2022 Bolt Creek Wildfire sparks an Edmonds-related history lesson

The skies above Edmonds during the later part of September and early October of 2022 were filled with smoke and particulates from a rare wildfire burning in the western Cascades between Index and Skykomish. As it turned out, a part of the combustible material that was burning was from trees that had been harvested for cedar shingles 100 years ago, and processed in Edmonds’ numerous shingle mills.

As a first responder who lives in Edmonds, I traveled along with several hundred other wildland firefighters to the Sept. 10 Bolt Creek wildfire that broke out north of Index and Skykomish. As I worked in the area off and on over the next six weeks, I had the opportunity to talk to long-time residents, and learned of the historical ties between the area and Edmonds a century ago

Edmonds: The Early Days

It is well documented in a number of books (i.e. Archie Satterfield’s Edmonds: The First Century; Ray Cloud’s Edmonds: The Gem Of Puget Sound; Sara McGibbon DuBois and Ray E. DuBois’s Edmonds 1850s-1950s), what attracted the earliest settlers to what is now Edmonds: the dense forests of Douglas fir, spruce and red cedar trees that grew along the shoreline and upward toward the gently sloping hills. Subsequently, a major portion of the land that now comprises downtown Edmonds was purchased by a longtime logger named George Brackett in 1872 and then incorporated as a city in 1890.

At the time, red cedar was especially valuable. It was a soft wood that split easily and was a staple for shakes that covered homes in the early days. In the late 1880s and onward, there was a tremendous demand for red cedar shakes and shingles along the entire length of the West Coast, especially California.

Given the initial rich supply of red cedar trees, 15 shingle mills sprouted up along the Edmonds waterfront from the early 1900s through the late 1920s. The early mills provided hundreds of rewarding but also dangerous jobs to the mill workers who lived in Edmonds for more than two decades.

Cedar processing mills dot the Edmonds Waterfront. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Sadly, the shoreline forests were rapidly cut down within the first decade and logging moved inland. Photographs of the period show Edmonds with a large number of huge stumps within the city limits.

Index and Skykomish: The Early Days

While the Puget Sound townships grew, settlers were also staking claims to, purchasing and settling into areas that eventually became Snohomish, Monroe, Sultan, Startup, Goldbar and up the Stevens Pass corridor to what is now Index and Skykomish. Settlements started as early as 1864 (forest and farmland claims in the Monroe area) and 1869 in the Gold Bar area (mining claims) and continued throughout the end of the 19th century. When the Great Northern Railroad’s construction continued westward, many of these settlements also became construction camps or fueling/maintenance stations for the railroad.

As large forests were cut down near the Puget Sound shoreline, the need for lumber — especially red cedar — continued. With tough economic times heading toward the Great Depression, settlers in the region were eager to make money any way they could. So when approached by loggers in the early 1920s, the settlers often readily sold their red cedar trees to earn extra income.

But getting the cedar to the mills was problematic at best for the loggers.  They were no longer working near the waterfront or mills, and the trees were massive. The red cedars in the area were hundreds of years old, standing as tall as 100 feet high, and often 30 feet in diameter. There was no way that oxen, horses or the men could drag the trees out without cutting them into smaller sections while still in the forest.

Red Cedar Stumps circa 1920. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The logs were subsequently cut into approximately 4 1/2-foot-long (54 inches) circular sections called rounds, and then chopped into smaller pieces called bolts.

Cutting rounds in the North Cascades. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

But even with these smaller pieces it was difficult, dangerous and expensive to drag the wood out of the forest on sleds or on wagons drawn by oxen, mules or horses. As a result, where there was a stream or river with water deep and fast enough, the bolts were dumped into the water and men called “bolt punchers” pushed them down the waterway for as much as a mile or two.

The historical tie between Bolt Creek and Edmonds

As old timers in the Index/Skykomish area will tell you, Bolt Creek was originally called Shingle Bolt Creek and cedar bolts were floated downstream to where the creek dumped into the Beckler River, and then floated down to the South Fork of the Skykomish River.

From that point, the bolts were either floated further west down the river toward Puget Sound or picked up and transported by various means to the mills in Edmonds and other locales. Despite the fact that there was several small shingle mills in Monroe and Snohomish, the larger mills in Edmonds processed a major portion of the bolts, as they would pay more for the bolts than the smaller mills. In the early to mid 1920s, the larger Edmonds mills cut cedar bolts harvested in the western Cascades into millions of shingles a year.

If you were to walk through the burn-scarred area of the Bolt Creek fire today, you would still see signs of massive stumps and trees that have fallen hundreds of years ago. The terrain is steep and rugged, and it was extremely difficult to fight the wildfire there. I can only imagine how difficult and dangerous it was to log the area, and transport the cedar bolts all the way to the Edmonds shingle mills 100 years ago.

— This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes of Edmonds.

Thanks to the Edmonds Historical Museum, the Skykomish Library and Library of Commerce for the use of their photos. Additional research and insight into the history of the Skykomish and Index logging era was provided by Cody Sandy, Ralph Emens and Philip Costner.

 

  1. Thank you for an interesting article about logging and the early shingle mills in Edmonds. My grandfather, Charles Engdahl, of Tacoma and Olympia, was a joint owner of one of the mills, with an early Edmonds man named Engstrom. My mother remembered coming with her father on his frequent trips to Edmonds, staying with the Engstrom family, and playing with the daughters. I cannot remember their names, (Elsie?) but one of them began a Christian school in this area.) Their home was gone when we moved to Edmonds fifty years ago, but Mom’s still remembered landmarks when she came to visit us. The history of our town is fascinating. Thanks again for the photos and article.

    1. Elsie Engstrom’s name is mentioned in the Tribune Review in 1935 as one of the Edmonds High School students that took over the writing and publication of the paper’s January 11, 1935 edition.

  2. Thanks for the history, Byron, and great job on the photographs! Do you know how the settlers who came afterwards managed to get the stumps out?

    1. I believe some of them were pulled up by ox teams and others were removed with explosives, but I don’t have definite answers as to how many or how it was done. In the Bolt Creek fire area, many of the stumps are largely rotten by now but some remnants and the massive root structures can still be seen.

  3. Great story, Byron, thank you for writing it. Thank you also for being a first responder and fighting the Bolt Creek fire under such difficult and dangerous conditions.

  4. Many of the big lumber companies, such as Puget Mill Company of Port Gamble, were not concerned with the cedar and were more interested in the lumber from the fir and hemlock trees which went into the building of ships.

  5. During World War One the United States Army formed what were called “Spruce Battalions,” to provide spruce wood for the construction of airplanes. Spruce had a very high strength to weight ratio to construct much of the structure such as wing spars. Logging camps were established and operations started.

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