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History

Cal Bashaw: A Life Well Lived

The day he graduated from Kent High School, his mom took him to lunch.  There she announced, “From now on, you’re on your own.”  He spent that night in the basement of Mrs. Shaffer’s home, the mother of the man, Marie Bashaw would soon divorce.  The next day, Calvin Frank Bashaw started a journey that ended on Sept. 29, 2021, several months past his 101st birthday.

Cal Bashaw at Kent High School.

Cal Bashaw was born June 19, 1920, in Edmonton, Alberta to a French-Canadian father, Reuben Bashaw (formerly Beauchesne) and Scandinavian mother, Marie Caroline Peterson.  He died in Enumclaw, his adopted hometown since 1966.  Cal’s early years were spent in Renton at the Sartori School, then Hillman City where he attended Columbia Grade School.  Cal was 13 when his father died in 1933.  His older brother, Ed had already left home.

When he and his mother moved to Kent in 1935, Cal was a scrawny boy of 15 who barely made the football team, and was quickly ignored as undersized.  The following summer, he labored at his uncle’s sawmill on the Frazier River, 60 miles east of Prince George.  His job was “dogging the carriage” where he worked 10-hour shifts alongside stout mill hands, ate hearty meals in the mess hall, and slept in the camp barracks.  Cal’s summer labors earned him $45, of which $16 purchased his first car, a Model A Ford coupe.  Kent’s legendary coach, Claude French took note of the now brawny Bashaw boy and he became starting tackle on the football team.

Cal and his Model A Ford, purchased  for $18 with summer wages from working at his uncle’s sawmill on the Frazier River.

A few days after that graduation day lunch, Cal turned 18 and started work at the National Bank of Washington in Kent.  Banking was not his calling, so he next labored in a cold storage plant earning enough to start school that fall at Willamette University in Salem.  He secured room and board through a job set up by the college and the following summer worked at J.C. Penney in Port Angeles.  But in those late years of the Great Depression money was short, so he left college with plans to reenter after earning enough to pay his way.

Next came jobs cleaning and remodeling kitchens, which led to a position with Boyles Bros. Diamond Drilling at the Holden copper and gold mine in Stehekin.  Deep underground, he and a partner drilled exploratory holes allowing mine engineers to chart the course of mining. He earned $.75 per hour plus room and board in the remote mining camp located at the upper end of Lake Chelan.  As war against Germany and Japan approached, work becoming more plentiful so Cal hired out to Siems Drake to help build a Naval Station in Sitka, Alaska.  He learned to run a P & H shovel and became the youngest man to earn his union card in the Operator’s Engineers, Local 302.  At $1.75 per hour, Cal was earning so much money he had to open a bank account.

Cal and Varian in Sitka, Alaska, shortly after Cal earned his union card in 1942.

Secure in his potential to support a wife, Cal reached out to the girl he left behind in Washington.  Her name was Varian Graham of Kent, and in early 1942, he sent a telegram asking her for her hand in marriage.  No response came for Varian had another boyfriend in Seattle.  Cal booked passage on a southbound boat to help make up her mind.  Varian’s mother advised her 20-year-old daughter, “You can’t get along with him and you can’t get along without him, so give it a try –you can always come home.”  They were married on April 12, 1942, Varian’s 21st birthday, and remained so for 58 years until her death on November 10, 2000 at age 79.

After a short honeymoon in San Francisco, the newlyweds moved to Juneau where Varian worked for the territorial treasurer, while Cal operated a shovel for Guy F. Atkinson on the Al-Can Highway.  A few months later, Cal received his draft notice so joined the Air Force to become a pilot.  He never got through flight training as World War II wound down and Cal was honorably discharged at the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.  Back in Washington, Cal began selling heavy construction machinery for Clyde Equipment, then joined Northern Commercial (now NC Machinery) at their Caterpillar department in Anchorage.  Now with two children, Jill and Win, Cal turned his attention to building his family a three-bedroom home of his own design, at night and on weekends.

The Bashaw family: Win, Cal, Varian, and Jill in Anchorage, circa 1954.

Cal then took the biggest risk of his still young life – he mortgaged his home to start a business repairing and selling heavy equipment.  The family lived frugally, while Cal worked long hours.  Bashaw Equipment Company established a consignment sales relationship with Morrison-Knudsen, a civil engineering and construction company based in Boise, Idaho, who had large contracts in Alaska.  It was during this period he met Dwight Garrett, an entrepreneurial inventor prowling through Alaska seeking used cranes and shovels to remanufacture into logging equipment back in Enumclaw.

