The Aboveground Railroad

The Aboveground Railroad

Be ready for briars, flies, and mosquitoes, I was told, and wear good shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt.  I had brought none of these with me to Dorchester County, Maryland, in August, 1988, expecting temperatures in the 90’s—I was not wrong about that.  I was writing a young adult biography of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from this county in 1849. I had never been to the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, a very different world than the Indiana I grew up in and the Pacific Northwest I live in.  I wanted to find traces of Tubman in the homeland she lived in and left.  I quickly bought jeans, a long-sleeved blouse, and socks to augment my sandals.

My search began on the front porch of the home of Addie Clash Travers, close to downtown Cambridge. Travers was known in the community as the keeper of local Black history.  Everyone who went by her house either waved, called out, or stopped to talk.  Her family had lived in the county since before the Civil War when many of her ancestors were enslaved.  She was in touch with the Rosses, the Pinders, and the Jacksons—other black families who received their names and sometimes land from the oldest white families in Maryland.  They wanted to reclaim that 300-year black history that is buried in the white. 

Travers learned about Tubman by talking to the “older folks.”  The history of slavery was not taught in the schools; it was invisible, underground.  “They don’t want to own it, that their forebears were slaveholders,” I was told.  It was a troubled history; Tubman, whose family name was Ross, spirited away droves of valuable enslaved people from the county in the 1850s.

Facing official indifference but determined to keep that history alive, Travers started an annual Harriet Tubman Day celebration in 1967, at an old church in the countryside.  “It’s hard to believe she did what she did, coming from here,” Addie said, and she wanted it known.  Only a few members of her family came  the first year.

I wanted to see the church, the farm where Harriet was enslaved, the countryside she knew.  Travers walks with a cane, so she could not guide me around, but Herbert Sherwood passed by her porch as we were talking and offered to be a guide.  He brought along a last-minute recruit, Monroe William Charles Edward Pinder, otherwise known as Buddy.  Buddy was the seventh generation of Pinders in Dorchester County.  He traced his height to a Choptank Indian chief, his blue eyes to a white great-grandfather, and his light brown, freckled skin to his black relatives who had lived “the hardest.”  Buddy turned out to be a talker.   

Our goal was to find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, which Buddy said he had seen five years before.  We started at the only public acknowledgement of Tubman in the county:  a lone historical marker which told her escape story escape in two sentences:  “Harriet Tubman, 1820-1913.  The ‘Moses of Her People,’ Harriet Tubman of the Bucktown District found freedom for herself and some three hundred other slaves whom she led north.  In the Civil War she served the Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy.”  The 300 number was closer to 70 as I discovered in further research. 

From the marker, we turned down a grass driveway through a field on what used to be the Brodess farm.  We alighted into the heat and crossed a ditch, which brings water from the area’s many creeks and rivers.  We high stepped over rows of soybean planted after the winter wheat was cut and reach the woods in back.  The Brodess house and slave cabins were right up against the Greenbriar Swamp.  Locals hunted deer there, for which nearby Bucktown is named. 

We didn’t find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, just some crumbling bricks which Pinder and Sherwood said were brought from England at least a century before.  They vowed to come back in the winter when the vegetation would be sparse.  If we had kept traipsing through the woods, along the edge of the field, we could have followed the path slaves took to get to Sunday morning worship.As we drove out Greenbriar Road, passing farms and houses, Buddy told me who lived there and whether the family had owned slaves.  He pointed out land that was given by Harriet’s owner to his paternal grandmother, one acre for each of the three children she had by him. There was talk of how titles to the land were lost through forgeries or non payment of taxes.  His maternal grandmother, he said, was sold to a plantation in Georgia. 

We passed the Bucktown store where Harriet was hit in the head with a two-pound weight thrown by an overseer.  It was intended for a field worker but hit 15-year-old Harriet who was blocking the door.  The injury nearly killed Harriet and left her susceptible to sudden stupors throughout her life, a risk in the underground work she did. 

Down another weedy lane, we found a ramshackle frame house and gravestones dating to 1792. Pinder pointed out The Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, where his grandchildren used to roam before there was an entry fee.  We visited Scott’s Chapel on Bucktown Road where the Brodess family were members of the congregation.  Harriet’s family, the Rosses, may have worshipped at this site, too, in the balcony or at the back of the church.  White burials are behind the church, and the markers of Pinders and others across the road.  Early graves of enslaved blacks are unmarked, underneath 20th century vaults and stones. 

