Roslyn -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/12/2009
  • Essay 9239

Roslyn, a town in Kittitas County on the east slope of the Cascades, was founded as a coal-mining town in 1886 when prospectors from the Northern Pacific Railway found rich veins of coal. Within weeks Roslyn became a bustling mining camp. It grew rapidly over the next two years. The town's early years were plagued with labor strife, fires and mining disasters, including the worst coal mine disaster in Washington history, in which 45 miners died. Roslyn grew into one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the state, with a large population of black miners (originally brought in as strikebreakers) and other immigrants from all over Europe. Roslyn's fortunes waxed and waned along with the coal industry. It was a bustling city of 3,126 in 1910, but soon went into decades of population decline. The last mines shut down in 1963. Roslyn became a tourist destination in the 1990s when the popular TV show Northern Exposure was filmed there. As of 2008, the population was estimated at 992; however, just outside city limits, a large new recreational-residential resort has grown up.

Digging the Rock That Burns

The land around Roslyn and nearby Lake Cle Elum was used for centuries by the Native American tribes of the region, notably the Kittitas or Upper Yakama people, who roamed the Yakima and Cle Elum river valleys. However, the town site -- above those valleys -- had little significant human habitation until prospectors discovered something valuable hidden underground: coal.

A few scattered white settlers and ranchers claimed to have found coal around what is now Roslyn as early as 1871 or 1872. Several early prospectors, including Nez "Cayuse" Jensen, worked some claims in the region. In the early 1880s, he built a log cabin at what is now 2nd and Utah streets in Roslyn -- a cabin that stands today. However, it wasn't until May 1886 that a team of prospectors from the Northern Pacific found vast seams of coal -- and truly kicked off the story of Roslyn. The Northern Pacific was snaking its way up the Cascades, heading towards Stampede Pass, and it could use all the local coal it could find.

By August of 1886, the Northern Pacific had sent a crew of 18 to begin mining the coal. A branch rail line was hastily constructed to move the coal down to the main line at Cle Elum. Within weeks, hundreds of miners were at work. The man in charge of developing the coal was Logan M. Bullitt (1862-1921), who was vice-president of the Northern Pacific Coal Co. It was Bullitt who bestowed a name on this muddy little coal camp.

What's in a Name?

Accounts vary on how Bullitt chose the name Roslyn. One of the town's newspapers, the Roslyn Sentinel, carried a flowery story on March 1, 1895, which claimed Bullitt named it after the hometown of a "vivacious maiden" of his acquaintance who lived "on the faraway shores of the Delaware."

"After mature deliberation, he christened the town Roslyn on August 10, 1886, after the town in which his loved one lived," reported the newspaper. "The event was duly celebrated and the decision made public by a bulletin in the shape of a board on which the name had been inscribed with a pine coal" (Illustrated History).

Other, more prosaic accounts say that Bullitt named Roslyn after a New York town where a friend lived. By some accounts, that friend was poet and editor William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878).  Bryant had a summer estate in Roslyn on Long Island.
Yet another possibility is that a neighborhood named Roslyn exists in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia -- and Bullitt was from Philadelphia. Roslyn, Pennsylvania, is only a few miles from the shores of the Delaware River, so it is at least conceivable that the flowery, romantic story in the Roslyn Sentinel had a grain of truth. (Three years after naming Roslyn, Bullitt returned to Philadelphia, became a lawyer and married a Philadelphia woman -- we have no way of knowing if she was the same "vivacious maiden.")

When Coal Was King

However it came to be, the name Roslyn soon became synonymous with coal. The railroad and affiliated coal company sent in hundreds of workers and a town plat was filed in September 1886. Roslyn was a company town from the beginning; the Northern Pacific owned the land as part of its land grant. The first buildings in Roslyn were a general store and a saloon, hastily erected from rough-sawn wood from the Northern Pacific's own sawmill. By winter 1886, the town had a hotel, a boarding house, livery barns, and other commercial buildings.

About 400 men, including a trainload of Italian miners, spent that first winter in Roslyn. Within two years, the town mushroomed to more than 1,000 people. Then, on June 22, 1888, a fire of unknown cause broke out in the afternoon and reduced the entire business district to a smoldering heap. Roslyn immediately rebuilt -- this time with more brick.

Roslyn's Black Miners

Almost immediately, trouble of a different kind erupted in the mines and camps of Roslyn: labor strife. A new union called the Knights of Labor went out on strike in August 1888, seeking higher wages and an eight-hour day instead of a 10-hour day. The Northern Pacific attempted to break the strike by bringing in a trainload of about 50 African American miners from the Midwest and East. About 40 armed company guards were brought in to protect the black miners from the strikers. Territorial Governor Eugene Semple (1840-1908), fearing the vigilante overtones of an armed private militia, intervened and ordered the guards to disperse.

