The Town of Skykomish sits in a narrow valley along the Skykomish River in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of 985 feet. The South Fork of the Skykomish River runs through town in a westerly direction. State Route (SR) 2, one of two major cross-state highways, lies along the north side of the river.
The town itself sits in the flat area along the river’s south bank, straddling the railroad tracks. Undeveloped forestland, most of which is part of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, surrounds the town. Fifteen miles to the east is Stevens Pass, at an elevation of 4061 feet, the northernmost all-year pass through the Cascades.
The town is at the edge of the heavy Cascade snows, which greatly influenced its role with the railroad. Plentiful forests and mineral deposits are in the area, and many species of fish and game flourish.
Skykomish, meaning “Upriver people”, takes its name from the Skykomish Tribe who lived along the river from Monroe east to Index and beyond. In the winter they lived in permanent villages downstream; in other seasons they traveled widely gathering fish, game, berries and other plant materials.
No permanent settlements or fisheries are recorded near Skykomish, but the area was rich in berries and was almost certainly used for gathering, fishing and hunting.
In 1855, the Skykomish Tribe, its numbers severely reduced by illness,was assigned to the Tulalip Reservation near Everett. However, as late as the turn of the 20th century as many as 240 people lived at the native village near Gold Bar.
Permanent settlement did not occur in Skykomish until 1893, with the construction of the Great Northern Railway across the Cascades. The railroad continued to shape the town, both physically and economically, for nearly sixty years.
The timber industry was the town’s second economic mainstay, flourishing from the 1890s into the 1940s. Limited mining for a variety of minerals and rocks was also an active industry during much of this period, but primarily around the turn of the 20th century. From the earliest days hunting and fishing attracted many visitors to Skykomish’s spectacular wilderness setting, especially after the cross-mountain highway opened in 1925.
The Great Northern Railway, planning a transcontinental route to Seattle, began searching a trans-Cascades crossing in1887. The competing Northern Pacific Railroad, whose terminus was at Tacoma, was already constructing its route well to the south a Stampede Pass.
Engineer John F. Stevens was sent to locate the best northern route, which he identified as a stream on the east side of the Cascades, Nason Creek, a tributary of the Wenatchee River.
Further investigation showed that its headwaters did provide access across the summit to the Skykomish River, forming the shortest route from Wenatchee River to Puget Sound.
Construction began in 1891 with labourers, many of Italian, Greek or Japanese descent, laying rails from both Wenatchee and Everett. Rain, snow and the mountainous terrain meant slow work, but the rails were finally joined in February 1893, with service beginning the following summer.
The steepness of the route meant eight switchbacks had to be built, with the trains zigzagging up the sheer mountainside, one engine at the front and another at the rear. Up to 36 hours could be required to traverse the 12 mile section in icy conditions.
In 1897 the railroad began construction of a 2.63 mile tunnel; so long, venting the smoke was a serious concern. In 1909 the railroad electrified the tunnel, using a direct current system powered by a hydroelectric plant at Tumwater Canyon on the east side of the pass.
John Maloney, a member of John Stevens’ survey team, founded Skykomish. In 1890, knowing the route the railroad would follow; Maloney staked a claim on the South Fork of theSkykomish River. A siding was constructed and when the route was completed in 1893 he erected a general store and post office. Six years later, in 1899, he and his wife, Louisa filed the plat of the town of Skykomish.
By the turn of the century, Skykomish was a thriving village with a population of 150, a Hotel, a school, a general store, a restaurant, a cigar and gents’ furnishings store, a barber and a baker. Its second industry was thriving as well, since a shingle mill and a saw and planing mill flourished. Mining and logging occurred in the surrounding forests.
The most important event in the town’searly history occurred April 11, 1904, when the commercial centre, including the Hotel, several saloons and a number of dwellings were destroyed by fire.
Maloney’s store, west of Fifth Street survived. However, the town rebounded quickly. Within a year the new Skykomish Hotel opened, along with a billiard hall, a newsstand, three saloons and at least one restaurant. Maloney’s store also expandd considerably, building a warehouse across the street, which allowed more commercial space in the main structure.
More railroad activity, as well as the continued growth of the lumber industry, brought increased prosperity during the first decades of the new century. But an even more serious disaster was the main impetus for railroad construction. The 2.3 milerailroad tunnel had proved insufficient in fighting the snows of the Cascades. Even with rotary ploughs, trains were delayed for hours and subject to severe avalanche hazard.
Skykomish was important to the railroad not only as a construction centre but also as a division point, where trains were made up and helper engines were attached to the trains for the uphill climb to the summit.