Sammamish in the 1950's

Lake Sammamish photo with ice

SAMMAMISH IN THE ‘50s

The 1950s began here with the Big Chill. Starting on Friday the 13th of January and continuing until February 5 we endured our worst recorded cold wave since weather records started in Seattle in 1886. Temperatures stayed in the 20s most days, and dropped into the single figures of both sides of zero most nights, for over three weeks. Issaquah reported a low of minus 3 on January 18 and Pine Lake minus 2 that same morning. Then it got colder: the following week the January 26 “Pine Lake News Shorts” in the Issaquah Press reported “…in one place (at Pine Lake), it was reported to have been as low as 11 degrees below zero.”

Two witnesses I interviewed had two interesting, but sharply divergent, comments about the cold wave. One reported a lot of snow, but the other said there was no snow. Actually, both were right. 10 inches of snow fell the night of the 18th –- but a brief thaw two days later melted it and caused streams to flood and pipes to burst. By the 23rd it was below freezing again, with a few inches of snow that day and another seven on the 25th—but the snow was dry and powdery, and the latter storm came with high winds that blew much of the snow away, leaving relatively little on the ground.

Then it got even colder. Seattle recorded its all time low of zero degrees at Boeing Field on January 31; on February 1 it warmed up to 1 degree. Ironically, Issaquah was actually warmer on those two days— if you call four above zero on both mornings warmer. The February 2 issue of the Press reported that average temperatures for January in Seattle, “given out by the weather bureau’s climatological office, was 29.6 degrees, compared with the previous record of 31 degrees in 1916.”

Snoqualmie Falls froze first-- into enormous light green icicles, save for a trickle of cold water dribbling down the middle. Then Lake Sammamish froze. The February 9 Press featured a front-page picture of a frozen Lake Sammamish and reported “For the first time in history” (and it hasn’t frozen since), “Lake Sammamish was frozen over from 3 to 4 ½ inches at the south end and ice covered most of the rest of the lake during the recent cold spell. Alexander’s Beach was the site of numerous skating parties.” (Alexander’s Beach and Resort was located near today’s intersection of Southeast 43rd and East Lake Sammamish Parkway.)

By February 5 the cold wave was over, but another kind of cold continued that affected people even on the Plateau: the Cold War. Glance at Seattle P-I front pages from January 1950 alone and you’ll find headline after headline about The Great Red Menace-- communism, China , and the biggest bear of all, the Soviet Union. If you think today’s society has become more paranoid since September 11, 2001, it pales in comparison to the paranoia that swept America in the early 1950s, and with good reason: today’s terrorists can kill a few of us, but in the 1950s the communists could have killed many of us and done it quickly and easily. The Red Scare reached the Plateau when one local resident with leftist leanings allegedly put some flyers with communist propaganda into his neighbors’ mailboxes. The neighbors complained, the FBI came out and interviewed a couple of people, but nothing much ever came of it.

Much more DID come, though, with a ground observer post that was here (and in other parts of the country) in the ‘50s. “It was near the end of the Korean War (1953). About eight or ten men and women got together. We weren’t a club, just volunteers” recalls Jane Forbes, who was then living on the family farm on Southeast 212th where Pine Lake Estates is now. “We met with a sergeant from McChord Air Force Base. He gave each of us a big book with pictures of airplanes and their names. We had spotters at Beaver Lake and Pine Lake, and if any of us saw a plane we would identify it and phone it in on a special number that went directly to McChord.”

The spotters were known as ground observers, and were part of the “Skywatch” program in the Ground Observer Corps. They established a ground observer post on the Plateau and met once a month, usually at the home of Bernice Lefler. Often the McChord sergeant attended the meetings to personally review what was happening. A circa 1955 article in “Scramble”, the Ground Observer Corporation magazine, notes “this unique post, in sub-section C, was formerly known as Monohon NC 53 Black”. By 1955, though, the post had changed its name to the smoother-sounding Pine Lake Washington Post. The article says “last month a total of 163 aircraft flash calls were processed (through the Pine Lake Post)”. The article does not say that it didn’t matter if the plane looked friendly or not—if it was anything bigger than a Piper Cub, it got called in.

In 1957 post members went to the Air Defense Filter Center in Portland for a tour which included the radar room. Since radar was still somewhat new in the ‘50s—at least for civilians-- this was a real treat. “When we called a plane sighting into the Air Force, they would activate their radar and try to track it” adds Forbes.

1958 photo of wishing well at Pine Lake Resort

The Ground Observer Corps disbanded in 1959 with no reported sightings of enemy planes over Sammamish.

One of our major area summer events in the ‘50s was Redmond Derby Days, usually held the third or fourth Saturday in August. Although the festivities were in downtown Redmond, the Redmond Bike Derby ran through what would later be Sammamish. The Derby had started in 1939 as a novel local event but after World War II had rapidly gained in popularity and notoriety and by 1950 was serious business.

There were several bicycle races of various lengths, but the big race was a 25 mile loop around the lake (the fastest biker could complete it in just over an hour), starting from Redmond, going down West Lake Sammamish Road, back east along the Sunset Highway (Highway 10) and then back to Redmond via East Lake Sammamish Road. People came from all over Washington, northern Oregon, and southern British Columbia to compete. Indeed, in the 1951 Derby Days all of the eight winners in the men’s category of the bike derby were from either Vancouver or Victoria, BC, which had to have irked the locals to no end. There were various age and sex categories for the races, as well as races strictly for stock and racing bikes, so everyone had at least a shot at winning one of the trophies or the grand prize, usually a bicycle.

The race prospered through the ‘50s but biked its last lap around Lake Sammamish in the summer of 1962. I-90 was completed through Issaquah by 1963, eliminating the Sunset Highway leg of the race, and race organizers changed the route.

People living closer to Issaquah than Redmond on the 1950s Plateau say the Issaquah Labor Day Parade was their big summer event of the ‘50s. This was a three day parade that was held in downtown Issaquah, with the big parade on Saturday. People on the Plateau made their floats and joined in. By the late ‘50s Alexander’s Resort was having limited hydro races around the south end of the lake. This was nothing like Seafair, which was also going on by then, but in an age with considerably less options than what we enjoy today, it was still a lot of fun if you lived nearby.

The 1950s Plateau had changed little since settlers first came here in the 1890s. The big chicken farms were still here, the dairy farms were still here, the orchards, the trees, the resorts. Just the faintest hint of change appeared as the ‘50s ended when construction started on the Sunny Hills Development near Beaver Lake. In 1959 there were no houses yet, just some secluded dirt roads, which promptly attracted local teenagers looking for places to park.

People living here then say that the 1950s were the last decade that was so much more like the old than the new. In the 1960s there would not be a lot of development on the Plateau, but instead the things that had been here for so long would simply begin to fade away or disappear altogether. The farms began to disappear in the ‘60s. Ditto Pine Lake Resort, gone after 1966. Business at the Issaquah Lumber Company on the Monohon site was slowing by 1960, due in part to several fires that struck the mill in the late ‘50s, including a bad one in 1956. Local granges, long a driving force on the Plateau and still strong in the ‘50s, would begin to see their membership rolls tailing off after 1970.

By 1975 development was increasing on the Plateau and by 1985 was increasing even faster. Far from slowing today in 2005, major development is continuing as you read this with Sammamish Commons and the Crossings Development (on Southeast 212th) breaking ground just this year, transforming the bucolic farming and ranching Sammamish of the ‘50s into a bustling 21st century Seattle suburb with little resemblance to its past.

---Phil Dougherty

Freed House Freed House