History, Summer, and Kid Stuff

We kids learned about the past as we made our own fun.

Growing up in the Robe Valley, Washington, back in the 1940s and ‘50s, we neighborhood children were surrounded by reminders of the history I wrote about in Heart’s Gold, a novel set in Washington State’s gold-mining boomtown of Monte Cristo. To us kids, those reminders were just part of what made our community a fun place to live.

On warm summer days, wearing swimsuits under our clothing, we’d traipse through the woods to our swimming hole. We followed a narrow track that had once been part of the county road that ran from Granite Falls through the valley. The road took us to “Nichols Store.”

The owners had abandoned the two-story, unpainted building sometime after the present road was finished in the early 1940s, but we found ways to wriggle inside and explore the empty rooms. I could barely remember stopping there at age three or four with my parents so they could mail a letter or buy milk.


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Nichols Store, showing ramp and siding for unloading freight (and passengers?)


From the clearing in front rose a long, grass-covered ridge we knew had once been the railroad grade. The Everett and Monte Cristo Railway trains had stopped at Nichols Store on their way to the communities up the valley.

Climbing over the grade, we crossed a decaying bridge spanning a creek full of little fish, then walked on through a park-like area beside the river. Someone had built a picnic shelter there, perhaps in the earlier days of tourist excursions. But no one came for picnics now, except for us kids. The river ran past this grassy space and beyond lay the quiet eddy that was our swimming hole.

The remains of an old railroad-bridge buttress loomed above the hole. A deluge in 1897 had washed away the bridge, along with the dreams of miners and mine owners at Monte.

If no parents were along, after our swim we dared each other to climb up the slanting timbers to the cross pieces on top that had supported the tracks. Cushioned with moss, they made a soft place to dry off in the sunshine. We were careful though. We could feel the trestle wobble beneath us with every movement.


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Bridge #18, a double-span Howe truss bridge. Our swimming hole was beyond the right side of the photograph. When this bridge washed away in 1897, it was replaced by a higher bridge, gone by the time of the story.

On the riverbank near the swimming hole was another temptation to adventurous kids—an old cable car, still attached to a fraying cable that hung above the river. The cable ran over rusty pulleys that were fastened to sturdy trees at each end. The floorboards were loose. Some were missing. Most of us could see the danger and only speculated about how much fun the ride must have been, once upon a time.

Recently I found a story in Philip R. Woodhouse’s book, Monte Cristo, about what was likely this same cable car. For quite some time following the destruction of the bridge and the railroad through the Robe Canyon, people in Silverton and Monte Cristo held onto hope that repairs could enable mining to start up again.

Temporary repairs did start in the canyon, and while awaiting replacement of the bridge, a Silverton man established his own tongue-in-cheek railroad company—a single push car. Every day he coasted down the deserted tracks from Silverton to a cable tram installed near the site of the missing bridge. Mail and supplies for Silverton were piled on the tram and sent across the river. Then he loaded them on his man-powered push car and pumped his way back to Silverton.

The cable car would have been over fifty years old when a neighbor boy talked my little brother David into taking a ride. They hauled themselves across the tumbling river without losing fingers to the cable or falling through the rotting boards. It must have been a scary trip because once safely on the far side, David refused to get back on. The older boy left him behind and got word to our father about the situation.

Fortunately in late summer, the river was not too high. But it was swift, and the rocks were slippery. Dad waded across and carried a frightened David on his back to the other side. Then Dad destroyed the tram so that no other kids would be tempted.

We didn’t know then how the old bridge abutment or the abandoned cable car tied into the story of Monte Cristo. But as young adults, we got to know the old ghost town up close and personal. It is still a favorite hiking destination for hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts. Robe Canyon and the Stillaguamish River where we played is a well-loved recreation center for many more.

