Categories
Musings

The Man Who Dredged, Filled, and Sculpted Lake Sawyer

by Bill Kombol

Jim Hawk was responsible for the vision behind dredging, filling, and sculpted what is now known as Lake Sawyer Park. He lived on Lake Sawyer for nearly two-thirds of his life.  That’s a long time for a 95-year-old who built his lake home in 1961.  His name is Jim Hawk and he’s arguably done more to craft the Lake Sawyer we know today than any other person.

LS065- Lake Sawyer, circa 1985 looking south east. Jim Hawk’s completed project can be seen at the top of this photo at the south end of the lake.

Jim Hawk was born in Seattle on April 27, 1926.  His father, Ray Hawk was of Dutch descent but left his Pennsylvania home at age 13.  His mother, Mary Romano, was the daughter of Italian immigrants.  His grandfather, Sam Romano was blinded by a dynamite blast at age 18, returning to Italy where doctors restored his sight. Sam came back to Seattle and started a family-owned construction company, Romano Engineering which developed the Riverton quarry and built highways, bridges, dams, and other projects.  

The extended family lived in one large home in the Mt. Baker neighborhood of Seattle with Jim’s Italian grandmother, Anna who spoiled Jim and his cousins rotten.  Growing up Jim loved chemistry and inventions.  With money earned from cutting lawns and landscape work, he’d head straight to Scientific Supply Company to buy chemicals and lab equipment.  Often his mother signed permission slips so Jim could purchase ingredients which could only be sold to adults.  Jim was known as the “mad bomber” of the neighborhood making rockets and bombs from his chemistry set. 

Jim graduated from Franklin High School in 1944 and would have been drafted for World War II, but for an automobile accident near Skykomish which left him nearly dead and lying in the river bed.  He spent a long time recovering from a collapsed lung.  That fall he enrolled at Seattle University graduating in 1948 with a degree in chemistry, his childhood hobby.  However, one of his most consequential lessons came from a Jesuit priest in an American history course Jim hadn’t wanted to take, but was required to graduate.  To this day, Jim remembers the opening lecture.  “All history teaches is that we never learn from our mistakes.”  A light came on in Jim’s brain.

After graduating from Seattle University, Jim was accepted into graduate school at the University of Washington.  He joined the chemical engineering program seeking a PhD in electro-chemistry.  Jim demonstrated his early brilliance by proposing an idea of creating fluorocarbons through electrolysis with hydrocarbons.  The professor was amazed as Jim described a process which had only recently been theorized.  However, his graduate studies fizzled when Jim took a heavy load of classes.  One consisted of memorization which didn’t teach him to think; another by a professor who on day one asked his students, “Which course am I teaching?” And the third, who, “Didn’t teach you to think outside the box,” as Jim recalled, “The biggest dud of my life.”

Around this time, the Romano family business began to disintegrate.  His dad, Ray Hawk started Black River Quarry, Inc. mining a rock deposit near Tukwila where the Black River once flowed from Lake Washington into the Green / Duwamish River.  The Black River disappeared in 1916 after Lake Washington was lowered 9 feet and connected to Puget Sound through the Ballard locks.  Ray was having problems running his quarry so reached out to Jim who dropped out of grad school.  He planned to help his Dad for a short time.  Jim easily solved early problems though each day brought new challenges so he stayed on full time.  Eventually Jim took over the business. 

Grand projects like redirecting the White, Black, and Cedar River, plus lowering the level of Lake Washington were common in the early 1900s.

Jim’s talents were always larger than his business life.  In 1953, he filmed a nature movie from the cockpit of his Super Cub float plane.  The movie was professionally shot in 16 millimeter wide-angle, commercial cinemascope, color film with Jim narrating.  He offered the movie to Disney but they declined.  In 1958, Jim married Mary Jo Burns and by 1961 they’d built the Lake Sawyer home where they still live today.

