Sumas - "Land without Trees"
Backstory and Context
Over the years the name of Sumas has actually been applied to a much larger area than just the small city of Sumas which exists today. The first known area to be called Sumas is approximately one mile northeast (in Canada) of the present day City of Sumas, Washington. Even today this area is sometimes referred to as “Sumas Prairie.”
Sumas, Washington, located on the U.S. /Canadian boundary was once an area covered by a swamp-like lake. Sumas (pronounced Soo’mass) means “land without trees”. Although lake and swamp once covered most of the area there was also a considerable area that because of natural flooding was a wide open grassland. What has long been known as the Sumas Valley terminated on the banks of the Fraser River, some seventeen miles to the north in British Columbia, Canada. At the south end this valley merges with the Nooksack River. A slight rise in the valley floor between the two rivers formed a natural drainage division allowing dense forest growth on the mountains. Since all of the valley was subject to annual floods from the Fraser River the growth of trees was discouraged and created a vast grassland.
When the first white man stumbled upon Sumas, in approximately 1850, the area was inhabited by Indians belong to the tribe known as the Nooksacks. The name Nooksack means “mountainmen”. The indians were very friendly to the first trappers who passed through the area . They thought nothing of giving away their meager possessions. The Nooksack Indians were basically a hunting, fishing and trapping society- living very simple and basic lives. Much of their economy was based on the plentiful salmon which they caught in traps along the Nooksack River. The salmon was more than just food. It played a large role in the spiritual life of the Indians. According to their beliefs the spirit of the fish lived in the backbone. Bones were not discarded in a light manner but were hung high in the drying houses in order to contain the fish spirit. For many years after the white man settled in the Sumas area, fish bones could be found in shrubbery, trees and backyards.
The formative years for the City of Sumas and surrounding community was the period between 1852 and 1900. The first known white men entered the area around 1852. They were trappers, intent on finding new resources of beaver, bear and deer. There were no roads into Sumas. The only means of travel was water. The coming of the white man brought much trouble, new diseases and gradual integration into a new society. . For nearly thirty years white men passed through the area but the land remained mostly wilderness. Because of the dense forests travel by other than water was nearly impossible. Old growth trees averaged six feet in diameter, making it difficult to create trails. There were few horses in the area. Most supplies were brought in on the human back. These first white men were not settlers, but were mainly traders and trappers.
Sometime in the late 1870’s the first permanent settlers arrived in what is now Sumas with the intent to stay. Like the tourists who visit today, the first homesteader in Sumas, Robert T. Johnson, came because of the scenery. “It was the most delightful place I had ever seen.” he wrote later. In late 1875 the first wagon trail was completed from Bellingham to a site near the present day city of Everson. From that point it was difficult to reach Sumas except by water. For many years oxen were used for travel because of the scarcity of horses.
Sumas developed as what is referred to as a “tent community”. Dozens of tents dotted the area, housing the first settlers and their families, dozens of loggers and the many Orientals imported to the area for cheap labor. The Orientals were brought to the area from California to build the railroads.In 1890 the first real building was built. This was a combination general store and saloon. The owner’s name was Buck Woods. His business must have been successful for nine other saloons soon followed. A first grocery store opened and was operated by William S. Sharpe. Gambling and liquor were popular diversions for the loggers and trappers of the area. Sumas was also becoming a rail center. Three major railroads united at Sumas in 1891 making the area the hub for railroaders, prospectors and mill workers. These rails allowed direct service to and from Vancouver, B.C., Whatcom (now Bellingham) and Seattle. Although the upside of the new rail system was that the area opened up with passengers and easier shipping of goods, the downside was the beginning of large scale smuggling. Of particular worth to the area was foodstuffs, Orientals and opium, Although opium was legal at that time, there was an extremely high tariff on it which made smuggling very appealing and lucrative. In 1891 the port of entry was established to watch over the border. The first deputy collector was Lawrence J. Flanagan. His job was to watch the forest trails for smugglers..
R.S. Lambert was one of the early pioneers of the Sumas area. As a young attorney he came out to Sumas from Belvedere, Illinois in mid 1890. His first official act in Sumas was that of incorporating the Sumas area into a city. The original articles of incorporation are still available for viewing at the Sumas City Hall. Russ Lambert was a leader in the city. For many years he served as mayor, town marshall and judge. There was a time when he was having trouble finding a sheriff for the town. He had been through four volunteers during a month but none of them could handle the problems of a “wet town” with its rowdy and violent loggers and prospectors. Russ Lambert figured he would have to get somebody very special to straighten the town out. He started up the main street of town looking for a tall, athletic fellow he had in mind, a man who had served well as deputy on a few occasions. He soon located Grover Crooks.
“Hello Grover, I want to see you down in my office”.
