Edison -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 5/30/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20788

Edison in Skagit County is nestled in a rural valley at the south end of the scenic Chuckanut Drive, about 75 miles north of Seattle and halfway between Bellingham and La Conner. Founded in 1869 and named for inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), the hamlet of about 130 residents sits in the heart of a rich agricultural area, surrounded by flat fertile farmland. At one time a heavily timbered area, the land was cleared first by loggers and then the farmers who followed, and the town seemed destined for prosperity. But the rise of railways and then highways diverted commerce elsewhere and Edison never grew beyond a small enclave. In 1897, a utopian socialist project called the Equality Colony was established nearby, attracting people who wanted to live in true communal style; the experiment failed a decade later. Edison's most famous son, Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965), attended Edison High School and went on to gain national prominence as a World War II correspondent and influential television broadcast journalist. Recently, the village was rediscovered by artists, food-lovers, and vintage-shop owners who have breathed new life into its 150-year-old roots. The town is one of several small communities that have merged into a region known as Bow-Edison.

The Early Years

Edison was founded in 1869 when pioneers, including Ben Samson (1827-1897) and Edward McTaggart (1833-1916), settled on its tide-swept flats and began to reclaim the land from the sea. In 1874, a school was set up, attracting teacher Charles Setzer from nearby Orcas Island. The community grew rapidly and its citizens soon decided a post office was a necessity. McTaggart called a meeting to discuss the matter further. "It was held at the McTaggart place March 26, 1876, forty-six settlers being present, and a petition drawn and signed asking for the creation of Edison post office with Edward McTaggart as postmaster, he suggesting the name of Edison in honor of the celebrated electrician. The office was established the following June with Swen Johnson as the first mail carrier. For a long time the office was kept in the house of D. P. Thomas situated in a little grove on the northwest side of the slough opposite Samson's place" ("Edison: Market Crossroads …").

Once the post office was established, additional structures followed as the town expanded. In 1880, a trading post opened on land donated by Edward McTaggart. In 1885, Dave Webble became the town blacksmith and the following year, D. P. Thomas added justice of the peace to his postmaster title. Three churches were available to Edison residents: Catholic, Lutheran, and Congregational.

By 1886, Edison got four mail deliveries a week, three from Samish and one from Prairie, about 10 miles east. "The mail from Prairie was carried on horseback and that from Samish by row-boat across the bay, a distance of five miles" ("Edison: Market Crossroads … ").

The mail might have gotten through on a regular basis, but getting to Edison was not easy. Most people traveled by canoe, rowboat, or flat boat; the land was just too spongy for overland travel. "In 1885 a bridge was built across the south branch of the Samish, half the cost being paid by the county and half by the settlers ... Just previous to this, in the year 1881, the settlers built another bridge across the North Samish near Edison, using cedar logs for bents and cedar logging for flooring ... A dike was also early completed across the flats to Samish island, affording the interior easy connection with the Seattle-Whatcom steamers on the sound, and ferry boats established between the island and the mainland" ("Edison: Market Crossroads … ").

The February 9, 1886, issue of the Skagit News called Edison a "lively little town, beautifully situated on Edison slough" (Edison: Market Crossroads … ").

Thomas Cain: An Influential Citizen 

One of Edison's most prominent pioneers was Thomas Cain (1847-1923). Born in Canada, Cain moved to the United States at the age of 15 to work in the lumber camps of Michigan and Wisconsin, and then moved to Texas to build railroad bridges. In 1876, he relocated to Washington state. For two years, he managed a logging camp at Port Ludlow and then moved to Whidbey Island to undertake the same kind of work. But while on Whidbey Island he broke his hip; the injury left him disabled for more than a year.

In 1881, once again able to work, Cain took a position with the Customs service at Port Townsend. In the spring of 1884, he left that job and moved to Edison, where he formed a partnership with three others to build the town's second store. He also owned a saloon, and later built the Union Hotel, Edison's first hotel, which he owned and managed for 17 years. From 1889 to 1893, he was Edison's postmaster, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901). In 1890 with four other men, he organized the Samish Water and Supply Company to provide water to the town and surrounding villages.

