Gertrude Murphy, 1903-2002: With passing of last resident, mountain town dies, too

Lester without Gertrude Murphy just isn't Lester.

Mrs. Murphy first arrived in the sleepy King County logging town, just off Stampede Pass, in 1929 and immediately fell in love with it. It was in Lester she made a home with her husband, taught in the tiny one-room schoolhouse, witnessed the decline of the town and, ultimately, became its last resident.

The last tie to Lester is now gone.

Mrs. Murphy, whose maiden name was Gertrude Dowd, died Sunday of numerous ailments, including cancer, at Bethany of the Northwest nursing home in Everett.

She was 99.

Mrs. Murphy was the soul of Lester. When her small house there caught fire about 10 years ago, she received letters and phone calls from across the country for six months inquiring about her well-being.

"She liked the small-town environment and living in the mountains," said her nephew, Gene Aucourt, 50, of Everett. "She liked the quiet of the mountains. She found them extremely peaceful."

Mrs. Murphy was born in St. Paul, Minn., on June 29, 1903, to Albert and Katherine Morris. The family moved to the Kirkland area several years later.

As a child, she had to ride a horse to Lake Washington and take a ferry to Seattle to attend Holy Names Academy. She earned a teaching certificate there.

In the early 1920s, Mrs. Murphy moved to Nagrom, a small logging community near Lester, to teach in its one-room schoolhouse. There she met her future husband, Frank Murphy, but didn't marry him until 1956. Even then, it took a little help from Lady Luck.

Aucourt said the couple had been friends for years, but Gertrude based her decision to marry Frank on a coin flip. Had the coin not landed in his favor, her alternative plan was to become a nun.

The two made their first home in Lester, where Mrs. Murphy continued to teach. Her career spanned 41 years, including stints in Nagrom, Highline, Auburn and Lester.

Over the years, she saw the rise and fall of her beloved town. Lester hit its peak in the 1920s with a population of 1,000; in its heyday it was a busy railroad stop on the Northern Pacific line and home to many loggers who worked the Cascade forests. But time betrayed the town.

In the 1960s, the city of Tacoma began acquiring land around the town to protect its Green River watershed, and by the 1970s many residents had been bought out. In 1978, the last logging camp, owned by Scott Paper, closed and floods washed out much of the railroad line leading to the town.

Closing the school in 1985 spurred an exodus of those who remained; the houses they left behind were destroyed.

By 1987, Mrs. Murphy was the only one left. Living in her cottage by a creek, she became somewhat famous. She even received an invitation to appear on David Letterman's show, but he cancelled at the last minute. "She was still mad at him," Aucourt said.

But plenty of others interviewed Mrs. Murphy, reveling in her stories of the old days, the charms and simple pleasures of small-town life in the mountains.

She told one reporter, "Once, just once, I saw the fog freeze on the trees, it was so cold. It was lacy and light and feathery, just beautiful. In the fall, when the vine maples came in, they were like big bouquets all over the hills."

Another time, she said, "The river froze over in 1929. Can you imagine that? We skated on it for five weeks. Then at night, we had bonfires by the bank and toasted marshmallows." The river never froze again, she said.

She remembered the blackberries and wild mushrooms ready for picking, and how Lester residents stocked up to get through the winters: "You'd get a case of peas, a case of tomatoes, canned milk, 50 pounds of sugar and flour and you'd get through."

For the past 10 years, Mrs. Murphy spent only spring and summer in Lester. The past few years, trips became even less frequent.

Nonetheless, in 1998, she told The Times what kept her coming back. "Every year, I can't wait for winter to be over so I can get back to Lester," she said. "I'm chomping at the bit. I know the air is clear and it smells pretty."

Mrs. Murphy was preceded in death by her husband and a younger sister, Mary Elizabeth. She is survived by three nieces and nephews, 17 great-nieces and -nephews, 23 great-great-nieces and -nephews and 10 great-great-great-nieces and -nephews.

A rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Friday at Purdy & Walters, 1702 Pacific Ave., Everett. A funeral Mass will be 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, 2316 180th St. S.E., Bothell. Donations may be made to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105.

J.J. Jensen: 206-464-2386 or