Part I: The Hidden History
The next time you fly into Seattle at night, look east beyond the twinkling street lamps and Interstate 405’s golden traffic ribbon. Smack in the middle of evening suburbia is a vast, ragged expanse of pitch black.
There are no lights here and if local legislators keep getting their way, there will never be lights.
This emptiness is a silent reminder that for 100 years – from 1863 to 1963 – over 11 million tons of coal were excavated from these hills, earning Newcastle, Washington the nickname, “The Pennsylvania of the Pacific Coast.”
It’s a practical matter, really.
A mere twenty years ago, “The Office of Surface Mining was still sealing off dangerous openings – a total of 166 mine subsidences. One opening required fifty yards of concrete to create a plug over the top. Some sink holes were as large as 100 feet in diameter. At the other extreme, many holes were so obscured, an inclined tree might be the only clue to the hidden danger. Due to all these underground cavities, the county does not issue new building permits in the vicinity of the mines.*
Old coal tunnels, odorless swamp gas, and the occasional cave-in simply make it too dangerous, although up until the 2008 market crash, some real estate developers thought otherwise.
Today, the area is thickly crisscrossed with trees, vines, birdsong, and hiking trails wandering past the now, very securely sealed mine entrances…
…and the occasional swamp gas vent.
Newcastle’s coal was discovered in 1859 although records state some local knowledge existed as far back as 1853. It wasn’t until around 1863 that mining began in earnest. However, while there was certainly no question of finding a coal buyer’s market, initial transportation difficulties (shipping the coal by barge to Seattle took five days) and handling (approximately eleven times) exponentially increased operational costs.
Further spiking overall expenses were the mining difficulties (varying thicknesses, irregular and fractured layers, and steeply pitched coal seams) plus, the overall sub-bituminous coal quality. This meant the coal was good for steam boilers but not for cooking. **
Eventually, additional railroad lines cut transport time from five days to three hours.
11 million tons of coal meant economic prosperity for both the Pacific Northwest region and immigrants seeking a better life, an escape from Civil War ravages, or the grinding Chinese countryside farming.
Mining still meant dangerous working conditions, but with options that might just allow the escape into a better economic class. Although most parents today might raise their eyebrows at one of the part time jobs available to children.
Milt Swanson, one of the last remaining coal mining veterans in the area, remembers how his sister earned some extra cash carting buckets of beer:
“Directly outside the company towns were the saloons. During the 1920s, my sister would get a bucket from the miners, go down to the saloon and have the bartender fill the bucket up with beer. Then, she’d lug it back up hill to the miners and get 10 cents in payment for doing so. Frances was about 8 or 9 years old at the time. “
A shared bucket of beer plus better economic opportunities may have offered common threads but these didn’t necessarily translate to mixed living quarters. Several groupings such as Red Town, Finn Town, China Creek, and Rainbow Town delineated 19th century ethnic divisions.
Along China Creek, the Chinese miners,
“…built among the trees a group of small huts, steep-roofed, weather-reddened, and long-shingled; planted narrow gardens on the river bank, and set up tiny coops for the beloved ducks and chickens, until they made as picturesque and foreign a scene as though it were a home village the Yang-tse-kiang.”***
Today, nothing remains of this settlement nor are there any Chinese burial plots in the local cemetery. Instead, remains were shipped back to China for a proper burial in the ancestral family plot as soon as enough money could be gathered.
Others faced a different kind of introduction to the Pacific Northwest.
“In 1891, the head of a private detective agency in Portland lured unsuspecting African Americans from the Midwest to the coal mines east of Seattle, where under the watchful eyes of his troops, they were pressed into service as strikebreakers. ****
Damned twice for skin color and strikebreaking, it took a several decades before these families finally felt comfortable in their new home.
Yet cemeteries have always been a great leveler and the Newcastle Coal Miners’ Cemetery is no exception. Discreetly located off a side road not too far from City Hall, the cemetery is a testimony to historical American immigration trends.
The Scots and Irish came first…
while the Welsh, Swedes, Belgians and English swept the early 1900s. Scattered in between were the Germans…
… Italians, Croatians, Serbians, Slavs and Finns.
One hundred year old tree surrounding the cemetery protect these stones from the weathering trauma experienced in the more exposed sites. As a result, they have preserved some of the most intriguing symbols and stories ever seen in this area.
Next week, Part II: Newcastle Coal Miners’ Cemetery – Stories, Stones, and Symbols
*The Coals of Newcastle: a Hundred Years of Hidden History: Page 114
**The Coals of Newcastle: a Hundred Years of Hidden History: Pgs 6-7
***The Coals of Newcastle: a Hundred Years of Hidden History: Pg 36
**** Hard Traveling: A Portrait of Work Life in the New Northwest: Pg 14