Little Washington’s smallest towns
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Blue highways, thin black lines on a roadmap. Before the dreary interstates bisected the Northwest, these were the main roads to everywhere, dotted with small and today nearly forgotten places along the way.
From Asotin to Yacolt—the only real town in Clark County—with an Index between them, these are the mill towns and mining towns, the railroad junctions, gas towns and ghost towns, the backwater and jerkwater littlest communities in Washington. When I said “the only real town,” I meant the place only had 1,500 people living there at the time of its founding, a defining threshold in Washington, and does not operate under a municipal code. Unincorporated. There are only 68 such towns in Washington, and under legislation from 1994, no more new towns can be created—only cities. Yacolt’s population is nearly the same as in the year of its founding, as are so many of these towns, many peppering the state’s central basin, some with populations as little as 48 people.
I love driving the backroads to visit these places, a few of which are in our neck of the woods—from the border burg of Sumas on to Nooksack, south to Coupeville, Langley, and Lopez Village in the islands, then east to Lyman, Hamilton, onward to Darrington. It takes time to get to some of these places on winding, aging two-lane roads, frequently halted by stop signs and stop lights that mark these towns’ main streets, and it is time well spent in reflection. Some towns you spot only fleetingly from the windows of a train racing south on the rail lines that once served, and were served by, these sometimes strangely named working towns—South Prairie, Tenino, Bucoda, Napavine, Vader, Castle Rock. East is lonelier, carved by vast open stretches of Coulee country, the great basalt basin that was once part of an inland sea.
“What can you really know about about a community from the outside? Not enough, I readily admit,” confesses Nicole Hardina, the author of a new book that catalogues these small, yet historic places.
Little Washington, a nostalgic look at the Evergreen State’s smallest towns, began with “just a list of incorporated towns with fewer than 1,000 residents, but that approach provided a limited perspective,” Hardina admits. “Jefferson County is more than Port Townsend; it’s also home to the Hoh Rainforest and a dozen or so unincorporated towns like Quilcene, with a few hundred people and an enormous oyster factory, and Mount Walker, the only mountain facing Puget Sound that visitors can summit on foot or in a car. In the end, the project expanded to include communities spanning all 39 counties.”
Hardina’s book is a series of page spreads, each briefly surveying a special place, and the details of its founding and peculiar quirks. In all, 100 little towns are described.
“I did my best to approach each community with open eyes and a spirit of curiosity,” Hardina writes. “There is more to these places… still, I know much more than I did before. The library in Darrington offers classes in the Lushootseed language. The Farmer’s Daughter in Kahlotus is owned and run by an actual farmer’s daughter,” she catalogues.
Overarching all is an ancient history in the the exotic language of the sea and inland peoples who dwelt here from time immemorial, centuries before settlers drifted in with their odd and often incomprehensible, inappropriate place names.
Hardina’s book is part history, part travelogue and all love letter to the Evergreen State.
“This is a book for everyone who takes the shortcut when they know darn well it’s the long way around.
“When I tell people about this book, they almost always ask me which town is my favorite,” she relates. “I could tell you mine, but I hope that after reading this, you’ll want to find your own answer.”
Next time I take a long and lonely road trip, I will have this volume on the seat beside me.
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