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How About A 'Sumas Festival of the Swifts'?

Old Customs House Cruises to New Home

swifts.jpg (8901 bytes)THE SWIFTS are in for a couple of surprises when they return to Surnas this summer.

First off, the U.S. Customs Building that has been the seasonal home to thousands of Vaux's swifts for a half century has moved down the street.

This may cause some consternation among the swifts, but everyone expects them to adjust quickly. Old-timers recall that the little grey birds used to congregate in the old Swail Hotel across the street before moving up to the Customs house.

The saga of how the building was preserved is necessarily a long one, for it was on the brink more times than The Perils of Pauline. At various points there were plans to move the handsome old brick structure to the City Park, behind the Barkerville, and off to a 16-acre site near the Jones Rd.

Demolition was also a real possibility. In fact, it was the probably the odds-on favorite, especially after the federal General Services Administration ordered the building torn down this past spring.

What made the difference in the end was the Sierra Legal Defense Fund threatening to sue if GSA proceeded with its plan to demolish the building, and someone finally coming forward who was both willing and able to move the structure.

That person was Clifford Moon, of Moon Construction Co. in Seattle. At one point last spring, Moon, who was the low-bidder to move and/or demolish the building both, said he couldn't live with himself if he tore the building down.

As a result, he retailored his bid to move the building twice, and ultimately took $70,000 less than he figured he needed for the job.

* * *

All the preliminary drama was quickly overshadowed, however, once the building hit the road.

With its brick walls, concrete foundation, slate roof, and copper gutters, the old lady tipped the scales at a traveling weight of 714 tons.

All this was carried on eight dollies front and rear, each with eight wheels, for a total of 128 tires, which were steered by the inventor, Marvin Schmitt. The power to move all this was provided by one heavy oil-rig truck which was cabled to the building and its brace trucks via eight pulleys. Talk about a heavy block-and-tackle!

The whole affair made a marvelous picture going down the street in the middle of the night, all light up and empty like the Flying Dutchman or some sort of ghost ship out of the fog. I couldn't help thinking of Art Moe, Bill Waddell, and other departed Sumas border guards.

The only difficulty of any sort occurred late on Saturday afternoon when the lead 16 wheel sunk a foot or more into the soft soil at the edge of the road, where they ruptured the water main to the American Legion Hall. The next morning, the movers, J.W. Dent & Co., also of Seattle, overcame the problem by hydraulically retracting the sunken wheels, placing steel plates underneath, and then re-extending the wheels.

The building then rolled on to its new home without further incident.

* * *

The second surprise that awaits the swifts when they return to town this spring is more human attention.

The Audobon Society is planning to erect a commemorative plaque, which may possibly include a sculpture of the birds. In addition, it appears that space will be available in the building for an interpretive center.

These are all heartening developments, but we'd like to see more. What about a Sumas Festival of the swifts? The swifts are a genuine attraction in the age of eco-tourism, and they are special to Sumas. Why use them to build the community, commerce, and a positive environmental ethos?

We hope we see the first annual Sumas Festival of the Swifts in 1991.

* * *

Among the many local folks who helped save and move the old Customs building, Larry Marion, Frances Baker, Augie Kooistra, Paul O'Neill, John Romberg, Larry Harvey, Bob Mitchell, Rod Fadden and Ann Eissinger deserve special kudos.

-- Bruce Brown

Reprinted from the December 1990 Sumas Astonisher


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