Along the way, Cain purchased 530 acres of land outside town and worked to clear it of trees and stumps so he could raise cattle. In 1894, he married fellow Canadian Eliza M. Duffy (b. 1862), who was a teacher in Skagit and Whatcom counties. The couple had two children, both born in Edison: Arthur T. (b. 1896) and Eugene (b. 1899). Edison's main street today is known as Cains Court, and most of the village's restaurants and shops are located along its two-block stretch.

Crops, Cows and a Big Fire

On January 23, 1893, a fire that originated in an Edison warehouse spread throughout the town. The flames destroyed a general store and its contents, and also damaged the drug store owned by O. A. Loomis, J. A. Jonak's harness shop, and Thomas Cain's saloon. The damage was extensive, estimated to be about $20,000.

But the buildings were quickly replaced and the village continued to grow, thanks to the riches provided by both the land and the sea. The Samish flats upon which Edison was built were lush and fertile, producing hay, oats, fruit, and vegetables. Sugar beets were particularly prolific and there was talk of starting a sugar-beet factory in town.

Dairy farming was successful, as well. "The dairy ranchers are equally prosperous with the general farmers, since the rich, succulent grasses and clovers of the land redeemed from the swamps and forests will maintain cattle throughout the year so generously that cows have been known to produce milk to the value of six dollars per month" ("Edison: Market Crossroads …").

Four sawmills were located nearby, and salmon, herring, and smelt were found in the waters of the sound and the sloughs. Huge quantities of oysters in the shallow areas adjoining Samish Island allowed Edison's oyster business to soon rival that of other Puget Sound communities.

Equality Colony

In the late 1890s, Washington state was home to several socialist experimental colonies that had grown out of the Financial Panic of 1893. Throughout most of the country, these cooperative communities came and went by the end of the 19th century, but a few cooperatives continued to thrive in the Pacific Northwest. In 1897, those who still espoused the socialist movement formed an offshoot known as the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth. Several of these communities were set up in Skagit County, around Edison.

Equality Colony was one of these socialist experimental colonies, established about two miles south of Edison. Its first residents arrived in 1897 and bought 280 acres of land for $2,854.16. More land was purchased later, bringing the total to nearly 600 acres. The colonists cleared the land, put up a saw mill, and began turning the logs into lumber for building. Families wishing to be part of the commune paid a membership fee of $160.

"At its height, Equality boasted an extensive list of buildings: Store Room, Printing Office, Two large Apartments, Barn, Root House, Bakery, Saw Mill, Dining Room and Kitchen, Milk House, Cereal and Coffee Factory, Copper Shop, Blacksmith Shop, Public Hall, Apiary, School House ... The colonists lived in true communal style in apartment buildings, though in time families were allowed to build separate dwellings. Each member was allowed to choose his own occupation, but had to be ready and willing to do any special jobs assigned to him by a proper official. The workday normally was eight hours and all wages were equal. The work day for women was six hours but they received the same wage as men" (Easton).

At its peak, the colony was home to about 300 residents, but dissension grew over both ends and means, and the group splintered into factions. The final straw was a fire that destroyed several buildings including the massive barn, which burned to the ground and killed most of the cattle. Arson was suspected but the perpetrators were never caught.

In 1907, the social experiment that was Equality Colony came to a close. Its demise made front-page news in The New York Times on April 25, 1907: "'Equality,' a Socialist colony established in 1897, was wiped out of existence by a court order yesterday, Judge Joyner of Skagit County directing that the property be sold to pay the colony's debts. The property consists of 600 acres of land, a saw mill, a printing plant, and twenty dwellings" ("Socialist Colony A Failure").

The land was sold to John J. Peth (1853-1945) for $12,500. The purchase was immediately challenged by Equality Colony diehards but the Superior Court found for Peth. The days of the Equality Colony experiment were over.

Edward R. Murrow: Edison High School Graduate

Pioneer broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965), characterized by his independent and incisive reporting on both radio and television, was a graduate of Edison High School, although the family settled in nearby Blanchard. Born in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, Murrow moved to Washington when he was a young boy. His father had landed a job on a logging railroad and Murrow (whose birth name was Egbert Roscoe; he later changed his first name to Edward), along with his older brothers Lacey (1904-1966) and Dewey (1906-1981), grew up in Skagit County.

