It had been four years since David “Daddy” Fleet first slogged through the muck and mud of what was commonly known as “Benn’s Landing,” surveying and laying out the streets and parcels of the future city. By 1888, the settlement showed a promise of growth and solidity; a sense of stability that led Probate Judge J.C. Pearson to ask the 800 inhabitants at the confluence of the Wishkah and Chehalis rivers whether it was time to establish a permanent town with all of the rights and responsibilities that came with it. The response was a resounding “Yes!” and thus on March 20, 1888 — 125 years ago today — the muddy settlement was incorporated as the “Town of Aberdeen.” The new town encompassed 700 acres and included three sawmills and “Parson’s Plat,” now better known as East Aberdeen. Incorporation as a town is the first step on the road to cityhood — which Aberdeen would achieve two years later when it would be incorporated as a city of the third class.
But first things first.
Incorporation brought the first real form of government to Aberdeen as five trustees were assigned to look after the welfare of the infant town. A general election, Aberdeen’s first foray into politics, was held on April 4 and Samuel Benn, A.J. West, O.M. Kellogg, J.Q. Waldron and R.H. Evans were charged with the task of appointing a clerk, assessors, treasurer, and a town marshal. Among the first laws passed was one setting the closing of saloons (there were five at the time) from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. Later amendments allowed saloons to remain open until midnight but to be closed on Sundays. It had been 20 years since Sam Benn first settled at the site of his future city, but 1888 was the year that Benn’s fledgling community took these first big steps towards permanence. In addition to incorporation, 1888 was marked by a number of other notable events that would prove to be influential in Aberdeen’s future growth:
• In the early morning hours of January 30, 1888, the ship Abercorn, loaded with iron rails from the Moss Bay Hematite Iron and Steel Co., Worthington, England, and bound for Portland, Oregon, was driven off course by a massive storm and wrecked 10 miles north of the Grays Harbor bar. The saltwater-pitted rails, at the time considered a total loss, would be salvaged six years later by a community effort and used to construct the rail spur connecting Aberdeen and the north side of Grays Harbor with the rest of the country for the first time.
• Fourth of July festivities were held in Montesano that year and one of the highlights was the Aberdeen-Hoquiam baseball game which Aberdeen won 13-12 in eleven innings. The citizens of Montesano donated a silver pitcher to the winning team. This was one of the first competitions between the two cities — a friendly rivalry that continues to this day.
• That summer also saw surveying and pole placement between Olympia and Grays Harbor, resulting in the first telegraph service between the two communities. At that same time, a crew began grading the way for a faster and safer overland stage coach route between the same two settlements. Prior to these advancements, the primary mode of travel was by water via the Chehalis and Black rivers and communication with the outside world was strictly by mail.
• Finally, in September, the trustees of the Town of Aberdeen arranged for the purchase of “Old Tiger”, a used Hunneman hand-pumper built in Massachusetts in 1853. Having seen service in San Francisco and Salem, Oregon, the machine arrived in Aberdeen aboard the steamer General Miles and was placed into service as Aberdeen’s first piece of fire department rolling stock. It was a highly valuable piece of equipment in a town composed entirely of wooden buildings, plank sidewalks and sawdust streets. This purchase also brought about the formation of the first organized volunteer fire department and signaled the end of the bucket brigade as the primary firefighting tool. In the last 125 years, Aberdeen has witnessed fires and floods, booms and busts, and immeasurable quantities of rain — but the city and her people have persevered through it all. So on this most auspicious day, let us raise a glass and toast the pioneers who transformed a muddy tidewater clearing into a modern city of the first class.
Happy Birthday, Aberdeen!
Roy Vataja was born and raised in Aberdeen, the son of Finnish immigrants, and has been researching Aberdeen history for 30 years. He’s been involved with the Aberdeen Museum of History since its beginning.