Later, to avoid flies which swarm and bite, I drove with Addie off the road and across weeds to get close to a different one-room frame church.  The church was built in 1911 on the site where enslaved peolpe gathered on Sunday morning for worship, walking through the woods from their cabins.  Addie had been unable to raise public funds to restore the building, but Sherwood regularly mowed the grass and weeds around it. 

The next day I roamed downtown Cambridge, noting small frame houses on Court Lane dating from the early 1800s and the steps of the courthouse from which, I was told, slaves were auctioned.  That’s why Harriet left—she had seen two sisters sold to the plantation-cotton factories of the Deep South, and she feared she was next.

This was a history begging to be told but kept alive only in oral history, unacknowledged by the predominant culture.  I went on to write and publish the Tubman biography, the first non-fiction account of her life  since the 1930s. 

Thirty years later, I reprise my trip with the aid of the Internet and feel like Rip Van Winkle.  The landscape hasn’t changed, but the attitude has. The underground railroad history in Dorchester County has risen, pushed up by the perseverance of people like Travers, Pinder, Sherwood, and Rev. Edward Jackson and the next generation—Joyce Banks, Sherwood’s daughter; Donald Pinder, Pinder’s son;  Rev. Linda Wheatley, also a daughter of a Pinder, John Creighton, a local white historian who did extensive research on Tubman, and James McGowan, who edited The Harriet Tubman Journal in the 1990s. Since my book was published in 1990, three adult biographies have been published. The movie Harriet, filmed in Virginia, brought her story to film in 2019.  People are ready not only to acknowledge the conflicted history but to celebrate those who challenged the status quo. 

Today Harriet’s legacy and name is everywhere in Dorchester County.  Her story is told in a small Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, in a building purchased in 1992 by those determined to keep her history alive. This is not to be confused with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, in the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and National Historical Park, a partnership between state and national park services. It was opened in 2017 with a ceremony that included the governor, the lieutenant governor, and a senator from Maryland.  The center and garden facing north, the direction of freedom, are based in Church Creek, Maryland, a formerly black community adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 100,000 visitors came to the center the first year it was open. 

The visitor center is the gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of driving to 45 sites significant to Tubman and the Underground Railroad.  In 1988 I tried to track Harriet’s journey north from Bucktown on her first trip to freedom in 1849.  She followed the Choptank River 67 miles upstream to where it trickles over the Delaware border, then ran a gauntlet of towns.  She  crossed closely watched bridges to Wilmington, then crossed another state border to Philadelphia, a trip of more than 200 wandering miles when Harriet walked it.  Now you can drive it with ease with all the important sites pointed out

The people who first saved African-American history when it was underground have died.  Newcomers have moved in and bought the land the locals have been unable to retain. But Bazzle Church now attracts hundreds to the Harriet Tubman Day celebration.  The fourth generation proprietors of the Bucktown Store give tours.  The same historical marker, with the consistent with every other roadside marker in Maryland, still stands on Greenbriar Road, still claiming 300 fugitives helped.  The Brodess farm, now in private hands, is on the scenic byway.

And the foundations of Harriet’s cabin?  Slave cabins don’t last; the lives they sheltered lived only in memories through the generations.  That community in time has moved on, entrusting the history to interpretive organizations who make it visible and visitors who embrace it. 

 

 

 

Walking Nearby History

 Staying home and walking more in your neighborhood?  There’s more underfoot than you may realize.  Cities are rich in layers of history, some visible, some not. 

Heading out my side door, I find a clothesline pole still standing between my house and the condo building next door, trailing vines instead of drying sheets. A half-mile away is a monument marking the landing of the Denny-Low-Terry party at Alki in 1851. Those are the obvious finds.

Less obvious is the median sloping downhill in front of our house, separating two narrow one-way streets.  When we moved here 16 years ago, the hillside was overgrown with weeds.  One lone plum tree drooped with fruit each fall. In the early 1900s children walked to the neighborhood school along a one-lane dirt road paralleling a meadow. “We frequently preferred the trail along Chilberg Avenue,” recalled one resident, “to enjoy some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the open fields and leading up into ‘the woods,’ the hillside forest.” Pleasant memories for troubled times.

