A Bit Of History‎ > ‎

Mountain Loop Hwy

It all started in 1889 when gold was discovered in a place later known as Monte Cristo! 
A road later known as the Mountain Loop Highway will follow.

Starting off on the Mountain Loop Hwy from Darrington, by Martha Rasmussen

On July 4th, 1889 Joseph L. Persall staked his claim in a new mining region of Snohomish County.  Keeping in the spirit of this significant American date he named the mine Independence of 1776 Mine.  Several other claims will soon follow joined by his friend Frank Peabody.  Joseph persuaded Frank, a bit of a smooth talker, to travel to Seattle with some of the ore to be assayed and try to find some influential connections which could lead to financial banking fund further explorations and plans for hard-rock mining.  Frank did manage to get the attention of John MacDonald Wilmans an entrepreneur familiar with mining.  John going by the nickname of "Mac" and his brother Fred set out to join Joseph and Frank at their mining camp.  It seems Fred brought a good book for reading, The Count Of Monte Cristo, published in 1844.  This very popular book by author Alexander Dumas, is a story of enduring struggles of a man later discovering vast wealth that transformed his life.  It is reported that Frank commented around the campfire that "There is enough gold in that mountain to make the Count of Monte Cristo look like a pauper"  and thus the long lasting name for this area stuck.

The gold rush days of Monte Cristo, photo from USFS

As much as these four men tried to keep their mining claims secret while securing more backers to fund operations the news leaked out about the gold being discovered in the North Cascades, a place they called Monte Cristo!  Hoyt, Colby and Company, backed by John D. Rockefeller could see the potential of investing in this Monte Cristo
.  A road needed to be built to move in the heavy equipment that would be used to develop the mining camp, this road would run from Sauk City on the Skagit along the Sauk River south to Monte Cristo. By the Fall of 1891 a caravan of horse and oxen moving tons of equipment had reached Monte Cristo, blasting and building a road as they went.  By this time a steady stream of prospectors were making there way to Monte Cristo to find employment or stake their claims and get a piece of the action. While all this was going on another mining settlement sprang up at about the half way point on this road called, "Starve Out," near where Darrington is today. Further down south of the wagon road was the Bedal homestead and logging camp, near the present day Bedal Campground.   By 1892 east of Bedal Mr. & Mrs. Moorehouse opened a store and post office hoping to profit from increased traffic and prosperous mines.  Mrs. Moorehouse named this place Orient and claimed she felt like it was halfway around the world from anywhere.  Their dreams came to an end when the swift high waters of the Sauk River washed away the store in 1898.

Big Four Inn today, by Leah Tyson

In 1891 John Quincey Barlow, a surveyor discovered a good route to bring a railroad up from the smelter of Everett to the mining town of Monte Cristo. Construction of a railroad began in 1892 and was estimated to be done that same year. A severe winter hit the area with freezing temperatures of 22 degrees below zero and heavy snows and work was stalled. The Northern Pacific Railroad reached Monte Cristo in 1893 and having the longest tunnel in the newly formed Washington State which was 1,500 feet long. This new railroad was plagued with severe wash outs in 1897 and then again in 1903 putting the train out of service until repairs could be doneMining had pretty much petered out by 1899, but by 1915 a new wealth had been discovered for Monte Cristo, tourism for the wealthy. Two brothers, Wyatt and Bethel Rucker, owners of a sawmill at Hartford near Lake Stevens, leased the railway renaming it the Hartford Eastern. These brothers had a big dream to bring wealthy tourists to the beautiful mountainous wilderness and construction began to create a destination that would become legendary! The Construction of an enormous hotel called Big Four Inn was completed in 1921. The wealthy, celebrities and dignitaries arrived daily on the Hartford Eastern Gas Car which traveled the railroad.  Money was no obstacle for such lavish experience.  This extravagant endeavor to create Big Four Inn cost $150,000.00 and included a nine hole golf course, tennis court, and an artificial lake created by damming Perry creek for the generation of electricity.

The current Red Bridge along the Mountain Loop Highway, photo by Martha Rasmussen

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the wealthy could no longer afford such excursions as the Big Four Inn and the business dried up.  The year of 1932, during the Great Depression, were some of the worst floods in Snohomish County history and the Hartford Railroad was devastated by washouts.  The railroad had washouts before, but this time no wealthy investors would invest in railroad that went to a closed inn and mining operations fading from memory.  In some ways it was the Great Depression and WWII that helped build what we call the Mountain Loop Highway today.  Access into the area was very difficult, the old pioneer wagon road coming down south from Darrington was little used anymore reverting more to a horse trail.  Penn Mining in the Elliott Creek area had done some minimal work to the road to access their mining operations. Motorcars would at times drive the abandoned railroad, a troublesome journey fraught with breakdowns and damage.  There was one bridge that sagged so badly that you would have to rev up your engine driving at uncomfortable speeds or your car would likely stall out in the middle and you would be stuck.  The old routes to Monte Cristo would again see new life when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet came up with a plan to get the country back on its feet again.  It was called the "New Deal" getting people back to work and payrolls coming in.  Men were enlisted to the Civilian Conservation Corps, C.C.C., to build needed infrastructure for America.  On an average, a skilled worker was paid $1.20 an hour, intermediate worker $.75 an hour and unskilled worker received $.50 an hour.  Work began on a road that will later be called the Mountain Loop Highway on March 23, 1936 to connect Granite Falls, Silverton, Monte Cristo and Darrington.  The boys from Camp Verlot began pulling up tracks on the south end where a road for motorcars will replace them and the boys from Camp Darrington began work on the north end upgrading the old wagon road.