“What’s up, Mr. Lambert?”
“ Plenty, Grover. You’re going to be the next Chief of Police in this town.”
“Me? Why I haven’t been figuring that way.”
“Well, now is the time, you start figuring and actin. You’ll have plenty of action, but I know you can do it, and I don’t mind saying that I don’t know another man in town I would have any confidence in.”
Grover was surprised and hemmed and hawed around a bit before finally saying.
“ Mr. Lambert, I can’t do it. I am not twenty one yet. You probably didn’t know that”.
“ Not twenty one! That doesn’t seem possible, Grover. Didn’t you play ball in the Texas league even before you came to Sumas?”
“Yes, that’s right, but they called me ‘the Boy Wonder’ and so when I came here I didn’t let anyone know I was still under age. I know people think I am well up in my twenties, but I am still three months short of twenty-one.”
“Well, Grover that surprises me. In fact, if I didn’t know you as well as I do, I wouldn’t be able to believe that. It would surprise anyone else in town, too, so I don’t think it makes any difference. Besides you know I am an attorney and if there are any legal angles I’ll take care of them. Go ahead and don’t bring the age subject up again..”
The two men strolled on to Lambert’s office where Lambert opened a drawer took out a Colt pistol, a pair of handcuffs and pinned a badge on Grover. “Now you are Chief of Police, I want you to keep order in town. Use your own methods and remember I am behind you all the way.” And Sumas had law and order for the next decade or so.
In these early days of growth Sumas was actually two cities in one. On the one side were the early settlers who were interested in a “normal” life. They built a school in 1892, sponsored a post office and a community center . Most of their social activities centered around church gatherings. On the other side, the central area of the city had nine saloons featuring gaming and fancy women. With paycheck in hand this is where the loggers, trappers and prospectors headed for a wild time. For many years Sumas was the only “wet” town for hundreds of miles and as such it attracted people from all over the territory and Canada.
On the dark side, Sumas fell under attack from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who were horrified at the stories about Sumas. Many a letter to the county newspapers castigated Sumas for its loose ways.
Hard times hit Sumas in late 1892/1893. Land values collapsed and over half the population left the area. The shingle mill went into the hands of receivers, and the logging camps closed. All buildings stopped, and business virtually ceased. The people who had put all their money into developing their homesteads were almost destitute, for they were not well enough established to take care of themselves and no industry was offering jobs for financial aid. Those who could not leave their families, went to the LaConner flats for the harvest season. Those who could leave their families, worked on the roads for the county. The county paid them a dollar a day, and allowed them a dollar a day on their taxes,. In 1894 a national railroad strike further fueled the depressed town. No longer did the trains bring gamblers and other adventurers to the area. Only the strongest businesses and people survived. The two existing banks closed and many people lost all their money. There was no large scale farming in those days to sustain the people. What little homestead produce that was grown was used for basic survival and trading for store products. Many of the remaining families survived on the salmon and very little else.
One of the more amusing stories from this period concerns two Sumas businessmen who were commiserating over the lack of business in one of the local saloons one winter evening. It was a stormy night with the famous nor’easter wind blowing. Gentleman number one turned to number two and said,”It is a great night for a fire.”. The second man quickly downed his brew and was out the door. In a short period of time the fire alarm bells were heard all over town. When the volunteer firefighters were called shortly thereafter to a fire at his business he was caught red-handed trying to sabotage their firefighting equipment. Collecting insurance was his idea of economic recovery.
Sumas recovered from its first depression by virtue of two happenings. First, logging took off with resounding success due to newer technology in saws. The thick trees common to the Sumas area were handled much easier and more quickly, making logging a more successful endeavor. Logging sustained the economy until well into the next century. At one time there were as many as ten mills operating in the immediate area.
The other happening was the discovery of gold in them thar hills. In 1897 the community was rocketed by the discovery of gold in the Mt. Baker area. For several years, three friends, Jack Post, L. Van Valkenburg and Russ Lambert had been exploring the hills more as a hobby than as a serious endeavor. On August 23 of 1897 Jack Post yelled at his buddies that he had found it. Practically, overnight gold fever hit Sumas. Within days the mountains were swarming with prospectors anxious to strike it rich. As the residence of the three men and the closest point of civilization, Sumas became the outfitting center for all this activity. Sumas exploded. At one time it was conservatively estimated that over two thousand men took part in the mad rush for gold. Once again, Sumas was booming. By the turn of the century the population of Sumas was near two thousand. Two newspapers sprung up, five hotels, three dry goods stores and two hospitals. Cherry Street, once a simple cowpath, quickly become the commercial center
Russ Lambert, one of the original gold discoverers and a local attorney , would take off for months at a time to seek further gold in the local hills. He would come back to town dirty , unshaven and looking like a real mountain man. “One time he came home a different, route, through Chilliwack. He was carrying his gun which he always had with him and stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat. It turned out here had been a train robbery earlier that day and as he sat there he noticed the place gradually emptied itself. Then the Northwest Mounted Police came in and detained him. Because of his rough appearance and gun he was considered suspicious. It took Lambert several hours to convince the mounties of who he was.
