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Agri-Maritime History on Puget Sound

When the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded some 20,000 years ago, they left an indelible pattern of islands and waterways we now call Puget Sound. The glacial till soon became layered with volcanic ash which provided the nitrogen to support plant life. Over the eons, the Pacific winds brought consistent moisture to be trapped between two majestic mountain ranges. The resulting fertile lowlands and temperament climate of the Pacific Northwest beaconed farmers, fishermen, lumbermen and the like to stake their claim. The intricate geology promotes growth. Even before the last Ice age, life was abundant here as evidence of the enormous coal reserves suggests.

First Nation Canoe Traders - BC through mid 1800's

Centuries before European settlers arrived, native inhabitants cultivated and foraged roots, berries, greens and game from shore and seaweed, fish, mollusks and mammals from the sea. Trading goods by canoe was common practice between the regional tribes.

Other than by foot, the canoe was the only transportation for early northwest inhabitants. There were no horses and few overland trails. It was a paddling culture. Water was the common bond and means of survival for northwest natives. Paddling was an essential skill and canoe building was the major activity.

Canoes were carved from of giant cedar logs--their shapes honed over thousands of years by generations of skilled craftsman. Evolved in the temperamental waters of the North Pacific Coast, these slender boats were perhaps the most rugged and versatile sea-going vessels of stone-age cultures anywhere in the world. They were used to hunt whale and seal, carry cargo, and transport people long distances with minimal effort--enabling equitable trade between families and tribes along the shorelines of the Pacific Northwest.

Little recorded history exists with regards to the Northwest native canoe traders. However it is almost certain that for thousands of years, these vessels efficiently transported an adequate supply of local foods from the gathering, hunting and fishing grounds to the village longhouses.

Row Boats and Sailing Scows - Early to Mid 1800's

For European settlers, the most accessible fertile farmland for traditional heirloom vegetable crops was located in the tidal deltas leading into the Puget Sound. The Duwamish, Puyallup, Nicely, Snohomish, Skagit, and Nooksack river deltas were among the first areas to be cultivated. Low-lying islands like Vashon, Bainbridge, and Whidbey in the north sound and Harstine, Anderson, Fox island in the south sound became ideal places for cultivating orchards and vineyards. Small farming communities sprung up all along the shores of the Puget Sound from Olympia to the San Juan Islands.

The earliest mode of commerce transportation was row boats and sailing scows. The shallow waters and beach landings were best suited for small shallow draft vessels. Early settlers used the currents and tides to float their products to market into the major population centers of Pot Townsend, Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, Bremerton, Olympia, Bellingham, and Anacortes.

An abundance of salmon oysters, and clams, were first harvested by rowboats and sail driven scows in the shallow waters of Puget Sound inlets during the 19th century.

Paddle Wheelers and the Rivers - Mid 1800's to about 1900

Through the later half of the 19th century, steam powered paddle wheelers were able to penetrate deeper into the wilderness up local rivers to transport farm goods and timber. Their shallow draft, carrying capacity and speed made them ideal for servicing the growing rural communities around Puget Sound.

Farming the fertile river valleys up to the base of the Cascade Foothills became possible with mechanized steam ships. Steamers traveled as far up river as Auburn on the Green River. and past Concrete on the Skykomish River, Lynden on the Nooksack River, and Carnation on the Snoqualimie River. Until rail lines were built, river steamers were the only way to transport farm goods out of many of these regions.

Stern wheel and side wheel steamers became a common sight throughout the Puget Sound region. Their shallow drafts meant that the could easily run right up to a beach when necessary for loading cargo at rural locations.

The Mosquito Fleet - Late 1800's to early 1900's

The propeller proved to be more efficient than the large cumbersome paddle wheels of their predecessors. Steamboats of all sizes and shapes began filling the demand for frequent freight trips between communities and cities. Long docks were built to accommodate the steamers every few miles along Puget Sound. Steamer stops were like bus stops. Every community had a municipal dock where people would gather and wait for the boats.

As communities continued to develope along the shores of Puget Sound, countless enterprising boat owners developed regular scheduled routes. The vast number of boats constantly crossing the sound became known as the "Mosquito Fleet" because it resembled a swarm of mosquitos to captains of visiting ships entering the Puget Sound.

However many farmers either owned there own boats or belonged to coop associations to avoid being held hostage on shipping rates. Competition was fierce and sometimes resulted in monopolistic situations.

End of an Era: When the Roads Came - 1930's

The need for independent water transportation on Puget Sound came to an end as railroads, highways, bridges, and state-operated auto-ferries came into existence. After the depression and with the onset of World War II, the population spread dramatically changed. Established cities and towns became closely linked while many fledgling whistle-stop townships withered away. In just a decade or two, most of these vibrant little ports left nothing but a name on a map. Perhaps one of the largest towns to disappear was the bustling town of Port Blakely where the largest sawmill in the world once stood. Barely a mark of its existence can be seen today.

When Interstate Five was completed in the early 1960's, it further relegated the Puget Sound corridor to becoming a road-centric region rather than water-centric. The new roadways could move freight faster and more efficiently than boats between the established urban, industrial and agricultural centers.

Resurgence of the Water Highways

Traffic congestion and poor urban planning has once again led people to think about water transportation. In 1907, steamers traveled between Seattle and Tacoma in an hour and fifteen minutes. Today, at least during rush hour, it may be faster once again to travel by boat.

Concerns over the fragile aging bridges have also led some to consider the virtues of a backup transportation system.

The FarmBoat Floating Market aboard the Virginia V at Lake Union Park is closed due to City of Seattle adverse policies against small businesses. For more information, see "FarmBoat Under Siege."

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FarmBoat Lucky Anchor The FarmBoat Program is managed by the Urban Public Waterfront Association, a Washington State Non-Profit Corporation dedicated to connecting people with the sea.
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