Located east of Granite Falls, Washington, just off the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway, Robe Canyon Historic Park blends a rich history of the mining and railroading era with the natural beauty of the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River thundering through narrow Robe Canyon.
Since 1995 when Snohomish County acquired the first phase of Robe Canyon, volunteers have maintained the Old Robe Trail. In 2002, volunteers continued the tradition, led by Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, performing annual maintenance, installing log-railings, and relocating a section of trail lost to the river’s winter rampages.
Yet, the major volunteer effort was reserved for construction of the new Lime Kiln Trail at the west end of the park. Continuing the work started in 1998, over 90 volunteers invested 262 volunteer work days last year. Finally, in the late fall, trail workers reached a significant milestone: the site of the historic railway bridge spanning the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River across from Tunnel #1.
The Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad was built in 1892—1893 to transport gold and silver ore from mines at Monte Cristo deep in the Cascade Mountains to a new smelter at Everett, WA. Railroad surveyor M. Q.
Barlow selected a route that avoided the steep, treacherous canyon of the South Fork of the Stillaguamish upstream of Granite Falls. But eastern financiers and railroad “experts”, working for John D. Rockefeller, dictated a more direct route through the canyon in order to save expensive trestling required on Barlow’s route.
The canyon segment of the railway required boring of six tunnels through the steep canyon walls. Much of the railroad was built on wooden cribbing at the edge of what the eastern experts referred to as a “trout stream.”
When the November floods swelled the “trout stream” into a thundering torrent of whitewater, the railroad was wiped out. Starting in 1892 and continuing through the railroad’s demise in 1933, the effort to maintain the rail line required yearly battles to repair damage from rockslides and fall flooding in the canyon.
After the turn of the century, the railway underwent a transition from ore transport to logging. But throughout its operation, the railway was famous as a scenic excursion to view the wild beauty of the canyon and the mountains beyond. In 1921, the Inn at Big Four near Silverton was built as a railroad destination resort.
Trolley cars and automobiles outfitted with flanged wheels carried passengers on the scenic ride up the rail line, through the canyon, to the Inn and on to Monte Cristo.
The history of the park
In the late 1960s, Boy Scout Troop 43 of Lake Stevens built a trail from the Mountain Loop Highway to the original town site of Robe at the head of Robe Canyon. Though the property was privately owned, the public used the trail for 25 years to access the town site and the railway tunnels at the upper end of the canyon.
In 1995, capping an effort led by the Stillaguamish Citizens’ Alliance and River Network, local leaders including State Senator Kevin Quigley, County Executive Bob Drewell, and County Councilman John Garner secured 160 acres at the head of the canyon for Snohomish County’s new Robe Canyon Historic Park.
Further efforts led to the addition of 800 acres in 1997. In 2001, Cascade Land Conservancy facilitated acquisition of an added 30 acres to expand the park near the old Robe town site. Today, Robe Canyon Historic Park is one of the county’s largest parks at almost 1,000 acres, affording protection for 7 miles of the wild South Fork Stillaguamish River.
The park also protects remnants of the long-abandoned Everett & Monte Cristo Railway and a century-old lime kiln. Each year, the existing Old Robe Trail is used by thousands of hikers who come to explore the abandoned railway, marvel at the powerful river cascading in the narrow canyon, and enjoy the solitude of near-wilderness only minutes from the growing Puget Sound metropolis.
In addition to the Old Robe Trail (2 miles) which the Scouts built 30 years ago, in coming years the park will also feature the Lime Kiln Trail (3.5 miles) now under construction as an all-volunteer, community project.
ROBE GORGE, Snohomish County — In their efforts to preserve a piece of railroad history, the trailblazers of Boy Scout Troop 43 have secured their own spot in the Monte Cristo mining legend.
When history and nature enthusiasts hike through the proposed Robe Gorge State Park in a river canyon east of Granite Falls, they follow a stunning trail forged 25 years ago by the Lake Stevens Scout troop.
