Cedar Falls -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 7/11/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2537

Cedar Falls, originally a City Light company town, is located in the upper Cedar River watershed, 30 miles southeast of Seattle. The town’s history also encompasses nearby communities that housed rail workers, water department personnel, and loggers. A diverse collection of families lived in the rural setting for much of the twentieth century, but by the 1960s, the town began fading away. Now the center of operations for the Seattle Public Utilities, the townsite will soon (2001) be the home of the Cedar River Watershed Education Center

Centuries of Use.

The area surrounding Cedar Falls has been in use by humankind for a very long time. Archaeological evidence shows that aboriginal people camped on Rattlesnake Prairie and fished and hunted around Chester Morse Lake as early as 7000 B.C. In recent history, The Snoqualmie tribe fished for trout, gathered huckleberries, and traded goods with the Yakama tribe, from Eastern Washington, who traveled across the Cascade Range to meet in the vicinity of the lake and prairie.

The area’s first white settlers, looking for trading routes over the Cascades in the 1840s, “discovered” the Cedar River Pack Trail, which had been in use for centuries by indigenous people. The settlers also took note of the secluded prairie and lake. Within a few years, homesteads were scattered along the upper Cedar River, and new people began fishing for trout and gathering huckleberries.

Water and Power

In the 1890s, the clear waters of the Cedar River caught the attention of the City of Seattle, specifically the attention of city engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949). Thomson realized that Seattle was growing swiftly and that its water system was woefully inadequate. Setting his sights on the Cedar River, he fought for years to convince a skeptical public that damming the distant river and piping the water nearly 30 miles into nearby reservoirs would solve Seattle’s water woes for decades to come. He finally won the battle, and construction of the dam began in 1899.

Harnessing the river provided Seattle residents with water plus another bonus – cheap electricity. When construction began on the dam, Seattle’s chief power supplier was the Seattle Electric Company. Virtually a monopoly, the company was cursed citywide for its high rates and bad service. Knowing this, the city presented its residents with an alternative -- a municipally operated hydroelectric power system. Voters opted for this approach nearly seven-to-one, and in 1902 a second dam and a power plant were built near what would soon be called Cedar Falls.

Naming Names

The upper Cedar River became a beehive of activity. A sawmill was built to aid in the construction of the timber crib dam. This work camp, called Camp One, housed workers for the water department. Below the crib dam, the Power Plant Camp (also known as City Light Camp) housed electrical workers. Camp One was temporary, but the Power Plant Camp was self-sufficient, with a kitchen, mess hall, bunkhouse, cooler, chicken house, and cottages.

In 1907, the Milwaukee Railroad completed its route over the pass and along the Cedar River. To house railroad workers, a railroad camp was built one half mile east of the power station, on the northern shore of Rattlesnake Lake. Taking the name Moncton, the community grew rather quickly. In 1911, a new masonry dam was built to harness more of the river. Camp Two was built near it, and housed more than 200 men.

Cedar Falls

In just over 10 years, the upper Cedar River went from a collection of homesteader cabins, to four distinct communities each located within a mile or two of each other. To create a unified location, Seattle City Light Superintendent J. D. Ross (1872-1939) requested that the City Light Camp be called Cedar Falls. He then approached the Milwaukee Railroad and asked that Moncton also be called Cedar Falls. Cedar Falls was now a unified location, although many residents continued referring to Camp One, Camp Two, and Moncton for years after these communities faded away.

Moncton sank fast. In 1915, seepage from the masonry dam caused a slow flood of Rattlesnake Lake. By the end of the year, the town was underwater and was later condemned. A new community for rail workers, called Railroad Camp, was built on the south shore of the much larger Rattlesnake Lake.

By this time, Camp One had mostly been abandoned and many of the workers had moved to the City Light Camp. A fire destroyed much of Camp Two in 1922, and many of these workers also moved to the main site.

Life in the Rural Community

By most accounts, Cedar Falls was a very pleasant place to work and live. City Light workers received good pay, rent-free housing, and all the electricity they could use. The community had its own gymnasium, and an indoor swimming pool. The rail line allowed easy access to Seattle, and by 1915 a dirt road was extended to nearby North Bend. Originally a town of bachelors, many of the Cedar Falls men started marrying in the 1910s, and soon the town was filled with families and children.

The schoolchildren overcame much of the segregation that occurred among many of the workers. Workers from the different communities tended not to interact. Their children all attended the same school, though, and in this way many cultural boundaries were crossed.

The school day would begin when the school janitor rang the bell. Sometimes when the work trains came through town, the “gandy dancers” (work crews) would carry a bag of taffy candy and throw treats to the children on their way to classes. At lunch, the mothers took turns bringing in steaming pots of soup for their little darlings.

Fun and Peril

In the wintertime, families would gather at Rattlesnake Lake to ice skate and gather around bonfires. Ski trains on the way to Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle would pick up local skiers and everyone would sing songs over a loudspeaker and generally carouse all the way up.

Summers were a busy time of sewing, canning, gardening, and bee-keeping in preparation for the Puyallup Fair, held in September. Produce from local gardens was also sold within the community. A summertime game for children was attempting to walk across the lake atop the many logs floating on its surface. Many fell into the cool water, which was quite all right with them.

Swimming was not allowed in the lake, due to sanitary restrictions, although many of the Railroad Camp children did so surreptitiously at night. City Light families had access to the indoor pool, which was nine feet deep, tapering to a shallow end. Railroad children could come only if invited, and many were invited.

Idyllic as it was, the rural community was fraught with small disasters. Snow slides and forest fires were common events, given the mountainous terrain. In 1918, a blowout occurred in the glacial moraine above Boxley Creek, wiping out the downstream town of Edgewick. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured, but many were left homeless.

All Good Things…

Cedar Falls was a vital town up until the 1940s, but it too began to slowly fade away. In 1944, the Cedar Falls school consolidated with the North Bend district, and was closed. Children thereafter were bused into North Bend. The power plant was redesigned to become more automated, and fewer City Light workers were needed on site. In 1954, the Seattle Water Department erected an office and workshop complex in town, making it their new base of operations, although this would mostly be used for day work.

By 1961, Cedar Falls had become a lonely place. Most workers and their families had moved elsewhere, and the homes became derelict. City Light surplused most of the houses, leaving four residences for use by the Water Department. A few years later the gym and swimming pool were torn down. The empty main street was now lined with tall maples, the original five-globe streetlights, and little else.

Although only a vague shadow of its former self, Cedar Falls continues to draw visitors. Interpretive kiosks and a 1913 worker’s cabin moved from the upper watershed are located near the Water Department headquarters. In March 2000, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, a joint project between Seattle Public Utilities and the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, a private, nonprofit organization incorporated in 1996 and dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the Cedar River Watershed.


Florence K. Lentz Cedar Falls Historic District (National Register Nomination, 1996); Marian Thompson Arlin and Dorothy Graybell Scott, “Cedar Falls: As Remembered By Some Who Lived There” (Washington State Centennial Project, 1989), Railroad – 1,4,12,14,18, Camp One – 5, Power Plant – 8; Mary McWilliams, Seattle Water Department History 1854-1954 (Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1955), 154-160; R. H. Thomson That Man Thomson (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950), 60-75.

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