Wilkeson -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Norberg
  • Posted 11/06/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21132

The town of Wilkeson is located in Pierce County some 20 miles directly southeast of Tacoma. Starting in the 1870s, coal mining fueled the town's rise, was a predominant force in its history, and continues to cast a long shadow over the town. Other resource industries, including logging and sandstone quarrying, helped propel development, and Wilkeson sandstone is found in prominent buildings throughout the state. Although the area's last coal mine closed in 1972, quarrying continues in the twenty-first century and Wilkeson retains a keen sense of its history and takes pride in being a gateway to Mount Rainier National Park.

A Complicated Geological History

Coal in Western Washington formed from deposits laid down during the Eocene Epoch. Roughly 50 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean covered much of the region, and the Wilkeson area was a coastal swamp. Plants in those swamps likely turned into peat that became coal after it was buried and exposed to heat and pressure. In Pierce County large coal beds, sometimes referred to as the Puyallup River Coal field or Wilkeson-Carbonado-Fairfax field, stretch from South Prairie to Ashford.

Coal is typically ranked into four general categories. Anthracite is the best grade, followed by bituminous, sub-bituminous, and lignite. Higher-ranked coals have more carbon and fewer impurities and burn hotter. Wilkeson's coal fields, like those of Pierce County in general, contained mostly bituminous coal of varying quality. Younger, upper beds typically contained more ash than older, lower beds. This coal was suitable for a wide variety of purposes, including home heating, steam generation, blacksmithing, and production of coal gas for lighting. Additionally, the Wilkeson-Carbonado-Fairfax region was one of the few West Coast sources of coal that could be processed into coke, a product that burns at high temperatures and was frequently used in smelting.

The Cascade mountain range formed after the coal beds took shape and its formation disrupted the Wilkeson-Carbonado-Fairfax deposits. As the mountains grew, they lifted and folded the beds into steep arches and depressions, referred to as anticlines and synclines. The angle of these arches varied. Some coal seams were moved into a nearly vertical orientation, and they ran at an angle of about 60 degrees on average. Joseph Daniels (1884-1965), a professor of mining engineering at the University of Washington, explained that the folding process "changed the rank of the coal to high-volatile A bituminous and low-volatile bituminous" and even semi-anthracitic grades "in a few isolated locations," but the steep, irregular slope of the beds greatly complicated mining and made conditions in Wilkeson "very different from those in other parts of the country and the world" (Daniels, 65-66).

Rise of the Coal and Coke Industries

Long before non-Natives arrived, members of the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot tribes fished and hunted game, and cultivated and harvested berries and other plant resources in the foothills surrounding the future site of Wilkeson and along the northern and western flanks of Mount Rainier. But it was a different resource, the area's coal beds, that attracted the attention of newly arriving settlers in the mid-nineteenth century.

Prospectors first found coal in the Wilkeson area in the 1860s, roughly a decade after Washington's first coal mines opened near Bellingham. In 1862 or 1863, a Mr. Van Ogle found coal along the Puyallup River but did not file a claim. By some accounts, he found so much that he concluded that a claim would not be of value. Morton Matthew McCarver (1807-1875), one of Tacoma's founders and boosters, traveled to the Puyallup coal field in 1868 and commented in a letter that the coal he found "burns freely, can be lit with a candle, makes no clinkers, and leaves an ash as white as that of wood" (Daniels, 17). He kept his find a secret, for the time being, to prevent a mineral rush. Three years later, he took samples to Portland for analysis and stopped in Olympia where he showed them to journalists. They predicted that "a mine of immense wealth for the fortunate possessors" would result if tests showed the coal to have value (Daniels, 18).

In 1874, brothers William Harvey Flett and David James Flett, along with their brother-in-law John Gale (1829-1907), found coal on Gale Creek. They claimed 320 acres of land, built a simple road from the mine to South Prairie, where John Flett (1815-1892), their father and father-in law, had a homestead, and tunneled at least 50 or 60 feet into the hillside. They hauled the coal they mined to Tacoma by wagon where it sold for $21 a ton. Limited transportation constrained their operation, and it soon closed.