At Edison High School, Murrow was president of the student body in his senior year and valedictorian of his class. He was a member of the debate team and the school's basketball team. After he graduated from high school in 1925, he spent a year working in an Olympic Peninsula logging camp to earn money for college, graduating in 1930 from Washington State College (now WSU) in Pullman.

Murrow became a fixture on American radio during World War II, covering the war for CBS. His documentary news series, "See It Now," originally a radio program, moved to television in 1951, and is best remembered for helping to stop the anti-communist persecutions led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) in the early 1950s. Murrow left CBS in 1961 to serve as director of the U.S. Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). A heavy lifetime smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1965.  

Murrow's older brother Lacey, also an Edison High School graduate, stayed in Washington state and was appointed the state's director of highways in 1933 while still in his 20s. In 1940, Lacey Murrow approved construction of the world's first concrete pontoon-floating bridge, which was renamed the Lacey V. Murrow Bridge, also known as the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, in 1967. In 1990, following torrential rains and high winds, the bridge broke apart and sank into Lake Washington. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1993. After a stretch prospecting for gold in South America, middle brother Dewey moved to Spokane and worked as a mining engineer.

The Murrow brothers' alma mater, Edison High School, merged in 1943 to become Burlington-Edison High School, serving the communities of Edison, Bow, Burlington, and Alger. The original Edison High School, built in 1914 and home of the Spark Plugs, was torn down in the mid-1990s, and Edison Elementary was built on that site in 1996. It is the only public building in town.

Food, Water, and Art

With the village of Edison lying close to sea level on a tidewater slough, water issues from flooding to wastewater treatment are ongoing concerns. Flooding is a constant problem for farmers throughout the region, and is expected to worsen as sea levels continue to rise.

Domestic wastewater is also an issue. Historically, the community received "minimal, if any, treatment. On-site sewage systems for many homes previously discharged minimally treated wastewater to street drains that flowed directly into Edison Slough. ... A sanitary survey in the 1990s reported a septic tank failure rate of 65%" ("Wastewater Treatment System …" 11). In 1996, Edison built a new treatment facility to manage sewage from 200 area homes, seven restaurants and the Edison School. Additional trenches and drain fields were added in the early 2000s, and the situation continues to be closely monitored.

In a community visioning process held in 2018, Edison residents were interested in restoring salmon habitat, creating more crosswalks and wider sidewalks, and building an interlinking trail system, but were opposed to expanding the wastewater system beyond its current configuration, fearing that it would lead to more growth.

Their concerns are well-placed. In the past decade, Edison has attracted artists, food-lovers, and gallery owners drawn to the community for its reasonable rents and laid-back atmosphere. Its main street, Cains Court, is home to about a dozen storefronts, galleries, and eateries. "Edison feels like a farming village turned artist colony, salty and smart. There's a sense that things are happening there, and I don't just mean a shuffleboard tournament or the Sunday night live music and dancing at the old Edison" (Wizenberg).

The national food media have taken note; coverage of the tiny hamlet's food scene has appeared in the New York Times, Saveur, and Food & Wine, whose writer David Landsel called it "one of the best places to eat in the Pacific Northwest" (Landsel). Many day-trippers seek out The Old Edison Inn, a restaurant-pub with live music at night, which has been a part of the local scene since 1900, although not in that same location. The Inn's liquor license, still in use today, was issued in the 1930s soon after Prohibition ended.

Artists are said to be attracted by Edison's amazing light, and the burgeoning art community inaugurated a walking tour of galleries and art studios in 2016. "Diffused by the river, the slough and Samish Bay opening up to the west, the light here is pale and golden, casting a long-ago quality on a town that already feels like 100 years ago. Historic wooden storefronts, rusty barns, Queen Anne houses like the green-and-white beauty at the head of Gilmore Road -- Edison is a place to amble around, admiring lush cottage gardens and sweeping views" (Ponnekanti).

In 2010, Edison had a population of 133 residents, a figure unchanged from the 2000 census.


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