Concrete, on the Columbia River Highway about forty miles south of the Canadian border must contend with its name, which suggests smokestacks and big ugly buildings. And in fact the first sign of the town on SR 20 heading east is a fortress-like cluster of concrete silos that used to hold cement powder for aging by the long-closed Superior Portland Cement plant. The words “Welcome to Concrete” are emblazoned across it in big red letters, but these hospitable words were added when the town was used as a location for a 1993 film, This Boy’s Life, a dreary tale about a boy growing up in an industrial town where he was mistreated by his stepfather.
It all sounds like a place to speed past, especially if you are traveling east and some of the most glorious scenery in the United States lies just ahead. And Concrete is in truth an odd little place, combining small town atmosphere with big deeds and big ambitions. Even now with the concrete and timber industries folded, it’s got pride and heart.
It’s physical setting could hardly be lovelier. The Baker River pours into the Skagit here, and just a few miles east, hundreds of bald eagles gather on the Skagit from November into early March to feed on spawned chum salmon. Deep green forest presses around the town, and a few miles away, Shannon and Baker Lakes change in color and light with the seasons from misty gray-green to sharp blues and greens in summer.
History: Concrete has its origins in a man named Peg Leg Everett, one of the area’s earliest settlers. Everett was looking for gold, but instead found on his property large deposits of limestone, clay, gravel and sand, the crucial ingredients for concrete, which might be considered gold of another sort in a nation that was building roads, bridges and dams.
The Concrete cement plant supplied half the cement needed for Grand Coulee Dam, and many others. Discharge from the cement plant rained on the city depositing a film of cement powder that in the wet winters turned to something like concrete. Automobile owners were said to clean their vehicles of the brittle mess with hydrochloric acid and housewives fought unsuccessfully to keep the powder from slipping inside their homes.
Concrete and environs, however possessed another industry more valuable than cement, and that was hydroelectric energy. The Baker River flows from snows deposited on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan and in 1925, the company that is now Puget Sound Energy completed a 285-foot-high, 550-foot-long concrete dam within the city limits of Concrete that at the time that was the highest concrete hydroelectric dam in the world. In 1959, Upper Baker Dam was completed, at 312 feet in height. The two dams generate enough power to supply total power needed of 60,000 households.
Concrete’s fortunes began to fail in 1968 when the cement plant closed and was demolished. Later, the lumber mills in the area also shut down. And so in the midst of these scenic and earthen riches, Concrete hangs on, filled with community spirit but lacking a secure wage base.
What to Do: Town promoters waggishly have devised a list of “62 Fun things to do in and around Concrete. Among them is, “Stop at State Bank of Concrete’s new cash machine before your Main Street Shopping Spree.” But there’s more than this, and it doesn’t take long to search it out. Fred West, a yacht broker, and his wife, Valerie Stafford, a hospital executive , moved back to Concrete a few years ago and bought the Concrete Theater where they show first run movies on weekends. Up the street, The Hub is a lively place, with a great big pool tables, a long bar and loud music from Credence Clearwater days. Across the street from the Hub is the Hi Lo Country Café, and down the street the Hi Lo Country Hotel. The town also has a monthly newspaper, the Concrete Herald, an airport, and a dam inside city limits. The dam, which resembles a small version of Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, shouldn’t be missed.
Very quickly in Concrete visitor can learn the politics of the place. One suggestion is to visit a city council meeting on the second and fourth Mondays of every month. It’s a good place to take in what’s going on in town, and little bits of gossip like the person who doesn’t keep up their plot in the community gardens and as a result its going to seed, which then infects neighboring plots. This may sound minor, but it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that things like this are what real life is really about.
Eat and Stay: The Hi Lo Country Café serves good breakfasts and the recently renovated Hi Lo Country Hotel just a few doors down is an excellent value. The best dinner in town is served at Annie’s Pizza, about a mile beyond the city center on SR 20. Owner Anne Bussiere came to town in the 1960s as “a hippie wannabee” and worked for weekly newspapers until she and her husband bought a pizza business. They also serve calzone, pasta and sandwiches.