This morning my husband and I had to run down below (that’s what Darrington folks call going to town). On the way I wanted to stop at Fortson to get some photos to accompany the story I’m about to tell you. The history of a town that could have made it, but didn’t.
As we leisurely drove down into the former site of Fortson Mill and its little town I tried to imagine myself going back in time to a place that once held hope and promises of prosperity. Bringing my imagination way back to 1905 when a couple of fellas had a dream to turn their 113 acre plot of land 7 miles downhill from Darrington into a state of the art lumber mill. The McCaughey and McCaughey Mill Company made a profitable start bringing in a population of 130 people in just 5 short years of operation. Although I was staring at crumbling concrete adorned by moss and ferns, it was well over a century ago that the sounds of buzzing saws and the smell of fresh sawdust must’ve permeated the senses. It must have really been something to be proud of. Especially if your own blood, sweat and tears were mixed within those deteriorating concrete walls.
Only a few years prior to the Mill’s construction in 1901 the Northern Pacific Railroad had reached all the way from Arlington, Wa to the town of Darrington. What a feat that was considering how dense the old growth forest was as well as the treacherous landscape it had to be forged through. You can still see the railroad bed today as it runs parallel to the ghostly town of Fortson. However, there are no more tracks- just a long, straight walking path that we know now as the Whitehorse Trail.
Now, as our history lesson progresses, it is 1914 and Fortson officially gets its forever name as the McCaughey Mill changed hands to Fortson Mill Company, but only briefly. By 1917 there was a fire at the sawmill that led to The dissolving of the Fortson Company and a quiet 5 years without operation. It wasn’t until 1923 that the little town got a second wind. Klement and Kennedy Company Mill took over and the noise began once again. By 1926 there was phone service, a company store, bunkhouses, a post office, 3 saloons, a Sunday school, the Mill and several homes. Population had sprung to 320 at this exciting time. Funny thing though, the name Fortson stuck despite new ownership.
Klement and Kennedy Company Store & aerial view of the Town of Fortson
While things continued to look up for the town of Fortson a bad storm struck and washed away the road from the town of Hazel to the West. It was 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression and the little mill town just couldn’t survive. It wasn’t repurchased until 1954 when it was moved up river to Three River Mill, that later turned to Summit Timber and now is operated as Hampton Lumber Mill in Darrington to this day. As the work moved along so did the people and many of the structures of Fortson. Some buildings were relocated to nearby Whitehorse. All that remains today are a few walls of the mill and the platform seen across the pond where the de-barking machines once peeled away the skins of ancient logs before loading them on rail cars to be sent “down below.”
The Mill was run off of steam and you can still see the round holes in what’s left of the walls where the steam pipes were ran. Also, just below the Mill is the largest of the two mill ponds in the area. You’ll see a fish ladder down there and that is where the waterwheel was that provided electricity to the lights. I didn’t see any surviving pieces to the wheel, but thankfully due to an incredibly priceless resource on Darrington history I was able to find a picture of it along with several other photographs of the town. Visit Discover Darrington to learn more.
To find this really cool spot you’ll hop on Highway 530 from Arlington headed East for 25.2 miles and turn left onto Fortson Mill Road. It will lead you right to your destination. Be sure to loop around the pond and check out views of the North Fork Stillaguamish River, Mount Higgins and Whitehorse Mountain. We saw a bald eagle out fishing while we caught a few shots of the river, and you might be so lucky too if you’re sneaky enough. However, I don’t recommend coming here on a windy day. There’s a lot of leaning alder that is one gust away from crashing to the earth. We had a big one fall just a few yards behind us today and we high tailed out of there after that!
Fortson Mill Slideshow