Category Archives: Frank Tom Skagit River ferryman

Frank Tom, Skagit River Ferryman

Frank Tom

Circa 1875-1949

Skagit River ferryman

When I was a child and crossed the Skagit River on the Rockport ferry in the back seat of my parents’1929 REO ‘Flying Cloud’ or huddled with my brother and sister under an old quilt on the flatbed behind the cab of Dad’s 1927 Chevrolet truck, Frank Tom was “our ferry man.” As I grew older and crossed the river to school, get the family mail, or play in the school gym, he was the omnipresent ferryman who got us safely over town and back. Since leaving the valley, Frank has become more than “the Indian” who operated Rockport ferry during the years I lived on the south side of the river. For me, he personifies transportation on the Upper Skagit River before high dams controlled floodwater; ferries were mechanized, or replaced with bridges.

Although listed as Upper Skagit-Suattle on Indian census rolls, Frank Tom was known around Rockport as a “saltwater Indian.” This notion is supported in the Washington Death Index, 1940-1996, and by June McCormack Collins in Valley of the Spirits. The first gives his birthplace as Skagit,[1] which is quite likely Skagit City, a trading post community founded on the Skagit River delta in 1863.[2] In Valley of the Spirits, Collins writes that Frank “was the direct descendant of the saltwater ‘chief,’ Patíus, of the last [19th] century.”[3] Patíus, or Pat-teh-us, was the Upper Samish Tribal signatory to the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855.[4] Additionally, the Upper Skagit and Upper Samish tribes lived in winter houses on the same tidewater sites, spoke a dialect unlike other tribes in the area, and shared prairies on which they cultivated native vegetables.[5]

According to his World War I military draft registration, Frank Tom was born on June 20, 1876.[6] In other documents, his year of birth ranged between 1874 and 1878.[7]

Tom’s physique and countenance were those of a Northwest Coast Salish male, relatively short and stocky with flat facial features. He never showed it, but he must have been very strong to winch the cable that angles the ferry in the river current for every crossing with a hand-operated windlass. Additionally, with a pike pole he pushed the ferry free from the sloping gravel river bottom of each landing into the current, an especially difficult task during low water.

Frank always spoke softly, except when shouting over the noise of the river or truck engines, telling drivers where to position their vehicles to adjust the ferry load for the river level and current speed. Never appearing bored, he operated the ferry at least one round trip an hour for just about every daylight hour, the year around, year after year, regardless of weather. Likewise, with apparent self-assurance, he transported foot passengers, automobiles, and short-log and freight trucks across the river, unless he deemed it unsafe.

Frank wore clothes similar to upriver loggers: a long-sleeved chambray work shirt and Levis held up with suspenders over “long-handle” wool underwear. Unlike loggers who “stagged” their pants, Frank turned his cuffs up.[8] I do not know if he was balding, I never saw him without his well-worn fedora. His hands must have been as calloused as shoe leather from years of operating the ferry or poling his canoe on the river without work gloves. I do not recall ever seeing him wearing any.

When he first knew Frank in 1916, Will Jenkins wrote in Last Frontier in the North Cascades, that Tom was a “renowned crafter of canoes” on the Upper Skagit.[9] Although I do not remember him in any canoe other than his shallow, snub-nosed, freighting canoe, nor recall seeing him work on any, I can still picture the racing canoes he housed in a weathered shed near his home.

To touch one of those exquisitely fashioned, sleek artifacts with their razor-edged bows raised goose bumps on young Caucasian boys. This was especially true when they sneaked into Tom’s yard and traced their fingers over the painted totems on their sides, all the time imagining that they were racing war canoes down the river.

In Valley of the Spirits, Collins describes Tom as “very knowledgeable about hunting and fishing.”[10] Although outside my memory, I cannot help but believe that a man of his generation and culture who spent his life on the Skagit River was both a seasoned hunter and fisher.

Several incidents come to mind that demonstrate Frank Tom’s sense of community and his knowledge of the river.

The earliest happened when Jenkins and his brother were young men and before Rockport was taken up with World War I. Frank crossed the river with the brothers in a “little cedar dugout” before sunup after they had spent all night at a community dance and party in Rockport, so they could hike home to their mother’s timber claim, six miles up Illabot Creek.