Cal at the Bashaw Equipment Co.’s Anchorage yard  during the early 1960s.

Cal’s company prospered and the family moved to a home in a new development on Telequana Drive in Anchorage.  Bashaw Artic Machinery was next founded to sell Snow Trac vehicles manufactured in Sweden.  On Good Friday, March 27 1964 at 5:36 pm, all hell broke loose as did the Bashaw house.  The Great Alaska Earthquake, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale left their home hanging from a cliff and Cal’s businesses hanging in the balance.  The home was condemned but the family was safe.  Cal related the family’s experiences through first-hand reports, one of which was published in the Kent News Journal.  One of Cal’s maxims came from this experience, “You can never really appreciate a gain until you have suffered a loss.”

A year later, Cal was diagnosed with colon cancer, which previously cursed other members of the Bashaw family.  His businesses were sold, and the family moved to Enumclaw in 1966.  There he reconnected with Dwight Garrett, the owner of Garrett Tree Farmers, whose articulated skidders revolutionized the logging industry.  The two formed a handshake business relationship investing in land, which lasted the rest of Garrett’s remarkable life.

Cal Bashaw in front of one of Dwight Garrett’s Tree Farmers, the skidder that revolutionized logging in the 1960s.

Cal joined Dwight on the Board of Directors at Cascade Security Bank, which Garrett founded in 1964 to compete with First National Bank of Enumclaw, because he didn’t like how the old guard operated the town’s only financial institution.  There Cal met a widow, Pauline Kombol with whom he forged a union in 2001, a year after Varian passed away.  Their relationship lasted a decade and ended with Pauline’s death in January 2011, the same day Cal attended the funeral of his daughter, Jill Alverson.

Pauline Kombol & Cal at her 80th birthday celebration in Arizona, March 2007.

When Garrett decided that Cascade Security Bank needed a new home, it was Cal whom Dwight selected to choose a new design for the building after the original architect’s plans were found too grandiose and expensive.  Cal threw himself into the project and in 1980 had it built for one-third the projected cost of the abandoned design.  That building stands at the corner of Griffin and Porter in Enumclaw and since 1996 has been a branch of Green River Community College.

On his deathbed in Aug. 2005, Dwight called Cal into his room asking him to be Executor of his estate, likely the largest the small town of Enumclaw has ever seen.  Dwight’s last words to Cal, “You are someone I know I can trust.”  Cal was 85 years old and it took him till 2017 to complete the undertaking Garrett assigned.  By then Cal was 97, yet still living on his own, driving to the store, and enjoying days out and evenings with friends.  One of his great joys of life was eating strawberry shortcake with whipped cream on his birthday, each June 19th when local strawberries ripen.

Cal on his 100th birthday with a giant strawberry short cake, June 19, 2020.

Cal Bashaw completed his assignment on earth in a manner that exemplified his life.  Sensing time was growing short, Cal accepted his fate with a Stoic resolve and a cheerful heart.  Friends and relatives came to say their final goodbyes, while he remained alert and communicative to the end.  In his last days, Cal spoke mostly of thankfulness, of a life well-lived, and for the family and friends he’d served, as they served him at his passing.  He left behind a written account of his life from which this obituary was drawn.  It’s a detailed story of hard work, dedication, and love of family.

Cal Bashaw departed from this life grateful, content, and fulfilled.  He carried no regrets.  Nearing death, he held hands with those who visited and thanked each for their kindness, while thanking God for the good life he lived.

Cal, happy, content, and with a smile on his face, days before saying goodbye for the last time.

Cal was preceded in death by his wife, Varian and his beloved daughter, Jill Alverson. He is survived by a son, Win Bashaw of Texas, his faithful son-in-law, Bruce Alverson of Enumclaw; granddaughters, Brynn Dawson (Dean) of Klickitat, Tess Heck (Brian) of Lake Tapps, Kalyn Gustafson (Jake) of Seattle, and Katie Smith of Arizona; great-grandchildren, Hunter Dawson, Beau Dawson, Max Hollern, Olivia Hollern, Elle Gustafson, and Emmett Gustafson.

 

Categories
History

Hitchhiking to Haverfordwest

St. Patrick’s Day has always been special for me, though my heritage is Welsh. That day in 1978, I hitchhiked from France to Wales to visit a friend living near Haverfordwest.  There’s no Irish blood in my veins, but surely on March 17, I had the luck of the Irish.  Here’s the letter I wrote home a few days later describing the adventure to my parents.

