Snoqualmie Tunnel: A cool surprise

When Seattle historian and journalist Bill Kossen told me about his experience on the Iron Horse Trail, I invited him to write a post.  As a Northwest native, he has some “cool” history to share:

It was a balmy, early fall day on Snoqualmie Pass and the sprawling parking lot at Iron Horse State Park was nearly empty. Good sign. I was on a mission and didn’t want to be surrounded by a lot of masked and unmasked people. Nearby Alpental was crawling with hikers.  I just wanted to see, and possibly hike through, the former railroad tunnel that I read about in Hike 18 of Judy Bentley’s excellent Hiking Washington’s History.

Didn’t know what to expect. The tunnel is hidden from view from the parking lot near the Hyak ski area (now called Summit East) and has a fascinating history that borders on the mystical, thanks to the book. The tunnel and ski area also has a strong, personal pull on me. One of my earliest memories is of taking the Milwaukee Road Olympian Hiawatha train as part of a family trip to the Midwest back in the summer of 1958 when I was only 3. The train went through the tunnel, but I don’t remember that, just the excitement on being on the rocking, rolling train and getting a souvenir “I Rode On The ‘Hiawatha’ ” bib in the dining car. One of these days, I might frame that bib.

From my parents, I inherited a 1940s brochure about the “Snoqualmie Ski Bowl” and the Milwaukee Road’s “Snow Train” that took them there, dropping them off at a ski lodge after exiting the tunnel.   Mom told me about it, but the train and the “Ski Bowl” were long gone by the time I began skiing in the early 1960s. Things had changed dramatically at Snoqualmie Pass by then. were three ski areas instead of one and plenty of chairlifts and rope tows instead of none. My parents wanted me to learn as they did, so for the first few trips, they wouldn’t pay for a lift ticket. I had to climb the hill with my skis on, clomping along in herringbone style while the other kids whizzed by on the lifts. That was OK; I learned to ski uphill, too.  

Those memories flooded back as I got out of the car. The temperature in the parking lot was 70, so I put on a light jacket and set out for a half-mile hike on a level, well-maintained gravel trail to whatever was waiting around the bend. A few minutes into the hike, I felt a refreshing, cool breeze. Figured there must be an icy creek or pond hidden nearby. But all I could see were trees and brush alongside the trail. Then as I rounded the bend, the breeze picked up and went from cool to chilly. The reason was looming ahead, the colossal opening to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a huge and quiet air conditioner.

A lone biker passed me, switching on his headlamp, and disappeared into the tunnel. Two hikers with a small dog entered the tunnel, too. Tentatively. They stopped after going a few feet and snapped a few pictures while the dog stared at me. Even the pet appeared in awe. I kept my distance until they left and then entered the tunnel, past the ancient wooden doors so huge they could protect a castle. I had hopes of hiking and running to the other end, a little more than 2 miles away, until I turned on my headlamp and two handheld flashlights that suddenly felt very tiny. My, was I unprepared. The darkness sucked up the light like nothing I had ever seen.

But I hung around in the dark silence for a few minutes just to take it all in. Would I hear echoes of the hundreds of tunnel workers who chipped and blasted their way through the rock a century ago?  Would I see a ghost train roll by illuminating the pitch-black tunnel? The book had triggered my imagination. Hike 18 ended with this suggestion to those hiking from the other end of the trail (or closer starting points), 21 miles away on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass: “To relieve the long miles, imagine the headlight of an orange and black locomotive of the Olympian Hiawatha, carrying revelers high over the creek ravines, through the long dark tunnel, along the river canyons, and into the bright sunlight at the peak of the Cascades.”  It worked. I’m hooked and now looking forward to hiking to the tunnel from the other side, where you get to cross trestles high above those creek ravines and have a better chance of seeing that historic headlight. What a cool trek.

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.

Searching for a streetcar line

The West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group advocates for and supports trails in Seattle’s largest contiguous forest, which is located on a ridge above the Duwamish Waterway in West Seattle.  I wrote this article for the group’s website.  

For an eleven-year-old boy, the fun is using a metal detector to find old railroad spikes. For his father, it’s discovering the railroad grade he can feel with his feet and see as an opening in the woods. For me, it’s the history. We went looking for all three on a sunny winter day in the West Duwamish Greenbelt, the largest contiguous urban forest in Seattle.

This is Craig Rankin’s backyard. He has hiked the trails, biked some, trimmed dead branches threatening the paths, and volunteered for work parties on countless weekends. His passion is finding the path that has been obscured.

That would be the grade of the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad which brought prospective home buyers to land southwest of Seattle. In 1912 the large unincorporated area was still farmland; stands of timber and woods teemed with wildlife that appealed to hunters. But real estate developers like George W.H. White envisioned streetcar suburbs–Highland Park, White Center, Oak Park, Seahurst, Sunnydale, Lake Burien, Gregory Heights, Three Three Point, and Burien. All buyers needed was an easy way to get there.

The fourteen-mile route began at the West Seattle Junction in the community of Riverside near the tideflats of the Duwamish River. There three streetcar lines from the west converged to head over a trestle to downtown Seattle. The Highland Park and Burien route headed south, behind businesses along the Duwamish River. After traversing the hillside that slopes down from South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields, the route crossed Highland Park Way and continued south to the end of the line in Burien.

The electric streetcars ran until the early 1930s when landslides, financial challenges, and competition from roads made them unviable. The tracks and power lines were ripped out; trees fell over the path, landslides continued, and blackberry vines crept over the gravel roadbed.

Although many have speculated, the streetcar’s precise route through the greenbelt, has been a mystery. Landslides in 1912 and 1933 interrupted service on the route for several months and have further altered the terrain since then. Rankin studied old maps and photographs of sidings, tracks, and stations and set out to find the grade he knew was there. He brought along his eleven-year old son Hagen, Hagen’s friend Jackson, Jackson‘s father Mark, and a metal detector. The proof of the route would be railroad spikes.

