Newcastle

Eastside Stories: Coal Mining on the Eastside

No. 6 | April 17, 2019

Eastside Stories

Coal Mining on the Eastside

Eastside Stories   is our way of sharing Eastside history through the many events, people places and interesting bits of information that we collect at the Eastside Heritage Center. We hope you enjoy these stories and share them with friends and family.

Eastside Stories is our way of sharing Eastside history through the many events, people places and interesting bits of information that we collect at the Eastside Heritage Center. We hope you enjoy these stories and share them with friends and family.

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.

Mining camp at Coal Creek in 1910. (Photo courtesy of City of Seattle Archives.)

Mining camp at Coal Creek in 1910. (Photo courtesy of City of Seattle Archives.)

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.

 
This tramway in Newcastle transported coal to barges on Lake Washington, (Eastside Heritage Center Photo)

This tramway in Newcastle transported coal to barges on Lake Washington, (Eastside Heritage Center Photo)

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.


The bulk freighter Dominion takes on a load of coal at a bunker on the Seattle waterfront in 1910. (Photo courtesy of City of Seattle Archives)

The bulk freighter Dominion takes on a load of coal at a bunker on the Seattle waterfront in 1910. (Photo courtesy of City of Seattle Archives)


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

Medina

Hunts Point

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.


Eastside Heritage Center is supported by 4 Culture

Eastside Heritage Center is supported by 4 Culture

Kirkland Steel Mill

Kirkland Steel Mill

L 75.0545  Peter Kirk’s Steel Mill, Kirkland. The Great Western Iron and Steel Works on Steel Works Lake (formerly known as Forbes Lake, now known as Lake Kirkland) c.1895

L 75.0545

Peter Kirk’s Steel Mill, Kirkland. The Great Western Iron and Steel Works on Steel Works Lake (formerly known as Forbes Lake, now known as Lake Kirkland) c.1895

According to Peter S Kirk the city that bears his name today, Kirkland, was supposed to be the Pittsburgh of the West in the 1890s.  There were abundant natural resources of iron-ore and limestone locally.  A.A. Denny and other local celebrities had discovered rich iron-ore deposits the 1880s.  The local residents were very supportive of a steel mill because of the prosperity and wealth it would bring to the newly platted town of Kirkland.  So, what happened?

Peter Kirk, from Workington in England, was experienced in iron and steel production and had access to qualified personnel to start a steel mill.  He had also toured through several steel mills in Pittsburgh prior to coming to Seattle.  He had officially incorporated the Moss Bay Iron and Steel Company of America in 1888 and secured $5,000,000 of capital.  This is about $138,000,000 dollars in 2019 dollars and was thought sufficient at the time to start a steel mill.

Sadly, there were a number of factors that conspired against Kirk and other investors to assure the mill would not be built.

First, the year 1893 saw a major downturn, or “panic” in the stock market.  East coast investors suddenly saw their money evaporate.  Kirk had the original money but it was being used up rapidly to purchase equipment for the new mill and he needed more to continue.  It is an expensive proposition to start a new steel mill from scratch.  Money and investors were evaporating in a hurry.

Second, transportation was a major issue.  The plan for the mill was to produce rails for a rapidly expanding west coast railroad building boom.  The finished rails had to be moved from the eastern shore of Lake Washington out into Puget Sound and into the Pacific Ocean.  Though a Lake Washington Ship Canal was being talked about and planned it had not yet been built.  The Montlake Cut was neither discussed nor planned at this time.  Without these two public works projects it would be very difficult and expensive to move the steel out of Lake Washington much less out of the Puget Sound area. 

Another transportation issue not yet solved was the railroad spur to be laid from the iron-ore mines near Snoqualmie to the Rose Hill steel mill site.  Given the nation’s financial woes in 1893, it was not going to get built soon.

The final hurdle to overcome was the high ash content of the nearby Newcastle coal.  High ash content coal is not good for coking coal, a key ingredient in steel manufacture.  Sadly, Peter Kirk did not have a viable backup plan to get the coking coal he needed.

It probably would have been possible to solve one of the aforementioned problems and move on with the steel mill.  However, all the problems combined proved too much to overcome and the steel mill bubble burst, for good.

By Jim - EHC Volunteer 

References/Sources

1.     Bagley, Clarence B, History of Seattle: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time.  Volume 2, page 632.

2.     Ely, Arlene, Our Founding Fathers: The Story of Kirkland, 1975, Published by the Kirkland Public Library, Kirkland Washington

3.     Sherrard, William Robert, The Kirkland Steel Mill.  Thesis in partial fulfillment of Master of Business Administration, University of Washington, 1958.