March 21, 1978

Dear Mom & Dad:

Well, as you can see by the postmark and card, I’m now in Wales.  Last Friday I took the train from Paris to Le Havre on the coast of France.  I had planned to take the ferry to Southampton. I arrived at 11:15 am and fiddled around the train station for a while, only to find I had missed the noon ferry.  I walked to the ferry docks and saw the next ferry was at 11:30 pm.  It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.  There was only one other person hanging around, a French boy a couple of years younger than me.  I asked him where he bought his ferry ticket and he said something in broken English about hitching a ride on a truck.  He asked me if I wanted to go to town so we stashed our luggage and went to town for the afternoon and early evening.

My letter to Mom
My letter to Mom, postmarked March 21, 1978, Haverfordwest, Wales.

We got back about 8 pm, checked out ticket prices, played pinball and whatnot.  He related that the truck (i.e. lorry) drivers were allowed to take one passenger with them in their lorries.  Almost all the lorry drivers were English so I started asking them if they could give us a lift across on the ferry.  The ones who were in line said they couldn’t since they already had their tickets.  By this time, we were pretty despondent and figured we would have to buy tickets.

Then I decided to see if I could find someone who hadn’t been able to get his ticket yet.  I found a lorry driver and he said, “Well, I suppose that would be quite alright.”  He and a friend got us tickets, and onto the ferry we rode in their trucks.  Then to my astonishment and good fortune, I discovered we’d have beds for the 8-hour crossing, in a room with three other truck drivers.  You see truck drivers are treated royally on the ferries and since I was now a ‘truck driver’ (by virtue of my ticket) I was entitled to the same treatment.  We had a huge dinner, comfortable beds in a four-man room, a shower, plus breakfast in the morning.  All these lorry drivers were the friendliest people imaginable.  They treated me just like one of the boys.

My handwritten copy
Back then my cursive penmanship was small, neat, and legible.

Well, to make a long story longer, I made it to the docks of Southampton where my lorry driver friends (John and Ted) dropped me off and found a good place for me to hitch a ride (at the exit gate from the docks).  I waited there, talked to a policeman, and attempted to find Brawdy, Wales on a map I had purchased.  It wasn’t on the map, so this very nice bobby (English policeman) called the U.S. Embassy in Southampton and asked them where Brawdy was.  They said it was near Haverfordwest, which is in the middle of Wales on the west coast.  The same policeman (who was guarding the checkout point from the docks) then proceeded to ask every exiting lorry if they were heading to South Wales.  He asked for a couple of hours in the early morning cold, but no one was headed for South Wales.

One chap was headed north to the M-4 at Newberry (a major east-west thoroughfare to Wales), so I hitched a ride on his lorry.  He dropped me off at the M-4 and no sooner had he left, another lorry stopped to drop off a rider and motioned me to hop in.  I did and he took me to the Severn Bridge at the border of Wales, where he dropped me off.   Waiting there was a car with a Welsh driver who had stopped for a cup of coffee.  He motioned me over and took me about half of the distance that remained to Haverfordwest.

This time I wasn’t so lucky.  I had to wait a whole five minutes before two men who looked like coal miners just getting off work, picked me up.  As it turned out they were Irish and worked for the telephone company laying cable underground (which accounted for their appearance).  We headed down the freeway only to come upon an accident.  My Irish friends saw it would be a while.  So, back onto the freeway, and back to the exit we’d previously taken, and all the way back to where they had picked me up.  We then took another route.

Since they were Irish and it was March 17th (need I say more) we decided to stop off at an olde pub and celebrate a bit.  We had some pints and a good talk with the bartender who used to fish off the coast of Washington.  Soon enough we were back on the road and feeling a whole lot finer this Friday night.  That’s when these two Irish workmen who were heading back to Ireland for the weekend decided they might just as well take me to Haverfordwest, then continue to their own destination.  They did and that’s how I arrived here.

Middle Mille, Wales
My first view of Middle Mille, where I would spend the next month of my life.  Scott’s home was across the bridge in the center of the photo.

I called the U.S. Naval base at Brawdy and asked for Scott (Hamilton), but the sailor on duty said he’d gone home.  He gave me Scott’s address and I took the bus to a town one mile from Scott’s house walking the rest of the way.  He lives in Middle Mille, a tiny village of half a dozen homes.  Scott had just received my letter three days before (even though I mailed it from Vienna nearly a month ago) so he knew I was coming.

