DARRINGTON — Local historians are trying to capture an experience that words cannot define.
The Darrington Historical Society, with help from graduate students at the University of Washington, has spent two years gathering images, articles and documents that tell the story of the Oso mudslide, a tragedy that still is shaping lives in the Stillaguamish Valley.
They’re compiling the information into a digital archive and building a website they hope will become a window into Darrington’s story.
On March 22, 2014, a wall of mud and debris ripped across the valley. It buried the Steelhead Haven neighborhood and blocked Highway 530, the main route to and from Darrington. The slide killed 43 people.
To locals, the mudslide doesn’t feel like history. In Darrington, a town of 1,400, just about everybody knew someone who died in the slide, said Scott Morris, president of the Darrington Historical Society. People pass by the gouged hillside on their way to work or while running errands.
“People can see a disaster and be wowed by the power of nature, but this happened to us,” Morris said. “It was national at the time, but the nation has forgotten about it and we still drive through it every day.”
Morris and his team refuse to let the disaster be forgotten. They want to create a digital archive that anyone can visit to learn about the slide and the community that banded together after the hill collapsed.
Within the first few weeks, the former president of the Index Historical Society, David Cameron, suggested that Morris start gathering information. It would get more difficult as time went on, he warned.
Index historians learned that the hard way while they were trying to piece together the story of a devastating December 1980 flood. That flood washed away seven houses in a community of less than 100 people and destroyed their main street and water line. Years later, when the historical society started trying to gather photos and information, they discovered that people had moved away, died or forgotten bits and pieces.
“Time goes by and things get lost,” Cameron said.
The stories they do have from the Index flood are powerful, he said. People found treasured belongings in the mud months after the water receded. The recovered items were cleaned up and returned. There are more stories of courage and kindness that the historical society likely never will be able to document, now that so much time has passed. Cameron didn’t want that to happen in Darrington and Oso.
Morris, a former reporter at The Daily Herald, felt the same way.
“We started thinking about what is it that future generations will want?” Morris said. “What types of questions are they going to have and what are they going to need to know from our perspective?”
The natural instinct with an archive is to gather every document possible, but that takes away the focus, Morris said. They needed to set boundaries to keep the project manageable. The historical society also realized early on that they needed outside expertise. Morris reached out to Sno-Isle Libraries and employees there connected him to UW.
Three graduate students — Rick Stewart, Brittni Kilborn and Mantra Roy — started working with the historical society in 2014. They put together a training manual on the archive’s content management system for future volunteers.
A second team of students came in the summer: Katie Mayer, Chris Pierce and Chinese exchange student Mingxin Shi. This fall, Mayer rallied two more students to volunteer with the historical society. Caitlyn Stephens and Marissa Gunning joined the team. The students were master’s degree candidates in the library and information science program. They made the Oso archive into the capstone project they needed to graduate.
Mayer, Stephens and Gunning drafted a plan for what information to collect and how to collect it. They also created a tracking system to make the archive easier to manage and added dozens of photos and maps.
“We’re putting building blocks together so that in the future the people who are dealing with it can keep it going,” Gunning said. “I guess we sort of built the treasure map.”
Expanding the treasure trove is expected to continue without the students, whose project wrapped up in June.
The archive can hold up to 500 items. There are more than 100 now, mostly photos. Other things the team has gathered include geological studies, 911 audio, videos, news articles and emergency planning documents.
“This was a really colossal event and people who go through something like this, it shapes the rest of their lives in ways you really can’t understand right away, so I hope this helps people understand,” said Mayer, a former copy editor for The Daily Herald.
The ultimate goal is to create a narrated website where people are guided from a welcome message into a chronology of events from the mudslide on March 22, 2014, until the new stretch of Highway 530 opened in September 2014. For those seeking specific information, the website is designed to be searchable. Morris envisions a virtual museum. Visitors can follow the tour guide — in this case the prompts on the welcome page — or interact with exhibits on their own.
He wants to invite people to experience the slide as Darrington did.
“The first days, there were so many unknowns,” Morris said. “We want to re-create that part of the experience. At one point, the death toll could have been 200. We just didn’t know.”
He hopes to get thoughts from others in Darrington to help shape the narrative and give it a historian’s voice.
Developing the website is a daunting task with no set timeline. At this point, the team is working on the archive itself, with a simpler website in place so people can see what’s been gathered so far.
To control the amount of information, historians and students decided to keep this archive focused on Darrington. Though both ends of the valley were affected by the disaster, Darrington faced a unique problem.
“We were physically cut off,” Morris said. “Arlington became Bellingham all of a sudden in terms of distance because it was an hour and a half instead of half an hour.”
Morris and his wife Erika live in one of the neighborhoods off Highway 530 a few miles east of the mudslide. Erika Morris is the secretary and treasurer for the Darrington Historical Society and a partner on the archive project. The historical society has more than 40 members.
A lot of folks have suggested gathering oral histories, where people share their story on a video or audio recorder. Finding the expertise, time and digital storage space needed to gather oral histories is complex, Morris said. The histories would be an important addition to the archive, but there’s no plan in place to gather them. He’s hoping to get expert help.
There’s also the fact that people might not be ready to talk. The archiving team tries to view the Oso mudslide through the lens of a historian, but the reality is that people are living the history they’re chronicling. That’s not an easy balance to strike.
“You don’t want to pile more on people’s grief,” Morris said. “But the real thing behind this is it’s for the next generation to make sure this isn’t forgotten.”
“This isn’t just a sideshow or a curiosity. People should never forget that it’s sacred land now.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com
To view the archive, go to content.lib.washington.edu/landslidesweb.