The struggling Northern Pacific Railway (NP) opened more-significant mining operations in 1877. The federal government had chartered the railway in 1864 and granted it up to 61 million acres of land to facilitate construction. As the line progressed, it claimed one-square-mile sections of land along its right-of-way and ultimately acquired title to some 39 million acres.

By 1876, the company was desperately short on funds and sent Walter S. Sheaffer, a mining engineer, to investigate the Puyallup coal field. He reported favorable opportunities and encouraged the company to acquire land there to "fully open and develop this important … and interesting coal field" (Daniels, 29). The Northern Pacific started work on a 31-mile branch line to Wilkeson that winter, and construction allowed the railway to claim new tracts containing valuable coal deposits. The line opened in November 1877, along with a post office, which the postmaster named for Samuel Wilkeson, a secretary of the Northern Pacific who surveyed the region in 1869.

The first trainload of Wilkeson coal arrived in Tacoma on November 30, 1877, but the press cast doubt on the company's prospects. The writers of Olympia's Washington Standard agreed the coal was of excellent quality, but they concluded that the "difficulty experienced in mining it" along with the "cost of placing it in the market" would prevent the company from successfully competing with other mines in the region ("Puyallup Coal").

Rival companies soon joined the Northern Pacific. In 1878, Edward Slade "Skookum" Smith (1828-1886), a former NP manager, organized the Tacoma Coal Company. Smith opened a mine and around 1880 launched Wilkeson's coking industry. To produce coke, coal was baked for 48 to 72 hours to remove impurities. The company first did so in simple 4-foot-deep pits, and then built two brick beehive-shaped coke ovens in 1885. Operators loaded some five tons of coal into the six-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide ovens through a hole in the top and removed finished coke from openings in the side. By 1887, 30 ovens produced 1,000 tons of coke a month, and in late 1888 another 50 were under construction. The Ryan smelter in Tacoma purchased a significant amount of the output and used it to refine lead, gold, and silver.

While the renamed Tacoma Coal and Coke Company flourished in the late 1870s, the Northern Pacific mines fell on hard times. After spending $600,000 on the branch line to Wilkeson and at least $70,000 on mining equipment and labor, the company "shut down their mine in disgust" in 1879 ("Puyallup Coal Mines"). The Vancouver Independent explained that the company had launched the work without conducting an effective survey and wasted money on "costly blundering experiments," noting that small, independent outfits were finding success, with "competent experts" reporting an abundance of good, accessible coal "if the right means" were employed to extract it ("Puyallup Coal Mines").

Geologists Bailey Willis (1857-1949) and George Otis Smith conducted the first extensive scientific surveys of the Wilkeson-Carbonado-Fairfax coal field in the early 1880s. They dug test pits, collected samples for analysis, documented 700 cross sections of coal seams in Wilkeson, produced maps, and generally did the exploratory work necessary to facilitate more successful ventures.

At least two more companies tried to establish themselves in the 1880s but failed to gain traction. Henry Villard's Oregon Improvement Company bought land in 1881 and opened operations in 1883 but closed at the end of the year, which some saw as a "death blow" for the town ("Closing Up …"). Then in 1887 a company organized by prominent Tacoma business leaders W. D. Tyler (1849-1916), Charles Masterson, and Theodore Hosmer (1844-1900), along with experienced miner George Driver, obtained a 20-year lease from the Northern Pacific for land just 300 yards away from the Tacoma Coal and Coke mine. The complicated geology of the region, however, frustrated their efforts.

The Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company, led by Chauncey W. Griggs (1837-1910) and Henry Hewitt Jr. (1840-1918), began to form in 1888 and eventually became the dominant force in town. After organizing the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company and acquiring 80,000 acres of timber from the Northern Pacific, Griggs and Hewitt entered into mining. They secured a 99-year lease from the NP, formed agreements with Tyler and his associates, and expanded as the Tacoma Coal and Coke Company closed in the mid-1890s.