Troubled times are nothing new.  As I researched Walking Washington’s History:  Ten Cities, I often found conflict.  I had read about the Everett Massacre of 1914 when striking millworkers in the city were supported by Wobblies who arrived on boats from Seattle. The Wobblies were met with gunfire.  The dock where the clash occurred is long gone, but as I walked the waterfront in 2017, I found wreaths made out of dried cedar hung on a wire fence, each commemorating one of the 12 men killed. 

At the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma, the haunting figures of Chinese workers expelled from the city in 1885 are painted on stone, an attempt to remember and acknowledge.

There were moments of pleasure, too, when I found the cool bubbling spring behind the Bigelow House in Olympia, which supplied drinking water to the early residents.  Vancouver has not just one but three statues of women:  a pioneer mother, a Native American woman, and a World War II welder.

Where history is less visible, interpretive art recalls the work of ordinary people.  A sculpted fruit-picker’s bag sits on a square in Yakima. 

To find history underfoot, look closely as you walk, and ask why.  Then visit the local historical society when it opens again; you may find an oral history or memories that recall experiences like a walk to school.

 

Today the meadow along that old dirt road has been reclaimed by community volunteers with plantings of more fruit trees, native shrubs, and wildflowers. Some of the forest above remains, on a hillside too steep for development.  Walkers passing the wildflowers on this relatively quiet street are in good historic company.   

 

 

Eruption of Mount St. Helens

When our family visited Washington in August 1980, there were masks hanging in the garage of the house we rented.  They were a hold-over from the eruption of Mount St. Helens just a few months before (and perhaps a foreshadowing of our life in Seattle during the pandemic forty years later).  We moved out from New York City in January the next year and began to hear the stories of where everyone had been when the mountain erupted.  Here’s a new one I hadn’t heard from Gary Rose, friend of my good friend and writer, Joan Burton:  
 
“Forty years ago tomorrow at approximately 8:30 am two close friends, Dave and Maxine Nicholson and myself, were on our skis headed to Camp Muir located at the 10,000 ft, level on the south side of Mt. Rainier to enjoy a great day of spring skiing.  We were hoping to find a rather rare condition called “Corn Snow” found in almost no other area in the U.S. except the Cascades and sometime the Sierras.  It occurs in the spring time and  is caused by the freezing and thawing cycle, giving the snow surface a unique consistency that skiers “Die” for.
 
We left Paradise early and were near the 8,000 ft. elevation level on a beautiful cloudless morning.  Having just stopped for a short rest and bite to nibble on, we were putting on our skis when we noticed Mt. St. Helens, some 30 miles to our southwes,t blowing hot ash high into the air from it north side.  At first we assumed it was “showing its stuff” as it had done a couple of times in the last few weeks.  We resumed our climb upwards towards  Camp Muir keeping an eye on the growing ash cloud coming from St. Helens.  Within 10-15 minutes the black cloud had grown to an estimated 60-80,000 ft.  (15 miles) into the sky above the mountain and was drifting NE in our direction.  At no time did we hear a rumble or explosion which was heard in Seattle and as far north as Bellingham.  Our first indication that maybe we should forget Camp Muir was when we noticed lighting strikes between the approaching dark super heated ash cloud and the ground below.  I had experienced lightning storms before while on the Muir snowfield and for sure, it is not a place one wants to be in a electrical storm.
 
With haste we scrapped the idea of Muir, pealed off our climbing skins, adjusted our binding to down hill mode and made a few turns in ideal spring corn snow.  A few hundred feet below, the first rain drops hit us and the snow immediately took on a grey/brown color.  Each raindrop uncased a blob of ash and soon our clothes were sopped wet and covered in grey ash.  To add to our misery all of a sudden it was like our skis hit sand paper and they would not slide.  Snow and ash built up and stuck to the bottoms of our skis.  We took them off, tied them to our packs and proceeded post-holing on foot  towards the parking lot at Paradise.  Finally we staggered into Paradise to find a couple of inches of ash all over everything, cars, buildings, trees, everything!  The Park Rangers were going ballistic.  All uphill traffic had to be stopped at the park entrance and Rangers were making up car convoys of park visitors headed by a Ranger Patrol vehicle with flashing lights.  We, along with every one else, were  shuttled  down the mountain and out of the park.  About 10 miles west of the National Park we drove out from underneath the black cloud and into the sunshine.
 
