Seattle Now & Then: ‘The Coals of Newcastle’

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The Ford Mine complex at Coal Creek churns at near peak production in 1922. The hand-colored photo was discovered near Green Lake in the Micheletti family home. Patriarch Joseph Micheletti, originally from Villa Carcina, Brescia in northern Italy, worked in the mines for years before his untimely death in 1937, possibly of mine-related lung disease. (courtesy, Joe and Tami Micheletti)
NOW: Circling the now-sealed-off entrance to the Ford mine, 12 members of the Newcastle Historical Society writing team display copies of their book along with miners’ tools, having briefly lowered their masks for the photo. From left: Ray Lewis, Diane Lewis, Malcolm Lawrence, Mike Intlekofer, Tom Greggs, Harry Dursch, Margaret Laliberte, Vickie Baima Olson, Steve Baima, Eva Lundahl, Steve Williams, Barbara Williams. Team members not present: Russ Segner, Carla Trsek, Rich Crispo, Kathleen McDonald, and Dan Philpot. The mine entrance lies upper center in our “Then” photo, mostly obscured by clouds of steam. For more info on “The Coals of Newcastle: A Hundred Years of Hidden History,” visit newcastlewahistory.org.

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 10, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Dec. 13, 2020)

Danger, poverty, hope fuel ‘Coals of Newcastle’ immigrant story
By Jean Sherrard

When I teach an annual Northwest history course to middle-school students, one of my favorite pre-COVID lessons included an often-muddy field trip to Cougar Mountain in the foothills between Bellevue and Issaquah and their once-flourishing but nearly forgotten mining communities.

In the wet Pacific Northwest, as every homeowner can attest, iron rusts and wood rots with alacrity. Entire towns may disappear into the tangle of eager rainforest.

Case in point: the adjoining villages of Newcastle and Coal Creek, once home to more than 1,000 residents. For nearly a century, the hamlets fed the hungry maw of industry, power generation and home heating with vast tons of coal, besides helping to build the rails and docks that transformed Seattle into a major port city.

Local journalist and historian Lucille MacDonald and son Dick MacDonald first published their classic monograph, “The Coals of Newcastle: A Hundred Years of Hidden History,” in 1987, in collaboration with the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and the Newcastle Historical Society. Thirty-three years later, the historical society deemed it time for an update.

It took a village of 15 to tackle the mammoth task of revision. Nearly 18 months in the making and approaching 200 pages, lavishly illustrated with maps, graphs and many previously unpublished photos, the updated version is a history buff’s delight.

The story begins Jan. 9, 1864, when after “months of diligent search,” an exploratory party led by King County Surveyor Edwin Richardson made an exhilarating discovery on the banks of today’s Coal Creek. “This brook,” a weary Richardson recorded in field notes, “is remarkable for its numerous croppings of superior stone coal.”

Within weeks, Richardson and several companions staked out 160-acre claims surrounding the creek. Extraction soon began, at first haphazardly but increasing exponentially, and over the next 100 years yielded nearly 11 million tons of coal.

While the area’s vivid history is told with careful attention to detail, the book also shines with moving accounts of the lives of miners, their families and communities. Immigrants arriving in a new world found a toehold at the coal face.

Newcastle’s cemetery, now a historic landmark, provides haunting evidence of these lives lived and lost. The names on its moss-covered headstones reflect a record of migration from across the world. From China, from Europe, from the Americas they came, of many races and religions, confronting physical danger and exploitation, poverty and discrimination, and yet seeded with hope for a brighter future.

As my students have come to understand, it’s a lesson worth mining.

WEB EXTRAS

A few items, beginning with another photo of the writing team members and a map from the book itself. For more info on “The Coals of Newcastle: A Hundred Years of Hidden History,” visit newcastlewahistory.org.

Team members gather round a coal car, on display near the Ford mine’s entrance.
A map from the new book depicts the extent of coal mining at Coal Creek, today mostly swallowed up by forest.

For our 360 degree video taken at the site, and to hear this column read by Jean, visit us here.

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