Coal and coke output increased dramatically. Wilkeson mines produced 91,000 tons of coal in 1892 and yields soared to 116,148 tons by 1899. The company added new washing equipment to accommodate production and replaced the aging coke ovens with entirely new batteries. At least 100 ovens were in use by 1902, and, at its peak, the company maintained a 160-oven battery. Despite the increases, a glowing article in 1912 commented that the mines amounted to "mere surface scratchings," suggested workers were just hitting "the real veins," and contended that the reserves seemed "almost inexhaustible" (Darwin).

Labor Unions and Racial Strife

Frustrated by long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions, workers in Wilkeson's mines, sandstone quarry, and forests were often drawn toward socialist politics. They joined labor unions and repeatedly went on strike in efforts to improve their circumstances. Local newspapers reported on numerous labor struggles from the mid-1880s through major strikes that paralyzed the region after World War I.

At times, labor-organizing efforts overlapped with racist violence by white workers against minorities who they viewed as competitors for jobs. In 1885 and 1886, the anti-Chinese movement hit a peak in Washington. Like mobs in Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere in the region that forcibly expelled entire communities of Chinese Americans, white workers forced the relatively few Chinese residents of Wilkeson to leave town.

Another wave of racial violence swept through the region in 1891 when the Oregon Improvement Company, in an effort to undermine the unions, recruited African Americans to work mines in Franklin, near Black Diamond. When white miners in Franklin went on strike, workers in Wilkeson sided with them and issued a resolution that "condemned" African Americans as "unworthy the association of the whites" ("The Miners' Fight"). Some white workers relocated to Wilkeson after being fired from Franklin. Later that summer T. B. Corey, Superintendent of the Oregon Improvement Company, visited Wilkeson on business. Locals recognized him and a mob of 300 to 400 drove him from town at gunpoint. In the aftermath, the Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company fired some 100 miners who were then barred from working at any mine in Pierce or King county.

More than Just a Coal Town

Although life in Wilkeson largely revolved around coal and coke, other natural-resource industries, like logging, developed alongside mining. McDougal and Jackson Logging established a camp and skid road in 1890. Three years later the Mason County Journal commented on a St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company camp at Wilkeson where 72 men turned out 70,000 feet a day for the company's mills in Tacoma. Additionally, the Tacoma Lumber and Manufacturing Company maintained a Wilkeson camp, and the International Spar Company shipped logs from the area to its yard in Seattle where they were processed into spars and masts for ships.

Sandstone outcroppings on the southeast side of Wilkeson created additional opportunity. As early as 1881 one writer suggested the stone could be "very valuable" as the nearby railroad tracks would ease transportation while stone for piers, quays, and buildings would be in high demand throughout the region ("A Trip ..."). Early in the 1880s Charles Wright (1822-1898), a former president of the Northern Pacific, commissioned construction of St. Luke's Church in Tacoma from Wilkeson sandstone as a memorial to his wife and daughter, and the Wilkeson quarry opened fully in 1886. Other notable structures built from Wilkeson sandstone include the Pierce County Courthouse, Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle, the federal building in Everett, Lincoln and Stadium high schools in Tacoma, the downtown branch of the Tacoma Public Library, and much of the Washington State Capitol campus including the capitol dome.

Finally, the area's scenery and its proximity to Mount Rainier opened the door to tourism. As he surveyed the region, Bailey Willis built a trail to Spray Park on the mountain's northwest slopes, worked on efforts to study Rainier's glacier system, and launched the campaign for a new national park in 1893. The Puget Sound Argus had noted in 1883 that a horse trail was "being cut ... for the convenience of tourists" who rode the train to Wilkeson intending "to ascend the grandest mountain of the Pacific Slope" ("New Tacoma"), and hopes for the tourism industry grew when Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899. Roads increasingly supplanted rails, and local residents celebrated when a 200-foot-high bridge over the Carbon River canyon opened in 1921, improving access to the park's northwest corner.

A Thriving Town

Wilkeson grew into a thriving, diverse community as the region's industries flourished, and the town incorporated in 1909. While some 1,700 lived in the larger area, the federal census of 1910 counted 899 residents in the newly incorporated town. Some 400 worked in the mines, with roughly half having immigrated from countries including England, Wales, Scotland, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Germany, France, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, and Russia. In Wilkeson, they established numerous institutions to maintain social ties and serve their communities, including a Slavonian lodge, founded in 1891, and Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Presbyterian, and Orthodox churches.

