Sheer rock walls, a narrowly constricted current, and the plunge of the South Fork Stillaguamish River over Granite Falls made Robe Canyon impassable for the canoes of Native Americans and early settlers alike. It was not until the 1890s that the Robe family of Granite Falls homesteaded at the upper east end of the canyon, land which would stay in their family for the next 60 years.
In the summer of 1889 Joseph Pearsall and Frank Peabody had discovered the rich gold and silver deposits of Monte Cristo farther east at the headwaters of the Sauk River, but they and their wealthy Seattle backers were stymied. Mining ore was heavy, expensive work, and Monte Cristo lay deep in the Cascade Mountains far to the east of Granite Falls. They needed a railroad to connect their operations with a seaport where their precious metals could be processed.
Word that a major business syndicate was developing the new city of Everett reached the mine owners. With ample funding from John D. Rockefeller and other New York City backers, Everett was planned as the leading industrial center of the West Coast. Would the Everett men be interested in a deal, swapping partial mine ownership in turn for building that needed railroad to Monte Cristo? They would.
During 1892 plans were completed to construct the Everett & Monte Cristo Railway from the new smelter in north Everett to the Cascade mines. It ran along the Snohomish River to Lowell and then to the town of Snohomish, rented trackage rights north to Hartford Junction near Lake Stevens, then resumed its course easterly through Granite Falls and into the engineering challenge of Robe Canyon.
Putting a standard guage railway through the rock of that route meant the drilling and blasting of six large tunnels and took a year to complete. Slides, powder, and the use of dangerous equipment took their toll of workers. A section crew had to be located at the head of the canyon with the specific duty of keeping the tracks open for the trains. Rock falls and blockages were frequent, but worse were the November floods, which constantly plagued the men.
The Robe family donated land for the right-of-way and water tower as a small community sprang up at the head of the canyon. Mrs. Robe operated a cookhouse and then taught school. A store, post office, and hotels followed.
Mining came to an end in 1907, and the line was taken over by the Northern Pacific Railroad, but timber men realized the value of harvesting the old growth fir and cedar above the canyon and in the upper valley. The Canyon Lumber Company came first, followed by the Johnson-Dean Lumber Company and the Best Shingle Company. During the early years of the century the population of the Robe community grew to 150.
In 1915 the Rucker brothers of Everett acquired the railroad from Hartford to Monte Cristo. They built a small mill near Robe, cut timber for their main saw mill on Lake Stevens, and erected a large inn at the foot of spectacular Big Four Mountain east of Silverton. Those staying at the popular inn rode self-propelled gas cars with open passenger trailers through the tunnels and into the mountains.
With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the lumber economy collapsed, and so did the fortunes of Robe. Worse, in 1932 a flood again ravaged the tracks through the canyon, and the railroad was abandoned. The new county road was built to the north, bypassing the treacherous canyon route and leaving the old track and tunnels to return to nature. Those residents who remained moved farther east along the new highway, and when the Robe School closed in 1936 there was little evidence left of a once vibrant community. Later river erosion washed away much of the original site, and "Old Robe" became a memory to be rediscovered decades later.
David A. Cameron, Ph.D.
Phone/FAX (360) 793-1534
A History of the Robe Canyon Area
Robe CanyonVWritten for the Rockey Co. and Herald insert for the Robe Canyon Park supplement 11/97©David A. Cameron©Louise Lindgren
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