No. 6 | April 17, 2019
Coal Mining on the Eastside
Newcastle, Coal Creek, Black Diamond. These place names in King County did not spring up by accident. They reflect the importance of coal mining in the evolution of the Puget Sound region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
While pioneers were carving homesteads and logging camps out of the wilderness around Puget Sound, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. And that revolution was powered by coal. Coal fired steam engines, smelted iron and heated the urban homes and factories that were coming to dominate American life. These industries and innovations were slow to come to the West Coast, but when they did, they needed a reliable supply of high quality coal.
Such supplies were found in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Coal deposits had been discovered around the state and in British Columbia by the earliest explorers, and in 1859, just eight years after the first settlers established the new city of Seattle, coal was discovered in Issaquah. It took three more years for an enterprising miner to get a few loads to Seattle. Coal was discovered near Lake Washington—and easier transport to Seattle—in 1863, and the rush was on. This area would be dubbed Coal Creek and would be the site of mining for decades.
Scale was a problem at first. Seattle, at that time, was still a small place, with a limited number of houses and businesses that could afford coal--wood was still plentiful and cheap. And there was not a whole lot of capital to invest in mines and transportation infrastructure. But as with so many of the region’s dilemmas in the nineteenth century, the answer would come from California.
The same booming San Francisco Bay economy that was absorbing wood products from Puget Sound would absorb the coal being dug out of its hillsides. And investors from California, with piles of Gold Rush wealth, would supply the capital to make the mines of the Eastside and Southeast King County hum.
Mines began to operate from Newcastle to Renton and south into Pierce County (the town of Carbonado did not get its name by accident either). Railroads gradually came to the area, significantly lowering the cost of transporting coal. And towns sprung up, housing miners and their families, many of whom had immigrated from Europe and Asia.
In many ways, coal shaped the Seattle area as significantly as timber. Whereas lumber and logs were shipped from the anchorage closest to the source, coal was shipped primarily from the docks of Elliott Bay, helping develop the port. Railroads and regular steamship service to Asia arrived in Seattle in the early 1890s, and by 1910, Seattle was the third largest port in the country (after New York and Philadelphia) and the primary West Coast gateway to Asia. Local coal fired all those ship and locomotive boilers.
Local coal also drove one of the more curious economic development schemes in the region’s history: the Great Western Iron and Steel Company of Kirkland. With coal and newly-discovered iron ore in the Cascades, a group of investors set out to create the “Pittsburgh of the West” atop Rose Hill. This is a long story that will be told later, but suffice to say that without local coal, Kirkland might not have emerged as the leading city of the young Eastside.
The coal mines of the Eastside have been closed for decades, but the old shafts can still be visited on Cougar Mountain, and there is evidence of the old townsites and camps, if you know where to look.
Presentations, tours and field trips with EHC’s expert volunteers and staff can be arranged. Contact our education staff.
Learn more about the Eastside. Books available from Eastside Heritage Center include:
Lake Washington: The Eastside
Bellevue: the Post World War II Years
Our Town, Redmond
Bellevue: Its First 100 Years
Our Mission To steward Eastside history by actively collecting, preserving, and interpreting documents and artifacts, and by promoting public involvement in and appreciation of this heritage through educational programming and community outreach.
Our Vision To be the leading organization that enhances community identity through the preservation and stewardship of the Eastside’s history.