Wilkeson was partially a company town, but the Northern Pacific did not dominate its existence. The railroad owned the area known as "uptown," south of the tracks, which included a company store, company-owned housing, a hotel, baseball diamond, post-office, and school. A striking, two-story sandstone school replaced the original wooden structure in 1913 and still stood in 2020. "Downtown," north of the tracks, was privately owned and consisted of homes, independent stores, a cooperatively owned store in the Slavonian Society building, a bank, the Wilkeson Light and Power company, and other establishments. Additionally, miners collectively organized and operated the Wilkeson Medical Association to provide care to its members.

Pivotal Strikes

A new round of labor unrest began in November 1919, resulting in pivotal strikes that ultimately broke the unions. Wilkeson's miners, members of the United Mine Workers (UMW), joined a nationwide strike in an effort to improve wages. In response, the Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company hired nonunion workers, mostly World War I veterans, to keep operations running. Although the strike came to a negotiated end in mid-December, the company refused to take 125 of the striking miners back. Conflict erupted, the UMW appealed to the federal government to intervene, and the company urged Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) to send in troops. Hart refused, but the lockout dragged on until August 1920 when the company finally agreed to take the workers back under a union contract. In the end, only 30 of the 125 returned.

The peace was short-lived, as companies cut wages and sparked another major strike in the spring of 1921. Washington coal companies argued they were losing revenue "on every ton of coal mined and sold" and insisted that an average 23 percent pay cut was necessary to keep the industry solvent ("No Change ..."). Miners, backed by the UMW, walked out in April. By the end of summer, companies reopened with nonunion workers, brought in extra guards, and won an injunction that prevented strikers from "picketing the mines, roads, streets, hotels, and school buildings in Wilkeson" and forbade them from "assaulting, beating or using any abusive language" against the company's replacement workers ("Miners Enjoined ..."). The strike continued through all of 1922, finally ending in a severe defeat for the UMW in June 1923. Peter Murphy, a participant in the strike, recalled the miners "fought twenty seven months against overwhelming odds" but lost, were placed on blacklists, and "not hired back" ("A Miner's Memories").

Decline and Hopes for Revival

Pierce County coal output increased as the strikes came to an end but never recovered to the highs of the early 1910s. In 1913, Pierce County mines produced a total of 856,425 tons of coal. By 1925, yields had fallen to slightly more than 400,000 tons. They continued to decline with the onset of the Great Depression and utterly collapsed after 1936. A mere 55,032 tons were mined in 1937, and production never again broke the 50,000-ton mark despite a brief resurgence during World War II.

Perhaps more than anything else, the rise of the oil industry led to coal's decline. As early as 1913, The Seattle Times commented that coal mining was suffering because "Puget Sound steamers and the railroads" had "adopted petroleum for fuel," noting that they preferred gasoline due to "the cleanliness of the liquid fuel" and that railroads running through forests saw it as reducing the chance of starting forest fires ("Coal Output ..."). In an effort to revive the coal industry, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company compared the efficiency of coal and oil in its locomotives in 1935 and demonstrated that coal cost $4 less per day. The report, however, had little effect.

A shift toward the use of electricity similarly undermined the coke industry. Instead of using coke as a fuel, smelters increasingly employed electric furnaces. Washington companies produced a high of 98,644 tons of coke in 1916, but output fell to 582 tons in 1931 and no coke was produced in Washington in 1937.

Competition also posed a challenge. Coal mining in other parts of the country was simpler and required less overhead. Wilkeson's complicated geology, the steep slope of its coal seams, and the costs involved in transporting coal from mine faces to railroads simply made Wilkeson coal less competitive in the marketplace.

As production fell, the Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company (renamed simply the Wilkeson Company) adopted a new operating model. Instead of working its own lands, it started leasing them out to other companies, many run by former employees. By 1936, the Wilkeson Company's direct operations had almost entirely fallen silent.

