BYE-BYE ALKI – The retired Seattle Fire Department boat Alki, abandoned at the La Conner Marina, was on its way to Bellingham Tuesday, with Dunlap Towing’s Tom Zimmerman at the helm of the tug, towing it north through Swinomish Channel. The new owner bought it from the Port of Skagit on Friday, according to Port spokesman Carl Molesworth. – Photo by Judy Zimmerman
Swinomish slough in the archives...
“At high tide the Indians paddled their canoes wherever they wished over what are now the finest farms in Washington. The marsh was ramified by countless sloughs, big and little, many of them long since overfilled and cultivated over. In the summer tulle, cattail and coarse salt grass flourished, and it was the home of many thousands of wildfowl and muskrats, an ideal hunting ground for the Indians.”— Pioneer Picnic address by Garfield McGlinn, the son of McGlinn Island namesake John McGlinn, published in Puget Sound Mail, June 16, 1948
“While coming through the Slough of Despond (sometimes called Swinomish Slough) on Thursday of last week, the steamer Washington ran on one of the numerous sand spits in that tortuous stream and snapped ‘her chains,’ and was otherwise badly strained. She succeeded in finally getting off and proceeded to the end of the route, where she was repaired sufficiently to enable her to reach Seattle on Sunday, whence she will be taken to the bone yard. If ever a place was effectively damned, and deservedly so, by steamboat men and other persons who have occasion to use it, it is Swinomish slough, which is yearly getting shallower and more difficult of navigation by reason of the constantly shifting channels and the formation of numerous sand bars. That slough has ever been a serious drawback to the success of the enterprising town of La Conner, and boats rarely go through now except at high water.”— Published in Anacortes Progress, August 10, 1889 – Compiled by Theresa L. Trebon
By Theresa L. Trebon Swinomish Swinomish Tribal Archivist
The recent “La Conner Weekly News” article on the history of the Swinomish Channel has prompted a more complex story of the channel’s alterations over time. The Swinomish Slough, first called the Canim (canoe) Passage by newcomers to the area in the 1850s, was a narrow, winding waterway, so shallow that during the summertime, farmers waded their horses through it to obtain fresh drinking water from springs on the Swinomish Reservation. In 1893, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the slough at the behest of La Conner merchants, who were frustrated by the shallow nature of the slough and the consequent obstacles to shipping. Despite the fact that the Swinomish Tribe had active fish traps in the slough, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended “abrogating” their treaty rights because “...it will be impossible to ever get a good channel in Swinomish Slough as long as the Indians are permitted to put in their traps.” The 1893 dredging of the channel was the first in a long line of Army Corps of Engineers “improvements” to the Swinomish Slough that ultimately resulted in a dike being constructed from “Galliher’s Point” — which is today’s Pioneer Park area — to McGlinn Island and in 1938 a dike from McGlinn to Goat Island. These alterations cut off the flow of water from the North Fork of the Skagit River to the Swinomish Slough, drastically affected the salmon runs in the Swinomish Slough, and decimated the livelihood of both tribal and non-Native fishermen. For additional information on this period, see Milo Moore’s publication, “Rebuilding the once great salmon runs of Swinomish Channel,” which recounts the effects of the dredging and dike construction on the slough, which “...for its length, requires more dredging than any other navigable waterway in this state” — Seattle Times, June 8, 1947. The name of the Swinomish Slough was changed because townspeople disliked the word “slough” and thought it denigrated both the community and local businesses. Starting around 1914, the town, and later its Chamber of Commerce, waged a campaign to change the waterway’s name. In June 1954, after heavy lobbying by the town of La Conner, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially renamed Swinomish Slough as the Swinomish Channel. The June 10, 1954 “Puget Sound Mail” reported on the name change in length and an editorial stated, “At last, the right name for the Swinomish Channel,” especially because the old term, “slough” would be a “handicap” for the new (Rainbow) bridge being planned. Four days later, the “Seattle Times” reported, “The residents of the La Conner area have long advocated the change, pointing out that ‘slough’ lacks dignity.” While “channel” may sound more refined, not understanding the waterway’s historic con-figuration, or that the name, slough, means “a creek in a marsh or tide flat,” divorces the historic functions of the slough from reality in terms of its role as critical habitat.
The legacy of dredging or filling the sloughs, tidelands and marshes of the Skagit River delta directly contributed to the diminution of the Skagit’s “once great salmon runs.”