The city of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, about eight miles east of Everett, is named after the glacial lake it surrounds. The lake was named, on an 1855 map, for Washington Territory Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862). Settlers began claiming land around the lake in the late 1800s. Early in the twentieth century, Rucker Brothers Timber Company built a rail line to the lake and a sawmill there, drawing workers and their families to the area. Rucker Mill was destroyed by fire in 1925, but soon visitors were arriving by the carload at resorts scattered around the lake. In 1960 the Frontier Village shopping center opened at the intersection of State Route (SR) 9 and SR 204, and that development led to the incorporation of Lake Stevens. The lake's resort culture gave way to suburbia and additional areas around the lake annexed into the city. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, growth in Lake Stevens was outpacing that in Snohomish County as a whole; the city had more than 31,000 residents in 2016 with 40,000 forecast by 2035.
The Monster and the Lake
The city of Lake Stevens inherited a majestic relic of the Ice Age Floods, which in 2017 was nestled in the trees on a steep ravine in a 20-year-old subdivision of multi-level homes. Referred to as the Lake Stevens Monster, the giant rock is considered the largest erratic in Washington and maybe in the United States. It measures 34 feet tall and 78 feet in length with a circumference of 210 feet. Geologist Dave Tucker describes the Lake Stevens Erratic as being composed of serpentinized greenstone, a rock related to ancient seafloor lava caught between two tectonic plates, and notes that similar-looking greenstone has been found at the north tip of Whidbey Island, 37 miles northwest of Lake Stevens.
It appears that the origin of Lake Stevens specifically has not been researched but it's most likely similar to other present-day lowland lakes influenced by the huge lake that covered much of the Puget Sound lowlands during the last glacial retreat from the region. Thick terraces formed along the edges of the slowly retreating lake, filling depressions and river valleys hundreds of feet deep. The depressions retained the water and as saltwater receded they became lakes, their outlets creating their own creeks.
Lake Stevens is located on a high terrace above the Everett and Marysville Puget Sound shoreline below and to the west. It is the largest and deepest lake in Snohomish County, with an area of around 1,000 acres and 150 feet deep at its deepest point, with some 8 miles of shoreline. It is primarily fed by Stevens, Lundeen, Kokanee, and Stitch creeks and it drains into Catherine Creek, which ultimately drains to the Pilchuck River.
A few miles south of the lake the town of Snohomish, briefly the county seat, was located along the Snohomish River. The varied occupations of Charles A. Missimer (ca. 1858-1938) were reported in Snohomish's first two newspapers, the Northern Star and The Eye, as photographer, scenery painter, trombone player with the local Snohomish band at the Atheneum Masked Ball, deputy county surveyor, Circuit Court clerk, even co-publisher of The Eye for a short time. So it's easy to imagine that Missimer may also have been curious about the origin of Lake Stevens when he signed a deed for Lots 2 and 3 at the northern end of the lake on October 8, 1889. Missimer's land included the outlet of the lake, referred to as the North Cove, which would become the town site of Lake Stevens.
Missimer (whose name was sometimes spelled "Messimer") and his father-in-law Harold W. Illman (1834-1928) platted a small townsite of two blocks, which they named Outing, in 1890. Following a series of land transfers the plat's 48 lots were folded into the site of the Rucker Brothers sawmill built in 1907. Jim Mitchell (1924-2012), in his informative memoir subtitled Reflections of a Native Son, tells how the town of Lake Stevens was built over a creek on pilings. As the land in question was the natural outlet for the lake, it was a swamp and so the choice for construction of a large lumber mill that required a flat, level site.
Along with installing the pilings, the Rucker Brothers firm dug a ditch to create a shorter outlet from the lake to Cassidy Creek (later called Catherine Creek). A railroad spur was built alongside the new outlet, referred to locally as "the Ditch," to connect with the Northern Pacific line at Hartford, less than a mile away to the northeast. Eventually a boardwalk was built that ran from downtown Lake Stevens to the Baptist church in Hartford. By 2017, the tracks and boardwalk were long gone, but the Ditch still flowed alongside the one-way paved road used in the summer to stage the annual Aquafest Parade down Main Street.