Today’s weather is sunny, but cold.  Happy first day of spring (today!).  Talk to you later.

Love, Bill

Note: Scott Hamilton was a longtime family friend, serving in the Navy and living in Wales.  I stayed a month at his home.  Here’s how I described it in my letter.

“Scott has a beautiful, old English house (formerly a pub) made of stone and 50 feet from a creek.  It’s in the middle of a group of 5 to 6 other houses which make up the Village of Middle Mille.  It is fully modernized with two upstairs bedrooms and a large front room and smaller kitchen and bathroom downstairs.”

Scott Hamilton's home
Scott’s home was formerly a pub and occupied the central location in the tiny village.

Most days I toured the countryside often on foot or bus while Scott was at work.  At night we ate dinner, watched BBC, and messed around with his Ham radio equipment, a teletype machine, and perhaps 20 different connections and components.  With his knowledge of electronics, Scott devised a way to pick up wire service broadcasts and print out those news dispatches.  Sometimes we’d stay up reading press releases from TASS, the Soviet Union’s new agency, the Associated French Agency (in English), as well as the Associated Press (AP).  One night we “watched” (i.e. read) live new dispatches from South Lebanese Conflict involving that month’s Israeli-Lebanese- Palestinian hostilities and U.N. responses.  In this tiny corner of Wales, what Scott had devised was a primitive form of the early internet.  I was fascinated by the experience of it all.

One day, I walked the local countryside with two neighbor boys which I recounted in “A Walk in Wales.”  A few weeks later, I crossed over to Ireland, met a bunch of guys my age, and traveled with them up the Irish Coast, relating that adventure in another letter home titled, “My Week With a Welsh Rugby Team.”

King boys in Middle Mille
The two boys who lived next door and joined on “A Walk in Wales.”      
Categories
History

Dam It! The Untold Story of Vern Cole and the Lake Sawyer Weir

By: Bill Kombol

Before Vern Cole, Lake Sawyer lacked a dam, also known as a weir to control the level of the lake.  Lake Sawyer is the third largest public lake in King County, Washington.

Over the years a number of stories were written about the outlet dam controlling the level of Lake Sawyer.  Most previous versions were steeped in oral history but light on facts.  Many portrayed Vern Cole as a renegade developer and defendant in a lawsuit he lost to Mary Burnett.  Quite the opposite is true.  It’s time to set the record straight on that dam outlet weir where Covington Creek leaves Lake Sawyer.

Like most lakes of the Puget Sound basin, Lake Sawyer was formed about 10,000 years ago near the end of the last glacial period.  Sheets of ice covered the region with heights reaching 3,000 feet at their thickest.  Retreating glaciers carved the landscape as melting ice deposited thick layers of sand and gravel, including areas around Black Diamond.  This barren landscape gradually supported primeval forests dominated by Douglas fir.   Low areas became ponds and lakes filled with water from meandering creek channels.  Lake Sawyer was fed by two: Ravensdale Creek and Rock Creek.

Water leaving the lake naturally gravitated to its lowest point, the Covington Creek channel located midway along the lake’s western shore.  By the time white settlers homesteaded Lake Sawyer, that channel was filled with several thousand years of logs, trees, roots, branches, and debris all of which clogged the natural outlet.  Busy beavers no doubt added their contribution to the morass of detritus.  The situation remained unchanged until the 1950s.

Aerial photo of the north and west shores of Lake Sawyer in Aug. 1937, the earliest aerial photograph of the area.

During the 1920s, most land surrounding Lake Sawyer was still held by a few large owners including Oscar Weisart, the Lochow family, the Neukirchen brothers, Lake Sawyer Lumber Co., Northwest Improvement Co., Pacific Coast Coal Co., and the lake’s first family, the Hansons.  They later operated Enumclaw’s White River Lumber Co. whose prominence became a defining feature of that town.  Carl Hanson’s original 160-acre land grant also boasted the lake’s first home, a log cabin built around 1884. 

In 1884, the first cabin was built on Lake Sawyer upon Carl M. Hanson’s 16- acre homestead.  This photo dates to 1887.  The two girls standing in front are Anna Elizabeth Hanson (age 12 years), Olga Olivia Hanson (10), while standing in the doorway are Ellen Thyra Maria Hanson (8), and Selma Victoria Hanson (6). 