Looking from one of Sam Strom's mines, photo by Martha Rasmussen

The idea for these road improvements was to enable access to timber lands, unfortunately in building this road there was an error in their land survey and the road strayed onto the the land of Sam Strom, a local prospector, collapsing one of his mining tunnels. Sam took on a different sort of prospecting with a bit of protesting and put up a toll gate charging 25 cents to pass on the new road.  Sam made a point of not letting folks forget about the illegal access of this road cutting through his place, he'd sit with his shotgun by his gate which had a sign that read:
 "In Everett and Seattle there are lawyers and politicians that operate in ambush by trying to obstruct justice and build entanglements born to delay and deception and status of limitations. It is to protect my rights against these that I constructed this toll gate on government built CCC road for which I assume full responsibility."
Most of the time the gate stood open and in truth Sam admired the contributions of the C.C.C.  He made a point, however, to collect from any government official passing through.

Looking at the old Red Bridge site just south of the current bridge, photo by Martha Rasmussen

In December, 1941 the Camp Darrington crew from the north and the Verlot crew from the south connected completing the road at Barlow Pass. For a short time the Mountain Loop Highway was open for tourist traffic, but then when the USA became involved in WWII, the backroad was closed to civilian traffic. The Big Four Inn was occupied by the U.S. Coast Guard as a “Duty Station” for men awaiting active duty. The military occupation of Big Four Inn prompted the Federal Government to improve the road grade and a portion of the road was straightened and bypassed the  the old railroad grade.  This portion is now the Old Government Trail #733. The old railroad bridge that was nicknamed “Red Bridge” because of its rusting condition, even though it was badly sagging in the middle was not replaced but was adapted for automobile traffic. It would not be until 1955 that this bridge would be replaced when the country was again prospering in post war times. The bridge was moved up river to a new location straightening the road. There is a way trail to the original site where you can still see the old concrete bulkheads of the original bridge, downriver to the west. When looking at this site, remember this was an old railroad bridge, it is quite amazing how much of a bend the train had to make at this point. Nostalgically the new bridge was painted the same rusty red color as the old bridge and is still called “Red Bridge” today. When the WWII ended in 1945 there was speculation that the Big Four Inn would reopen but it never did. On September 7, 1949 at 6:30 am, flames were spotted coming from the main portion of the inn and the massive wooden building quickly burned to the ground. All that remains today of the Rucker brothers dream to build a resort paradise in the mountains is the fireplace and side walks that now seem to lead to nowhere at the Big Four Picnic Area.

The old Pioneer Road Marker in Darrington, photo by Martha Rasmussen

It was big dreams that made this road starting with the gold rush days of Monte Cristo. It has been rerouted over time, modern bridges replaced old ones in the 1970s and 1980s. It has been plagued by washouts from the scenic rivers that make it such a destination.  In 1990 the Mountain Loop Highway moved to the west side of the Sauk River due to a washout disconnecting the original C.C.C. road that caused all the trouble with Sam's mines back in 1936. This portion use to connect from Sauk Prairie to White Chuck River, however you can still get to either side of the old road and they still special destinations to two small waterfalls and Sam's remaining mines.  The portion of the Mountain Loop Highway spanning 55 miles from Granite Falls to Darrington with inspiring mountain views and wild rivers is only a portion of the "Loop" and is actually a designated Forest Road Scenic Byway. The whole Mountain Loop  is a drive through Hwy 92, Lake Stevens to Granite Falls, Hwy 9, Lake Stevens to Arlington and Hwy 530 N.E., Arlington to Darrington. One must remember the old railroad route to Monte Cristo came in from near Lake Stevens and by 1936 when the C.C.C. rebuilt the road, the main route via motorcar to Darrington came from Arlington. Today many think of the beautiful Mountain Loop Highway as a backroad forest drive which a portion of it is and you can drive this without having to pay Sam his 25 cents at the toll gate.  Next time you travel this road, take a little history with you on your drive.  There stands a historical marker in Darrington where the old pioneer wagon road once passed, a reminder to how it all started for the town of Darrington, the mine claims of Monte Cristo and a road we now call the Mountain Loop Highway.