As Index area residents debate the future of Sunset Falls, a scenic cascade on the Skykomish River that may be used for hydroelectric power soon, one California man spent last week remembering its past.
Sunset Falls in 1948 was a series of powerful waterfalls that dropped a quick 90 feet in elevation. Several people had fallen into it over the years; none had lived.
John Wells and his friend, Cecil Cutting, were the first.
“We survived it,” Wells said Saturday.
The Wells and the Cutting families were close friends in California, and they vacationed to the Gold Bar area together the summer of 1948.
One morning, they decided to make a trip to Sunset Falls.
“We decided to take a trip up there to see what the waterfall looked like,” said Wells, who at the age of 14 had already seen the falls before.
They worked their way up the side, over several small side streams.
“We got up into the granite outcroppings, The water had gone down, and there were some of these little potholes that had a lot of water in them,” said Wells, who just turned 80. “We were sitting in these little holes, they were two or three feet across, and there were four of us.”
On the way back, Cecil, 12, lost his footing and fell into the river.
Wells reacted quickly.
“I leaned over and tried to grab him,” he said. “And I slipped and went over.”
The next 30 seconds were a chaos of icy, churning water and hard granite.
“I remember I was not thinking about dying,” said Wells. “I was thinking that when we got to the bottom, I just wanted to get up to the surface.”
He plunged and tumbled through the violent chutes of water, finally hurtling into the calmer water below the falls.
“I came up out in the middle, which is better than being toward the falls,” said Wells. He swum for the nearest shore, and when he got there, he saw that Cecil was already on the shore, somewhat nearer the base of the falls.
Miraculously, both had survived without serious injury.
But the ordeal wasn’t over.
They were on the south side of the river, with no way to cross back to where their frantic families waited.
“We were both shivering and cold and wet,” said Wells. “We were barefoot. We tried to figure out what we were going to do.”
Wells was battered and sore from striking rocks in the water. And Cecil had a gash on the back of his head.
They had been stranded for about an hour and a half when help finally arrived.
“In those days there was a cable that ran across the river about 150 yards north of the waterfall, suspended above the water,” said Wells. “Along came this guy, and he said, ‘You guys are pretty lucky.’ He said he’d hauled people out of the river before, but they were all dead.”
He ferried both boys back to their families, who took them to Sultan for medical attention.
Wells didn’t need anything, but Cecil had to get sutures in his scalp by the light of a lamp.
One thing that puzzles Wells to this day is how the press found out about their ordeal so quickly, given that it had happened in such a remote place.
“The next morning we were having breakfast, we were right at the end of road, a dirt road, and here come these two, a reporter and photographer, up to the tent,” said Wells. “I don’t know how they found us. They asked us if we cared to go back up there.”
The reporters, who were with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, took photos of the boys by the point at which they’d plunged into the water.
“They weren’t so bad,” said Wells. “It was probably a good idea to go back up there and take a look.”
The story appeared on the front page of the Aug. 13, 1948 edition of the paper the following day.
“Two Youths Swept Over Sunset Falls, Survive Plunge,” the headline read.
It included a quote from one of the boys’ fathers.
“I saw one of them shoot off the boulders into the pond, and then emerge, swimming for the opposite shore…then the other one bobbed into sight, and struck out for shore.”
It was a while before the boys could sleep through the night, said Wells.
The pair of them went on to live productive lives, said Well’s cousin, Jim Wells, who suggested the story to the Monroe Monitor after hearing about the recent death of a man at Sunset Falls.
John Wells went on to become a psychiatrist, and had four sons of his own. Among them are a surgeon, a firefighter, a political consultant and an archeologist who has conducted digs in Greece and Turkey. Now he has grandchildren.
Cecil went to work for Kaiser Steel, married and had four children of his own. His first wife died, and he recently remarried.
“I just got an email from him; he’s in Santa Rosa” said Wells, who now lives in Arcadia, Calif. “I suggested maybe he might want to take his new bride up to see what the falls looked like.”
Wells himself visited again in 2003.
“My brother and his wife and I went up,” said Wells. “They got a road in the other side. It’s kind of nice.”
And, he noted, now there are warning signs.
“There’s a sign that says, ‘Dangerous, you might die,” he said with a chuckle.
How well he knows.