Barneston -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 6/04/2000
  • Essay 2489

The company mill town of Barneston, located in King County 40 miles southeast of Seattle, manufactured 15 million to 25 million feet of timber annually for most of a quarter-century. Established in 1898, the town prospered along the Cedar River until the City of Seattle disallowed all human habitation within the watershed in order to keep the water pure. Barneston was razed in 1924.

Logging in the Northwest

When nationwide railroads completed their lines to Puget Sound in the 1880s, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest began to boom. The thickly wooded, but sparsely populated region was a godsend to American lumberman, who by this time had depleted much of the forestland throughout the rest of the country.

Logging communities sprang up throughout the Northwest. Almost all the mill towns had easy access to the railroads, in part because logging operations required the transportation provided by trains. But there was also another reason for this proximity. The federal government had granted much of the forestland next to rail lines to the railroads. Many rail barons sold this land to timber companies, thereby “buttering their bread” in the process.

Eastward from Kent

In 1885, Albert E. Smith and Lysander Smith organized the Kent Lumber Company in south King County. The company operated a small mill in Kent until fire destroyed it in 1898. Vast amounts of virgin timber lay in the foothills to the east, so they moved the operation to a site along the Cedar River, eight miles upstream from Maple Valley.

The mill property lay within the boundaries of the Cedar River Watershed, which recently had been tapped as the City of Seattle’s water supply. Rail lines already led to Seattle, allowing easy shipment of board wood to ocean-going vessels and transcontinental rail lines. Within 10 years, completion of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, passing right by the mill town, would make possible direct shipment east over the Cascade Mountains.

The mill was built, along with homes for the managers and workers. On June 12, 1901, a post office was established, and the town took the name Barneston, after John G. Barnes, then secretary and treasurer of the Kent Lumber Company. Barnes owned most of the land, making it an easy choice for the naming committee, if there was a naming committee.

Barneston’s Japanese Community

By 1910, the population of Barneston was 156, consisting of 105 single men, and 51 people representing 13 families. Along with the mill and the homes, the town had a public school, a company store, a bunkhouse, and a cookhouse. The entire town site took up 80 acres of land.

Barneston was typical for a company mill town, but what distinguished it from other logging operations was its large Japanese population. Whereas Japanese labor was 5 to 10 percent of the Northwest timber industry in general, Barneston’s Japanese workforce was around 35 percent.

Japanese workers were usually brought to the mill by a “bookman,” a foreman who recruited from within the Japanese community, and received a specified cut from the paychecks of any workers he had recruited. The bookman also supervised the Japanese work crews and kept their paybooks, hence the name.

White workers operated much of the machinery, whereas Japanese workers performed strenuous manual labor. Death and crippling accidents were not uncommon in the timber industry, but working conditions improved in the 1920s, due to the influence of labor unions.

Labor unions also brought about changes in pay. Before contracts were put into place, Japanese workers received wages well below those of their white co-workers. Labor influence, along with the fact that labor turnover was far less for Japanese workers than for whites, led companies like the Kent Lumber Company to begin paying Japanese workers the same wages as white workers.

Life in the Japanese Community

As in most logging camps at the time, Japanese workers were housed separately from white workers. The main Japanese camp (shown on the Assessor’s records as “Japtown”), was located north of town. Japanese children were schooled with the rest of the Barneston schoolchildren, most likely because there were so few Japanese families, and mostly single men. Records show that in selected years between 1910 and 1924, only three or four Japanese children lived in Barneston at any one time.

The company store in Barneston had little to offer the Japanese worker in the way of traditional Japanese food or ingredients, or merchandise. Many Japanese workers would take the train to Seattle to buy goods. Once a month, companies like the Fudiya Company and the Asia Company would deliver food and wares to Barneston.

Kazuko Ikata, a laborer in the lumbermill, also operated a Japanese bathhouse along with his family. Japanese men, returning home from a hard day’s work, would bathe communally. In keeping with tradition, the community’s women and children would bathe after the men.

All About Logging

By 1915, the landscape near the town was becoming a jumble of stumps and snags. Originally situated in the heart of virgin forest, the lumber company had felled the surrounding trees, and then extended logging efforts farther into the mountains. Rail spurs led from town to small work camps at higher elevations.

In the logging process, timber cruisers would survey uncut stands of trees and report on the terrain, list tree types, and estimate board feet available. Then loggers would arrive to fell the trees, along with chokers (who attached the logs to cables), whistlepunks (who signaled the donkey engine operators), and engine operators who pulled the felled logs over hill and dale to the rail spurs. Other workers built skids and flumes, which were also used to transport logs to Barneston.

Once at Barneston, the logs were dumped into millponds for storage and handling. From there, they were processed in the mill to make beams and boards. Once the wood was cut and planed, it was placed in drying kilns, after which it was stacked in sheds, ready for shipment.

But We’re Not Done Yet!

There were more than 17 logging operations in the Cedar River watershed, Barneston being one of the largest. The City of Seattle, concerned about the health hazards of logging communities located right along the region’s water supply, sought to remove all human habitation from within the watershed. The logging firms balked at this, citing a potential loss of millions of dollars. It was brought to the courts to decide.

Originally, the lumber companies had wanted to give the land to the City for free, as long as they could stay there for another 50 years and log it all down. This didn’t sit well with the court, which decided to condemn the timber instead. In 1911, the Superior Court ruled that all timber on the Cedar River Watershed was subject to condemnation by the City of Seattle. Case closed, or so they thought.

Time Marches On

To avoid condemnation proceedings, the Kent Lumber Company sold its land to the City of Seattle on July 19, 1911. Dates were determined upon which the firm would complete logging operations and remove its property. But over time the dates were amended, and logging continued apace (and amazingly) for the next 12 years.

Eventually the Kent Lumber Company stripped the area of timber. The mill sat in the center of a vast expanse of stumps, rock, snags, and debris that stretched five miles in all directions. The forest was gone and next came Barneston. On December 31, 1923 the last person left town. The following year the buildings were razed.

Since that time, the site has been left undisturbed. The forest has regrown, and is now nearly 80 years old and almost as many feet high. Occasionally, Seattle Public Utility workers find nails, shards of pottery, or a Japanese coin poking up from the dirt below. The rest is just wind in the trees.


Mary Woodman and Richard Gilbert, Barneston’s Japanese Community (Seattle Water Department Report, 1995); Chris Brown and John Schroeder, Barneston, Washington: An Investigation of Place and Community through Photographs, Maps and Oral Histories (Seattle Water Department Report, 1995).

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