By the mid-1930s, many owners began platting their land into small lots.  Most are now occupied by lakefront homes.  The plat names included Campbell’s Lake Sawyer Campsite; Lochow’s Lake Sawyer Tracts; Lake Sawyer East Shore Tracts; and Lake Sawyer Grove Park (currently the RV resort).  However the biggest of all was approved in 1939 – the North Shore of Lake Sawyer comprising 139 lots stretching from Hanson Point down to and including a two-acre park dedicated to King County (docks #104 to 189).  The North Shore Plat was owned by the Hanson, Smith and Olson families, descendants of Carl Hanson, and contained a low spot which periodically flooded.  That area is now referred to as the Boot, owing to its boot-like shape as seen on the plat map.  The Hanson family’s summer home (docks #102 & 103) was built in 1926 in the steeped-roof, gabled-style of the day, complete with caretaker’s cottage next door.   Both home and cottage still grace Hanson Point named for that pioneer family.  By 1947, the lake hosted 70 families in permanent residences and three times that many with summer homes. 

The Hanson family’s 1939 plat map of the North Shore’s 139 lots, with the Boot anticipated as potential lake frontage. The park deeded by the Hanson family is now the public boat launch.

Further south, the area around the outlet channel remained un-platted and owned by the Lochow family.  In 1950, Ludwig & Mabel Lochow, William & Marjorie Lochow, together with William & Gladys Gordon filed the West Shore of Lake Sawyer plat.  Their platted tract encompassed 36 acres stretching from the Hanson-donated park (now called Lake Sawyer Boat Launch) all the way south to the present site of the Lake Sawyer RV Resort (docks #191 to 258).  New roads were constructed to service the 73 platted lots including S.E. 298th Street, S.E. 300th Street, S.E. 302nd Street, and 225th Ave. S.E.  Lot sizes were restricted to a minimum of 6,000 square feet, but most were between 15,000 and 25,000 sf.  The West Shore plat involved extensive surveying of the outlet channel designated as Covington Creek on the map.  Each lot’s frontage on the canal extended to the centerline of the creek.  

The Gordon-Lochow 1950 plat map of the West Shore’s 73 lots.  The channel was fully surveyed before any dredging took place, most likely in 1951.

However, nature’s ad hoc dam which governed the lake’s level remained the same choked Covington Creek channel, resulting in periodic episodes of severe flooding.  As seen nearby, the Speery cabin located near the old Neukirchen mill site was inundated during winter floods of 1946.   In his August 5, 1952 findings of fact from King County Case No. 443504, Superior Court Judge Ward Roney declared “the residents and property owners abutting Lake Sawyer have been subjected to severe damage and expense during the past flood seasons.”  Roney further ruled “that said Lake constitutes a flood control problem within the meaning of the statutes of the State.”  

The north and west shores of Lake Sawyer in 1942, showing a clogged Covington Creek outlet and ponded water in the Boot area.

Judge Roney’s decision grew out of a petition filed in March 1952 by Mary Burnett, Perry B. Love, Wilbert Bombardier, Rebecca Miles, Frank Horne, William Gordon, Hans Sands, Perry J. Love, Leonard Cleaver, Adolph Samuelson, and David Cook, all owners of real property abutting Lake Sawyer.  As plaintiffs, the 11 individuals sought a judicial order providing specific proposed relief:

  1. To establish the maximum water level for Lake Sawyer; 
  2. To authorize construction of a dam and fish ladders;
  3. To authorize Vern Cole Realty Company, Inc. to install the dam and fish ladder, subject to the approval of King County, Dept. of Fisheries, Dept. of Game, and Supervisor of hydraulics; and
  4. To authorize the Supervisor of Hydraulics to thereafter regulated and control the maximum water level of the lake.
King County Superior Court Case No. 443504, with Mary Burnett as the first named plaintiff. The March 1952 petition to the court sought a judicial order to fix the level of Lake Sawyer, which led to building the dam and weir later that year.

Named in the action were each and every land and lot owners around the perimeter of Lake Sawyer, with lake frontages of each noted in lineal feet.  Contrary to previous accounts Vern Cole was not a defendant.  In fact, he was actually an ally and confidant of lead plaintiff, William Gordon who owned multiple lots in the just approved West Shore plat.  Vern Cole was described in pleadings as the most competent individual to spearhead efforts for design and construction of an outlet dam to solve winter flood problems and low summer lake levels.  As opposed to the usual formulation where every lot owner paid his or her proportionate share of design and construction costs, the plaintiffs proposed to pay all those considerable expenses.

