Pacific Northwest
Hamilton’s colorful welcome sign features the Skagit River. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Floods have ravaged Hamilton for over a century. Can outsiders persuade the town to move?

HAMILTON, Skagit County — Mayor Joan Cromley crossed over a backwater slough, chatting with a Seattle conservationist on a tour of her town, when a noise blared, shrill as a car alarm.

Cromley pulled out her cellphone. It’s an orca call, she explained, silencing its shriek and continuing to showcase the flood-prone town of Hamilton, population 300.

Startling as it was, the ringtone is a reminder of her town’s connection to the beleaguered southern-resident killer whales.

The Skagit River carves past the town, and chinook salmon, local orcas’ favorite food, swim by Hamilton each year as youngsters, before spilling into Puget Sound.

Chinook numbers have dwindled, and scientists fear the southern-resident killer whales are on the brink.

Now, Hamilton — proud and tight-knit even after the mines shut down, the logging jobs largely disappeared and the sawmill shuttered — is at a crossroads also.

Cromley and conservationists want to take an extraordinary step: Move her rural town. Seattle-based nonprofit Forterra, which specializes in environmental conservation and sustainable community development, recently purchased 45 acres adjacent to the town’s boundary.

Forterra is pitching a heady vision: Develop and move residents to a new, low-carbon, low-waste village with a slew of eco-friendly amenities not typically found even in large cities.

Perhaps most attractive, the site is above the reach of Skagit River floodwaters that have left Hamilton, at times, submerged up to its street signs.

Moving people out from the river’s flood plain would allow the restoration of crucial salmon habitat, conservationists say.

Hamilton, a rural town of 300 people along the Skagit River, has regularly flooded since its founding. Now, with the help of Seattle-based nonprofit Forterra, the mayor hopes to relocate the town to higher ground. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

Can the mayor, and Forterra, convince people that leaving their homes will save the town, and also help salmon and orcas? Will flooding — projected to worsen with climate change — force the issue?

But scrappy Hamilton has persisted through disasters, economic recessions and decades of politicians saying they would move it. Many homes are raised on cinder blocks. People have adapted to its challenges.

It’s home.

Community and torment on the Skagit

Cromley, 49, who was fascinated with orcas by middle school, began aiming for the Northwest when she was a teenager in Pennsylvania coal country. She and her husband moved to Hamilton in 2002 “looking for something inexpensive to make our own.”

Hamilton greets visitors with a colorful sign featuring a cheery visage of the Skagit River, its sometime tormentor, and a reminder the town was established in 1872.

Historically, members of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe built temporary fishing villages here, said Scott Schuyler, a member of the tribe and its natural-resources director. Temporary was sensible: 80% of the town is within the river’s flood plain.

Hamilton now features a town hall that doubles as a pioneer museum, post office, bar, cafe, food bank and Baptist church.

The town hall, a century-old house that smells like old books, is raised so high off the street that visitors must zigzag up a four-level ramp to enter. Black and white photographs inside document the economic booms that swelled Hamilton’s pop

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