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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- To establish the maximum water level for Lake Sawyer;
- To authorize construction of a dam and fish ladders;
- 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
- To authorize the Supervisor of Hydraulics to thereafter regulated and control the maximum water level of the lake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aerial and plat photo labeling by Oliver Kombol.
- 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.
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.
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.