To gain perspective we now indulge in some informed speculation guided by known facts, aerial photos, and the resulting landscape.  Throughout the Puget Sound region, earthmoving operation significantly altered the course of countless rivers, creeks, lakes, and wetlands.  The White River previously flowed into the Green, but was later diverted south to the Puyallup River.  Lake Washington once emptied through the Black River into the Duwamish near Tukwila, but was lowered nine feet after the Ship Canal was dug, providing a connection through Lake Union to Shilshole Bay and the Puget Sound.  The Cedar River was also rechanneled so it no longer left Lake Washington via the Black and Duwamish Rivers, but through Union Bay and the Chittenden locks in Ballard.  Those were but a few of the large projects financed by government to sculpt local landscapes in pursuit of enhanced waterfront and economic prosperity.

White River was diverted west to the Puyallup in 1906. The Cedar River was re-channeled directly to Lake Washington in 1912. The Black River disappeared when Lake Washington was lowered nine feet and the lake’s discharge henceforth flowed through the Montlake Cut to Lake Union, then into locks at Ballard and Puget Sound.  See When Coal Was King, May 4, 2021.

At Lake Sawyer the goals were modest and the means private – flood control plus fixing the lake’s level with a new dam.  At the end of World War II lots of surplus earthmoving equipment including bulldozers, diesel powered shovels, and draglines were put to use in nearby mining operations.  In the late 1940s, both Ravensdale and Franklin coal seams were mined for the first time by surface methods with bulldozers removing overburden while shovels excavated coal into dump trucks.  Previously almost all coal had been mined underground. 

A similar form of excavation likely took place in the Covington Creek channel and further north in the Boot, a part of the Hanson family’s North Shore plat.  The summer of 1951 is the most likely date for both dredge operations.  The Gordon-Lochow West Shore plat was approved in November 1950 and the lawsuit to fix the lake’s hydraulic problems initiated in early 1952.  Interrogatories exchanged between plaintiffs and respondents indicate that Vern Cole Realty was hired by the Gordon-Lochow forces to open the channel.  In those same questions and answers the Gordon-Lochow plaintiffs proposed that Vern Cole construct the dam, spillway, and fish ladder, designed to replace nature’s failing, log-choked outlet.  After the channel was cleared the lake’s summer level would have been far lower allowing easy excavation of the Boot. 

A trial without jury was heard on April 10, 1952 before Judge Roney.  Several procedural issues were ruled upon and the trial continued to May 19 at the King County Courthouse.  Plaintiffs were instructed to serve copies of the Judge’s interim order upon all parties.  A notice of proceedings was published in the Auburn Globe News for a period of two weeks.  A number of prominent Seattle law firms were involved including Rummens, Griffin & Short represented by Paul Cressman for the plaintiffs, and Bogle, Bogle & Gates for the respondent, John Nelson one of the lake’s largest landowners.  Plaintiffs and Respondents attended the trial as did three State Departments – Game, Fisheries, and Hydraulics.  King County was named in the lawsuit and served notice but didn’t appear.  Unfortunately neither testimony nor oral proceedings from May 19th were preserved.  But the parties must have agreed on most major points as Judge Roney’s decision mirrored the plaintiff’s requests and his order seemingly satisfied all the parties, as no appeals were filed.

On August 5, 1952, Judge Roney issued his final ruling which included Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and a Decree whose decision included the following:

  • That Covington Creek “is inadequate and incapable of carrying off excess water during flood seasons; that as a result thereof, the residents and property owners abutting Lake Sawyer have been subjected to severe damage and expense during past flood seasons.”
  • That “a maximum lake level be established to control and regulate the flow of water in Covington Creek; that the maximum water level on Lake Sawyer should not exceed 518.94 feet above mean sea level . . . that level is 16” higher, according to foot measurement, than the visible level of the Lake on the 19th of May, 1952 [and] that such a maximum lake level will not endanger or damage any property abutting the shores of Lake Sawyer.”
  • “That the Vern Cole Realty Co. . . . has advised the court it will bear the entire construction cost of a dam or spillway to control and regulate the flow of water from Lake Sawyer and through Covington Creek.”
  • That “Vern Cole has advised the court it is having plans prepared for construction of a suitable dam or spillway” . . . and that said plans be approved by the Departments of Game, Fisheries, and Hydraulics.
  • That the Dept. of Hydraulics provide regulation of the dam and spillway following construction.

