmonds: The Gem of Puget Sound” offers a short quote from Etta Brackett (George Brackett’s wife). In 1905, she wrote: “The Indians were not bad neighbors, … and we were never subjected to the petty annoyances that usually accompany close contact with the natives.”

Old photos show lots of activity on the waterfront, with boats and mills and stiffly dressed Edmonds residents. Just north of the ferry landing, though, canoes – “flotillas of them,” Walls said — lined the shores of Edmonds as Suquamish and other Coast Salish people came to Edmonds to trade.

One step toward recognizing this heritage came this year when the City of Edmonds put a poster-sized sign on the new public restrooms across from the Edmonds Museum. The sign describes how, in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish, the hill above Edmonds now called Point Edwards was “Stubus.” Coast Salish continue to fish off the Port of Edmonds.

“The shoreline hosted seasonal fishing camps… Trails led up to Lake Ballinger, providing access to berries, roots and other resources, while cattails, bulrushes and grasses were harvested in the local marshes,” the sign recalls.

But what of the cedars?

Dennis Lewarch, tribal historic preservation officer of the Suquamish, said the canoes landing in Edmonds were large enough to float cedar logs. It was common to load these canoes with 800 to 900 pounds of clams.

“The Edmonds marsh was really important. It provided a lot of food resources, and fishing as well,” Lewarch told me. “Bark and cattails were used for mats and carpets.”

“They could have done a tree harvest at the same time they were using the marsh,” he said.

There are no written records of Indian cedar harvests at Edmonds. The Coast Salish seemed to pass through, or camp only in the summer. It is likely that cedar trees felled by natural causes were available along the beach. Whether they were lashed to canoes and brought to the Kitsap shoreline is unknown.

Such a journey could be the stuff of an Edmonds’ “Cedar Dream.”

Giant conifers, including red cedar, were thick on the land all around Puget Sound. These were not easily harvested by the Salish people, however. To bring down one giant cedar and shape it into a canoe could take a year. A Salish woodsman would have to use small hand tools and hot coals to cut his way through a standing tree.

Alternatively, cedars already on the ground remained firm for many years thanks to the natural fungicide the tree produces in maturity.

In 1841, Lt. Charles Wilkes led a U.S. Navy team on an exploration of Puget Sound. The expedition named landmarks along the way, including a shore bluff dubbed Point Edmund to honor Wilkes’ son. (The site known today as Point Edwards.)

When the expedition reached the Suquamish around Port Madison, the Navy men were astonished to find a gigantic longhouse along the beach made of cedar logs and planks. The size of this longhouse, the largest in Washington state, was anywhere between 500 and 1,600 feet long. The historic marker on the site estimates 900 feet – close to the length of a football field.

Great cedar totem poles – 20 or more — faced the water. Along with shorter poles further back from the shore, they supported immense gable roof logs.

Passed Midshipman Joseph Perry Sanford, an officer on Wilkes’ ship Vincennes, described the scene in a journal that is now only partially legible.

“It is a matter of great — how these timbers were placed on these, as their weight & size, must have called into acquisition more strength than a hundred Indians could have possible used to advantage without employing of purchases.”

As in other times and cultures, the size of the longhouse was a mark of the owner’s wealth. They were not single-family homes, however. In winter, the log frames would be planked with cedar to provide shelter.

At one point, the Suquamish longhouse housed more than 2,000 people in the winter. It was called D’Suq’Wub, meaning “clear salt water.” In Chinook jargon, the longhouse was called “Oleman” or “Strong Man House.” Today it is remembered as Old Man House.

The same year George Brackett reached Edmonds in his canoe, the U.S. Army gave orders that Old Man House be burned.

Brackett’s strong will and vision built a mill town on the Sound. At its peak, there were 14 shingle mills in operation, producing billions of shingles from the giant cedars. The last mill, known as the Big Swede, closed in 1951, when nearly all the cedars were gone.

In 2004, the state of Washington returned a one-acre park at the site of Old Man House to the Suquamish.

Tribal member Rob Purser, who led the tribe’s effort to obtain the park, told The Seattle Times, “This is a good step in the healing process for the tribe, to see this type of turnaround taken by the state government.”

British Columbia writer and artist Hilary Stewart, author of the 1984 book Cedar: Tree of Life of the Northwest Coast Indians, cited a legend about how western red cedar came to be. A generous man helped his neighbors with food, clothing and whatever else they needed. Seeing this, the Great Spirit said, “That man has done his work; when he dies and where he is buried, a cedar tree will grow and be useful to the people – the roots, for baskets, the bark for clothing, the wood for shelter.”

The people of Edmonds — Salish, logger and urban dweller alike – should be thankful for such a generous tree.

— By Jim Landers

A member of the Edmonds Historical Museum Board, Jim Landers is a retired journalist who lives in Edmonds with his wife Lynn. Landers had a 45-year career as a writer, editor and columnist focused on international affairs and economic matters, particularly the high cost of U.S. health care. Working primarily for The Dallas Morning News, both in Dallas and in its Washington bureau, the Morning News team he led as international editor won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1994. Landers was named Texas Reporter of the Year in 2003 for his work in Iraq, where he was an embedded journalist with the 2nd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps.

3 Replies to “Edmonds’ heritage built on cedar dreams”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It answers many questions I have had about the history of Edmonds, and in particular, the Native American population before and after white people came.


  2. Thank you Jim for a fantastic run down on the history related to the magnificent trees.

    Nowadays, we can’t clear cut them fast enough…sigh


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