Clear Lake, Washington

This part of Washington is dotted with small communities. If you follow any state highway around here you will encounter a small tow every few miles. Not all of the towns are officially incorporated as such. Where our son lives has a Mount Vernon Address but is within the area known as Clear Lake. Clear Lake is unincorporated, but has a small downtown area with a bar, a church, a grocery store of sorts, a school and a post office. There are other buildings that used to house a bank, another church, and other businesses. Some have been converted into homes. According to the US Census, Clear Lake is a Census Designated Place with just over 1,000 residents. It is only 4 miles to Sedro-Woolley, which has 12,000 residents. Sedro-Woolley practically runs into Burlington, a town of 9,000. Head in another direction, and Clear Lake is only 8 miles from down town Mount Vernon, which has 36,000 residents and is right across the river from Burlington. There are a lot of people in a fairly small area, but it still has a definite rural flavor as soon as you get out of the downtown areas of the communities.

Clear Lake has its own story and its own distinct feel. The Post Office has been operating since 1891, a year after the railroad reached the area. The railroad is no longer operating here, but there are lots of pictures in the town museum that show scenes of a bustling company town. From the end of the 19th century up until near the middle of the 20th century, the Clear Lake Lumber Company was the town’s major employer. The company started with a small shingle mill on the shore of Clear Lake, on a small piece of land between Clear Lake and Mud Lake. In those days the area was heavily forested with Cedar, Douglas Fir, Spruce and Hemlock. The shingle plant took several days to turn a cedar tree into shingles for roofs and siding on homes in Seattle. The market was booming and the raw materials were very easy to obtain. After a while, the cedar trees right next to the lake that could be floated to the plant were cut. The business expanded to harvest construction lumber from the other varieties of trees. They also used teams of horses to expand the area for the logging.

The more trees that were cut, the more the area between the two lakes was prone to flooding. It is only a couple of miles to the Skagit River where seasonal flooding often disrupted the railroad, sometimes forcing the lumber company to slow production for a while. Eventually the buildings of the lumber company became inundated. Meanwhile the cost of obtaining raw timber increased as the trees in the immediate area were cut. Eventually the market shifted and the lumber mill shut down.

The proximity of the community to the neighboring towns meant that it still was a good place to live. Eventually the school was incorporated into the Sedro-Woolley system and continues to operate as an elementary school.

The area where the shingle and lumber mill once operated is now a small industrial park with shops for a trucking company, warehouse space for a few other companies and a row of covered rental storage space. A couple of different companies rent space to park vehicles there as well. The land that once was heavily forested has become hay land, with a few horses and cattle grazing in the meadows during at least part of the year.

The territory is still prone to flooding and many homes in the area require flood insurance in order to qualify for mortgages. A few have water in their basements every year. Others are set up high on block foundations with the living area 6 or more feet above the ground level. People who live here are used to water. They live here in part because it is incredibly beautiful. The view across the lake to the mountains is dramatic. The sunsets are glorious. The ground is fertile and gardening is easy. Land is less expensive than in the cities and the people can spread out a bit more. On days when the water isn’t rising you can well understand why people built homes here.

Coastal areas around the world all have their unique relationships with water. With the rise of global sea levels flooding will continue to be an issue for those who choose to live in low lying areas. Some have simply chosen to go up onto the hills or into the mountains to find dry places to live. Here in Western Washington, that is a live option. Mountains rise steeply to the east and there are a lot of homes in the lower slopes that are high enough to be out of the flood plain.

There are more than a few people who are willing to put up with a commute in order to live a more rural lifestyle. They get in their cars and drive into the cities, some as far as Seattle, for their jobs and then get in their cars and drive back in the evening, enduring traffic jams. Last week there was need for emergency construction on Interstate 94 and a lane had to be temporally closed. Although a detour was established, the traffic began to back up and it created over a dozen miles of stop and go traffic. It was a mess.

The pandemic, however, has opened up a new way of looking at work. More and more people are considering working remotely for at least part of their job. Others are adapting to less work and more self-sufficiency, growing more of their food and learning to live with less income. It will likely be a big change in the economy of the area.

But this area has always been in transition. The lumber company was only dominant for a few decades, then the economy shifted. The railroad was a major employer until it wasn’t. The people are adaptable and resilient.

Still, as someone looking to move to the general area, it is hard to know what is the right thing to do and the right place to live. There are a lot of options. I’m not one for the flooding, so we’ll probably end up on a hill, as is our home in Rapid City. For now, we are simply considering our options and taking time to make a decision.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!