Photos?  To save weight not one of  us carried a camera that day.  You will just have to believe my story.  Fifty seven people died in the eruption, 1,300 feet of the top of St. Helens was blown off and millions of trees blown over and destroyed.

Lost and Found in History

            As often happens in the writing life, authors may be immersed in a new book but recalled to another.  That was the case with Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master this week when I was interviewed by Rob Smith for his podcast welcometoolympia.com, which showcases stories from Olympia, Washington. 

            The free boy in question, Charles Mitchell, lived in Olympia from 1855 to 1860 when he escaped on a mail steamer to Victoria Island in what is now British Columbia.  Mitchell was 13, a child of mixed race, living in the household of James and Isabella Tilton, and owned by them.  Slavery was legal in Olympia because territories did not have the right to declare themselves slave or free.  James Tilton was the Surveyor General of Washington Territory, an important job mapping the new territory so that incoming settlers could claim land.  Tilton brought the young boy to Olympia from a plantation in Maryland owned by Tilton’s mother’s family.  Mitchell’s father was an unknown white man, and his enslaved mother died of cholera when the boy was three.  Tilton promised to educate Charles, to train him for a job as a ship’s steward, and to free him when he turned 18.

            When given the chance to be free before then, Charles didn’t wait.  He was encouraged and aided by free blacks in Victoria who visited Olympia and by James Allen, the cook on board the steamer.  Allen hid Charles in the lamp room, and although he was discovered on board before the Eliza Anderson docked in Victoria, he was brought off the boat through a writ of habeas corpus and declared a free boy by a British judge. This was his moment of fame.  And then he vanished into history, after a brief appearance in a school for boys.

            That was the story Lorraine McConaghy and I wrote in Free Boy, published by the University of Washington Press in 2013, an inspiring story of a young boy yearning for freedom and the Victoria blacks who engineered his freedom.

            But then what?  The Civil War began months after Mitchell escaped, and by its end in 1865, he would have been free.  Did he ever come back to the United States?  Did he ever find his father or family in Maryland?  Did he have a successful life?  Lorraine and I did not know when we finished the book.  We could only speculate about which of many Charles Mitchells he might have been in the Pacific Northwest. 

            In fact, Mitchell roamed farther than we thought.  Inspired by his story, a researcher dove into the mystery.  With only Mitchell’s name, race, place of birth, and approximate birth date, Thomas Blake delved into census tracks, voter records, city directories, pension applications, marriage and death certificates.  He found that:

  • Mitchell returned to the United States right before the end of the Civil War and enlisted in a California infantry company that was stationed at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory—and a friend of James Tilton’s.
  • After that Mitchell worked as a ship’s steward, a cook, waiter, and all-around crew member, the job he had been trained for, on ships based in San Francisco.
  • He married twice, first to a mulatto woman named Elsie L. Browne.  They had a son, Charles, born in May 1870.  She died in 1885; the fate of their son Charles is unknown. 
  • At the age of about 40, Mitchell married a young white woman named Sarah Frederick in Liverpool, England.  Mtichell brought Sarah back with him to the United States, along with his mother-in-law, and they had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood.  Their household in San Francisco was variously described as white or mulatto. 
  • He broke both knee caps in falls related to his work.  He also broke both ribs in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, injuries that eventually earned him an invalid pension from the military.
  • He died in 1910 in the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, at the age of about 60. 
  • He has no known living descendants.  His one known grandchild died in 1999 in Paradise, California and had no known children.   

            In some ways, Charles Mitchell lived a fairly ordinary life.  He married, had children, and worked hard at physical jobs that left him partially disabled.  His adult life as a free man was not as dramatic as his brief moment of fame as a youth, but his work as a mariner took him around the world, and he briefly enlisted in the cause he had left Olympia for, the cause of freedom for youth like him.  His courage at 13 earned the right to determine his own life.

