Valley Voices from the Past: Before Lake Youngs There was Swan Lake

Many of you may have walked along the 9.8-mile loop around Lake Youngs, wondering what the lake looks like. Hidden amongst the trees, this large lake has a surface area of 700 acres and can reach depths of 72 feet. Since 1927 Lake Youngs has been supplying much needed water to Seattle. Before it became Lake Youngs, however, it was enjoyed by Native Americans and called bisxwuqid “where there are swans.” (Holmes, 2010).

The Native uprising of 1855 threatened the livelihood of these new settlers. The military cut a trail to the west of the lake to protect the settlers and the friendly Native Americans. A decade later during the 1867 federal land survey, crossing old Native American trails, the survey men would eventually come to a lake thick with Swans, and so, like the natives, they would name this lake Swan Lake.


Maple Valley was born of coal, timber and the love of family. During the 1880s, Cabins started to sprout up along the land above the Cedar River and trees were cleared as the first settlers carved the way for their farms. Cedar Mountain coal mines, the railroad and logging provided employment until the settlers’ farms could become established. A few settlers had ventured away from Cedar River and into the thick Wilderness. McElhoe, Ranta, Peterson and Roberts were some of the first families to settle along of the Lake (Holmes, 2010).

One of these settlers was John “Herman” Ranta. Ranta was born in Finland in 1856. At the age of 25 he would immigrate to the United States and specifically to the Washington Territory. In 1885 he would send a letter to his wife Lizzie with instructions on how to reach the 160-acre homestead along McElhoe Bay on Swan Lake. Lizzie didn’t speak English, but with her sister she would follow these instructions, crossing the Atlantic Ocean before boarding a train for San Francisco and finally taking a boat up to Seattle.

Most of Lizzie’s life would be spent in these thick woods. The woods were so thick that the only way in was a trail that even horses couldn’t use. Often alone, she would raise her four children secluded in the woods. Her only form of defense was a rifle that her husband would leave her while he spent weeks at a time away from the home, working at the Northern Pacific Railway. She even shot at a bear once when it threatened her garden.

Swan Lake was a beautiful lake. Settlers of the area would spend their summers swimming or picnicking along the lake. Lizzie’s granddaughter, Mrs. Deann Bennett, recalls learning to swim on the lake, saying that it was the most beautiful of all the lakes, complete with sandy beaches (Slauson, 1971). She also recalls walking home from school and visiting the cabin of bachelor John Brown, who often treated the children to homemade bread and fresh butter.

Swan Lake School was built in 1891 and had 15 students. The school house was also used for election, church and other public meetings. The Covington Lumber Company was created along the South East shoreline in 1901. Bowers Timber Company was formed on the northside of the lake and the Northwest Improvement Company had a coal mine for many years, even operating into the 1970s.

Ellen and Anna Peterson recall hiking to Swan Lake in the winter to get water for their wash. The spring they used in the summer was, of course, frozen. Laundry would take several days to finish and included hiking many times to Swan Lake (Kalanquin, 1977).

A logging camp was built along the lake, including 60 8-men bunkhouses and a cook house.

On Saturday nights, loggers would take a shortcut along the lake, walking on boomsticks that floated above the water, anxious to get into town and get their weekend partying started at one of the many dancehalls or saloons. However, by Sunday night they wouldn’t risk falling drunk into the lake and instead would take the long walk around the lake back to their camp (Lorenz, 1986).

By 1917, the City of Seattle saw the lake as a solution to its water shortage problem and a backup water supply in case the dam at Landsburg flooded again. They acquired properties around the lake and eventually condemned them all. On June 10, 1923, Seattle Water Department head L. B. Youngs would die. The lake would be renamed to honor him. On August 7, 1927 water flowed to Seattle from the reservoir for the first time. The era of picnicking and swimming on pristine Swan Lake had ended, the lake has become a distant memory and the swans have flown away. Only memories remain and those too are slowly fading.


1. Holmes, Craig. (February 4, 2010). Lost towns of King County: Busy Cedar Mountain of former years now is only a memory. Covington-Maple Valley Reporter.
2. Kalanquin, Diana. (February 11, 1977). Most of us are just strangers to Maple Valley; Petersen sisters have been here for 80 years! Voice of the Valley
3. Lorenz, Laura. Historical Sketch of the Greater Maple Valley Area. Card Sharks Printers, 1986.
4. Slauson, M. C. (1967). One Hundred Years Along the Cedar River. Maple Valley, WA: King County Library System.