So what did the lake look like by the end of construction?  And how much variance did the lake experience before and after installation of water control structures in 1952?

The variances experienced in the pre-weir era are not known, but were certainly extreme.  Evidence of severe flooding is seen in the Sperry cabin photo looking west towards the Hanson home built in 1926.  Jack Sperry believes that water level was 38” to 40” (between 3 and 4 feet) above today’s typical level.  The lowest pre-weir levels were likely 5 feet below today’s norms, that being the water elevation at the base of the dam.   A number of intact stumps from old trees can still be seen below water level including one between the two islands in front of the RV Resort.  It has a white buoy attached.  Another stump in front of Eble point (Dock 12) is about 7 feet below the average level.  These trees were probably Oregon ash or another specie which can tolerate long periods of inundation.  These high and low data points suggests that prior to the dam and weir, Lake Sawyer experienced wide variations in water level, as much as 8 to 10 feet.

The Sperry cabin during winter flooding in 1946.  The home on Hanson Point can be seen in the distance, just to the left of the cabin.

Following construction of the weir and dam, the highest recorded water levels in Lake Sawyer occurred in early February 1996.  Heavy rains washed out the dike road between Frog Lake and Lake Sawyer causing a cascade of water to fill the lake and overwhelm the weir.  Water levels were measured at 26” over the weir compared to a winter average of 6” above.  The lowest recorded water levels occurred in late October 2015 when beaver dams up and down Ravensdale and Rock Creeks cut off almost all surface flow to the lake.  Late autumn is also when groundwater flows ebb, contributing to that record low event.  On Oct. 28, 2015 the water level was 39” below the weir.  Thus, the maximum recorded variance in modern times between these two extremes was 65” or about 5.5 feet.  The typical annual variance between the average high and low water is now about 24” or two feet. 

The best evidence to further piece this puzzle together are aerial photos from 1937 and 1942 showing conditions before lake alterations, and from 1959 seven years after.  In the Boot section of the North Shore plat, the August 1937 photo shows definite farming activities.  Yet, the Hanson’s 1939 plat map clearly depicts that same Boot area within the high water line of the lake.   A pond in the north end of the Boot can be seen in the winter 1942 photo, where summer field harvesting was practiced five years earlier. 

Just as heavy rains facing a clogged Covington Creek channel resulted in severe winter flooding, it’s equally fair to assume that lack of a real dam controlling outflow allowed late summer lake levels to fall precipitously.  That would explain why the Boot could be used for farming in 1937, but on the plat map and in the 1942 photo seen as a potential water basin.  Oral history holds the Boot was once dredged, an event surely contemporaneous with the Gordon-Lochow dredging of the outlet channel which created optimum conditions for summer work.  This makes sense given that heavy equipment necessary for one project could easily be redeployed to another. The cleared channel no doubt presented owners with an historic low-water event perfect for carving future waterfront.

The post-dam era in 1959, seven years after dredging and construction of a dam at the outlet.  The wakes of motor boats can be seen on the lake.

A close-up of the west shore area in 1959 showing the dredged Covington Creek canal, the weir, and increasing development of homes within the West Shore Plat.

Despite a lawsuit just six months earlier, by late September 1952 all was peaches and honey in the neighborhood.  The Seattle Times reported, “A 94-foot-long dam has been constructed on Lake Sawyer, near Kent, at the mouth of Covington Creek to establish the lake level and improve property values and fishing.  The concrete structure is equipped with five-step fish ladders which will permit salmon to return to the lake to spawn.”  On October 5th a joint ceremony was hosted by the Lake Sawyer Community Club and Lake Sawyer Garden Club to mark completion of the dam.  That dam and weir still faithfully serve lot owners on Lake Sawyer over 68 years later.

Lake Sawyer weir and dam on Covington Creek, Jan. 1956, a few years after dredging.  Photo by Frank Guidetti of Black Diamond

Aerial and plat photo labeling by Oliver Kombol.

