Photo by Lucy Shirley

Making a New Northwest Town

By Marc Seligson

Hamilton is a small town you pass on the way from Seattle to hiking trails along Highway 20. But if you do slow down in time for the turnoff, about 20 miles east of Mount Vernon, you’ll find three businesses open to the public: the post office; the café/convenience store that serves remarkably affordable sandwiches and burgers and where people shoot the breeze with an ease that can come only from familiarity; and Boots Bar & Grill, a dive bar in a low-slung, flat box of a building adorned by a mossy shingle roof.

Boots features karaoke and a tagline under its sign that reads, “A flood of fun.”

Walking around Hamilton, the first thing you might notice is that many of the homes are propped up on stilts. While giving me a tour, Mayor Joan Cromley points to a playground across the street from the café. “During the last flood, the water reached all the way to the bottom of the swing set seats,” she says. The kids, she adds, like to place leaves on the blacktop to track the ebb and flow of the water line.

Hamilton town center was built in a deep oxbow of the Skagit River. In the early days, the town grew quickly along the riverbank on a robust diet of logging and coal mining. When Skagit County was established in 1883, Hamilton’s economic power and prominence allowed it to vie with Mount Vernon for the county seat.

The town’s location makes for beautiful scenery—but there’s a catch: 90 percent of Hamilton’s residential area is in the floodplain. Photos of devastating floods going back to the 1890s hang on display at Town Hall. Images of the floods of Thanksgiving 2017 were featured on local news around the state.

The town’s location makes for beautiful scenery—but there’s a catch: 90 percent of Hamilton’s residential area is in the floodplain.

When the river swells to threatening levels, Mayor Cromley gives the order to fill in 1st Street with gravel as a makeshift additional levee. When the river reaches 32 and 1/3 inches, there’s nothing left to do but watch as the water tops the levees and heads for the houses.

Every time the river escapes its banks, the cost is high. People die, farms flood, roads wash out and hundreds are forced to evacuate and put their lives on hold before returning to assess the damage and start over again (and again). It can take weeks for the water to recede. Over the years, FEMA has spent between $10 million and $20 million in relief, depending on whom you ask.

This cycle of flood and rebuild is a never-ending story foretold by the town’s stubborn location. While Mount Vernon has grown to nearly 35,000 residents, Hamilton’s housing stock and population haven’t grown since 1995.

Today, only 300 resilient people call the place home.

The site of the new town of Hamilton, just north of Highway 20.
Photo by Lucy Shirley

Mayor Cromley has a plan. Move the town to dry ground. Get people’s homes and livelihoods out of harm’s way. Let the river reclaim its floodplain as habitat.

The idea was first floated back in 1975. Since then, Hamilton has flooded nine more times.

This time around, the town is looking to buy a suitable piece of land to become the new townsite. It is focused on a 43-acre spot just across Highway 20 that is flat and, most importantly, stays dry even when the river rises.

A coalition of salmon recovery groups, planners and conservation organizations already is working squarely behind the effort. They’re excited because restoring the floodplain in Hamilton would create spawning habitat for six species of salmon, including Chinook, that are increasingly under threat from climate change and human population growth.

At the same time, a group of forward-looking planners and builders is gathering around an ambitious question: Can the Hamilton of the future be a model for sustainable rural development?

Above: Data from USGS National Water Information System for the Skagit River monitoring station near Concrete, Washington. Water years are measured from October 1 through September 30 of the following year. A “100-year-flood” is statistical likelihood of a flood of that magnitude occurring in a 100-year period–a one percent chance of happening in any given year. The area has seen at least ten “100-year” floods in the past century.

A high-profile design and engineering firm are looking to collaborate on the rare opportunity to create a new town that gives back as much as it takes from its environment with net-zero waste, energy and water. A walkable community—a safe, dry distance from the river—could feature a mixed-use commercial zone fronting Highway 20 to lure recreational tourists. A significant number of new units of housing could be clustered to maximize shared open space while precluding the creation of a sprawling matrix of 5- and 10-acre lots. That housing might also be built with an innovative new wood product: cross-laminated timber.

As Mayor Cromley leads my exploration of present-day Hamilton, she points out an overgrown pile of dusty concrete. “That was the cheese factory,” she says.

The more I look, the more I notice the rubble and relics that hint at what Hamilton used to be. A tall, regal WPA-era gymnasium still stands, paint mostly faded or chipped off, next to the cracked foundation where the rest of the school used to be.

In Hamilton’s heyday, sons and daughters of loggers and miners hosted contests with visiting sports teams there. These days the school has been closed down for years and Hamilton kids bus to nearby Sedro-Woolley for class.

Can the Hamilton of the future be a model
for sustainable rural development?

Later that afternoon, I savor a handful of deep red, freshly plucked thimbleberries at a dusty boat launch at the edge of town. I admire the massive, muddy undulations of the river and I’m suddenly reminded of that quintessential Pacific Northwest novel: Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey.

Its story centers on the Stamper family, which moved west and carved out its survival in coastal Oregon as loggers through sheer perseverance and stubbornness. The family’s motto was “Never Give a Inch!” The credo manifested physically as the family house refused to relinquish its toehold on a precarious peninsula along the fictional Wakonda Auga River, even as every other house was being consumed by waters ever-widening, eroding and encroaching.

In 1872, a little before the time the fictional Stampers arrived in Oregon, the actual town of Hamilton was founded up in Washington on that same pioneer spirit—a spirit that can be distilled as a desire to conquer nature, even if that simply means refusing to be conquered.

Now Hamilton is calling off its effort to conquer nature while embracing a new possibility.

“Hamilton hasn’t changed in decades,” Mayor Cromley says. “It’s time for a change.”

Hamilton is ready to give an inch, hopeful to receive more than one in return.