Looking Back:  History of the waterways of South Snohomish County  

Shellabarger house in 1921 from the Edmonds Tribune-Review, Nov. 25, 1921. (Source: the newspaper collection at Sno-Isle Genealocal Society, Heritage Park, Lynnwood)

Recently, a reader commenting on my April 9, 2019 article, “Looking Back: South Snohomish County place names from the past,” asked how Shell Creek got its name?

In my reply to the reader’s question, I reached back to some of my own memories from well over 80 years ago, when I was a child of Edmonds — before development of the land covered over portions of the creeks by piping their flow of water underground.

Of course, since Edmonds is a waterfront town with its creeks flowing into Puget Sound, it does seem logical to assume that the naming of Shell Creek is related to sea shells. However, I don’t recall the waterfront beach or the creeks of Edmonds having any noticeable or unusual shells, and question that the Shell Creek name came from that source.

Looking back, I had a different impression regarding the naming of Shell Creek. When Seattle physician and surgeon, Dr. David Small Shellabarger moved to Edmonds in the early 1900s, he and his wife Sarah, made their home at Fifth and Walnut Streets in a two-story Victorian style house, considered as one of the finest in the town at that time. A creek flowed through their land—eventually this creek became known as Shellabarger Creek, as it is still called to this day. Although, Dr. Shellabarger maintained his medical office in the Queen Anne Hill area of Seattle, he set up his Edmonds clinic on the first floor of the Beeson Building on Main Street, where he specialized in women and children’s medical issues.

In addition to being well-liked and remembered for his medical skills, he also became active in the affairs of the city of Edmonds. Dr. Shellabarger served on the Edmonds City Council during the second decade of the 1900s—a time when there was a growing concern about the safety of the town’s water supply. Since he was a medical doctor, it seems possible that Dr. Shellabarger, as a member of the city council, may have played a significant role in keeping the town’s water quality safe for residents. In those early days, two creeks supplied water for the town. Today we know them as Shellabarger Creek to the south, and Shell Creek to the north. There can be no doubt that Shellabarger Creek was named for Dr. Shellabarger.  Could it then be possible that the name Shell Creek was a shortened version of the good doctor’s name?  That has always been my personal impression.

Dr. David Shellabarger died in Edmonds in 1932. Sarah, Dr. Shellabarger’s widow, lived in their home on Fifth Street until her death in 1941. Dr. and Mrs. Shellabarger had no children.

I have never actually seen any information regarding the naming of Shell Creek. Perhaps, minutes of the city council meetings from that time can solve the question of the origin of the name. Or maybe, some reader has a more plausible answer.

With the question concerning the origin of Shell Creek’s name in mind, and the importance of the creeks to our environment, I began thinking about the history of the names and some of the locations of many creeks in south Snohomish county.

Unlike other parts of Snohomish County further north, the land where Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Brier are situated has had no rivers. However, even though there were no rivers, small waterways in the form of creeks and their tributaries dotted the land and were important to the early homesteaders.

In Lynnwood, the small creek known as Hall Creek carries the same name as Hall Lake on 212th Street Southwest in Lynnwood’s Cedar Valley. The lake and the creek are both named for Civil War veteran and logger Riley Hall, the first homesteader to settle next to the lake — his 160 acres of land on the east side of the lake. Hall Creek drains into Lake Ballinger.

Both Lake McAleer (now known as Lake Ballinger) and McAleer Creek were named for Hugh McAleer, a native of County Tyrone in Ireland. Mr. McAleer was a pioneer logger who owned and logged land in the area, but died in 1888 at the age of 52. In order to market his logs, he floated them down McAleer Creek to Lake Washington.  The creek originates in Lake Ballinger and flows approximately six miles and then drains into the northeast corner of Lake Washington in King County, just south of Lyon Creek.

Probably one of the most important and well-known creeks in the Lynnwood area is Swamp Creek. In the early 1900s, before Alderwood Manor (now part of Lynnwood) had any official name, the people of Edmonds called the upland, about five miles east, by the name Swamp Creek. The name is probably derived from the geology of the area at that time — much of it boggy and swamp-like. Motorists of today, are sure to recognize the names Swamp Creek Interchange and Swamp Creek Park and Ride on 164th Street Southwest in Lynnwood.

