Japanese Gulch has long been a haven — and now it will remain one

MUKILTEO — The words on the real-estate flier said it all: “Nature Lover’s Paradise.”

It didn’t take Kristin Kohorst and her family long to decide after six months of house-hunting that their search was over.

On April 22, 2009, they moved into a home with a deck overlooking a forested area adjacent to Japanese Gulch.

Six months later, one of Kohorst’s neighbors came to her house, handling out fliers about a proposed development 75 feet from her front door that would strip the trees from the land to make way for a building and parking lots that a shipping company wanted to develop.

The person handing out the fliers, Liza Patchen-Short, and her husband, Richard Emery, were among the early backers of a drive to save the gulch. Their interest had begun two years earlier when they found survey stakes in the wooded land that was privately owned but considered by many to be an informal public park.

It would take nearly two decades for chunks of private property in the gulch to be purchased periodically in what evolved into a larger plan to create an official park. The property acquisitions began in 1996 with the city’s purchase of five acres in the lower part of the gulch and gained momentum with additional city, county and state money.

The final acquisition of 98 acres in February was the capstone to a 144-acre park.

The city celebrated its newest park with a dedication on Saturday. “It’s the biggest piece of urban forest and gullies we’ve been able to preserve in a long time,” said Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson. “You can walk into the gulch any day and run into people who are enjoying the trails, hiking, walking and biking.”

It was the effort of people whose work started around kitchen tables and evolved into the nonprofit Japanese Gulch Group that helped make it possible, Kohorst said. Even though money to buy up the final, largest piece of land came from the city, Snohomish County and the state, it was the gulch group “keeping it on the radar and in the spotlight that led to it being saved,” she said.

Japanese Gulch is a drainage that leads to Mukilteo’s waterfront, near the former Air Force tank farm. It is just northwest of Paine Field and the Boeing factory. Kohorst said she’s seen deer, mountain beavers, shrews, coyotes, and birds as varied as great blue herons, black-headed grosbeaks and brightly colored western tanagers in the park.

“Now when I walk through the gulch, I’m amazed,” she said. “The birds nesting there will be able to return every year. I know the small trees will be there when my boys, 14 and 11, are older. To me, it’s the heart and soul of Mukilteo.”

* * *

Japanese Gulch was named for some of its earliest settlers. A photo from the turn of the 20th century shows a schooner in the harbor near the stately, two-story original Rose Hill School. At the time, Mukilteo was known for its deep harbor and lumber mill — a magnet for immigrant Japanese workers.

Although Everett was long associated with the moniker of Mill Town, it was Mukilteo that actually earned the name, said David Dilgard, who specializes in local history at the Everett Public Library.

“In Mukilteo, there was always only one show, the big mill,” he said. That business was the Crown Lumber Co., originally called the Mukilteo Lumber Co. when it was built in 1903.

“It was one of the largest mills in Puget Sound,” said Steve Bertrand, a Cascade High School teacher who published “Mukilteo,” a history of the area. “It was an ideal location for a sawmill because of the deep-water harbor that allowed ships to dock easily.”

At the time, if you weren’t the firstborn in a Japanese family, you didn’t inherit family wealth. “People were looking for opportunities,” Bertrand said. The mill jobs were those opportunities, and the Japanese came over in sailing ships and settled into the community.

Their community was near the mill and the railroad tracks off what today is Front Street, and just north of Old Town Mukilteo. By 1905, Mukilteo’s population was estimated to include 150 Japanese and 200 whites.

Many people talk about the community’s racial harmony, noting the mix of cultures reflected in the names on tombstones in the city’s Pioneer Cemetery. “Where in the world would you find a community that buried Norwegian and Japanese immigrants together?” asked Brian Sullivan, the city’s former mayor and now a member of the Snohomish County Council. “One headstone is Japanese, and the next is J.D. Fowler, the founder of Mukilteo.”

The Japanese had their own baseball team. Longtime resident Tude Richter, 88, remembers the stories of her mother, who helped the wives of the Japanese laborers learn English.

A 1927 photograph shows young Japanese students sitting beside their Caucasian classmates on the steps of Rose Hill School.

That era was not one of complete harmony, of course. Recollections of cultural tension have faded with time, Dilgard said. The Japanese were segregated. They weren’t allowed to own property in the main part of town.

Japanese mill workers were armed by the mill owners. A photo from Bertrand’s book shows two men standing outside a row of small wooden cottages, both holding rifles.

The gulch was teeming with wildlife, Bertrand said. “The story I had heard was that they were carrying them to hunt in the gulch.”