Sources:

  • King County Superior Court Case No. 443504 “In the matter of fixing the level of Lake Sawyer” (1952).
  • King County Assessor and Dept. of Transportation aerial photos from 1937 and 1959.
  • U.S. Army Corp aerial photo from 1942.
  • King County Recorder – Plats of the North Shore and West Shore of Lake Sawyer.
  • Metsker’s 1926 and 1936 atlas of King County.
  • “History of King County” Volume II by C.B. Bagley (1929),
  • Renton News Record, July 17, 1947 – News of Maple Valley.
  • Seattle Sunday Times, Sept. 28, 1952 – page 20.
  • Jack Speery, lake resident – oral communication.
  • Bob Edelman, lake resident – email communication, July 9, 2020.
  • Bob Edelman – “How the Lake is Measured.”
  • The Man Who Sculpted Lake Sawyer – BillBored.org

Vern Cole (1887 – 1970)

Though characterized as villain in some early and inaccurate stories about construction of the Lake Sawyer dam, Vern Cole was one of the driving forces behind designing the weir and creating the stabilized lake level residents enjoy today.  Born in 1887 to a pioneer family from Baker, Oregon, they immigrated to Canada when Vern was six-years-old.  After discharge from the British Navy, he joined the Vancouver, B.C. Police at age 21 serving as Constable Patrol Officer.  Cole moved to Seattle during World War I and became a salesman for a motorcar company.  He was later commissioned as a Washington State Patrol officer.  It’s unclear when Cole first pursued real estate as an endeavor, but he ended up running a very successful business known as Vern Cole Realty Co., which specialized in lake front homes, acreage, and view tracts.

Vern Cole as Patrol Officer in Vancouver, B.C., 1908.

Cole became involved with the Lochow-Gordon plat of the West Shore of Lake Sawyer in the early 1950s.  However, at the start of the 1952 legal action by Lochow, Gordon, and others, Vern’s wife of 45 years, Hazel (Downing) died.  Perhaps in grief, Cole poured himself into completing the lake’s transformation he helped set in motion.  A year later he remarried a widow, Edna Buckingham Raborn and the two of them lived on his 105-foot yacht moored at Shilshole Bay, just outside the Ballard Locks.  Vern Alexander Cole died in 1970 at age 83.  His obituary states he was an active yachtsman and member of the Elks and Masonic bodies. 

The Home on Hanson Point

One of the oldest homes on Lake Sawyer was built by the pioneering Hanson family on a peninsula of land that was part of their original homestead claim.  The patriarch, Carl M. Hanson owned a sawmill in his native Sweden before immigrating to the U.S. in 1883, after hearing of Washington’s vast timber tracts.  For a year he cleared land in Seattle before moving to Lake Sawyer where he filed for ownership of 160 acres under the 1862 Homestead Act.  Carl built a log cabin, proved up his claim, and in 1891 was issued a deed personally signed by President Benjamin Harrison. 

For several years, Carl and members of the extended family worked at the coal mines in Black Diamond and Franklin before building sawmills, first at Summit (Four Corners) and later Lake Wilderness.  Both were operated in association with his three sons, Axel, Charles, and Frank.  The Wilderness mill was owned until 1897 when the family moved operations to Enumclaw following purchase of the White River Mill.  That enterprise was renamed White River Lumber Company and thrived under Hanson family management.  Within a decade the firm employed over 500 men, by far the biggest employer in Enumclaw.  The company increased its land holding to 50,000 acres and later initiated a cooperative agreement with Weyerhaeuser.  In 1900, Frederick Weyerhaeuser purchased 900,000 acres of timber from railway magnate, James J. Hill.  The two companies, White River Lumber and Weyerhaeuser fully merged operations in 1949.

King County Assessor photo taken Dec. 20, 1939. The home still looks remarkably the same.

The Hanson family built this summer home on Lake Sawyer in 1926 and next to it a caretaker’s cottage.  In 1939, Rufus Smith and L.G. Olson, grandsons of Carl Hanson filed a plat named the North Shore of Lake Sawyer.  The lake front portion of the family’s 160-acre homestead was platted into 139 lots and included dedication of the two-acre park now owned by Black Diamond and called Lake Sawyer Boat Launch.  Their summer home which sits on 17-acres (docks #102 & 103), was not part of the plat but remained with the extended Hanson family until 1997 when it was sold to David & Maryanne Tagney Jones for $2.2 million.  A recreational guest house was added to the estate in 2007.  This December 20, 1939 photo of tax parcel 042106-9001 comes courtesy of the King County Assessor held at the Puget Sound Regional Archives in Eastgate. 

This history of the dam was originally published in the Lake Sawyer Community Club Newsletter, Spring 2021. Additional photos have been added to this version.