Over a period of ten years Sumas made a strong recovery from its depressed economy. The rich natural resources of the area such as lumber, salmon and gold caused Sumas to develop into a major commercial center. As the forests were denuded more and more dairy farms were born and became the sustaining base of the local economy. To this day the small city of Sumas is surrounded by the dairy industry.
Sumas, Washington has always been a bit different from other cities its size. The small city was out in front with an electrical light system at first powered by a steam generator at a local shingle mill. Sumas is still one of the few cities in the United States that distributes its own electricity and maintains its own electrical system. Even more rare is the fact that Sumas developed its own television system. In 1950 , the then city superintendent of public works, Harry Iverson, was experimenting at his home with ways to get better reception on his own television set. He magnified his antenna system and was able to get several stations and much better reception. Naturally, his neighbors wanted the same so he expanded his system up and down the block. By 1951 everyone with a television set in Sumas wanted the same reception advantages. Mr. Iverson sold the system to the City. The State of Washington took the City to court to try to prevent them from operating a television cable system. The State felt that television should be owned and operated only by private enterprise. The court case went all the way to the State Supreme Court with the City of Sumas becoming the victor after two years of litigation. Sumas still operates its own system, offering thirty five plus channels through greater amplification and the technology of satellites.
Sumas was the fourth organized border station in the history of the U.S. / Canadian border crossings locations. One would think that the Sumas border was busy, with gold strikes in both countries; but records show that aside from train passengers, the travel across the border was light. The officers for many years kept a written record of each person’s date of arrival and return. It gave the person’s name and a description of his “means of transportation” such as “ gray horse with buckboard.” Today, Sumas is still an active “port of entry”, thousands of Canadians each year pass through the border to visit Sumas, getting gas and sampling the many restaurants and bars. Gambling in the form of pulltabs is one of the biggest tourist attractions.
One of the community events, the Sumas Jr. Rodeo, has a long history in Sumas. No one is completely certain how it originated. Some suggest that it began with a small agricultural fair held in the south end of the City. This building burnt in 1923 . Some local ranchers offered to put on a show with horses. Amazingly, there were 5000 paid admissions to this two day event in spite of the fact that there were only two sides fenced and many people sneaked into the event. The success of this spontaneous event caused the formation of the Sumas Roundup Association . This was a community project. A grandstand and bleachers were built, land cleared and an arena set up. The grandstand had a seating capacity of almost 7000 and another 2500 could sit in the bleachers. A round-up hall was built to hold dances. The community effort was not wasted. The 1924 show ushered over 25, 000 people through the gate. Some of the local lads would show up early in the morning to work at the grandstands, dance all night, sleep one or two hours and then milk their own cows before heading back to the rodeo grounds. The following year was even more successful with nearly 40 thousand paid admissions. This success continued through 1929. The Great Depression took its toll , even on Sumas. It was decided that it could not succeed so the round up was discontinued. When the economy started picking up the Round-up was attempted again. In 1937 a big circus was planned, with imported exotic animals and an invitation sent to President Roosevelt. Drizzling , steady rain for three days dampened the festivities and the attendance was down under 8 thousand. 1940 was the last year. Because of the great war and financial reasons, the round up was permanently discontinued. Today, a smaller but successful junior rodeo is sponsored by the Sumas chamber of commerce each Labor Day Weekend.
Looking to the future, Sumas has several problems to combat. Since its’ birth Sumas has always been subject to flooding from either the mighty Fraser River in Canada or the smaller Nooksack River to the south. British Columbia, Canada solved half of the problem by building the Veddar Canal which carries the bulk of the flood waters away from the area; however, no one has addressed the problem of floodwaters from the Nooksack River. The last big flood in 1990 caused millions of dollars damage to Sumas and neighboring land in Canada. Other problems such as sustaining yet controlling growth are being addressed by local officials. They are busy looking for answers to questions such as “ How much more growth do we want?” and “How do we keep from being like California?”
Witnesses to the formation of the City of Sumas are gone, their kin have largely forgotten what they were told about Sumas and its early history. Written or official records of Sumas are very scarce. One or two old-timers will grumble about the “skeeters” that used to habitat Sumas. One local fellow claims that they were as big as tennis balls and everyone had to move away for two to three weeks in the summer. Otherwise, there are only a few memories remaining of early Sumas. It is to be hoped that someone, sometime will make an effort to preserve the stories, memories and photos that exist today for the generations of tomorrow.