This Week Then: 50 Years Ago, 20,000 Hippies Converged in Washington for the Sky River Rock Festival

The event featured Santana, Grateful Dead and many more 60s legends. Plus: The time Elvis Presley performed where Bumbershoot will be held this weekend and more from this week in our state's history

By Alan Stein

At an outdoor music festival or concert, a huge audience, defocused, sits on grass awaiting the start of the performance. Focus is on the vocal microphone in the foreground.

August 30, 2018

This story was originally published at HistoryLink.org. Subscribe to their weekly newsletter.

Sky River Rock

Fifty years ago this week, on August 30, 1968, hordes of hippies descended on Sultan near the Skykomish River for the Sky River Rock Festival, one of America’s first multi-day, outdoor rock concerts. Over the next three days, approximately 20,000 fun-loving freaks frolicked to the sounds of such bands as Santana, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and It’s a Beautiful Day. When the rains came, folks danced in the mud, and when the sun came out, more than a few greeted it au naturel. It was quite a scene, man.

The festival’s genesis came earlier in the year when thousands of people gathered in Duvall to witness one of history’s strangest rites of spring — a piano hurtling downward from a helicopter hovering 100 feet above. It dropped in some slop with a spluttering plop, but the fun didn’t stop at this musical flop.

Noting the number of satisfied attendees, Paul Dorpat, publisher/editor of the Helix (and future cofounder of HistoryLink), wondered how many might show up for an actual music fest held high in the mountains. With the help of UW professor John Chambless, a plan was put into action. Various Helixcohorts assisted, including photographer Alan Lande, and Walt Crowley (also a HistoryLink cofounder), who created posters for the festival, as seen above.

The event lost money, but was so much fun that another festival was held exactly one year later in Tenino, with more than 25,000 in attendance. Two weeks before Sky River II, more than 500,000 concert-goers grooved to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in New York. Some probably weaved their way cross-country to Tenino, but their numbers are unknown. And those who did make the long, strange trip probably don’t remember much of it.

The Beat Goes On

The Sky River Rock Festivals aren’t the only musical events of note that occurred this week in Washington history. On August 31, 1951, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra performed at Seattle’s popular Trianon Ballroom in Belltown to an appreciative audience. Joining the band — and prominently featured on the building’s marquee — were two local up-and-rising musicians: trumpeter Quincy Jones and singer Janet Thurlow.

And on September 1, 1957, Elvis Presley swiveled into Seattle for a concert at Sicks’ Stadium that left many a teenage girl all shook up. The King returned to Seattle five years later on September 5, 1962, to film It Happened at the World’s Fair on the grounds of what is now Seattle Center, home to Bumbershoot, the Labor Day weekend musicfest now in its 48th year.

NEWS THEN, HISTORY NOW

Out on the Plains

On September 5, 1858, four days after winning the Battle of Four Lakes, U.S. Army troops under Colonel George Wright defeated a force of Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Palouse tribesmen at the Battle of Spokane Plains. During the fight, artist Gustavus Sohonsketched a panoramic view of the engagement, and also documented Wright’s controversial roundup and slaughter of a large herd of tribal horses three days later.

Out on a Mission

On September 3, 1838Narcissa Whitman and the wives of five other pioneer missionaries met at the Whitman mission at Waiilatpu (near present-day Walla Walla) to organize the Columbia Maternal Association, the first women’s club in the Northwest. The association lasted until 1847, when an Indian attack on the Whitman mission led to the closure of all Protestant missions in the Northwest. Whitman College, which opened in Walla Walla on September 4, 1882, was named in honor of the slain missionaries.

Out on the Town

On September 1, 1914, the Davenport Hotel opened in Spokane, providing the city with a grand hotel worthy of royalty. This week also marks the September 3, 1931, opening of Spokane’s Fox Theater, which is now known as the Martin Woldson Theaterand is home to the Spokane Symphony.

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