One of the first inland cities in the Puget Sound region, Snohomish was built where a planned military road connecting Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham was set to cross the Snohomish River. The road, proposed in the wake of the Pig War, was intended to be built far enough inland to be safe from British naval attacks. Although the road was never completed, Snohomish quickly became a local center of commerce in the expanding region. In 1861, Snohomish County split from Island County and the Village of Snohomish was voted the county seat. It remained as such until 1897 when the county seat was relocated to the larger, yet much newer neighboring city of Everett, Washington after a controversial and contested county-wide vote.
1901 brought Snohomish the first motor car in the county. In 1903 First Street was paved with brick and when it was finished there was a three day celebration. For years afterwards the city's residents remained so proud of the street that they washed it every week with a fire hose. In 1911 a disastrous fire struck First Street and everything between Avenues B and C was destroyed. The fire began when a small blaze in the Palace Cafe on the South side of the street got out of control on Memorial Day, 1911 at about four a.m. Thirty-five business structures were put out of business, with $173,000 worth of goods destroyed. Despite the disaster the town continued to grow and by 1920 the population grew to a little over 3,000. The population would remain relatively stable for the next 40 years.
The Great Depression was not acutely felt in Snohomish because its economy was mostly agrarian with many family farms. One of the largest employers in Snohomish, Bickford Ford, was founded in 1934 by Lawrence Bickford , the dealership flourished in a period where many auto dealerships dissolved. The 1930s did bring Snohomish some national notice, however, due to baseball great Earl Averill, the only Washingtonian in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who played from 1929 to 1941, mostly with the Cleveland Indians.
The general economic malaise of the town continued throughout much of the '70s, with the downtown area given over to mostly bars and small shops. In 1973, the city adopted a Historic District Ordinance protecting historic buildings and structures from inappropriate alterations and demolitions and encouraging the design of new construction in keeping with the historic character of the district. In 1974, the Historic Business District, a 36-block area, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Larger stores moved away from First Street into newer developments and strip malls that spread out along Second Street and Avenue D.
The 1980s saw renewed vigor in Snohomish when, along with other developments, two 7-Eleven convenience stores and a McDonald's franchise opened during the first part of the decade. In 1981, Richard Pryor came to town to film parts of the movie Bustin' Loose and Snohomish received additional attention from Hollywood in the 1983 movie WarGames as the name of the high school from which the character David Lightman, played by Matthew Broderick, hacks into a military computer system. However, the actual high school used in the film is El Segundo High School in El Segundo, California.
Around 1985, the U.S. Route 2 bypass was completed, allowing the traffic which had until then been forced to pass through the town to circumvent the city. This greatly eased the gridlock which had been a part of everyday life and allowed the city to assume the more peaceful character that it has today.
In the 1990s First Street was redeveloped to take advantage of its historic buildings as a tourist attraction. The sidewalks were rebuilt and public restrooms added in order to further serve the community and visitors. The city hall and police station were moved away from First Street and a new fire station was built, allowing those historic buildings to be renovated as well.
Today, Snohomish is very much a model of how cities can reinvigorate their business districts by preserving their historic charm. The town has continued to grow with much of the development spread out along the former route of Route 2, now known as Bickford Avenue. The city has nurtured a great balance between regular businesses in modern facilities which serve the community and specialty shops in the historic part of town to serve the tourist trade.