By some accounts, this was not primarily a racial dispute. The striking miners saw the black miners, who eventually numbered 300, mainly as corporate tools and a threat to their union and their wages.

After the labor dispute was settled, many of the black miners stayed on, and a number brought their families. Tensions between the whites and blacks eased, helped in part by the fact that the mining boom continued, ensuring plenty of jobs. A common bond also united them: All miners, black and white, had to rely on each other underground.

Roslyn in the 1890s

Roslyn has the distinction of being incorporated twice. The first time was on February 4, 1889. However, Washington Territory's incorporation laws were declared unconstitutional just afterward. In the meantime, Washington became a state and Roslyn was incorporated again under the state's laws on April 26, 1890.

On May 10, 1892, an explosion deep underground in the Northern Pacific Coal Company's No. 1 mine killed 45 miners. Gases and volatile coal dust ignited when miners were trying to connect an airway to a deep level of the mine. Those who were not killed by the explosion were asphyxiated. It took days to recover all of the bodies. This was, and remains, the worst coalmine disaster in Washington history. It created 29 new widows and 91 orphans.

An epidemic of typhoid struck in 1890, followed by diphtheria in 1896 and then smallpox (or a disease closely related) in 1900. The typhoid outbreak was caused by the lack of pure water, and the problem wasn't finally solved until 1901 when a pump began piping fresh water from the Cle Elum River.

A Coal Mining Melting Pot

The Northern Pacific Coal Company evolved into the Northwestern Improvement Company in 1898. By August 1899, 20 cars of coal a day were being hauled out of the main mineshaft.

By this time, Roslyn had one of the most remarkable ethnic mixes in the state. It certainly had one of the largest black populations, by proportion. In 1900, Roslyn's black population was about 22 percent.

The mines had also attracted workers from all over Europe. In 1900, about 40 percent of the population was foreign born. The mix included English, Italians, Germans, Scottish, Welsh, Poles, Lithuanians, and "Austrians," which at the time meant anyone from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Roslyn, that meant Slovenes, Slovaks, Serbs and, most of all, Croatians. Roslyn had an especially large Croatian population, which by 1920 had reached 25 percent.

A stroll through the Roslyn Historical Cemetery tells the story even today: The cemetery comprises 25 separate cemeteries, many of which are for a different ethnic group.

On October 3, 1909, tragedy struck again when fire exploded from a mineshaft and blasted through the mine buildings at the No. 4 mine. Witnesses reported flames hundreds of feet high. The bodies of two men were never found; others were found badly burned and dead or dying. The final death toll was 10.

In 1910, Roslyn's coal future seemed secure. Production was as high as it had ever been. Roslyn's population peaked at 3,126, most of whom were connected with the mining industry. Yet this marked a beginning of a long, slow decline for the Northwest's coal industry and for the town of Roslyn.

In 1919, writer and professor W. D. Lyman visited and became convinced that Roslyn was one of the most distinctive towns in the region. Lyman wrote:

"(A visitor) would certainly think that he was in Pennsylvania or Colorado mining center. The narrow, crooked streets; the little houses perched up on top of rocky hills; the sidewalks upon stilts or twisted around the sides of gulches; the cosmopolitan population -- all of the sights compose a view so utterly unlike anything else in the Yakima Valley as to be like a section of another world, accidentally dropped down" (Lyman).

Roslyn, situated at 2,247 feet of elevation in the Cascades, typically has snowy winters. However, the winter of 1915-1916 was especially harsh, causing the town to be snowbound for days. Roslyn recorded 385 inches of snow that winter, including 44 inches on February 1 and 2, 1916.

Labor Strife During Coal's Long Decline

Oil was beginning to replace coal as the nation's most important fuel source. Coal from other states was cheaper. The advent of World War I caused a surge in coal demand, but it was brief.

By 1920, Roslyn experienced its first-ever drop in population, to 2,673. Without coal jobs, many of Roslyn's imported residents saw no reason to stay. Most of the town's black population began to disperse to Seattle, Tacoma, and other cities.
Labor trouble continued to dominate life in the Roslyn mines.

Two strikes in 1919 closed the Roslyn mines for several weeks. In the early 1920s, more strikes by the United Mine Workers roiled the community, leading to attempts by the mine operators to break the union. As the industry declined, so did the power of the unions, and in 1922 workers were forced to accept wage reductions from $8.25 per day to $7.50 per day.

When the Great Depression arrived in 1929, conditions grew even worse for workers, exacerbated by the increasing automation of the mines. By 1930, Roslyn's population had plummeted again, to 2,063. Roslyn's unionized miners were increasingly dissatisfied with the UMW. The new Western Miners of America recruited many of them, and then went on strike in 1934. The community became bitterly divided, with the UMW siding, in a strange alliance, with the company, against the Western Miners of America. The picket line was the scene of beatings and rock-throwing. Local and state police were called in to keep the peace -- although they were also used to intimidate the members of the new union.