By 1910, Rucker Brothers employed around 250 people, all living within walking distance of the mill. The mill owners built most of the homes for their employees on 16th and 20th streets, as well as on North Lakeshore Drive and Mitchell Road, where Jim Mitchell's father purchased a house from the Ruckers for $2,000 in 1920. Several of those homes still stood in 2017, even the one on North Lakeshore Drive built by Bethel Rucker (1862-1945) for his new bride, who upon seeing it refused to live in a "shack!" (Mitchell, 30). She chose instead to live with her brother and mother-in-law in the grand home now known as the Rucker Mansion on Rucker Hill in Everett.
As the only industry in the area, the large Rucker Brothers sawmill was responsible for the robust growth of Lake Stevens in the 1920s and it might be considered a company town in every sense save its name. The Ruckers even opened a bank just outside the mill's gates. The mill had burned once already but was rebuilt, so it was expected that the mill would be rebuilt again following a disastrous fire in 1925. A history of Snohomish County published the next year reported that Lake Stevens residents were looking forward to the mill resuming operations. It never did. Many of the employees and their families followed the Rucker Brothers out of town and "our little village became a wide spot in the road" (Mitchell, 26).
A real estate project called "Five-acre Tracts" filed in 1891 was the first to establish small tracts for summer homes around the lake. The 1926 history continues with a list of early resorts that include Lake Stevens Garden Tracts and Chautauqua Park in 1906; Lake Stevens Summer Home Tracts, 1907; Lake Stevens Water Front Tracts, 1911; Lake Stevens Sandy Beach Tracts, 1919; Williams Park, 1920; and the Lake View Tracts in 1926. By that year, practically all of the shoreline of the beautiful lake was platted into small lots and tracts.
Mitchell writes in his memoir that from the 1930s onward fishing resorts grew to become the major source of income for the community. He lists eight major resorts: Lundeen Park, Davies Park, Purple Pennant, Kansas Camp Ground, Basler's Resort, Ann's Resort, Kilborn's Fishing Resort, and Williams Park.
Lundeen Park opened in 1908 and as the only one to survive the lake's years of population growth it's fitting that its origin involves a birth. As Mitchell tells the story, Grandma Lundeen was a midwife and the Johnson family called her for help. She traveled by rowboat from downtown to the Johnson Farm a short distance west at the northern tip of the lake. The delivery was successful and while there, Grandma Lundeen fell in love with the Johnson Farm and told Mrs. Johnson to contact her if the Johnsons ever wanted to sell it.
Within a couple years the Lundeen family was living on the 30 acres of flat farmland with a 300-foot sandy beach and an old-fashioned orchard. So stunning was the setting that strangers were asking for permission to picnic and play in the lake, activities soon so popular that the Lundeens began charging for use of their land and soon realized that running a resort would earn more than farming.
The Lundeens built a dance pavilion over the lake on pilings with a capacity for a thousand dancers. And they built a tavern with a 60-foot-long bar and its own dance floor. They outfitted a 40,000-square-foot enclosed swimming area with the latest pool toys. A regulation-size baseball stadium was added to the park complete with covered seating for a thousand fans. Moreover, Lundeen Park sponsored a big-name dance band every Saturday night during the summer -- it was the place to be.
That's all gone today, along with the other resorts and their dangerous looking body-slide towers. Fortunately, Snohomish County purchased part of Lundeen Park for development into the peaceful public park it is today. In 2008, community efforts along with county and city funding began returning Lundeen Creek to its natural meandering ways through a 100-foot-wide greenbelt, replacing the straight-shot ditch that carried rising floodwater to the doorsteps of nearby houses for years.