In February 1966, Jim purchased a 31-acre parcel of primarily swamp land from John D. Nelson for $37,000.  Nelson bought the property in 1945 from Pacific Coast Coal Co. at a price of $820. It was located at the south end of Lake Sawyer with access from the terminus of S.E. 312th Street.  Jim’s vision was to turn the marshy property into a lakefront residential development.

This 1936 aerial view of the south end of Lake Sawyer shows the swampy area where Hawk dredged and filled in the late 1960s. The Lake Sawyer Road is the bright white line to the left. Ravensdale Creek be seen to the north, while Frog Lake through which Rock Creek flowed is southeast of the lake.

Jim’s company, Black River Quarry (BRQ) mined rock much of which was sold during wet winter months.  But Jim had a problem of keeping key employees busy during the slow summer season.  He employed four extremely talented individual who could do just about anything when it came to earthmoving.  Chris Peterson was one of the best shovel operators to be found, even in his 70s.  John Yourkoski was a journeyman bulldozer operator who also ran loader and dragline.  Walt Schoebert was a master mechanic with a knack for tinkering and building machines from component parts.  Don Shay worked in the office and was always ready with sage advice. 

Jim spoke with experts, but nobody had ideas for building a road through a twin-creek delta, half swamp and the other half peat bog.  So he read widely about bogs and contacted Leno Bassett who mined peat in the Cottage Lake area.  Bassett provided good advice and Jim’s plans soon took hold.  Hawk obtained Hydraulic Project Approval from the Department of Game & Fisheries in 1967 for a channel change and excavation of the shore of Lake Sawyer.  The permit allowed dredging two creeks and the lake’s bottom with requirements to protect water quality.  Work was done on an intermittent basis to prevent excessive siltation.  Production was prohibited on weekends and holidays to protect recreational users of the lake.

LS015- Southeast end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-69. This view shows the early construction of gravel dikes and the dredging of the Ravensdale Creek inlet to the right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

Jim’s plan was to refashion the swamp into 31 acres of dry land surrounded by open water the two separated by piling and wooden wall panels.  The topography was surveyed by Jim and BRQ employees using probing devices to determine whether they were standing on peat soils floating on water.  After the initial survey was complete a rudimentary plan was developed to build access roads and perimeter dikes throughout the dense jungle of interlocking vegetation. Behind these dikes new dry land would be formed from dredged and fill material.  Outside the dikes open water connected Ravensdale and Rock creeks to Lake Sawyer.

To gain access through the marsh, a floating road concept was utilized.  In some places peat and mud extended down over 40 feet before reaching compactible soils.  Downed logs, brush, and debris from clearing were used as a mat that was pushed down into the peat and mud by a bulldozer.  A gravel road several feet thick rested above the “floating vegetation mat” below.  Pit run gravel was obtained from three barrow sites on the property.  Those gravel deposits rose 10-15 feet above surrounding terrain.  Most of the older-growth trees outside the gravel extraction areas were preserved. 

LS026- South end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-71. This was the staging area for the piling and panels forming the pier wall which separated land and water. Photo by Jim Hawk.

This floating road needed to be stable enough to support bulldozers and a 53-ton Northwest brand cable-operated shovel.  The shovel doubled as a crane, equipped with a 3/4 cubic yard clam bucket for digging or a dragline bucket for open water dredging.  Other miscellaneous equipment supported the operation.  When remembering the challenge, Jim laughed out loud, “Nobody else in their right mind would have tried it.”

The long-term success of the project depended on using the best bulkhead materials available.  Jim found piling at the Wyckoff Company consisting of hemlock poles, pressure-treated with Chemonite preservative, yet still needed to find a long lasting cable to hold everything in place.  In a stroke of luck, Jim talked to Pacific Iron & Metal who’d just found 14,000 lineal feet of surplus 3/4” stainless steel cable which could be had for 50-cents a foot.  Jim bought it all.