Another incident involved cattle rustling during World War II. Fred Martin, whose family’s homestead was 5-6 miles up the road from the ferry, drove our school bus until the end of the war. The Martins took advantage of open range laws to run their beef cattle on the logged-off land between their ranch and the first student pickup. Periodically, Fred would leave early enough to stop along the way and see where his cattle had wandered. Once in a while, usually on Mondays, he would discover a butchered animal. Frequently, the hindquarters were missing and the rest left for coyotes and other scavengers.

On these Mondays, after Fred parked our bus and chocked the wheels, he and Frank would have a private conversation outside of our hearing. We younger riders always wanted to know what they were talking about. The older ones knew. Because Frank knew every local driver, the make and model of their cars, and their travel patterns, he could tell Fred about any unusual crossings, including the county designation on each car’s license plate and other telltale signs, during the past weekend.[11] I do not know if any of these rustlers were caught. I am sure they were.

When Frank judged the river unsafe, he’d tie up the ferry on the Rockport side, walk up the hill to his county-owned cabin overlooking the landing, and watch for the river to calm down. When he thought it was safe, he would untie the ferry and in his imperturbable manner begin crossing again. To my knowledge, everyone who knew him trusted him.

Everyone, that is, except Mom. She trusted Frank all right; it was the river she didn’t trust. She was terrified the first time she crossed it in 1937; a pregnant 22-year-old with two toddlers moving into further isolation until the last time she crossed it before the bridge was opened in 1961.

One incident involved me personally. Early in the summer after my tenth birthday, my mother began sending me to Rockport, once or twice a week, to get the mail and buy as many groceries as I could carry.

When it took me far longer than it should to walk two miles, cross on the ferry, go to the store, and return home, she probably suspected that I was playing around Rockport with some of my schoolmates. What took her by surprise was Frank telling her that I was “swimming” in the river!

What actually happened is that I would often arrive at the landing and see the three or four other boys from the south side swimming in an eddy caused by a boom jutting out from the bank to divert the current and ease the ferry’s approach.

Wanting to be one of the boys, but not knowing how to swim, I would strip to my skivvies and splash around in the eddy, going out as far into the river as I could and still touch bottom. Frank was concerned that I was venturing too close to a sudden drop-off and the dangerous undertow he knew was there.

The rest of the summer, my trips over town were restricted to once a week with strict time limits. I didn’t so much as put my toe in the river because I knew that Frank was watching me.

When the river was too high and turbulent for the ferry to cross and someone on our side had an emergency, Frank was always trusted to respond in his canoe.

My brother wrote about a time during a prolonged flood that Frank came to our family’s rescue in an emergency of sorts, the particulars of which Mom didn’t know until well after the event. He canoed Dad, who couldn’t swim, and Jim, only five or six years old, over town to buy gifts at Rockport Mercantile, the only store in town, so we would have presents under our Christmas tree.[12]

Frank operated the Rockport ferry at the time he registered for the 1917 draft, and he operated it until the close of World War II.[13] For almost half-a-century, he transported those of us living or working on the south side of the Skagit River, to and from Rockport and the outside world. As a child, if you had asked me who the ferry belonged to, I would have said, “Frank Tom.”

Frank died on September 30, 1949, in Rockport on the banks of the river beside which he was born, and on which he spent his life: working, fishing, and plying his shovel-nosed canoe.

[1] Washington Death Index, 1940-1996.

[2] P. 38, June McCormack Collins, Valley of the Spirits, 1974.

[3] P. 247, ibid.

[4] Pp. 2 & 67, Chief Martin J. Sampson, Indians of Skagit County, 1972.

[5] Both the Upper Skagit and Upper Samish were Northwest Coast Salish.


[7] 1920 & 1930 U.S. Censuses, 1934 U.S. Indian Census Roll; and Washington Death Index, 1940-1996.

[8] Loggers “stagged” their pants by cutting the cuff hems off so as not to catch on limb stubs while scrambling over felled trees or through underbrush. If a “stagged” pant leg did catch, it ripped, reducing the chance of falling on the sharp tools they always carried.

[9] P. 68, Last Frontier in the North Cascades by Will D. Jenkins, Skagit County Historical Society (Mt. Vernon, WA), 1984.

[10] P. 247, ibid.

[11] Each county in Washington was assigned an alpha designation as the first character for their car license numbers according to their population when licensing was established. King County (Seattle) was A; Skagit was M, etc.

[12] Jim told this story with more dramatic detail in his unpublished memoir.

[13] WWI Draft Registration (1917-18) Record.