Charles Mitchell Day

Last night the Olympia, Washington City Council proclaimed Charles Mitchell Day, honoring the 13-year-old household slave who escaped to freedom in Victoria on September 24, 1860.  This is the story told in Free Boy, A True Story of Slave and Master, co-authored with Lorraine McConaghy.  Lorraine, who did most of the research and the initial writing for this book, was unable to attend, so I made brief remarks, which I share with you here.  I was asked to talk about the educational impact of the story.  

I am speaking this evening for myself and for my co-author Lorraine McConaghy.  I cannot speak for Charles Mitchell, but wouldn’t he be surprised that more than 150 years after he lived in Olympia, we would remember him and the dark early morning when he hurried down the hill to steal away on the Eliza Anderson.

Since the publication of Free Boy, his story has captured the imagination and admiration of many.  A legal researcher, Thomas Blake, was challenged by the mystery of what became of the young boy and discovered that he returned to the United States just before the end of the Civil War, joined the Union Army (probably misrepresenting his age) and lived a fairly ordinary long life as a mariner, freed to make his own choices.

The 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle brought the story to thousands of schoolchildren Washington and Oregon in a traveling musical. The children I saw in the audiences were mesmerized and intrigued by Mitchell’s hard decision to leave a comfortable but circumscribed life for an unknown but free future.

Most who have learned the story are surprised that slavery was legal in Washington Territory and that an underground railroad—in the form of a Puget Sound mail steamer–operated to free a boy born into slavery.

With this declaration, you are lifting up an inspiring story of community action and individual courage during a time of deep political polarization, a city divided in its sympathies by the anticipated civil war. May this proclamation be one small step in recognizing the injustices in our shared history.

Hiking in Ecuador

Because I write about hiking in Washington State, and there is plenty of that to do, I rarely cross the border into Oregon or Idaho, even less to Canada.  I have hiked briefly in Norway and Switzerland, “trekked” in Vietnam (really just a short walk), and visited southern Africa, but I don’t consider myself an experienced international hiker.  All the more reason that, on a recent trip to Ecuador, a hike in the Amazon stretched my comfort zone.    

The Amazon is a broad topic—a watershed of almost three million square miles spanning eight countries.  Its tributaries flow into the Amazon River from the Andes on the western edge of South America to the Atlantic Ocean on the east.  I hiked one mile in the Oriente section, near the Rio Napo, a broad, brown, slow-moving tributary that begins on the Cotapoxi volcano and flows 550 miles to the Amazon. 

This sampling of the jungle began with a machete. Wielded in the strong arm of our young guide Alfonso Jimenez, the machete was not to stave off snakes or jaguars or other hostile hikers but to keep vines and encroaching palm leaves at bay—the usual trail-clearing and upkeep.  More important were the rubber knee-high boots we all tucked into to protect from mud and insects. 

Our open safari excursion truck stopped along the side of a rocky dirt road with no trailhead in sight. We were seven eco-tourists, young and old, in a rainforest preserve supported by the Fundacion Yachana.  The foundation also supports the Yachana Parque de Ciencias, an education center envisioned and implemented by Douglas McMeekin.  Yachana, an indigenous Kichwa word, means “a place for learning.” 

Alfonso, a graduate of that program, led us across a shallow ditch with trampled vines and ferns and paused for a brief safety orientation.  We were not to grab hold of tree trunks inhabited by large ants, nor should we linger crossing fire-ant hills.  He pointed out one exotic bug which spitefully bit him but not us.  Other than that, the dangers would be limited to those vines, both hanging and underfoot. 

As soon as we were beyond the sunshine of the road, the trail underfoot was easier to follow, sheltered from exuberant growth by the canopy.  As Alfonso swung left and swiped right, I maintained a respectful distance.  He pointed out the strangler figs which root from animal droppings in trees. They start at the top of a tree, seeking light, then grown down. They are somewhat similar in their action to the invasive ivy of the Pacific Northwest, but unlike ivy, these vines survive to become a tree.  Once the roots reach the ground, they strangle the host tree and may or may not kill it.  The walking pine tree has a similar standing cone of roots. 