During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the initial work of building a perimeter road to separate Frog Lake from Lake Sawyer was completed.  The dragline shovel operating from the road excavated mud from the lake and built a containment berm just inside the gravel road.  The pile driver used the same perimeter road to drive treated wood piling until these long poles reached a firm foundation.  The piling were driven at an average 10-foot spacing with treated wooden walls placed between, thereby providing a sturdy barrier between land and water.  

The first phase of the project ended, but the next stage of dredging and pumping was even more challenging.  The dredge–pumps Jim investigated were typically used in oceans and rivers, far too large for a small lake.  Once again he consulted experts but found no clear answers for available technology.  Ever persevering, Jim and his master mechanic, Walt Schoebert began designing their own machine.  It was a tall order as it had to float; move around the lake; cut through a dense mat of peat, roots, and mud; shred the mixed result; then pump it through pipes into diked areas.  In addition, the machine had to work around and through ancient logs littering the bottom of this jungle-strewn bog.  

LS021- The south end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1969-71. The cutting and dredging machine created by Walt Schoebert and Hawk is parked next to recently installed piling. The gravel dike road is partially covered by water to the right of the piling. Bob Eaton’s white boathouse located at 23232 S.E. 312th (now owned by Adam & Jenna Running) can be seen in the distance. Photo by Jim Hawk.

The next order of business was building a barge consisting of sealed floatation tubes connected by decking where machinery could be housed.  Paddle wheels were installed on each side of the floating wing tubes for propulsion.  A 4-cylinder GM diesel engine was bolted down to power the large hydraulic pump driving the machinery.  A cutting wheel was developed which could be lowered by boom into the muddy vegetated morass.  The cutting knives were protected within a collecting box.  The emulsified cuttings consisted of chopped roots, peat, mud, and wood shreds.  In order to suck this slurry and water mix, a pump designed for sewage plants was chosen.  That impeller pump thrust the slurry mixture through heavy rubber piping to containment areas behind dikes.  If they hit a log or something impenetrable, the cutting heads stopped and the differential caused the pump to stall.  The boom then lifted the log out of water and resume dredging.  Jim attributed the success of their home-made dredging machinery to his mechanic, “Walt Schoebert could build anything.”

LS029- All of the components of Hawk’s plan can be seen operating in this circa 1969-71 photo. The gravel dikes contain the hydraulically dredged and pumped slurry of lake sediment, while the log booms retain floating debris. Ravensdale Creek enters into the long canal in the center. The large peninsula of pumped sediment is to the right. To the far right is the larger inlet where Frog Lake flows into Lake Sawyer. Aerial photo looking east by Jim Hawk.

The system worked so well you could clearly see the cutting knives through the water when wearing Polarized sun glasses.  In addition, a floating log boom was constructed to curtain off the work zone and ensure no floating debris left the active dredging area.  No complaints were ever registered by lake residents.  Bob Eaton, the closest neighbor in the last residence on S.E. 312th Street was always supportive.  An official from Department of Fisheries and Game once stopped by the job site and declared the operation, “The cleanest lake clean-up we’ve ever seen.” 

The dredging work continued over the next three summers allowing the muddy mix to consolidate during the fall, winter, and spring seasons.  The project was completed by 1972.  During five years of operation there was never an accident or mishap. 

LS032 – This view looking southeast shows Hawk’s work circa 1969 with Frog Lake visible in the center right of the photo and Palmer Coking Coal’s slag pile near Highway 169 in Black Diamond in the far upper right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

The completed land form was ready for development, but the property lacked sewers and wasn’t currently viable as the 31-lot plat Jim envisioned.  So rather than develop the few lots that could be served with septic tanks and drain fields, Hawk pursued other ventures.  When asked why he didn’t move forward, Jim said, “I’d accomplished the job and had no need to sell.  Frankly, we were hoping for something better than just a dozen more homes on Lake Sawyer.”  When asked if he was proud of all he’d accomplished, Jim demurred, “It worked,” then added, “plus it gave me satisfaction to do something that all those experts and soil engineers couldn’t do.” 