The onset of World War II spurred an intense demand for natural resources and briefly revived mining prospects. The Wilkeson Company, in partnership with others, formed the Wilkeson Products Company and applied for funding from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1942. The federal government approved the application and, through the Defense Plant Corporation, gained a stake in the mines. Wilkeson Products built a coke plant in Tacoma and opened a new shaft at Wilkeson named the Skookum Slope in honor of Edward "Skookum" Smith. It closed in November 1944 after producing at least 39,744 tons.

After the war, the War Assets Administration put the mine up for sale. Advertisements explained that bidders would gain control of 2,080 acres, the company's buildings and equipment, and the Tacoma coke plant. "Rights to the coal, estimated at a reserve of 100,000,000 tons," however, were not included but could "be negotiated with the Wilkeson Products Co." ("Coke Plant and Coal Mining Facilities"). The government rejected the first round of bids because they were too low, but ultimately accepted an offer of $600,000 from a Seattle resident in May 1947. The mines, however, remained closed.

Hopes for revival resurfaced in the late 1950s. William A. Harding, vice president of San Francisco's Pacific Coast Company, led efforts to obtain leases from the Wilkeson Company, open test pits, and assess possibilities. In January 1959, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the company pledged to spend $2 million on an effort "to reopen an idle mine at Wilkeson" and predicted that 500 men would be working there within a few months (Glover). The state's Power Advisory Committee further raised hopes by announcing that Wilkeson coal could potentially be used "in public or private steam plants to meet the state's power needs" ("Wilkeson Coal May Be Used ...").

In 1961, the Pacific Coast Company established the Mount Rainier Coal Company as a subsidiary with Harding as president and negotiated a contract to supply 800,000 tons of coking coal to Mitsubishi in Japan. The company improved roads to Wilkeson and brought in new modern equipment. Harding acknowledged the coal would be challenging to extract, but he felt that new methods provided a "reasonably good chance for successful operation of the property at economic levels" ("Research to Reopen ..."). He even suggested that greater efficiency could make it possible for Wilkeson coal to sell domestically. His predictions, however, were woefully optimistic, and the Mount Rainier Coal Company closed without shipping anything to Japan.

Although the energy crisis of the 1970s led some to suggest that coal would make a comeback, the last mining operation in the area closed in 1972. Wilkeson residents Tony Baselli and Robert Peloli (1923-2020) ran a small, two-person company, Queen Coal, and worked on the Wingate seam outside of Carbonado. They sold their product to the stone quarry and to local residents for heating. Inspections put their company in jeopardy when they found the two did not have adequate safety gear. Peloli contended that federal safety laws were written to regulate large mines back east and not small companies like his. He hoped Congress would grant exemptions for people like him, but he shut down when that did not happen.

A Town with a Vibrant Memory

Adding to the challenges, work at the stone quarry slowed as the increasing use of concrete in construction greatly reduced demand for sandstone. The quarry shut down in 1982 but reopened in 1999 and continued operating in 2020, albeit on a smaller scale than in its heyday.

Tourism too faced setbacks. Although the northeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park is not as developed as Paradise and Sunrise, some 100,000 visitors traveled through Wilkeson every year by the early 2000s. In 2005, however, the park closed its information center in town and floods in 2006 washed out the Carbon River road leading into the park. Business owners braced for a slowdown, and the road remained closed as of 2020.

Wilkeson in the twenty-first century is a residential town with a keen sense of its own history. In 2009, to celebrate its 100-year anniversary, officials erected a large sandstone memorial near town hall with relief carvings showing Robert Peloli emerging from the Skookum Slope and an unnamed stonecutter at work in the quarry. Interpretive markers found throughout Wilkeson tell the story of how the railroads, mines, coke industry, logging, and sandstone quarry shaped it, while some thirty overgrown coke ovens stand in a park on the south end of town not far from the now sealed Skookum Slope. Much of the rail line from Tacoma to Wilkeson has been turned into the popular Foothills Trail, and Wilkeson, as it has done for more than 100 years, welcomes tourists as the gateway to the Carbon Glacier.


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