Introducing Mason County
Sawamish County came into being just over one month after Skamania and Whatcom Counties. On April 15th, 1854, the territorial legislature created the new County from the northern portion of Thurston County. They gave it the name of a native tribe living in the southern Puget Sound area, the Sawamish. David Shelton, an early settler, represented Thurston County in the Legislature. As he had to travel twenty miles by water to get to Olympia, he introduced a bill to create Sawamish County. The purpose was to make local official business much simpler.
Originally stretching from Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean, Sawamish/Mason County lost its western expanse one month after its creation. On April 14, 1854, the Territorial Legislature created Chehalis (Gray’s Harbor) County. Charles H. Mason served as Acting Governor of Washington Territory at that time. Mason died on July 29th, 1859, and in his honor, Sawamish County became Mason County in 1864.
From 1860, when the U.S. Census counted 162 people living in Sawamish County, until 1910, the new county grew steadily in population. The 1920 census showed a 4.6% decrease from the 1910 count of 5,156. That drop was the only time such a decrease occurred. Between 1920 and 1930, the County’s population more than doubled, and it has grown ever since. The 2,018 estimate shows 65,507 people living in Mason County, a density of 63 people per square mile spread over the 1,051 square miles. In fairness, 92 square miles are water, so the population base lives on 959 square miles, or in reality, in the area around Hood Canal and Puget Sound. Northwestern Mason County is mostly forested mountain land.
Mason County’s Original People
The Sawamish (Sahe’wabsh)
Two Native American tribes made up the bulk of the pre-white inhabitants of the County. The Sawamish, who gave their name, albeit briefly, to the County lived around the southern extent of Puget Sound. The tribal website states: “We are descendants of the maritime people who lived along the shores and watersheds of the seven southernmost inlets of Puget Sound for many thousands of years. Our culture is still very much connected to this aquatic environment.”
Following the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854, Native People, including the Sawamish, lost 4,000 square miles of ancestral land. The Sawamish received a small island, Squaxin Island, to be their new home. Instead of accepting this indignity, the people left the island, moving back to the areas of their original homes. By 1862, only 50 people were left on Squaxin Island, and the Indian agency headquarters was relocated to Puyallup. Today, there are no year-round residents on the Island, which is still considered a Reservation and off-limits to non-tribal members. The tribe has purchased land in Kamilche and have built their tribal headquarters in that community.
Since 2002, the tribe has published a newsletter Klah-Che-Min (monthly since January, 2003). All issues are available as pdf files on their tribal website. The November 2019 issue is 27 pages long and is available here. Native Americans have a long tradition of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Not surprisingly, the November issue contains four pages under the heading “Thank You Veterans.” Each page showcases 24 photographs of tribal members, The Squaxin Island Tribe call themselves “The People of the Water.”
The Skokomish ( SqWuqWu’b3sh )
Living further north and west, the Skokomish Tribe was the largest of nine Twana communities. The Twana are a Salishan people. Nomadic during the summer, they subsisted by hunting, gathering and fishing. In the winter, they settled at permanent sites. The tribe’s website notes the difficulties the tribe faced after the European “discovery” and settlement. These include devastating losses to disease and the closing of traditional fishing sites. The building of dams on the Skokomish River led to the loss of many cultural sites. Today, however, there is a movement to restore traditional activities and improve the health of the people.
The Skokomish, or SqWuqWu’b3sh in their language, have an extensive website and a tribal newsletter, The Sounder. You can read the November 2019 issue here. The tribe owns the Lucky Dog Casino and has a large tribal community center. Both are on US Highway 101 about fifteen miles north of Shelton. Skokomish means “People of the River.”
Shelton, The Mason County Seat
In the early days of Sawamish/Mason County, there was no money for such frills as government buildings. Government functions took place in the private homes of various elected officials. One of those officials was William Morrow, a Baptist minister. He called his home Oakland and Oakland became the County Seat. Morrow, however, did not allow alcohol on his property. David Shelton owned property just a couple miles away, and had built a saloon on his land. Unsurprisingly, more people gathered around “Sheltonville.” In 1888 the voters approved the move of the County Seat from Oakland to Shelton. Shelton has remained the Seat ever since.
Incorporated in 1890, the city of Shelton grew from the modest beginnings of David and Frances Shelton’s Donation Land Grant. As in other parts of western Washington, the heavily timbered land brought investors and their sawmills. The sawmills brought associated enterprises including railroads. The Simpson Lumber Company got its start in 1900. Born in Shelton, it eventually grew to be the second largest such firm in Washington State. The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Shelton in 1926. Rainier Pulp and Paper followed shortly thereafter, the forerunner of today’s Rayonier, a multi-national corporation now based in Florida. The town grew with the timber-related industries and the various businesses that served the loggers.
The year of Shelton’s incorporation, 1890, the U.S. Census counted 648 residents. With the exception of 1920 and 1990, the population has increased fairly steadily. The 2018 census estimate showed 10,364 people living in the city, or approximately 16% of the County’s population.
