The Green River drives the history of the White River Valley. It has been sculptor, highway, fertilizer and grocery for us over the years of human habitation. It’s route has changed, naturally and at our hands, many times, but has always been vital to our way of life, whatever that may have been at the time.
Before the Green River even existed, the White River Valley was covered in the waters of the Puget Sound, after the last glacier retreated north. About 5,700 years ago there was a massive mud flow that swept down the northeast face of Mt. Rainier. This became the source of the gradual sediment filling the valley area. The mud flow also changed the drainage pattern of the White River. It had run through the Buckley area to join the Puyallup River, but it immediately changed to join with the Green River instead in the southern portion of Auburn. The delta of the system was also near Auburn, but it slowly moved north as it filled with sediment, to where it now lies in Elliot Bay in Seattle.
There has been more or less continuous settlement in the river valleys of King County for the last 13,550 years. The White River Valley has an archaeological site from 7,000 years ago, a hilltop hunting camp in the Renton area, and a fishing camp dating back to 1,600 years ago. There has also been evidence of a camp where hunter-gatherer groups harvested Wapato tubers, which are starchy, potato-like tubers that grow in shallow lakes and sloughs. The southern part of the valley doesn’t have any recorded archaeological sites because of the thick sediment and the extensive riverbank modifications.
There were three main Native American groups in the White River Valley. In the Kent area, there was a village known as Steq, meaning “log jam,” in reference to the pile of logs in the river that was an obstacle to native canoers. The people from Steq were called Stkamish and Chief Seattle’s mother was born there. Even before Euro-Americans settlers came to the area, there were different “classes” of people and the Stkamish had a “high class” reputation compared to other tribes, due to their wealth. There was also the Smulkamish, “people of the White River” in the area where Muckleshoot and Enumclaw is now, and the Skopamish in Auburn where the White and Green Rivers used to join. The descendants of these tribes are all members of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe today.
There was a natural abundance of food and raw materials in the valley. The Native American groups lived in split cedar houses in their permanent villages, and seasonal camps were made with woven mats and poles. They made finely crafted cedar dugout canoes for transportation, which were also used by early Euro-Americans settlers. They harvested from the incredible runs of salmon, as well as shellfish, waterfowl, large and small mammals, roots, herbs and berries. They would also trade with tribes across the mountain passes in late summer.
The first Euro-American couple, John and Nancy Thomas, came to homestead in the valley on July 17, 1854. This area became known as the town of Thomas, which was around where 277th street, between Kent and Auburn, is now. More pioneers also settled in the area, with familiar names: Neely, Brennon, Russell, McMillens and more. By the time they would get to their land claim, they would have few reserves of food and money left, so they immediately started planting crops and making farms on the “prairies” and clearings that had been maintained through burning of the foliage by the Native Americans. There were very few open spaces for immediate use by settlers. The White River Valley was among the most desirable places for this reason. Most of King County was covered by thick coniferous forest and deciduous growth which had to be cleared before anything could be grown. These were called “stump ranches” because the stumps then had to be removed after the lumber was cleared. According to pioneer C.T. Conover, by the 1860’s all of the good river land had been taken up.
Some tribal members, mostly from Eastern Washington, became hostile after a series of bad relations with Euro-Americans and came over the Cascades into the Puget Sound, inciting warfare with the settlers. In 1855, the Army built several blockhouse forts, including one next to the land claim of John Thomas, right on the Green River. The proximity to the river not only provided water for the garrison, but the river was also used for transportation and communication. Many Puget Sound tribes played a significant role in the defense of the settlers. The crisis known as the “Indian Wars” was over fairly quickly.
Farmers in the White River Valley communities had, by the late 1850’s, started selling their poultry, eggs, potatoes and wheat in Seattle. Native American canoes and pole-driven scows were the main means of transportation until small steamboats began to run upriver.
In the 1860’s and 70’s, the Green River (then still called the White River) had several boat landings. They were important places because they were the connection with the outside world, the place goods were shipped out and brought in and where the mail was delivered. Many of the landings also had a cable ferry crossing which was important since there were no bridges across the river at that time and the only real road in the area to connect the north and south was Military Road.
A mile north of Kent on Russell Road, between 228th and 212th now, was Maddocksville where Cornelius Van Doren had his home, farm, store, ferry and riverboat dock. It was known as Van Doren’s Landing. West of Kent was David Neely’s landing, Langston’s Landing was at the west end of Willis Street in Kent, and about a quarter mile south of Kent was Thomas Alvord’s landing, and the usual end of the journey upriver from Seattle. A short ways up river from Alvord’s Landing were some rapids only a few captains would try to navigate in high water.
In the 1880’s, steamboats would travel the White River to carry goods, mail and people from Seattle. The five main boats were the Comet, the Lily, the Black Diamond, the Gem and the Winette. The best known of these was the paddle boat Lily captained by James Crow. It was 96 ½ feet long and was 16 feet wide. The early sternwheelers would leave Seattle in the morning and travel about 12 hours to Alvord’s Landing. They would drag hundreds of feet of heavy chains on the return trip to keep the boat in the center of the river. They had no definite time schedules, but would stop at any farm that had potatoes, hops or other produce to ship. Hops were a major cash crop in the valley for several years until they moved on to lettuce and other produce. There is now a public park where Van Doren’s Landing was located.
Several bridges were built by the 1890’s, ending the need for the ferry crossings. The Puget Sound Shore Railroad constructed in the valley in 1885 also meant the era of river boats had ended, as the train was faster and cheaper.
The White River Valley had such rich farmland because the river flooded most years. However, in 1906, the flood was so bad that the County decided to permanently divert the White River into Pierce County, no longer joining with the Green River in Auburn. The Black River still joined with the Green River in Renton at that time, where it’s name changed to the Duwamish River. But in 1916, the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the water level of the lake by 8 ½ feet. The Black River that had connected Lake Washington to the Duwamish River ran dry and was later filled in. This is why today the Green River changes it’s name in Renton to the Duwamish for no apparent reason.
Despite rerouting the rivers, the valley still flooded often enough that in 1962 the Howard Hanson Dam was built to control flooding and to provide a water supply source for Tacoma. Protection from periodic flooding made real estate in the valley attractive to developers, so farmland started being sold to be turned into industrial parks and shopping centers.
Today, the Green River is primarily a source of recreation and wildlife habitat. The paved Green River Trail, dotted by many small parks, runs for 19 miles along the river, on top of a levee, from Cecil Moses Park near South Seattle to North Green River Park in south Kent near Auburn. There are 36.2 miles of Levees and Revetments (a facing usually made of stone or concrete to sustain an embankment) along the river for flood control. In the planning phase is an extension of the trail to South Park in Seattle in which construction is hoped to begin in 2019. Long term plans call for an extension further south through Auburn to Flaming Geyser State Park.
People fish for Steelhead along the banks; they run and walk the trail for exercise; it is a commuter trail for some bikers; and people use the trail to watch for wildlife, especially for the famous Bald Eagle nest that is in Kent every year along the trail. The Green River still links much of the valley together, just as it has done for thousands of years.
by Michelle Gehlman-Teeter
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