The Great Northern Corridor Takes Off

People Make the Place: Changes and Constants Along the Great Northern Corridor

A postcard showing the Great Northern Railway's Depot near the Cascade Tunnel.
Postcard Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle.

Spring. Fall. The two seasons when it all changes, compelled by a heliocentric orbit that never changes. Spring with its building promise and fall, its receding balm. Spring forwards. Fall backwards. For me they also come with a brief, ruminative pleasure−part official duty and part personal fancy. They are when I step away from being a practitioner and become a story teller. I think about this place, its people and their conjoined rhythms and prospects. Then I write a piece for Ampersand.

I like everything about Ampersand and the job of writing for it. I like that it stays focused on our region, our particular home ground in the Northwest. I like that it is provocative and not sanctimonious−well, it tries never to be. That it searches out the perspectives of denizens across this place about how to rethink and then remake the way we are living on its precarious and precious surface. How to work together to make it sustainable, while keeping the wonderful alchemy of its livability. I also like working with its editor and designers and other contributors. And, I like reading the responses of its readers. I learn a lot.

The Great Northern Corridor is a sinuous stretch of land, about 70 miles long for our purposes. Its name is ours, not one you will find on a U.S. Geological Survey map. My colleague and local geography guru Charlie Raines came up with the name to evoke its expanse and its history. What’s going on along the Great Northern Corridor fits Ampersand’s profile: people working towards equilibrium of place.

Map of Great Northern Corridor
Illustration by Hum

The Great Northern, of course, was the old railroad that held sway over this corridor from the last years of the 19th century, before the rush of U.S. Route 2 with its flow of weekenders, local traffic and logging trucks. Our Great Northern Corridor starts at Everett. It passes through farmland and on into the mountains−Index, Persis, Baring and Gunn−and then over Stevens Pass and points eastwards. I will keep my thinking to its Westside today.  Before all the human busyness started, and during, and most likely afterwards too, its Westside was, is, and will be the valley where the Skykomish River washes high mountain snow melt− diminished as it is−down to its confluence with the Snoqualmie River. Finally it joins the Snohomish River and empties into the Salish Sea (aka Puget Sound) at Port Gardner Bay.

Each one of the communities along the Great Northern Corridor has been buffeted by economic and social headwinds that has shifted the foundations of their farm and forest economies and fueled the increased dominance of urban centers and suburban life. The surrounding landscapes too have weathered their full share of assaults over the last several decades. And now, things are changing again.

The change this time is driven by local leadership, people across the Great Northern Corridor determined to remake it while not losing its essence. It’s too early to declare a renaissance along the corridor, but there are heartening experiments underway−green shoots, which may be a more expected spring metaphor, but fitting nonetheless.

Everett, one of our leading mill towns, prospered on timber. A place of progressive working class values, which produced the famed Wobblies movement of the early 1900s and later Senator Scoop Jackson who never forgot his blue collar roots. And then those economic and social headwinds started to really blow and finally, with the closure of the Kimberly-Clark pulp mill in 2012, Everett became a mill town without a mill. Even its historic casket company building gave up the ghost and was torn down a few years later. But Everett is hardly flat lined. It is showing that a small Puget Sound coast city can come back strong.

Look at the Everett Station district in mid-stride of recreating itself as an affordable community bustling with pedestrians and neighborhood businesses. The public meeting rooms at its transit center feature the old time murals of logging and milling that once hung from the walls of the massive cafeteria at the Weyerhaeuser Mill B plant now many years gone. This district transformation is happening because of local leaders with faith in the community. One of them is Ed Petersen, CEO of HopeWorks. He’s convening a group of game changers to generate ideas to evolve the area in healthy and equitable ways, better connecting this transit center to the rest of the city. At the same time, Ed is turning aspiration into the tangible with the development of a mixed-use building near the station that will combine housing, employment and career training.

Eight miles east on Route 2 is the City of Snohomish, a much smaller town once the hub of the local farm economy. It too suffered from those winds of change blowing in the last decades. Now, on a nice afternoon, ride your bike from Cady Park on the Centennial Trail 30 miles north all the way to Arlington. Someday, this trail will connect with trail systems running far to the north and south, if plans hold.

Snohomish has a future because it has good bones: affordable homes, nice downtown, good location and people with strength and vision. Its mayor is one of them. She’s a woman of incredible breadth, a politician as well as an artist and yoga teacher who also developed live-work buildings for artists in Seattle. Karen Guzak has been mayor for 5 years because she deeply believes in her city and is ready to keep at it. Like any community on the move again, progress is not a straight line. A ballot measure to create a parks district in the town was defeated this last August, growing pains of a town that is leaning into its future. The mayor is going back to the drawing board, working with her community to find a way forward. “The health of our river and our parks is critical to our quality of life− a goal we can achieve if we maintain our vision and work together,” she says. Can’t argue that.