When an Oxford University economics professor, E. M. Hugh-Jones, visited in May 1934, he wrote an article for the New Republic calling Roslyn "a little nest of fascists." Hugh-Jones was visiting Roslyn with Revels Cayton (1907-1995), a young, black labor organizer, when Cayton was arrested by the state patrol and jailed on no charge. The police, who clearly considered them both troublemakers, later interrogated Hugh-Jones and released Cayton on the condition they both get out of town and not come back.

In his article, Hugh-Jones called Roslyn "very drear," with houses "faintly reminiscent of Southern share-croppers." He said the "general feeling of a state of siege was noticeable" (Shideler).

The Western Miners finally capitulated under this kind of pressure, and many striking miners were never hired back. Diesel fuel had begun to replace coal power even in train locomotives. Roslyn's decline continued through the next several decades, with the population dropping to 1,743 in 1940 and 1,537 in 1950 -- less than half the population at its 1910 peak.

A Post-Coal Coal Town

Mines continued to close and coal companies began to pull out. By 1963, only two companies remained, the Northern Pacific's coal arm and the Roslyn Cascade Coal Company. That year, both firms folded, bringing Roslyn's coal era to an end. There is still plenty of coal in the Roslyn area, but it remains underground, untouched.

Roslyn struggled to get by on the two economic staples of most Cascades towns -- logging and tourism. Lake Cle Elum, a few miles away, attracted summer visitors from Seattle. Still, Roslyn's population continued to sink, to 1,283 in 1960 and then to 1,031 in 1970.

Only two African American families were left in town, but one was a particularly influential one. William Craven was elected mayor in 1975, and became the first black mayor in Washington.

Art and Drama

One thing Roslyn did have was a well-preserved historic central core, filled with brick buildings from the boom years. This is what attracted an unlikely industry to Roslyn in 1978: moviemaking. Oscar-winning Hollywood director Stanley Kramer chose Roslyn as the location for his movie The Runner Stumbles, set in the 1920s.

Hollywood money provided a temporary boost to Roslyn's economy and pride, but the population continued to dwindle, to 938 in 1980 and an all-time low of 869 in 1990. Yet because so many houses were empty, a number of new residents, many of whom were young and seeking refuge from the cities, began to be attracted to Roslyn's low real-estate prices. Artists moved in next to retired coal miners.

Roslyn's biggest boost came in 1990, when the popular TV series Northern Exposure chose Roslyn as its filming location. The series was set in fictional Cicely, Alaska, but Alaska was too remote to make a feasible location. Producers found that Roslyn had similar north-country scenery, historic buildings (including the famous Brick Tavern, built in 1898 and prominently featured in the show) and was a lot easier to get to and from.

The series lasted until 1995 and made Roslyn into a tourist attraction. People came from all over the world to take photos and buy souvenirs. Tourists also discovered that it was a great site for mountain biking, fishing, hiking, and snowmobiling.

Roslyn's Renaissance

The population decline reversed in 2000, when the population went up to 1,017. Roslyn's city-limits population has remained relatively stable since then, yet the real growth is occurring outside the city limits, in the hills between Roslyn and Cle Elum.

An ambitious new recreational/residential resort called Suncadia, complete with an inn, golf courses, and horseback facilities opened just two miles from Roslyn in 2004. Suncadia's first homes were completed in 2005. A new lodge and spa were completed in 2008. It has room for up to 3,000 residences, which gives it the potential to create a new population boom in the Roslyn area.

The theme of the luxury inn? Mining, of course. The inn is called the Prospector Inn, an echo of Roslyn's past.


An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, ed. by William Sidney Shiach (Spokane: Interstate Publishing Co., 1904); John C. Shideler, Coal Towns in the Cascades: A Centennial History of Roslyn and Cle Elum, Washington (Spokane: Melior Publications, 1986); Spawn of Coal Dust: History of Roslyn, 1886-1955 (Roslyn: A Project of Operation Uplift, Community Development Program, 1955); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington: Comprising Yakima, Benton and Kittitas Counties (Spokane: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); Ed White and S. E. Solberg, Peoples of Washington: Perspectives on Cultural Diversity (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989); Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); "Roslyn History," The Roslyn Public Library website accessed November 29, 2009, (; "Roslyn, Washington," website accessed November 29, 2009, (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Explosion and fire kill 10 men in a Roslyn Coal Mine on October 3, 1909 (by David Wilma) and "Worst coalmine disaster in Washington history kills 45 miners at Roslyn on May 10, 1892" (by David Wilma) (accessed November 29, 2009).

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