During the first decade of the 1900s, when the Edmonds newspapers reported that some of the men from the town went hunting, usually for deer or bear, it was often mentioned that their destination was either Swamp Creek or Mud Lake (Lake Serene).

North of Lynnwood’s city limits, Swamp Creek flows out Lake Stickney and ends in Kenmore at the Sammamish River in King County. It then flows into Lake Washington. Much of Swamp Creek’s water comes from smaller creeks in its basin—such as Scriber Creek, which is mainly inside the city limits of Lynnwood.  Scriber Creek enters Swamp Creek near Brier.  Poplar Creek, which mostly runs near Poplar Way, just outside of the city limits of Lynnwood, enters Scriber Creek near Brier and then flows into Swamp Creek.

Swamp Creek holds childhood memories for me. When our family left Seattle and first moved to South Snohomish County in 1933, our small isolated farm was near Lake Stickney and Swamp Creek. My brothers and I soon discovered that beavers had built a dam across the creek, so we took advantage of the swimming hole that resulted from the beavers’ hard work. Along the banks of the creek, there were cattails, skunk cabbage and trilliums. After some fun at the creek on a nice summer’s day, and before leaving our private swimming hole to walk home, I would often pick a handful of the pretty trilliums for my mother.

Scriber Creek is said to be Lynnwood’s largest natural drainage system, covering approximately 3,000 acres. It flows out of Scriber Lake. Like the lake, the creek is named for Peter Schreiber, who homesteaded 160 acres of land in what is now Lynnwood — on both sides of Highway 99 — the south side of 196th Street. Schreiber Lake (renamed Scriber Lake) was part of Peter Schreiber’s 1888 homestead.

Martha Creek begins at Martha Lake, and then flows into Swamp Creek near Locust Way and Filbert Road east of Lynnwood. Martha Lake and the creek were very likely named for Martha Loughridge, wife of major pioneer landholder William Loughridge, reported by the Bureau of Land Management as once owning an 1872 land patent for 318.51 acres on the east side of the lake. After Puget Mill Company had finished logging and began developing its Alderwood Manor tracts, Martha Lake became known as Manor Lake — a name that never became popular with old-time residents, and had a short life.

Lake Serene, originally known as Mud Lake, has had problems with drainage because Norma Creek — which flows out of Lake Serene to empty into Puget Sound north of Edmonds at Norma Beach — has been constricted from land development in the area. As to the name of the creek, according to the June 12, 1996 issue of the Mukilteo Beacon, Norma Beach Boathouse and the area around Norma Beach were once owned by Norma Ganzina, a determined and hard-working immigrant bride from Italy. In 1929, Norma Ganzina first partnered with the original owner of the boat house, and then after taking over as sole owner, she continued operating her successful business until 1939.

Other waterways in the Edmonds and Meadowdale area are: Willow, Perrinville and Lund’s Gulch Creeks. In North Edmonds, Fruitdale Creek — named for the development established in 1908 — once provided the water source for residents and the orchards of the garden community of Fruitdale-on-the-Sound.

Lyon Creek is a creek with an interesting story. The Lake Forest Park website explains that the creek originates in the wetlands in South Snohomish County (Mountlake Terrace), and flows around and under the Lake Forest Park Town Center and then meets Lake Washington. When the salmon leave the Sammamish River and enter Lake Washington, Lyon Creek is the first creek mouth they encounter. According to the website, Lyon Creek is named for a family who owned lakefront properties in the late 1800s.

If you are interested in knowing about our creeks and their importance and problems in today’s world, you can learn more by searching online the creeks in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace or Brier.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.


  1. Wonderful to learn about my area’s history. Ms. Gaeng’s research brought home to me how close to the land we used to be. All the smaller water sources were originally associated to the land holder’s names. It just made sense. I remember an aunt living in what now is the Milk Creek area and we waded in neighbor Butler’s Pond. Land no longer remains in anyone’s hands for long these days and the land is divided up into smaller pieces. It’s nice to be reminded of the less populated landscape and I for one will now give more thought to the land and former owners when I drive past Martha or Scriber Lake, or any of the many other named waterways around here. Okay, maybe too, the romantic in me will sigh and muse how nice it would be to have a creek named after me.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article very much. I am familiar with the creeks mentioned. Even had a creek in my back yard on 141st in Edmonds. Thank unfor the memories.

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