Walking pine

We couldn’t help but notice the giant ceiba pentandra, better known as a Kapok tree.  Kapok is the cotton-like fluff obtained from its seed pods which used to be fill for life jackets, mattresses, and pillows until artificial alternatives were produced in the 1940s. The tree matches in exotic appeal the baobab trees of Africa and the giant cedars of the Olympic rainforest.  I marked the kapok’s huge buttress roots as a potential refuge, a good tree to stay put with. 

The fear of getting lost in the rainforest, similar to the dark forests of the Northwest, is real. There are few breaks in the canopy—only when a tree falls down and creates an opening—and the dense vegetation underneath quickly obscures little-used trails.  The casual hiker is dependent on someone else’s trail maintenance.  But this hike was without hazard except for one final vine reaching out to ensnare a dragging foot.  The climatic drama came after the hike–racing a torrential rain-storm back to shelter. 

A later night walk with flashlights revealed more exotica—tree frogs, pond frogs croaking loudly the whole night long, spiders including the tarantula, salamanders, cucarachas, and the more familiar bugs like katydids and grasshoppers. 

Hiking for pleasure is a foreign concept to the resident of the Amazon and hiking for fitness would be self-defeating.  The object in life closer to nature is to conserve energy and spend it wisely. For centuries, transportation has been by river; you can see where you are going and where you might come out.  Walking comes with a purpose: to harvest grapefruit or heart of palm on a farm, to carry a bag of lemons or a baby with you to the bus-stop and the market. Schoolchildren at recess gazed curiously at these gringos trudging down the road in the sun after our truck runs out of gas.  Our companions on hikes and biking adventures were mostly European—from Norway, England, Lithuania, Germany, and France.

On the same trip, we also hiked to a waterfall near Mindo, west of Quito, a trailhead reached by a cable car ride over a deep valley.  To reach the cable car station, we could either ride on a ski lift type chair or climb up a relatively short but steep mountain.  Leery of heights I can’t attain on my own two feet, I chose the hike, which added meaning to the phrase “catching your breath.”  The waterfalls are like waterfalls everywhere, but the birds, insects, and wildflowers out-color even a Cascades meadow in full wildflower.  The reds are redder, the pinks are rosier; one bird can display a rainbow. 

From Mindo, we traveled east to the highlands and biked down Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest volcanoes at more than 19,000 feet. We started at more than 14,000 feet, high enough. (The top of Mt. Rainier is 14,411 feet.  Sunrise, where trails on the slope are accessible by auto, is at 6,400 feet, about the highest I’ve ever gone). At a similar elevation, more than 12,000 feet, we hiked around a caldera–an Ecuadorean counterpart to Oregon’s Crater Lake–at Quilotoa.  In the highlands, we were hiking for views and solitude, which also seems a foreign concept in Ecuador.  Life is nothing if not communal, and the highlands can be cold, windy, barren, and hostile.  One arrives, has an adventure, and leaves.  The thin air challenges even the most fit. 

Biking down from the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

The human universal between hiking in the Pacific Northwest and in Ecuador?  A connection through the land to the ancient past.  On the slopes of Cotopaxi, on a hillock elevated from surrounding plains, we found Inca ruins.  Restored rock walls and a thatch hut recall the 40-year period of Inca domination in Ecuador in the late 1400s before the Spanish invaded in 1532. This was a place from which you could see for miles–see your enemies, see game–and shelter down the hill. Despite the threatening volcano, humans have made an imprint on the land for thousands of years.

Inca ruins

Wild and safe?

In 35 years of hiking all over the Pacific Northwest, I have not feared those I meet on trails.  Any one who hikes miles and climbs mountains is probably not intent on crime.  I trust fellow hikers’ motives for being there.  We are all testing ourselves against nature, enjoying solitude and the oxygen high that comes from pure air and rushing streams.  In the decades of my 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, I have ventured out alone as needed to research hikes for Hiking Washington’s History.   Physically, I’m no match for a bigger, stronger protagonist with a gun, but those are not the people I encounter on trails.  They’re more likely to be a group of retirees enjoying relative hiking freedom and solitude on a Tuesday.  I have also hiked for eight hours in southeastern Washington and encountered only foxes and elk.  My biggest concern has been whether my car would break down on a pot-holed Forest Service road. 

