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A History of Issaquah: From Salmon to Ivars


Salmon are big in Issaquah, a community east of Seattle that’s nestled up against the base of the Cascades. And it’s not only because a new Ivar’s Fish Bar (6150 E Lake Sammamish Pkwy SE) recently opened here.

Specimens of the iconic fish are big enough to see from the bridge over Issaquah Creek at the hatchery in town, and they also loom large in the civic life of this bustling community.

Helpful volunteers explain salmon science to hatchery visitors in Issaquah.

Issaquah is just off Interstate 90 and serves as the commercial center of a community that includes the nearby city of Sammamish, as well as the residential development at Snoqualmie Ridge.

European settlers first arrived here in the 1840s, but the area was Native American land going back for millennia. The settlers named the area between what’s now downtown Issaquah and Lake Sammamish “Squak Valley,” and the town was known for a time as Gilman, in honor of Daniel H. Gilman, who owned a coal mine and who was an early investor in the railroad where the Burke-Gilman Trail now runs from Seattle to Kenmore. In the latter part of the 19th century, the community was also known as Olney and Englewood; the name Issaquah was chosen in 1890.

Even though the population of Issaquah has grown rapidly in the past few decades along with the rest of the booming region, the downtown core retains much of its original history and unique charm.

The community’s focus on salmon is best represented by Salmon Days, an annual civic celebration and outdoor festival held in early October. With activities for all ages, plus entertainment and food vendors, Salmon Days is one of the best early autumn events in the region. 

However, Issaquah’s celebration of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous fish isn’t restricted to a single weekend, thanks to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery (125 W Sunset Way; exhibits open daily 8a-4p, grounds open daylight hours). The facility was built in 1936 and is a great place to begin a self-guided tour of the town, and to find out a thing or two about salmon. In the autumn, returning salmon draw thousands of visitors who come to view the fish ladder and learn about the science behind anadromous fish.

The hatchery in Issaquah offers a mixture of science and scenic beauty.

Helpful and enthusiastic volunteer guides are often on hand at the hatchery to explain the salmon life cycle, and to answer questions for young and old. 

“It’s about 42 miles from here through Lake Sammamish, through the Sammamish Slough, through Lake Washington [and] out through the Ballard Locks,” said a volunteer named Mike one warm and sunny day this autumn, describing the route that young salmon take after leaving the hatchery. “After that, they go out and spend about three years out in the ocean.” 

Issaquah’s salmon hatchery was originally built in 1936, and salmon return every autumn.

Pointing to the creek where dark figures the unmistakable shape of salmon were splashing in the shallow water, he continued. “So these guys are probably about three years old,” he said. “And at some point, nature says it's time to spawn, and they swim all the way back up here.” 

The hatchery grounds are dotted with interpretive signage and public art.

Another hatchery volunteer named Val says that the warm dry weather this fall that was great for human visitors was anything but ideal for the fish. 

“It's not perfect for the salmon,” she said. “They would like it cooler and wetter.”

Rain or shine, another must-see spot in Issaquah that’s just a few blocks from the hatchery is the Issaquah Depot Museum (78 First Avenue NE; open Friday-Sunday, 11a-3p). This historic structure is a restored railroad station originally built in 1889. In addition to a series of rotating displays inside that are accessible on weekends for a modest admission charge, the exterior of the depot features a collection of vintage railroad cars and vintage railroad signal equipment that are always accessible, and always free of charge.

Washington became a state in 1889, the same year that Issaquah’s original train depot was built.

The Issaquah Depot has plenty to see, including vintage railroad cars. 

Issaquah is also home to the “Edelweiss Chalet,” a unique structure that houses Boehm’s Candies & Chocolates (255 NE Gilman Boulevard; Monday-Saturday, 9a-6p, Sunday 10a-6p). The founder of the company, the late Julius Boehm, moved the factory here from Seattle in the 1950s. Boehm was born to Austrian and Swiss parents, and this inspired him to add a replica of a 12th-century Swiss chapel to the complex in the early 1980s. The chapel serves as a shrine to mountain climbers, honoring Julius Boehm’s native land as well as his love for the Cascades he “adopted” when he settled in the Pacific Northwest. Boehm’s makes all kinds of chocolates and other candies to satisfy the sweet tooth of mountaineers and lowlanders alike.

Another longtime Issaquah business is Darigold, a regional dairy cooperative that dates back to 1918 (though the operation in Issaquah goes back even further, to 1909). The plant visible along a good stretch of Front Street isn’t open to public tours, but it is something of a local visual landmark. Nowadays, Darigold makes yogurt here for distribution around the Northwest.

Issaquah has been home to what’s now the Darigold plant since 1909.

In addition to easy vehicle access from Interstate 90, Issaquah is criss-crossed by many pedestrian trails and is considered a bike-friendly community. Issaquah is also connected to King County’s Regional Trail System via the East Lake Sammamish Trail.

Issaquah is a cycle-friendly town, with gentle slopes and connections to popular road and trail routes.


Dogwalkers love Issaquah’s many trails.

For all things Pacific Northwest, there’s no better place to spend a day than Issaquah, and to keep up your energy, there’s no better place to stop for lunch or dinner than the new Ivar’s Fish Bar. 

And who knows? Like the salmon that find their way back to the hatchery, you may find that you’ll want to come back to Issaquah again, too.


All photos by Feliks Banel