Noel V. Bourasaw, editor 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Over the next few months, we are going to share with you some stories that were written about the Northwest more than a hundred years ago, History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington, Volume II, edited by Elwood Evans and published in 1889. As those of you have followed our site over the last year know, we like to feature original sources and quote from them. We have been aided in our quest by Janine M. Bork, who lives in Wallowa county, Oregon. Janine is one of those wonderful volunteers who add so much to the internet history of the Northwest. She has scanned and transcribed many chapters of the 1889 book, which was edited by Elwood Evans, Secretary of State for Washington.
Nelson Bennett, 1880s
This is all the more interesting in Sedro's case because the man behind the original plat was Norman R. Kelley and he and Bennett were thorns in each other's side. Kelley even went as far as to try to block the railroad completion with a court suit. But Bennett outfoxed him and sent his engineer, John J. Donovan, on horseback in a driving blizzard in the middle of the winter of 1889 to quash the suit in the county seat of Mount Vernon. The two ego-driven town builders apparently decided it was better to join than to fight because Kelley incorporated his town as Sedro and Bennett incorporated Cook's old river village site as Town of Sedro. In that year, when Sedro was born as a boom town, when Washington became a state, when Seattle burned and when the Fairhaven & Southern Railway chugged into town as a Christmas present for Sedro, this biography of Bennett was written. When you are finished, you might want to read about the Journal's exclusive history of the F&S, to see how he built his railroad line.
Nelson Bennett blasts across the prairies
The Cokedale Mine in the 1890s, discovered by Lafayette Stevens and developed by Nelson Bennett
His singular good fortune, luck, or call it what you will, seemed never to desert him. A year later his train was making a second trip into the Challis and Bonanza districts of Idaho. A large train had gone ahead; and they were intercepted by hostile Bannacks, who fought them and held them at bay for two days and two nights, killing one man and stampeding the animals and running off a number. Colonel Green, U.S. Army, came up; and the Indians fled. Bennett's train came up after the arrival of the soldiers and the flight of the Bannacks. The soldiers were entirely out of provisions and really in need. Bennett sold out his whole outfit, consisting of grocery bacon, canned fruits, canned salmon, and a well assorted stock intended for the miners. Script was issued to him, as that was one of the years in which the appropriation had fallen short; and Bennett did not receive his pay for eighteen months. Whilst Mr. Bennett has been carrying on this freighting enterprise west of the Rocky Mountains, Jay Gould had undertaken the extension of the Utah Northern Railroad from Ogden to Butte City. That great financier had sent out, as superintendent of construction, Washington Dunn, with whom, in 1881, Nelson Bennett became intimately acquainted. Through that intimacy Mr. Bennett entered upon the railroad contracting business. It is out of place to follow in detail the contracts he undertook. Since that date, a part of which time doing business under the firm name of Washington, Dunn & company, and in his individual capacity, he has built five hundred and fifty miles of railroad, including the Stampede or Cascade Tunnel of the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Cascade Range of mountains. The latter stupendous and colossal work was completed in May 1888. Mr. Bennett took the contract for its construction January 21, 1886, requiring its completion within twenty-eight months from the date of contract. He gave bonds of $100,000 cash, and ten per cent of the contract price for the fulfillment of the contract. He finished the great work, and had seven days to spare. During all the time that Mr. Bennett was engaged in freighting and railroad constructing, he was steadily occupied in other pursuits — merchandising, the lumber business, dealing in agricultural implements, stock-raising, mining, and dealing in mining properties. He became largely interested in developing mines; and, although almost universally successful in any enterprise in which he enlisted, he has in his hope to develop mines expended some fifty thousand dollars, only realizing out of those ventures a thousand dollars. But indomitable he is still mining and not discouraged as to the future result of those investments. It would not be Nelson Bennett to give up, nor would it be him not to be crowned with a successful result. Since completing the Cascade Tunnel, Tacoma has been his headquarters; and he has contributed largely to the marvelous growth of that city. Early in 1889 he became interested in Fairhaven, Whatcom county, in the extreme northern part of Washington, on Bellingham Bay. The Fairhaven enterprise comprehends the development of the Lower Puget Sound region, the possibilities resulting from which it is premature to predict. They must be estimated in the future, though it is quite proper to add that the success of the short period already passed through promises grand results. Already twenty-five miles of railroad have been constructed, while another section of twenty-five miles is ready for tracklaying. A large force of men are not at work extending the line south of Skagit river, and gradually approaching connection with the Northern Pacific. There is also work being done on the line connecting Skagit river with the Eastern branch, which is heading eastward to pass through one of the Skagit passes of the Cascade Range to enter and open the rich mining region of the Okanogan, and connect it with Puget Sound. Another railroad is being constructed which extends northward from Bellingham Bay to New Westminster, and possibly to Vancouver and other more remote points in British Columbia. Mr. Bennett is the president of the Fairhaven & Southern Railroad Company. He has purchased the entire control of the Westminster & Southern Railroad Company properties. He is the president of the Fairhaven Land Company, a company which is engaged in the development of the city of that name on Bellingham Bay. He is the president of the Skagit Coal Company, which is at present and for the past year has been engaged in developing the vast coal fields of the Skagit river basin. He is largely interested in and principal promoter of the Fairhaven Iron and Steel Company, who are about erecting the necessary furnaces and works for the development and utilization of the rich iron deposits in the valley of the Skagit. He was the pioneer builder of the street railroad system of Tacoma, and is now the principal owner of the street railroad system of Butte City, Montana, which has three miles of cable road and six miles of motor lines. He is president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, as also the Tacoma Hotel Company. With all these manifold engagements, he still finds time to contribute by his presence and council to every enterprise suggested for the benefit of the public. He is ever ready to advise and to assist the needy. In vigorous and hearty manhood, full of intellectual vigor and physical strength, his life of usefulness and benefit to his race promises to be prolonged. No one in a more eminent degree illustrates the pluck and push of the men who have made our western civilization than Nelson Bennett.
More reading and photos: On March 2, 1890, Col. Frank Wilkeson, Skagit county's most esteemed early writer, profiled Nelson Bennett in a New York Times column.