            The story is different in city and suburban parks.   When I lived in Bellevue, a suburban city in Washington, my favorite trail was in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, near my house.  My daughter and I regularly ran a one-mile or so loop through the park.  We had moved here from New York City and thought the park was a truly wild land, a place with no houses in sight and trails going off in many directions.  To run or hike there was to escape from any tensions a comfortable life created—

            Until I learned that a teenage girl had chosen the park as the place to end her life, near a waterfall.  I could not run or walk there again without thinking that to this girl it was a place she could be away from people who might have tried to save her, a kind of solitude that is not healthy.   

Trail in the West Duwamish Greenbelt

            We moved a few years later from Bellevue to Seattle where I have been active in the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, which promotes hiking in the largest contiguous forest in Seattle.  The 500-acre greenbelt on a ridge above the Duwamish Waterway is bordered by houses, a community college, and an elementary school.  Our goal as a group is to encourage people to use the maintained trails in the greenbelt.  We want people to feel at home in the forest, within a few minutes of city life.   Urban parks can be a haven—a place to get away from social pressures of congested living; a place to hear birds, find mushrooms, even watch ducks on a pond, a place to be alone without relating to others. 

            The natural threats in the greenbelt are few. Cougars roamed the ridge above the Duwamish River centuries ago but no more.  Strong winds may fell trees across the trail, but windy days can be avoided. Human threats are a bit less predictable.  Parks are rightly a common space, where anyone can go.  When I wanted to take my young grand-daughters on a walk in the woods in north Seattle, I was warned to expect illicit activity.  The same is true of Herring’s House Park on the Duwamish River, a place I would like to send students in search of native history.  Students at South Seattle College “take a walk in the greenbelt” for a pot break.  Homeless people stake out territory there, seeking refuge but also deterring others’ use of the trails by their presence and sometime drug dealing.

            Last summer, a young man ran to the greenbelt after he had tried to murder his ex-girlfriend. The college went on lock-down, and a regular Friday group hike was canceled.  As police tracked him down, the man shot himself. The violence tainted my hopes for the greenbelt as a place of refuge and calm. For this young man, it was a place he could end his angry life.  The police wound yellow tape around the scene.  

             Even as I write this, another person has ended his or her life in the forested park just a block from where I live in Seattle.  These urban and suburban green spaces attract both those seeking health and solitude and those who are desperate. 

            Conversely, the human perils of the wilderness are rare: a woman and daughter were killed near a popular trailhead in western Washington; a woman bending over to get something out of her pack was shot by a young hunter who thought she was a bear.  Both were shocking but the only trail deaths by human violence I know about in western Washington.

            How can we feel safe in both urban parks and the wilderness?  I still feel safe in the wilderness and I still hike urban trails—but not alone.  Runners, dog walkers, even mountain bikers—the more people using the parks at many hours of the day, the better.  Solitude may have to be sacrificed to safety in the city, making the lure of the great outdoors even stronger.  I’m not willing to give up either place. 

            At its best, a forest–in the city or the mountains–connects us to a larger, more enduring world.  Great rocks and mountains don’t move unless the whole earth shakes.   The Duwamish people say the spirit and the very dust of their ancestors is in the soil, in the trees above the Duwamish River.  We are small players; our heartbreaks and defeats are fleeting in the company of elders, both human and natural. 

Yakama-Cowlitz Trail

This sign sits in my garage in West Seattle, a gift I don’t quite know what to do with.  It was given to me by the folks at the White Pass Country Museum in Packwood, Washington, when I was researching the Yakama-Cowlitz Trail.  I suspect one reason it was “surplus” was the spelling of the name Yakima–which is the spelling for the city but not for the people.  It was also a nudge–finish that article on the trail!  So I did.

This summer’s issue of Columbia, published by the Washington State Historical Society, features my article on the Yakama-Cowlitz Trail to Cowlitz Pass, a trail taken for thousands of years by people from both sides of the Cascade Mountains.  Cowlitz Pass stands just southeast of Mount Rainier, on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Mount Rainier visible from Cowlitz Pass

During the winters some Yakama people lived in the Tieton and Naches River valleys on the east side of the Cascade Crest.  The Cowlitz lived in the Big Bottom of the Cowlitz River on the west. In the summer months, the Yakama came up what is now Indian Creek from the east side; the Upper Cowlitz or Taytnapam came up Summit Creek from the west side.  They hunted deer and mountain goats, gathered huckleberries, and socialized.