Fifty Years Ago This Month

Damage from the Columbus Day Storm, Oct. 12, 1962

In October 1962, fifty years ago, my first husband, Bob Biggar, and I had been married only six months. After spending the summer in Alaska, we’d just settled in to new jobs and a new home near Marysville. It was a memorable October for two other things as well: the great Columbus Day windstorm of 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.

    On the afternoon of October twelfth, a friend, Ruth Anderson, was being married at  the Granite Falls Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Sister Patty stood with Ruth as her maid of honor. Bob taped the ceremony on our reel-to-reel Ampex stereo.

    As the pianist played the recessional and the wedding party formed the receiving line, the electricity went off. Despite the rising wind outside, the reception went on by candlelight.

My parents had driven down to the wedding from the Robe Valley. They told us that sister Lois and her husband Jim were there, visiting from Tacoma where they both taught school. Bob and I hadn’t seen them yet, so despite the wild weather, we followed Mom and Dad home to the valley. We found later that we were in the midst of an unexpected typhoon which had originated off the coast of Oregon. It had reached us just in time for the wedding. Many trees were falling, stranding wedding guests in Granite Falls. As we crept east along the Mountain Loop Highway, we feared at any moment we’d be stranded too, or worse, struck by a falling tree. Dodging trees dangling over a road carpeted with slippery dead leaves and littered with branches, we finally reached Verlot.

The lights and phones were out there, too, so we visited by candlelight. The wind continued to get worse. Suddenly we heard a roar like a freight train heading straight for us. We fled to the back of the building as a blast of wind slammed my parents’ little house. In the quiet after it passed we heard trees snapping and crashing in the woods all around. A tree thumped down next to the house, tearing electrical and telephone wires from the wall outside the kitchen.  But fortunately, the large fir tree in front, big enough to flatten the whole structure, held firm.

Lois and I were frantic because Bob and Jimmy had taken our Jeep out for a spin, storm or no storm. Moments later they drove in, shaken. They’d narrowly missed a falling tree and had to maneuver the vehicle over it.

The next day we learned that a tornado had hit the Blythe brothers’ neighboring farms, just around the bend. It damaged all of Fred Blythe’s buildings. Will’s old prune tree was twisted off and blown fifty feet away. His water tower and tool shed were demolished too. In the memory of the old timers, nothing like that had every happened before. And there’s not been a storm like it since.

When the wind quieted, Bob and I set out for home but had gone only a couple of miles when we came to a big tree blocking the road.  Some young men with a saw cut away enough of it for our Jeep to squeeze through, then we drove home, dodging downed trees and power lines.  Just west of Granite Falls, debris and tangled trees and lines nearly hid the surface of the road.

We found our place relatively unhurt. The storm had splintered some of the maples. Wind roaring down the chimney had coated everything in the house with soot and ashes. But the next day dawned blue and beautiful. All the neighbors came outside to clean up the mess. Strangest of all were the leaves. All that still clung to the maples and alders looked as if they’d been ripped and shredded by an armada of ravenous insects.

The next week brought the Cuban missile crisis. The United States came as close to the brink of war as it had since the cold war with Russia began. People listened, shocked, to President Kennedy’s speech in which he told the nation of Russia’s secretive building of missile bases in our own back yard, despite Nikita Kruschev’s promise not to put nuclear weapons in Cuba. He said the U.S. had set up a blockade to stop and search all ships coming to Cuba. Many citizens feared that bold step could trigger nuclear war.

Like young couples of any era, all we wanted was the chance to make a good life with each other. We wondered if we’d get that chance.

Nikita Kruschev, John F. Kennedy (Photo in Public Domain)

Most of us didn’t know it then, but America’s military pilots, risking their lives in dangerous low-level flights over Cuba, had shown Kennedy photographic proof of missiles aimed at the United States and the nuclear warheads that could make them ready to fire in a matter of days. They gave enough warning to enable our President to play his hand and force Kruschev to back down. World War III was averted, and we did get our chance to build a good life for ourselves and our children.