Now the 2 1/4-mile trail along the old Monte Cristo railroad grade is the genesis of an ambitious, $3 million plan to preserve 1,250 acres of timberland on both sides of the canyon for a state park. If all goes well, the trail will be extended through the entire 7 1/4-mile gorge carved by the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Richard Wolfe was a 13-year-old Scout when work began on the Robe project. His father, Bill Wolfe, was his troop’s scoutmaster. It took the boys several years to brush out a trail along the railroad grade and clear a campground where the old riverside town of Robe stood until shortly after World War I.
“My dad worked hard. He was the one that got it registered in the National Register of Historic Trails,” recalled Wolfe, now 38. `He grew up in Darrington; he actually rode on the railroad when he was kid.”
The trailhead lies on the south side of the scenic Mountain Loop Highway, seven miles east of Granite Falls.
A whitewater roar accompanies hikers as they follow the route of the Everett & Monte Cristo Railway, stepping over century-old spikes protruding from remaining portions of the old wooden stringers, timbers that supported the rails.
Monte Cristo, now a ghost town off the east end of the Mountain Loop, hosted the region’s biggest mining boom of the 1890s. East Coast mining executives – pooh-poohing local warnings about floods – ordered the railway carved into the rocky walls of Robe Gorge.
Six tunnels, one 900 feet long, were blasted to build the stretch of rail through the gorge. Half of them lie on the existing trail. The gorge section of the railroad was finished in 1892, and the first shipment of Monte Cristo ore reached Everett two years later.
But the locals proved right: Floods powerful enough to ram trees through the tunnels repeatedly washed out the railroad. Determined engineers responded by embedding some portions in a wall of concrete, leaving historians with vivid molds of the rails and long-disintegrated ties.
Each time floods closed down the railroad, everyone in the upriver towns of Monte Cristo and Silverton and the former Big Four Inn at the ice caves were cut off from the outside world. A stock-market crash shut down the mine in 1907, and 25 years later the railway was abandoned.
Coalition Winning Support
Now a coalition of kayakers, hikers and environmentalists is winning support from a growing number of politicians to preserve the gorge, railway and a buffer of trees along the canyon rim. The park, which probably would be part of the state system, would include hiking trails along the railroad route.
“It’s a gem for that area,” said Sue Doroff, director of the Portland-based Riverlands Conservancy. “It’s a draw that has more value than just for the immediate community. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of time to it; it’s one of our top priorities for Washington state.”
This spring, state Sen. Kevin Quigley, D-Lake Stevens, persuaded the Legislature to transfer $250,000 from another park purchase to the Robe project. But that money carries a catch: It won’t be delivered unless Snohomish County comes up with its own matching $250,000.
That $500,000 would be used to buy the stretch of trail developed by Troop 43. The land is owned by the Hancock Timber Resources Group, which invests pension funds for John Hancock Life Insurance Co.
John Hancock Owns Land
John Hancock owns at least 90 percent of the proposed park and is willing to sell those properties to the county or state, said regional forester Mason Browne.
To receive the state money, Snohomish County has until Dec. 31 to commit its own $250,000. At this point, the county hopes to use a grant from its Conservations Futures program, which is funded by a special property tax. A county committee reviews applications and makes recommendations to the County Council every two years; the next round of grants will be made this fall.
State law requires those conservation funds to be spent on projects with regional significance. Robe Gorge proponents are ready to present their case.
“This is a chance to see something that I don’t think exists anywhere else in Western Washington,” said David Cameron, a historian and teacher who helped Troop 43. The canyon offers an impressive mix of nature, history and geology, he said.
Funding Sought Through State
Larry Fairleigh, an assistant director of the state Parks and Recreation Commission, said his agency is seeking funding for Robe Gorge through the state Wildlife and Recreation Program.
“You can argue that it has statewide significance,” he said. “We all agree it’s a piece of property that really has some tremendous potential, but we need to get it into public ownership.”