Gradually, through intermarriage, the Taytnapam acquired some characteristics of the Yakama, in language and dress.  In years after American settlement, they continued to cross the pass to visit relatives.

I found out about this trail through the writings of archaeologist David Rice, the work of Gifford Pinchot anthropologist Rick McClure, and the advocacy of Ray Paolella for the William O. Douglas Heritage Trail.  As a youth, Douglas hiked up to Cowlitz Pass and spent time with the sheepherders there.

Efforts are afoot to map some 23 miles of this historic trail.  The last four miles from the west are Forest Service trail #44 which begins from the Soda Springs campground where the real sign is posted.  It’s a wonderful day hike or backpack, but beware of mosquitoes until late summer.

Monte Cristo Revived

The ghost town of Monte Cristo has come alive again after pollution cleanup. More than 8,000 cubic yards of contaminated material have been removed from the mining boomtown of the 1890s and early 1900s.   Two Tuesday Trekker groups combined yesterday to visit the site, an 11-mile round-trip walk with the added drama of a log crossing.  

We followed the old mine to market road and the roadbed of the Everett to Monte Cristo Railway into town. The bridge over the South Fork Sauk River has long been washed out, and hikers must wade across at low water in late summer or cross a large tree that has been downed over the river.  The log is fairly wide, smooth and dry but narrows at the farther end.

Photos by Donna Hahn

Once at the townsite, we lunched in the basin at the foot of the towering mountains that provided gold and silver to the hopeful prospectors, financiers, and investors.

Photo by Juli Hill

 

 

 

 

 

Since the clean-up of toxic materials (lead, arsenic, copper) that leaked into the soils and creeks, the Monte Cristo Preservation Society has added more interpretive plaques, allowing hikers to roam Dumas Street on a self-guided tour.  Alexander Dumas was the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, after whom the town was named.

Photo by Donna Hahn

The building called the concentrator climbed the mountainside.  Five levels of rollers, washers, and separating tables reduced the ore to “concentrates,” which were then loaded onto rail cars carrying them to the smelter in Everett.  The remains of the concentrator are not to be missed.

 

Walking Washington’s Riverfronts

Sacajawea Heritage Trail along the Columbia River in Richland

While writing Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities, I was struck by the importance of rivers to the development of cities in Washington–the Puyallup in Tacoma, the Duwamish in Seattle, the Yakima and Naches rivers for Yakima, the Columbia for Vancouver and the Tri-Cities, the Snohomish for Everett, the Spokane for Spokane.  When most of these cities were founded, in the late 1800s, rivers were the transport of choice for people and freight.

Over the decades, many of those rivers have been dredged, straightened, drained of their power, and polluted.  Although it is now an industrial powerhouse, the lower five miles of the Duwamish River is also a SuperFund site,requiring millions of dollars of clean-up to restore it to even a semblance of its original health.

The West Seattle bridge soars over the mouth of the Duwamish River.

The flow and falls of the Spokane River had been so drained for use as a power source and its islands covered with railroad structures that some residents hardly knew it existed. The mouth of the Puyallup River in Tacoma was renowned not for the smell of a tideflat at low tide but for the aroma of pulp.

Gradually attitudes toward the rivers in our midst have changed.  We have reclaimed them as common space.  When Spokane hosted a world’s fair in 1974, the citizens reclaimed the riverfront.  With cooperative efforts, the city pulled up railroad tracks, restored much of the river’s flow, and cleaned up pollution.  The result is a riverfront of trails and community gathering spots at the city’s historical center.

Ilchee, of the Chinook Nation, gazes out over the Columbia River.

Although still in the process of a massive cleanup, Seattle has a Duwamish River bike trail that goes for miles into the Puget Sound lowlands.  Tacoma’s riverfront walk skirts the Thea Foss Waterway, carved from the river and tideflats.  Vancouver’s Columbia River Renaissance Trail winds through the early maritime explorations and trade of the lower Columbia River.  The Yakima Greenway follows the Naches and Yakima rivers as they converge on the edge of Yakima.

These walks and more are described in an article I wrote for Northwest Prime Time’s June 2018 issue.  Read it here.