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
This is fabulous to read, thanks so much for the information. I am very familiar with its location and the feeling of the place, because I could walk through it as a child. I am so glad that it is being protected and the stories told. Heather
Thanks for taking the time to comment and I hope you come back next week to read the second part. It focuses on specific stones, stories and symbols found there.
Thank you for the very readable history of Newcastle. It might interest walkers to know that much of the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad bed has been preserved as trail. The May Creek Trail in Newcastle (eventually to become part of a Mountains-to-Sound route) and the Coal Creek Trail in South Bellevue (another expected Mountains-to-Sound route) are portions of the same railway. The Newcastle Historical Society, working with the City of Newcastle, hopes to be able to obtain funds to put up some historical interest signs with photos of what the areas used to look like. They would make the trails much more than beautiful forest walks.
This is a great article about the historical cemetery. I recently visited it and took some photos, but yours are so much better! Thanks for writing this.
Arthur, thanks the comment and compliment but I must be fair in sharing photography credits with with Bob Cerelli who graciously donated a number of his terrific photos for this article. We’re happy you enjoyed your visit and the posting!
Having recently relocated to Newcastle from Colorado, I discovered the cemetery by accident while walking to Boren Lake Park. I’m eager to learn more about this fascinating area and found your article most interesting. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for doing the research and making it accessable to others like me.
Thanks for adding your comment and welcome to one of the prettier areas of Seattle!
Thank you for this post, and the other installments of this story. I recently visited the cemetery with a photography club called smugmug. We arrived about half an hour before sunrise and we stayed for a few hours more. There is so much history there, just walking around and reading the headstones was enough to make me want to learn more! Once again, thank you for this post. I hope I get a chance to go back soon.
First became familiar with the cemetery the summer of 1964 as a camp counselor at The Salvation Army Camp Lake Boren. It was a great experience for both campers and staff and often used as a site for great stories and thrills. Went back for the first time this week end to see what was happening. Thanks for keeping this part of history alive. Chuck Gillies, retired Major in The Salvation Army
I lived on Lake Boren from 1962 until 1973 when I left for college. Wonderful memories not only of the cemetery, but also of the coal mine. I remember the last coal trucks driving by our house on Coal Creek Parkway. (SE 133rd, back then) All the locals talked about the train in the lake. The story goes that a train was used to bring coal slag down from the mine, and it went out over a trestle over the lake where the slag was dumped; the trestle collapsed on what would be the train’s last trip. I can say for sure we found railroad spikes and ties when the foundation was being dug for my parent’s house. Would be interesting to know if it’s a true story or not.