This June 1, 1970 aerial photo shows the vast changes completed to date. Hawk’s work was finished the following year.

With his newly developed dredging technology, Jim turned his attention to helping Lake Sawyer residents rid their shorelines of unwelcome milfoil.  This non-native and invasive plant sets down a deep set of tangled roots which envelope shallow areas of the lake.  Using concepts similar to his recently utilized dredging equipment, Jim invented a machine to remove milfoil.  It consisted of a cutting edge on the bottom surrounded by a screened cage allowing excess water to drain.  The machine worked so well, he even received a patent and named it the “Water Bulldozer.” It was mounted on a self-propelled barge.  Jim tested the equipment by cleaning out much of the boot at the north end of Lake Sawyer.  Inspectors from the Department of Fisheries told him it worked great but they would still require each lot owner to apply for a separate hydraulic permit.  Jim lamented, “It was a great idea that didn’t work because of bureaucracy.” 

In 1985, Hawk turned his attention back to the Lake Sawyer jewel he’d sculpted more than a decade earlier.  He installed rockeries along certain shorelines where unprotected gravel bulkheads were eroding. But, the regulatory climate had changed.  The government agencies which had once praised his work refused to issue permits.  King County filed criminal charges against Hawk in Aukeen District Court claiming he’d harmed the environment by failing to secure a hydraulic permit.  The judge who heard the case declared Hawk’s existing restoration sufficient and Jim was order to pay court costs of $8.  King County and the State Department of Fisheries followed up with letters certifying compliance with permit conditions.

LS184 – In 1985, Hawk undertook additional work on his property, but ran afoul of new regulations. Restoration included adding gravel to shorelines and planting Douglas fir and red cedar trees along the lake shore.

When completed, Jim Hawk had created over one mile (5,600 lineal feet) of Lake Sawyer waterfront in three main sections surrounded by two navigable bodies of water.  But Jim was on to other ventures.  In April 1989, Hawk sold his 31-acre Lake Sawyer property to Palmer Coking Coal Company, who owned 480 surrounding acres.  With proceeds from the sale Jim assembled acreage to build the Jade Green Golf Course on the Lake Holm Road, east of Black Diamond. 

Ten years later, much of Hawk’s Lake Sawyer improvements became part of a 162-acre acquisition by King County of a planned regional park.  Portions of the park land and open space within city limits were deeded to Black Diamond in 2005.  Today the developed Lake Sawyer waterfront created by Jim Hawk is the focal point of a park through which a future trail connecting the Cedar and Green Rivers will pass.

Jim Hawk in the kitchen of his home on Lake Sawyer. This photo was taken the day of the interview, March 25, 2017.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Hawk, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch and Italian ancestors constructed this remarkable development at the south end of Lake Sawyer.  After all, it was practical Dutch engineers in the Netherlands who created an incredible system of dikes and canals reclaiming vast areas of that country from the sea.  And in Seattle, it was Italian immigrants, with surnames like Segale, Merlino, Scarsella, Scocollo, Fiorito, Pierotti, and Scalzo who built the vast reach of roads, bridges, cuts and fills throughout the Puget Sound area.

Jim Hawk was never afraid to dream big. In 1983, he directed preparation of drawings showing a series of connected waterways anchored by his earlier work on the south end of Lake Sawyer. Environmental regulations had tightened and the grand ideas envisioned by his Lake Sawyer Project were out of step with the times and never seriously pursued.

This story was written from an interview conducted by Bill Kombol on March 25, 2017.  One key but little discussed element of Jim’s life was recounted by Scott Sandwith, his former son-in-law.  Scott suggests the foundation that enabled Jim to build so much was his wife, Mary Jo’s eternal support for his “brilliant plans and ideas.”  Scott continues, “Mary Jo and Jim are two matched souls who embody what a marriage can be” resulting in the amazing and supportive legacy of five children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.   Jim and Mary Jo Hawk live in the same family home they built in 1961, located at dock #104.

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.