Burlington icon a beacon in the night for half a century

BURLINGTON, Wash. - It's a tale of two cities in this Skagit County town: new strip malls beckon shoppers from Canada and beyond, while the old downtown harkens back to a time long ago.

On a hilltop overlooking it all is a landmark where old meets new: a storied marker that has roots where new development now sits; a beacon that has paid tribute to hundreds for half a century.

On a recent Wednesday, assistant fire chief Ed Tjeerdsma steered his car up the hillside en route to the marker, reflecting on how much the area had changed since he was a child.

"As kids we hiked up it," Tjeerdsma said. "The view is so great up here."

Tjeerdsma parks his car. He walks out onto perhaps the best viewpoint in the city.

And then he turns the other way.

"Whenever the city would light up the small cross, the little boy really did enjoy seeing the cross up here," Tjeerdsma says. "And it's been here ever since."

Half a century of history

The small cross was an iconic image for young Marc Beaton. The year was 1964, and Beaton, just 4 years old at the time, loved nothing more than to see the cross lit up for the holidays.

"Every time Marc saw the cross lit up, something good happened in his life," said Marc's father, Dennis. "A Christmas present, dress(ing) up for Easter, set(ting) off fireworks."

The Beatons could see the cross from their house on Highway 99 - now Burlington Boulevard, surrounded by shopping centers and noise and traffic. Back then, Dennis says, there was a cherry tree in the backyard that Marc loved to climb.

"I was just coming home (that night)," Dennis recalled. "Marc shouted, 'look where I am, dad!' And I replied, 'Boy, you're really up there.' Walked a few steps to the door of the house, turned around, and saw Marc lying on the ground, motionless."

Dennis grabbed Marc and slid him in the front seat of the car. They rushed to the hospital in Mount Vernon. But the car ran out of gas.

Dennis, desperate, couldn't flag down the first couple of cars. Finally, someone stopped.

They made it to the hospital. Dennis ran through the emergency room trying to get help.

"In this day and time, Marc probably would have survived, but (back then) they didn't have a way to relieve pressure on the brain," he said.

A year after Marc's death, his mother wrote to a local newspaper, explaining how much the cross meant to him. People started donating money to improve the cross in Marc's name, Dennis said.

From there, an effort to build a new landmark was born.

Building a beacon

'New cross atop Burlington Hill' read the headline in the Skagit Valley Herald later that year, in 1965. The image shows a crane hoisting the new, larger cross, with cables attached from above and men pulling on the ground. One appears to be wearing a business suit.

Tjeerdsma's father - who would go on to become an assistant chief in the fire department, and eventually, the mayor of Burlington - helped with the installation.

"I think about all the old firefighters I grew up as a kid seeing," Ed said last week, as he looked at the newspaper clipping in the hallway of the fire department. "It brings back a lot of histories with the names of the people that were involved at the time."

The cross is still in the same spot. The city around it has changed dramatically - its population ballooning to more than 8,400 - but the beacon remains rooted above it all.

People call every now and then asking for it to be lit - in memory of a loved one, Tjeerdsma says, or perhaps to celebrate a wedding. All of it is done by volunteers through the non-profit Burlington Firefighters Association. They have a single fundraiser every year, a pancake breakfast that raises just enough to pay for electric bills and minor maintenance.

Age and the elements have not been kind to the landmark. Some of the plastic casing protecting the aging lightbulbs is missing. Broken glass sits at the bottom. A plaque in Marc's memory was ripped off long ago by vandals, who have painted over the base, adding graffiti in different colors.

"A good wind blows (the casing) out," Tjeerdsma added, "but what's worse to me is the vandals, because that's something we can keep from happening. The weather, we can't change that."

Tjeerdsma would like to put up a fence around the cross and upgrade the lighting to modern standards. He estimates it would cost about $5,000.

"So many of these small communities are losing their legacies that whatever we can keep as far as a tradition and a legacy here, we're going to support that as long as we can," he says. "It's our responsibility to keep the history that we can here."

While some of Beaton's family has moved away, the effort to keep his legacy alive is still very visible in Burlington. For Tjeerdsma, it's personal. He lit up the landmark after his own father - the former assistant fire chief and city mayor - a few years ago.

"It made me very proud for me to be able to light it up with my father's passing," he added, his voice wavering just a bit, "so I know how important it is to other families."

"It makes life a little easier when they can look up and they know the cross is on for their loved ones."