From Squak to Gilman to Olney to Issaquah

February 23, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

City has had multiple names in its 118-year history

Everybody wonders about the name, the jumble of vowels and consonants joined by Q-U, and almost unpronounceable to outsiders: Issaquah. But the tale behind the name — and the names Issaquah had before city fathers picked Issaquah — brings up almost as many questions.

The first white settlers reached the area now known as Issaquah in the mid-1860s. Because officials incorporated the town a few decades later — and changed the name a few years hence — questions still arise about when, exactly, Issaquah was founded.

How about 1862, when the first settlers arrived? How about 1892, when the town incorporated as Gilman? Or, why not 1895, when the Legislature approved the latest name, Issaquah?

The confusion even inspired a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! riddle. “Four members of the Cowell family all were born in the same house but in different towns,” the brainteaser begins.

Huh? The answer to the riddle can be traced to star-struck settlers, a confused postmaster and lawmakers in Olympia.

Settlers trickled into the verdant Squak Valley in the mid-1860s. The fertile valley, hemmed by the mountains now known as the Issaquah Alps, held — on clear days, at least — spectacular views of Mount Rainier to the south. Farmers grazed dairy cattle and grew hops bound for Seattle breweries in the rich soil.

The soil yielded another treasure in the late 1800s: coal. Deposits beneath the settlement, known then as Squak, transformed the pastoral landscape. A muddy, rough-and-tumble mining camp grew.

Gilman, as Issaquah used to be known, incorporated April 29, 1892. The early residents cast a decisive vote to incorporate the rugged outpost as a city: 61 residents in favor, 31 opposed.

Leaders named the town for Daniel Hunt Gilman — as in boulevard, as in Burke-Gilman Trail — a founder of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway, a key link between the mining town and points beyond. Although Gilman never lived in the town, residents named the hamlet for him to honor the role the railroad played in the development of the town.

The town became the fourth incorporated city in King County; there are 39 cities nowadays.

But residents’ decision to name the city after Gilman could have been motivated by other factors, too.

“If I was going to live in an incorporated town called Squak, I’d probably want to change the name myself,” longtime Issaquah resident Linda Hjelm said.

Not long after the town incorporated, however, problems arose with the new name. Gilman looked a lot like Gilmer, a settlement in Klickitat County. Mail bound for Gilman instead reached Gilmer.

Issaquah History Museums Director Erica Maniez said a postmaster proposed a stopgap solution. Mail addressed to Gilman should instead be addressed to Olney, Wash.

Why Olney? Maniez said the postmaster at the time hailed from Olney, Ill. Recycling the name for Gilman seemed to work — for a while. Mail sent to Olney indeed arrived in Gilman, but the confusion prompted questions from town leaders about perhaps finding a new name for the city.

By the late 1890s, the name-change movement had gained momentum. In February 1899, the precursor to the modern-day City Council sent a petition to the Legislature asking for the city and the post office to rename Issaquah. City fathers carried the petition to lawmakers in Olympia, where the Legislature switched the name.

The word Issaquah, Maniez said, means “the sound of water birds” in the language of the American Indians native to the region.

The years ahead contained more confusion about what to call the town. The name even remained unchanged in some old city records until the early 1900s, when someone finally crossed out Gilman and replaced the moniker with Issaquah.

Issaquah — the former Olney, the former Gilman, the former Squak — celebrated 100 years in 1992. On the anniversary of the day the town was founded — as Gilman.

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