Issaquah’s roots revisited: Area holds a deep history

It’s not just in school that people learn Issaquah history. In an average year, more than 5,300 people from all over Washington and as far away as Iceland, South Africa, Asia and Australia visit the Issaquah History Museums.


Special to the reporter

It’s not just in school that people learn Issaquah history.

In an average year, more than 5,300 people from all over Washington and as far away as Iceland, South Africa, Asia and Australia visit the Issaquah History Museums.

Out-of-towners ask about local names like Issaquah, Gilman and Squak. Relatives of old Issaquah families ask about their genealogy. Newcomers and day-trippers most frequently ask, “When did people first come here? What did they used to do here? Where were the coal mines? Where did the railroad go? Can we ride a train here?”

Here are some brief answers:

“Issaquah” comes from the word meaning “the sound of water birds” in the language of the Lushootseed people, who included the Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Duwamish and other area tribes. “Squak Valley,” the early settlers’ name for this area, was based on the same Lushootseed word, as is Squak Mountain, which rises west of the fish hatchery.

In 1892 the town of Gilman, and therefore the Gilman Town Hall, was named after Daniel Hunt Gilman, who was instrumental in bringing the railroad here. Confusion with another Washington town named “Gilmer” caused the town to petition the legislature to change the name to Issaquah in 1899.

The Sammamish band of the Duwamish, the Snoqualmies and other Native Americans were here long before white settlers first came to the valley in the 1860s and 1870s.

In addition to household farming, early settlers raised hops for Seattle breweries. When the railroad reached town in 1888, and coal found here could be shipped to Seattle profitably, miners flocked to the area from many parts of the U.S. and the world, as did loggers of the big trees and local business people. Dairy farming later became a major industry.

The largest coal mines were Grand Ridge, at the southern end of the Sammamish Plateau, and the Issaquah and Superior mine on Squak Mountain. Smaller mines were the Bianco Queen and Harris mines along what is now Highway 900, and the Caroline mine on Tiger Mountain. “Mom and Pop” mines were active around the area into the 1960s.

The Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway was incorporated in 1885 by a group of Seattle investors, but went into receivership by 1896 and was bought out by Northern Pacific Railway in 1898. It was headquartered in Seattle, ran around the north end of both Lakes Washington and Sammamish, south to Issaquah, then east to Salal Prairie just past North Bend.

The nearest tourist ride on the old line today is at the Northwest Railway Museum in the town of Snoqualmie. Closer to home, the Issaquah Valley Trolley project is moving forward. The track has been fixed from the Depot to Darigold and the trolley car is going to Ida Grove, Iowa, for renovation. It is due back later in the year, ready to go, powered by a generator pulled behind the car.

Younger visitors to the museums have a special set of questions. Some try working the wheels next to the doors into the caboose and the Army car at the Depot, asking, “Is this the way they steered?” Answer: No, you can’t steer a railroad car. The wheel is a manual brake, in case the car becomes separated from the train or engine when moving.

“Where was the bathroom?” kids ask at the caboose and at the old jail behind the Gilman Town Hall. That answer must be explained on site.

Some want to explore complex questions like, “When did timber companies start ‘clearcutting?’” or “When did the state begin supporting schools here?” Answers can be found in IHM materials.

However, the information flow is not all one-way. People’s memories are often triggered by their visits and they contribute special knowledge. For example, former telegraphers and other users of Morse Code, as showcased at the Depot, explain how they learned to understand messages. “We didn’t hear individual letters or words,” said one, “but we would recognize patterns in the dots and dashes.”

Studying one exhibit at the Gilman Town Hall, people have told about jumping out of gliders for sport and novices who broke heels and ankles when landing at the former Skyport. Pickering Place is there today. Another visitor told about racing his friends along old logging roads on Vaughn’s Hill in a ‘39 Chevy with “free wheeling,” a kind of overdrive, in the 1950s.

These are only a few of the questions and answers about Issaquah history that intrigue visitors – and those who visit with them.


Joan Newman is a docent at the Issaquah History Museums. Sources: Museum volunteers/staff and materials in the IHM gift shops and archives.
















The first hotel in Issaquah: The Tibbetts Hotel, was built by George Washington Tibbetts in 1884 and was west of town on a new stage route over “Newcastle Hill” (part of Cougar Mountain). Many Squak Valley farmers shipped their hops and travelers rode over this route before the railroad arrived. Courtesy photo

















The Baker house on Mine Hill: A row of company houses like this one housed miners and their families at the Issaquah and Superior Mine. Shown are the Bakers’ daughter Kathleen Johnson, Lillian and Alice Harris and two of their friends. Several of these houses can still be seen today on Mine Hill Road off Wildwood Blvd. S.W. off Newport Way west of the fish hatchery. Courtesy photo