In addition to swimming and dancing, fishing for native cutthroat trout and sockeye salmon made the lake "A Fisherman's Paradise" (Mitchell, 51). In the 1930s, the state Fish and Game Department planted silvers (or kokanee, a landlocked salmon), which thrived and contributed to the lake's regional popularity. The limit in those days was 20 fish and the "average fisherman caught his limit in an hour" (Mitchell, 51).
Following World War II, the department stopped planting silvers, putting a damper on paradise, though the change was mild compared to what the coming population explosion would bring.
Over time most of the small homes and cabins around the lake were replaced by larger year-round homes, making Lake Stevens one of the most densely developed lakes in the county. While steps to protect water quality began in 1932 with the establishment of the Lake Stevens Drainage District, participation was voluntary. It was not until 1963 that the Lake Stevens Sewer District was organized around the lake. "If we had not built it, our lake would be a dead body of water today," Mitchell wrote in 2004, leaving the details to the imagination (Mitchell, 116).
By the 1980s closer attention was paid to how nearshore homes were modifying the shoreline with bulkheads or fill. Only a few homes retained some native vegetation along the shore and without buffers of vegetation, more polluting runoff reached the lake.
In 1994 an aeration system was installed in the center of the lake, providing oxygen to the deeper, colder water to offset the chemical reaction that releases phosphorus from sediments when oxygen levels are low. The aeration system improved the water quality of Lake Stevens for nearly 20 years, until the iron in the water, needed to mix with the oxygen for the system to work, was depleted.
As an alternative, the City of Lake Stevens and Snohomish County began conducting annual aluminum sulfate (alum) treatments in 2013. Alum is widely used for removing impurities from lakes, even drinking-water sources. In Lake Stevens, the alum strips phosphorus from the water; the phosphorus sinks and becomes permanently bonded to the sediments and unavailable for algae growth.
The Snohomish County Surface Water Management (SWM) monitors the water quality of Lake Stevens every month. Monitoring data showed that lake conditions improved after alum treatments began. Further, the Snohomish Conservation District and the city embarked on an "I Love the Lake" campaign with a window sticker aimed at rallying homeowners to take action to prevent algal blooms.
The amount of alum added to the lake is small, especially compared to Green Lake in Seattle, and it is safe for fish. As of 2017, kokanee and rainbow trout were restocked as spring-fry and fingerlings. The limit for the silvers has been reduced to 10 per day.
Ernest Hunt (1897-1958) came to Lake Stevens High School to teach vocational classes in 1926; he also coached football, basketball, and track. In 1931 he was appointed superintendent of the district and immediately initiated efforts to improve the programs and renovate the buildings, as many were still without running water and central heating. Hunt is credited with building the first library for the high school.
In 1936, an addition to the 1928 high-school building was required to handle increasing enrollment. It was built with help from the federal Works Project Administration (WPA) and somewhere along the way, the renovated building was given a fresh coat of surplus pink paint from a World War II effort. It was affectionately referred to as the "Pink Palace" until it was demolished in 1980, when the student body moved to the building still used in 2017.
Hunt was untiring in his efforts to get federal help and his efforts resulted in not only modernized facilities, but also improved playgrounds and the high-school athletic field eventually named in his honor. Moreover, he served on state and county education committees where in the 1930s he helped promote the Showalter Bill aimed at helping equalize state funding for schools. In 1953, the original four-room White School built in 1913 was rebuilt and renamed the Mt. Pilchuck School; in 2017 it remained in service as an elementary school. Hunt served as superintendent for 26 years until his death at age 61 in 1958.
It was never really convenient to take the train from Snohomish to Lake Stevens because the depot was in Hartford, a mile-long boardwalk away. The former rail line became the Centennial Trail, dedicated in 1989 (hence its name marking the 100th anniversary of Washington's statehood), maintained by Snohomish County Parks. Interpretive signs describing the route's history were added in 2012.