Mason County Communities
Shelton is the only incorporated city in Mason County, but there are numerous census-designated places and unincorporated communities. The communities of Allyn and Grapeview were a single “Census-Designated Place” until 2010. At that time they were each given their own designation. Located three miles apart along the Case Inlet of Puget Sound, the two communities grew up with logging. They were served by a fleet of steamboats called the “mosquito fleet” which connected the area to Olympia and Tacoma. The 2010 Census counted 954 people in Grapeview and 1,963 in Allyn. This is the place to go if you want to learn the art of carving with a chainsaw. Allyn is home to George Kenny’s Chainsaw Carving School which also bills itself as the “World’s Largest Chainsaw Carving Outlet.”
Belfair, where the Union River flows into Hood Canal, is one of Mason County’e larger communities. The 2010 Census counted 3,931 residents. Although the town originally carried the name Clifton, the town’s postmaster renamed the settlement in 1925. She was reading a book that talked about a place named Belfair. She thought that would be a good name for her town. There were already too many Cliftons elsewhere in Washington.
Hoodsport, with a 2010 population of 376, lies on Hood Canal, five miles from Lake Cushman. Want to see the Giant Pacific Octopus? SCUBA divers say Hoodsport is the go-to place, and not just to view the cephalopods. You can see many other types of marine life as well. Farming, logging and mining for manganese and copper were important historically. Today Hoodsport is mostly known for its recreational opportunities.
Skokomish, 2010 population 617, is the headquarters of the Skokomish Indian Tribe. Not surprisingly, Native Americans make up almost 80% of the community’s population. Union, on the Great Bend of Hood Canal, had 631 residents counted in the 2010 Census. Until 1952, Union was home to a thriving artist colony at Olympus Manor. Unincorporated communities in Mason County include Harstine Island, Matlock, Potlatch, Tahuya, and the Squaxin Island Reservation.
Mason County Topography
Like most Washington Counties, Mason County is defined by water. In its northeastern corner, Hood Canal forms the boundary betwen Mason and Kitsap Counties. In the southeast, Case Inlet, the southern portion of Puget Sound, separates Mason from Pierce and Thurston Counties. It is still possible to travel by boat from Shelton to Olympia, just as David Shelton did in the 1850s. A narrow isthmus separates Hood Canal from the North Bay of Case Inlet. This isthmus forms the southern extent of the Kitsap Peninsula.
The northwestern corner of the County is in Olympic National Park. A crest of mountain peaks, mostly over 6,000 feet in elevation, separates the Park from Mount Skokomish Wilderness. The wilderness is a 13,291 acre parcel administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The smaller Wonder Mountain Wilderness lies within Mason County south of Olympic National Park.
Cushman Lake on the North Fork of the Skokomish River covers 4010 acres. It is the largest fresh-water lake in Mason County. Originally a wide section of the river, the lake itself came into existence with the building of the Cushman Dam #1 in the mid 1920s. Built to supply electricity to Tacoma, the dam began sending power eastward on February 12, 1926. Cushman Lake today continues to power Tacoma and is a major recreational attraction. It offers fishing, boating and kayaking, and serves as a jump-off point for the Staircase region of Olympic National Park.
South of the Lake, the land flattens out and drops in elevation. The Dayton area, west of Shelton, is at 240 feet above sea level. Just a few miles east, Shelton, on Oakland Bay, is only 23 feet above sea level. Matlock, a few miles west of Dayton is at 446 feet. All are considerably lower than the northwestern reaches of the County.
Case Inlet has several islands on the Mason County side of the line. Treasure and Stretch Islands are east of Grapeview, Squaxin and Hope Islands east of Arcadia. Hartstine Island, at 18.651 square miles, is the largest island in Mason County.
Mason County Business and Industry
As noted above, the various industries associated with the heavily wooded landscape built Mason County. Timber remained important until fairly recently. Today, the largest employer in the County is government, and healthcare is the largest private employer. That said, over half the County’s earned income comes from work done outside the county limits. Most commute to Thurston and Pierce Counties. Mason County has become a bedroom community.
Festivals in Mason County
Mason County has a full calendar of festivals and special events throughout the year. These can be found on the Explore Hood Canal website under the heading Events. Some of the more popular include:
Matlock’s Old Timers Historical Fair celebrates the timber industry in the early days of Mason County. The two-day event takes place in early May. Activities include food booths, crafts, tractor pulls and historic displays of all kinds.
Tahuya Days usually falls on the first Saturday of July (July 6, 2019). The day includes a parade, food and craft booths, live music, and free train rides. The 2019 parade included a group, the Burma Road Beach Club, who dressed up as famous musicians and musical groups. The pictures in the Kitsap Sun are hilarious. My particular favorites were Cheap Trick and the Doobie Brothers.
The last Saturday in July, 2019, over 1,000 people showed up for the 26th Annual Grapeview Water and Art Festival. The Grapeview Community Assocation sponsors the event. The Fair Harbor Marina hosted the 2019 Festival. Some fifty-five artists exhibited their work. Kids enjoyed a fishing derby and participants of all ages could attempt a hole-in-one on a floating golf green.
On the second Saturday in August, Belfair hosts The Taste of Hood Canal. The North Mason Rotary sponsors the fundraiser which attracts locals and tourists with food, of course. Other activities and exhibits include local artists, a car show, and fun for all ages. In 2019, there was a $5.00 entry fee for all attendees over the age of 12.
Whatever your pleasure, Mason County offers you a wide range of choices. Attend a festival or other special event. Enjoy the waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound. Hike into Olympic National Park, or just spend time sightseeing. Definitely something for everyone.