Other accounts say the weapons were for their protection. From time to time, shots from outsiders were heard near the settlement.

Part of that era’s hostility came from the lower wages paid to Japanese workers — $2 to $2.50 a day for 10 hours of work — at a time of labor agitation for shorter hours and better pay.

“It was a mill town with a heavy racial element superimposed on it,” Dilgard said. Because of the social tensions at the time, “they were likely to come after you.”

* * *

Crown Lumber closed in 1930, during the early months of the Great Depression. With it, the jobs provided by the city’s largest employer evaporated, as did the culture associated with many workers, who left to look for other employment.

“They turned that little gully into a Little Japan,” Dilgard said. “They succeeded in creating not just a place to survive, but whole aspects of their culture briefly flowered and nurtured the people there. It’s really an exercise in the imagination to think what that might have been like.”

Mas Odoi, who was born there in 1921, would always speak fondly of his childhood days, including digging clams on the nearby beach. His story was told in The Herald in 2006.

“That place was more beautiful to him then than it is to us now,” Dilgard said. “Mas’ view of it was that it was a wonderful way to grow up.” Relations between his and the white communities were very positive, Odoi told him. “They had a foothold there, and separate-but-equal worked for them.”

During World War II, Odoi’s family was sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho. Eventually, Japanese-Americans were allowed to serve in the military.

Mas Odoi and his twin brother, Hiro, both joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. Army. The unit was awarded seven Distinguished Unit Citations, later known as Presidential Unit Citations, the highest award that can be given to a military unit.

In Italy, Mas Odoi was injured by a mortar blast that threw him into the air. Despite passing out from a deep gash in his neck, he eventually staggered back to a medic’s tent and spent a month recovering from his injuries. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

After the war, he took jobs in Illinois and California and retired in Renton, but Mukilteo remained the hometown of his heart. He was active in the city’s historical society.

In 2000, he was among those who grew up in Japanese Gulch who dedicated a Japanese Memorial in the city’s Centennial Park. Its origami crane is a symbol of peace and happiness. In 2008, Odoi was named Mukilteo’s Pioneer of the Year.

Sullivan, the County Council member, said he remembers playing in the gulch as a kid in the 1960s and finding glass bottles cast with Japanese characters, remnants of the community that once flourished there.

It was during Sullivan’s tenure as mayor of Mukilteo that the first five acres of what would become the park at Japanese Gulch were purchased. Acquisition of the biggest land block, 98 acres for $5.4 million, was announced last February, with $1 million from the state, $3.3 million from Snohomish County and $1.1 million from the city.

Sullivan said he hopes Odoi’s legacy can be acknowledged in the park. Odoi died last year at 92. Dilgard, who attended Rose Hill School in the 1950s, said he always considers the area Mas Odoi’s gulch. “To me, it’s all about Mas,” a place where “people will get some glimpse of his grace and generosity.”

There’s still much work to be done. Mukilteo is working on a plan to annex some of the park land that now lies in adjoining Everett, Gregerson said. A group will be named to develop an overall park plan and identify the maze of formal and makeshift trails. The city is hoping to tap some of the energy of volunteers to help maintain the park.

James Ramirez, a Cascade High School freshman, is among those who plan to help. His proposed Eagle Scout project is to remove an estimated 200 tires and auto parts from a stream in the gulch, near Boeing property.

Arnie Hammerman, who has been involved in the Japanese Gulch Group for five years and is the current president, said he considers the park’s preservation a legacy project.

Hikers and bikers who had been using the privately held land for years and thought it was a park were shocked to learn that it could be sold for light industrial use, igniting the grassroots campaign.

“I walked in there the day after we found out they were going to purchase the property and looked at the trees and realized it will always be here,” Hammerman said. “Those trees, that forest, will be there 100 years from now.” Future visitors “will realize a bunch of people in 2014 made this happen and saved it for everyone.”

About the park

Size: 144 acres.

Location: The northeastern corner of Mukilteo, bisected by Mukilteo Boulevard.

Trails: 2.6 miles on publicly owned land and 5 miles of informal paths.

Landscape: Mature forest, steep ravines, wetlands.

Wildlife: Bald eagles, pileated and hairy woodpeckers, great blue herons, barred owls, wrens, Steller’s jays, song sparrows, robins, ravens, black-headed grosbeaks, hummingbirds, western tanagers, mallards, crossbills, varied thrushes.

Animals: Coyotes, shrews, mountain beavers, deer.

Fish: Habitat for coho salmon and sea-run cutthroat.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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