Go West Young Man: Great Grandpa Charles McDowell

  • By Diana Schafer Ford
  • Posted 6/28/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5479

This People's History was contributed by Diana Schafer Ford. It is about the migration to the West of her great grandfather, Charles McDowell.

Go West!

Go West Young Man was true for a great many North Carolinians during the late 1800s. When Great Grandpa Charles McDowell migrated from Franklin, Macon County, North Carolina, to Hamilton, Washington, he was among hundreds of men looking for a new future in logging at the Hamilton Logging Company.

Waynesville, Haywood County, North Carolina, is where great-great Grandma Nancy Elmina McDowell and her kin came from to begin with and there was a great influx of people moving to Hamilton from the South as at that time the South was a very depressed area and the logging in the Northwest was the promised land. The Waynesville's mountainous area in Western North Carolina shows similarities. These settlers were often referred to as Tar Heels.

It was a long journey back then and after getting settled, Charles's mother, Nancy Elmina McDowell, decided to settle in Hamilton, Skagit County, Washington, also. Nancy’s father, Rev. John McDowell died October 11, 1883, in Franklin, Macon County, North Carolina, and soon after Grandpa Charles headed west. He shows up on the 1885 Territorial Census as 21 years of age and a lumberman. By 1892, Grandma Nancy Elmina McDowell was 64 years of age and had boarded a train to start a new life in Washington and be near her son.

It was not an easy trip back then. The most likely route would have been to board a Southern Railway passenger train at Ashville, North Carolina, with a ticket about the length of an arm with all the transfers in the large cities included. Knoxville, Tennessee, would probably have been the first change, taking a train to Cincinnati, Ohio, at night. From there a transfer to Chicago, Illinois, and then a transfer for St, Paul, Minnesota. There could be as much as a 12-hour layover between transfers west and the journey most likely took a good seven days to arrive in Seattle.

Seattle, then a city, had a population of about 70,000 with 1st and 2nd avenues the only paved streets. An over night layover at a Seattle hotel was probably a must before heading north to Hamilton and the eighth and final day was most likely taken from Seattle to Woolley on the Seattle & Northern Railroad and quite a different picture from today. Imagine the railroad running through large timber, brush, and swamps while the fog and clouds were hanging low. It probably seemed like the wild and woolly west. The train depot at Woolley was in the middle of two railroads with one going to Hamilton and even though Hamilton was only 12 miles away, if you missed the train, the only run for the day, it would be a long overnight wait for the next train.

Roads were rugged and too much for a horse and buggy as roads were often muddy and the road wound around among large fir and cedar trees, where it followed the Skagit River most of the way in swamps and brush. If you didn't want to wait until the following day, you could walk the railroad track from Woolley to Hamilton, which took about 4 hours.

Logging was hard work. About 18 cars of logs would be hauled at a time down from the sides of the steep mountains with a steam engine Shay locomotive The engine would be turned around backwards, in other words they backed the engine down to prevent a runaway.

I read an article in the Woolley (Washington) Times of Matt Snider of Jackson County, North Carolina, who was 18 at the time and he recalled his trip west November 3, 1894 to Hamilton, Skagit County, Washington. He arrived wet and tired on November 11, 1894, hoping to surprise Ed McClure and his wife Harriet, who was the sister of Matt Snider, but Matt couldn’t find their home. So, he went to find his good friend (my great grandfather) Charlie McDowell. Charles took Matt to the McClures, who didn’t know he was coming, and what a wonderful surprise it was.


This People's History was contributed by Diana Schafer Ford.

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