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When Martians invaded Concrete

It's been 71 years since the famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast ... and the panic that overtook a little Skagit County town.

Orson Welles directs The Mercury Theatre in 1938

Orson Welles directs The Mercury Theatre in 1938

The Oct. 30, 1938, broadcast of "War of the Worlds" by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air caused panic around the country, as more than a million people believed they were hearing real news bulletins describing a Martian invasion, rather than a cleverly disguised radio play.

While the infamy of that broadcast lives on worldwide, many people around this area don’t remember that one of the most infamous episodes of public panic happened in the town of Concrete, 90 minutes north of Seattle on SR 20 in Skagit County.

Concrete is a fascinating city for so many reasons. It’s been a hard-luck place as long as I can remember — long before the eponymous concrete plant closed, and years before it was immortalized by the Tobias Wolf book This Boy’s Life and the subsequent film, much of which was shot in Concrete, creating a short-lived renaissance for the little town in the early 1990s.

My family used to camp every year at nearby Baker Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and no camping trip was complete without a visit to Concrete, to tour its depressed streets and stop at Albert’s Serve-U to buy comic books, candy bars, and other wilderness essentials. Our devotion to Concrete was so great, I remember one August in the early 1970s when my parents even bought me new Keds for first grade from the old Concrete Department Store. Growing older meant no longer camping with my folks, of course, but I still couldn’t stay away from the place. As a college student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I took friends to Concrete and we poked around the many abandoned buildings, including the headquarters of the concrete plant. We pored over old employee records from the 1930s, and I plucked a calendar from the wall (it read “Morse Hardware Bellingham” and “April 1969”). It was as if a neutron bomb had vaporized all the people and left the whole place — right down to the calendar on the wall — intact.

It was like a bomb of a different sort that hit Concrete during the War of the Worlds broadcast 71 years ago today. On that dark autumn Sunday evening, an ill-timed thunderstorm, transformer explosion and power failure — taking place in the middle of the program as heard on KIRO and KVI — conspired to send Concrete residents running through the streets in panic in spite of a heavy downpour. Owing to the power failing just as listeners heard New York destroyed by aliens (via the facilities of the CBS Radio Network and its affiliated stations, as they used to say), the folks in Concrete can be forgiven for taking the panic a bit more seriously than most.

Just about every book ever written about the "War of the Worlds" broadcast mentions what happened in Concrete, so when I was producing a radio documentary for KBCS-FM back in 2003 for the 65th anniversary of the broadcast, I decided to see if I could find anyone in the little town who’d actually witnessed the tumult.

Several calls to the historical society and the senior center, among other places, led to a lot of dead ends — mainly folks too young to remember the show. I can’t remember how, exactly, but I finally was directed to Albert Frank (the Albert in Albert’s Serve-U, I was pleased to learn) who was then 89 years old. He was more than happy to talk with me.

“We were coming home from Everett,” driving back from an errand with a friend, Frank told me. “We hit into Concrete about the time of that lightning and thunderstorm, and people were kinda wandering around and yellin’ and screamin’ and we couldn’t figure out what was going on.“

Then, Frank said, they saw a woman who was obviously in a state of panic. “Here comes this woman out of the house there, yellin’ that the world was comin’ to an end. She was watchin’ Orson Welles' movie [sic] in the house, it was on radio and it scared her.”


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Oct 31, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Ah, the Hearst press, lecturing radio and citing "the hysteria that followed Sunday’s dramatization" as proof of irresponsible broadcasting.

That, of course, would be totally different from the hysteria the Hearst press engendered about the 'Yellow Peril'. It would be different from the relentless anti-Mexican Hearst press of the thirties, creating widespread hysteria about Mexicans 'crazed' by marijuana. It would be different from the anti-Japanese hysteria to come.

Truly, there was no 'Golden Age' of journalism. Or maybe the gold is yet to come- when the sun finally sets on the daily paper.

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