Continuing toward the crest is the old logging town of Index. Named after the famous peak, it is graced with a surfeit of natural assets including the Town Wall, a nationally famous granite climbing wall as good as you can find anywhere. Several years ago Heybrook Ridge, another of its natural assets right across the river from town center, was threatened with sale, logging and development. It would have significantly compromised the town’s character nestled into the Cascade wilds. Rock climber and conservationist Joe Sambataro led the work to acquire and preserve the property when he was just starting out at Forterra. The purchase was quietly made financially possible by an anonymous Index resident.  Only later did we learn that it was a gift to his beloved community as cancer was ending his time. Anonymous, but a leader, certainly, who continued to care for this place.

Joe eventually moved over to the Access Fund and worked to preserve a safe way for climbers to get to the wall from a nearby parking lot. (After being in the business for three decades, I understand part of our job is to train young recruits like Joe, who then go on to incredible service. That’s powerful leveraging.) First the Town’s surrounding character was preserved; then, the access to the Town Wall. Up next? Consider a nearby brew pub for end-of-the day rehashing of climbing routes taken or forsaken. Think I am kidding? A few weeks ago a group of Canadian climbers asked my friend Doug Walker as he came off the Town Wall for directions to such a place. They had to be told to head out of town to Monroe As Doug says, communities along the Great Northern Corridor should rival British Columbia’s Squamish or Nelson. Clearly there is a path here for the Great Northern Corridor to be sustainable and prosperous on its natural advantages.

Around and after the town of Index is a cluster of peaks that I have visited multiple times. You can think of them as yet more natural assets on which a sustainable future of the Great Northern can be founded. They are grander than the Town Wall, with varied terrain and opportunities.

I remember a traverse from Mount Persis to Index across a ridge connecting the two; a wonderful overland hike where we ascended huge squared off stone stair steps that looked constructed and then demolished by giants from an earlier age. On the way back we cooled down in a rivulet, resembling returning salmon more than tired hikers. Scrambling up Mount Baring one early June day, nearing the summit we climbed over a surprisingly steep snow wall with some exposure. At top I noticed I had lost a crampon that caused me some worry until I found it on the return, before needing it to descend the wall.

Merchant Peak I always visit before the bugs come, the snows melt, and its theatrics rev up. The main way up is a gully that reminds me of a bowling alley with large rocks occasionally careening down in summer, dislodged as the snow overlay recedes. My favorite among these peaks is Gunn, which I have been up numerous times along several routes. Once on a return trip, a family of goats ahead on our shared cliff face showed me how it’s really done. Another time, we looked across to debris from an old plane wreck just short of the minor peak between Gunn and Merchant. About 100 feet gain meant the difference between life and death−more solemn than any cemetery.

Skykomish is the last real town before Stevens Pass. It was literally and economically built around a railroad maintenance yard. Once the community’s lifeblood, the yard became an unyielding malady clouding the town’s future, contaminated over the years with myriad left behinds. Winds of a different kind. It’s cleaned up now and local leadership is determined to remake Skykomish as a destination and not just a passing glimpse from Route 2. Tony Grider is devoted to the town’s future during the day as the art and history teacher at the local grade school with its forty students. He then grapples with all and sundry at night as its mayor. Henry Sladek is a council member who also is all in with his Cascadia Inn on the town’s main street. These two local leaders, along with the U.S. Forest Service, Forterra and other key organizations have teamed up to build a trail from town to the rocky outcrop on Maloney Ridge. Someday there will be separate trails for hikers and mountain bikers, each with stunning vistas from Mount Index to Windy Ridge. It may take a team of many to make this happen, but it starts and ends with local leaders like Tony and Henry.

After Skykomish is Stevens Pass at 4,061 feet elevation and once crossed improbably by the railroad before the 8 mile tunnel opened in 1929. The highway was built over the pass in 1925, in the middle of that giddy decade and just before the next ten years of somber depression and the yet later grim years of World War II. Despite all these global surges, the 4/4 rhythm of wild and working lands, resource economy and small towns seemed ever constant, before the economic upheaval of the last half century changed everything. Now this new wave of local leadership is changing things again. Ed, Karen, Tony, Henry and many others clearly, some even anonymously, making the Great Northern Corridor sustainable for people and place.

Thinking about the future of the Great Northern Corridor then is to think about its landscapes together with its communities. In this world of the anthropocene, the Corridor is a confirmation that you can’t separate the two. The health of one depends on the other. And, when it comes to communities, make no bones about it. There are three fundamentals: first, local leadership; second, local leadership; and, third, well yes, local leadership. It’s important, people. Oh, and make sure the leadership is confident and with vision, then you have something; something that can weather fierce headwinds till they blow themselves out and then move ahead with the green shoots of change, regardless of the season.

Forterra is partnering with numerous organizations and communities to revitalize the the Great Northern Corridor. Read more about the Great Northern Corridor here.

  • Gene Duvernoy

    Gene Duvernoy is President of Forterra. He’s spent more than 30 years working on land conservation and building community, founding Forterra in 1989 in his attic. Since then he’s led the organization to national prominence by creating bold, innovative and successful programs that improve the quality of life for all residents.
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