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Published: Monday, June 27, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Blogger digs into her roots

Snohomish County native works to uncover her family's history

  • Women tend to a bonfire in east Snohomish County in the 1930s.

    Women tend to a bonfire in east Snohomish County in the 1930s.

  • Historian Lorelle VanFossen says this photograph shows east Snohomish County settlers Horace Harriman and Charles Elwell. She hopes someone can identi...

    Historian Lorelle VanFossen says this photograph shows east Snohomish County settlers Horace Harriman and Charles Elwell. She hopes someone can identify who is who.

  • Lorelle VanFossen blogs about her roots in east Snohomish County.

    Lorelle VanFossen blogs about her roots in east Snohomish County.

Lorelle VanFossen started a genealogy blog to preserve what she considers her family's version of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"They were filled with the minutia of day-to-day life of a people now dust," she said. "The scrolls were filled with the journals of ancient people, letting us learn more about how they lived."
In 2006, VanFossen, who lives in Portland, Ore., started a family history blog. She was born and raised in Snohomish County and said she learned that members of the West family came from Michigan to log the Pacific Northwest. They survived in rough logging camps at the turn of the century, VanFossen said.
A family of adventurers, she said, they arrived on the Mayflower.
"Grandfather Howard W. West Sr., lying about his age, joined the military out of Portland, Ore., guarding Pacific Northwest waters at sea and inland his entire life, serving on the USS Arizona 15 years before Pearl Harbor, she said. "He raised his children in Marysville and later at the Friday Harbor lighthouse.''
He died while working security for Chief Joseph Dam.
"In the Great Depression, my mother's Knapp family left behind the logging community of Taylor Rapids, Wis.," she said. "They joined the logging camps in Oregon until a fire destroyed what little they had left. They moved to the wilderness of Snohomish County to work the Frye Lettuce Farm in Monroe, then returned to logging."
They were among trailblazers who cut roads through the forested mountain foothills to build what is now U.S. 2, she said.
Two of the Knapp brothers married into a family named Elwell, direct descendents of Chief Seattle, VanFossen said.
"Robert Knapp stayed with his wife, Evelyn Elwell (of Charles Elwell and Laura Stillman), in Lake Stevens. Lloyd married Irene Elwell and moved to eastern Washington. Wayne Knapp married into the Odell family of Snohomish, another family of early homesteaders."
Her research showed that Robert and Wayne joined their father-in-law, Captain Elwell, to run the tug Skagit Chief, maneuvering logs through the Snohomish and Skagit rivers. As the roads opened up, cargo moved from the waterways and the Knapp brothers found jobs as security guards at the prison in Monroe.
"Wayne moved to Seattle, working his way up to the head of Boeing security," she said. "In the 1970s, eager to preserve the precious memories of his childhood, Wayne Knapp self-published, 'The Early Years in Taylor Rapids, Wisconsin,' and a semi-biographical youth's story for his grandchildren, 'The Valley Where the River Bends'."
VanFossen also became a writer and author.
Digging through her mother's records, she found a journal by Emma Knapp, her grandmother, filled with stories, drawings, and poems of her children growing up in the old logging town. She published it on VanFossen's family history blog at www.cameraontheroad.com/family.
"A trip through Spokane brought me to Anita, daughter of Lloyd and Irene Knapp, with piles of file folders filled with the original writings of Robert and Wayne Knapp. I copied a ream of treasures in stories, tales, poems and adventurous tales of tug boats and the early days of Snohomish."
She also found reel-to-reel tape recordings of her grandmother's voice.
"She died when I was three," she said. "Listening to the tapes, she was right there next to me."
A niece of Robert and Evelyn Knapp preserved two boxes of information before a fire destroyed their family home in Lake Stevens, losing over a century or more of Elwell historical records and artifacts.
VanFossen would like to know more about the photographs on this page. One shows women in the 1930s tending a bonfire somewhere in East County and one is of Charles Elwell and Horace Harriman, but VanFossen doesn't know who is on the left or right. She is still researching the West family and welcomes contributions.
"How far can I dig back, my brain nags, before it's gone or too late? What thoughts will they have about us unless we preserve our experiences for them to find?"
It's a responsibility, she said.
"It might be your story they uncover that tells the world how we once lived, and what life was like way back when."

Kristi O'Harran: 425-339-3451, oharran@heraldnet.com.

Story tags » Lake StevensMonroeSnohomishSnohomish County history

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