Seattle Now & Then: Little White Church in Silvana, ca. 1905

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Like a Dutch Masters landscape painting, the Little White Church on the Hill anchors a pastoral scene. The Stillaguamish River curves just below, while the distant bluffs of Camano Island peep above the central horizon. The church’s steeple was added in 1904. Our best guess is that this photo was taken before 1910. (Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW 1: A remarkably similar landscape shows that little has changed in this rural landscape since our “Then” photo was snapped from atop the bluff. The Stillaguamish River, now screened by evergreens, still overflows its banks on occasion. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW 2: Captured on a clear day in mid-March, the Little White Church includes the grounds of Zion Lutheran Cemetery, where a number of pioneer families are buried. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW 3: In an east-facing photo, the pioneer church gleams in late afternoon light. The “Then” and “Now” portraits were taken from the bluff above the structure. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on April 21, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on April 24, 2022)

With a peaceful view, Silvana’s Little White Church endures
By Jean Sherrard

In an increasingly discordant world, we scan for hopeful signs and clues – some are lodged in the past. One symbol of reunion and healing might be found on a rural hillside an hour’s drive north of Seattle.

The tiny town of Silvana, founded in the 1880s by Scandinavian farmers, was both blessed and cursed by the fertile floodplain of the Stillaguamish River. To accommodate the river’s oft-overflowing banks, its houses and sidewalks were raised several feet above ground level.

Little surprise, then, that the vigorous young congregation of Zion Lutheran, led by itinerant pastor Christian Jorgensen, decided to build its church and adjacent graveyard on a hill above the river. The land had been donated by farmer S.A. Erickson in 1884 and on Dec. 3, 1888, the parishioners drew up formal plans for their parish.

As documented by Zion Lutheran’s historian Irene Vognild, the church’s 1890 construction proved no small task. Existing roads were “muddy, crooked trails along the riverbanks.” Without rail or paved highways to provide access, all finished lumber had to be towed east on scows from a sawmill in equally tiny Utsalady on Camano Island.

The materials were to be offloaded onto carts and drawn by oxen to the building site. But that year’s early winter, Vognild recounts, was one of the severest in the region’s history. Church members credited divine intervention when the Stillaguamish froze solid, ensuring much easier transport by sled across the snowy river and up the hill.

Having spent just $750 on materials, the closely-knit farm community donated all labor, plus extra timber and shingles. The new church was erected in mere weeks, with grounds cleared for a nearby graveyard. Zion Lutheran Church’s first services were held that Christmas.

It wasn’t long before a divide over religious practices split the young congregation. Should this new church observe the rites and traditions of the State Church of Norway or adopt revised forms of worship?

The unhappy result, Vognild notes: “a break with friends and neighbors [who had] worshiped and worked together for years.” A minority faction left and built its own church in town, Salem Lutheran.

After nearly 70 years of division, the two churches set aside their differences and reunited in 1963, adopting a name reflecting the harmony: Peace Lutheran.

Today, the church comprises two structures — a practical 1978 building in downtown Silvana and the original Little White Church on the Hill, which was listed on the Washington State Heritage Register as a historic site in 1972.

The hillside church is open for summer services and for special occasions, including weddings and funerals.


Just a couple extra photos this week.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Little White Church in Silvana, ca. 1905”

  1. I. Enjoyed the article on the little white church on the hill in Silvano. Ihave been a care taker of the church for some 30 odd years. The original photo hung in our church for many years until it along with other old photos were taken by persons unknown.where did you get the photo? If it’s an original it should be returned to our care.

    1. Hi Larry,
      The original was found by Paul Dorpat more than 20 years ago. It was, I recall, damaged nearly to the point of unusability, actually torn in half. Paul stitched it together using photoshop, but the photo copy itself was crumbling into dust. If it exists in hard copy form, it would be in the vast collection he gave to the Seattle Public Library. FYI, Peace Lutheran has been using my repeat photo from 2006 on its website with my blessing. At this point, I have no access to the original paper photo, only the digital copy, which you are welcome to print at high resolution.

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