Seattle Now & Then: Eagle Falls on the Skykomish, 1916 & 1926

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN 1: Eagle Falls’ lower basin, to the right of our posing gent, provides a popular picnicking spot and local swimming hole. (University of Washington LIbraries, Special Collections)
NOW 1: An aspiring student filmmaker captured in mid-air vaults across “Hell’s Gate,” avoiding a plunge into the glacier fed Skykomish River. Today’s gap has widened by several feet due to railroad blasting. (Jean Sherrard)
THEN 2: Al Faussett tried to shoot Eagle Falls, but his cigar-shaped craft overturned halfway down. A single spectator can be seen at upper right, perched on a cliff across the river. (University of Washington LIbraries, Special Collections)
NOW 2: Young videographers find their footing across a much-reduced Eagle Falls. Today’s falls might not challenge Evel Knievel, but its dangers are still significant. Icy currents and a treacherous undertow have produced many injuries and several fatalities over the years. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Oct. 14, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Oct. 17, 2021)

Eagle Falls near Index: ‘An easy jump, but hell if you don’t make it’

By Jean Sherrard

Lee Pickett was surely the most prolific photographer to grace Snohomish County. His 1910 move from Seattle to the tiny mountain town of Index provided Pickett with opportunities aplenty to document the burgeoning highways and railroads and the booming logging and mining industries.

In the 1920s, he was appointed official photographer of the Great Northern Railroad. His stunning images recorded construction of eight-mile Cascade Tunnel (1929) — then the longest in the western hemisphere — and quickly cemented his reputation.

His more whimsical portraits reveal Pickett’s playful side. This pair of “then” photos, snapped a decade apart, feature Eagle Falls along the Skykomish River, three miles east of Index.

The first, from 1916, features boulders at the falls’ base, a perennial picnic spot and swimming hole for locals. The gent in jacket and fedora poses stiffly while, across the bottom of the negative, Pickett has written, in the reverse script mastered by period photographers: “Hell’s Gate at Eagle Falls. An easy jump — but — hell if you don’t make it.”

In our “now” photo at the same location, the boulders have shifted position, their top halves seemingly lopped away. These changes are due not to erosion or earthquakes but to explosives intended to reduce steep grades for adjacent Great Northern track beds.

During a recent visit, a members of a videography class from Hillside Student Community watch as 15-year old Will Maltz, trained in the urban gymnastic sport of parkour, leaps the gap between boulders.

Our second “then” photo features the upturned canoe of local lumberjack (and Pickett regular) Al Faussett. In 1926, Fox Pictures offered $1,500 to anyone who would row through nearby Sunset Falls. Faussett built a sturdy craft to survive the ordeal, but Fox reneged on its offer.

Undaunted, the newly minted daredevil persisted, reveling in his growing celebrity, but cashing in proved elusive. On Sept. 6, 1926, hundreds of onlookers crowded the Eagle Falls banks to watch Faussett risk life and limb. Most declined to pay for the privilege, and the drama of his descent fizzled when his canoe stuck partway down the run. A friend soon dislodged it with a long pole.

Faussett spent the next three years shooting Northwest waterfalls, breaking bones and suffering repeated concussions until retiring on his waterlogged laurels.

The photographer Pickett (1882-1959) ended his career in the late 1940s, health ravaged by decades of exposure to developing chemicals. Today, his Index home houses the Index Historical Society’s Pickett Museum.

More videographer from Hillside pose near the ‘easy jump’
Debris left behind by the railroad

And for a 360 degree video view of Eagle Falls, along with Jean’s narration, head in this direction.

In a late breaking addition, photo historian Ron Edge sends along the following Pickett portraits.

Al Faussett, with his original craft, the Skykomish Queen

Click twice on the following panoramas to zoom in and explore. To create these spectacular images, Pickett used the Cirkut camera manufactured by the Rochester Panoramic Camera Company. Thanks, Ron, for these remarkable photos of a vanished landscape.

A panoramic view of Scenic, Washington, just west of Stevens Pass – now the starting point for a hike to some spectacular alpine lakes.
Pickett’s panoramic view of Tye (initially Wellington), Washington. After the completion of the tunnel in 1929, Tye was abandoned and now must be listed among our state’s ghost towns.


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