The automobile created the City of Lake Stevens as it exists today. Exhibit A would be the opening of the shopping center Frontier Village in 1960. An economic opportunity presented itself where the road then known as the Snohomish-Marysville Road (designated SR 204 in 1964) terminated at SR 9, the Snohomish-Arlington highway, near the west side of the lake, across its widest expanse from downtown. Once Frontier Village opened, going straight across SR 9 took drivers from SR 204 directly into the shopping center's expansive parking lot.
A few miles north of the shopping center, SR 92 intersected SR 9 from the northeast. Known to early motorists as the Granite Falls Highway, it followed the historic route of the popular but short-lived Monte Cristo and Everett Railroad. According to Mitchell, this new road was the final blow. Before 1960, reaching Everett from the east required passing through Lake Stevens. With SR 92 in place to the north, "downtown quickly became a ghost town" (Mitchell, 33). Even Mitchell Pharmacy, referred to as the hub of downtown Lake Stevens, which Mitchell operated with his father, joined the exodus of several other business owners when, on September 1, 1960, it relocated to Frontier Village.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the intersection of SR 9 and SR 204 was the busiest in Snohomish County.
Planning for the Future
The Town (later City) of Lake Stevens incorporated in late 1960, at least partly in response to the move of businesses from the old downtown to the shopping center on the far side of the lake, with incorporation proponents arguing that a local city government could provide needed services to the downtown area. Bill Hawkins served as the first mayor. John Spencer (b. 1947) was elected the tenth mayor of Lake Stevens in 2016. Spencer, who served on the city council before becoming mayor, moved to Lake Stevens with his wife in 1984. He recalled that in his "first four, five years [he] never came over here" (Blake interview), referring to the downtown that decades later he would work to change in dramatic and sometimes controversial ways.
Upon taking office as mayor, Spencer led efforts to develop and implement a Downtown Subarea Plan that envisioned sweeping changes in the historic heart of the city. Indeed, city officials did not wait for completion of the subarea planning process before beginning work to replace aging city buildings. The Community Center, where community meetings to consider the plan were held beginning in September 2016, was at that time located behind the old City Hall. But in the fall of 2017 the dilapidated city hall building was demolished after operations were moved to a prefabricated building on the site over the summer. The city council approved a plan to build a new city hall at a location on Chapel Hill Road where new facilities for the police department would also be located. By doing so, officials sought to move city services closer to the center of the city's population.
Plans to remove some well-used structures on Main Street triggered a strong reaction, especially in the case of the Lake Stevens Historical Society Museum, representing decades of dedication and hours of volunteer labor. Plan supporters asserted that the city would help with relocation and asserted that removal of the buildings would open direct access to North Cove Park and its shoreline. The park is part of the land purchased by Missimer in 1889. Expansion of the park as imagined in the subarea plan was designed to open the park to Main Street, providing lake views that did not previously exist. According to Spencer, the vision for downtown was to build a civic center pavilion that would draw residents from around the lake and beyond to events in addition to the annual summer Aquafest. The mayor envisioned such things as a weekly farmer's market, shops and restaurants, and perhaps even a boutique hotel.
On the far side of the lake, the Lake Stevens Center Subarea Plan encompassing the commercial area at the intersection of SR 9 and SR 204 was adopted by the city council in September 2012. The approved plan for Lake Stevens Center was given new life in 2017 when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) approved long-awaited funding and a preferred design configuration for improvements to the highway intersection. WSDOT led two community open houses where public input was collected and incorporated into three design options. The preferred option was to allow the north-south SR9 to pass under the intersection. Construction of the intersection improvements was scheduled to begin in 2018.
Over the years following its incorporation, additional areas around the lake were annexed in to the city, so that it encompassed all of the lakeshore except for a portion along the southeastern shoreline, which as of 2017 was part of the city's Urban Growth Area but not within the city limits. City officials suggested that year that the city was on track to eventually entirely surround the lake, certainly by 2035, when the population was projected to reach 40,000 residents and, city leaders hoped, Lake Stevens would be one community around the lake anchored by a vibrant downtown with echoes of its founding as a mill town.