They found them—and more.

Following a hunch, Rankin started down an old road that carried trucks to and from a sand and gravel operation at the top of the ridge. About halfway down Rankin spotted what looked like a break in the east-west ridge on the north side of the road. That notch looked like a cut for the railroad line.

Climbing down from the old road and bushwhacking carefully through dense vegetation, the explorers crossed a stream and followed a faint path through the second-growth woods–past a discarded suitcase, a rain-soaked sleeping pad, and a backpack buried under the leaves. Part of a thick wooden post leaned on the ground with the word “Swain” partially visible. (Nature Consortium placed markers in the forest for the migratory birds that pass through, including Swainson’s Thrush.) A curious roll of barbed wire around remnants of a wooden barrel was half-buried in the mud and leaves.

Then—along the trampled pathway–the clink of metal. Hagen and Jackson started digging. In three places, they found iron spikes, shorter than those on a long-haul route like the Milwaukee Road.  The spikes provided clear evidence of the railroad’s route.

On a follow-up adventure, Craig, Hagen and I bushwhacked a bit farther on the path we could see winding through the trees.By then Rankin had unearthed a King County survey map showing the route of an “abandoned street railway” right where the spikes were found. We were soon blocked by a downed tree and blackberry vines, saving more exploration for another day.

Again following the lay of the land, we decided to head uphill instead of back the way we had come. We soon realized we were hiking an old road up toward the top of the ridge. Then—a tin sign on a tree—Clinker Hill Road. Who could have expected a sign?

Clinker is the waste produced from industrial processes such as smelting or cement production. After the streetcar line was taken out, much of the land on the ridge was mined for sand and gravel (sand is clearly visible in streambeds). In the 1970s the Ideal Cement Company dumped cement kiln dust waste on property at the northern end of the greenbelt. That legacy of pollution has complicated the construction of north-south trails.

There are more mysteries to be unraveled: Where were the two sidings that appear on railroad maps: the Schoolhouse Siding (which must have been near the old Riverside School which opened in 1888 at Detroit Avenue and W. Juneau Street) and the Michigan Siding? What are the small rectangular pieces of iron the boys found? What was the bale of barbed wire? What type of vehicle did that narrower gauge tire come from [photo]? What happened to the power poles? Where did the streetcar route exit onto West Marginal Way?

Exploring for tangible history underfoot has intangible rewards. Hagen learned there was once a streetcar passing right through his neighborhood. “It was fun to discover where it was.”

Craig hopes the rail grade remnants could be used as part of a loop hike complementing the existing trails in the Greenbelt. “The lower streetcar grade segment offers one of the better Cascade views in the greenbelt and what fun to hike the old trolley route!”

For more information, see Mark Bergman’s talk on the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railway in the Southwest Stories series sponsored by the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.

 

Reshaping our Shared History

A hallmark of American progress is our ability to learn from our history.
National Park Service statement on Civil War monuments, August 2017

When I was walking cities for Walking Washington’s History, I encountered statues and memorials of all kinds: Chief Seattle and Jimi Hendrix in Seattle, Dirty Dan Harris and J.J. Donovan in Bellingham, William O. Douglas in Yakima, Marcus Whitman and Christopher Columbus in Walla Walla, Henry Jackson in Everett, and Mother Joseph all over the state. A group of citizens would decide that some person or some event should be honored, convince city leaders their cause was just, raise money and find a suitable public place to make a statement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, one such group–the United Daughters of the Confederacy—launched a national campaign to re-interpret the civil war. They wanted to depict it as a war fought to repel invasion and defend states rights, a noble cause, fought by brilliant military leaders and brave foot soldiers.[1] They placed statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee on town squares in the South—a reminder to people walking by on the way to the courthouse as to who should be honored and who was in charge. They advocated naming a national highway the Jefferson Davis Highway.

In Washington there had been strong support for the Confederacy both during and after the Civil War. Designating Highway 99 as part of the national Jefferson Davis Highway and the placement of a memorial to Confederate soldiers in Lakeview Cemetery came during a period of renewed segregation and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Pacific Northwest, which targeted blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrant groups.

No doubt the soldiers and leaders were brave—they faced horrible deaths and terrible odds. This was truly a civil war, tearing apart the country, state by state, family by family, soldier by soldier. But it was not a noble cause. Alexander Stevens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, made it clear in what was known as his “Cornerstone Speech.” He said the Confederate government rested upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Jefferson Davis claimed that Lincoln’s plan to limit slavery would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”[2]

These issues came to the fore in a program I moderated for the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild: “How Statues and Memorials Interpret our Shared History.” The day before the panel I read an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “Why do so few Blacks Study the Civil War?”[3] He described the country’s long search for “a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other.” The narrative we white people have come up with is one of “tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry.”

But blacks see it differently. For Frederick Douglass and for Coates the Civil War was much more important in shaping America than the Revolutionary War. Coates sees the war as “a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people.” Coates himself has become a frequent visitor to civil war battlefields.

One hundred and fifty years after the civil war, Americans are not free of this conflict. The Guild panel and historian audience argued difficult issues:

  • Should offensive statues be completely removed or the plinths retained to remind people what was once there?
  • Are memorials on private land different from those in public places? Markers from Highway 99 now stand on private land surrounded by Confederate flags at Jefferson Davis Park, outside Ridgefield, WA.
  • Should the ordinary soldier who fights in what others perceive as an unjust war still be honored? Are the Confederate Soldiers monument in Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, the memorial to Spanish-American war veterans in Walla Walla, the Vietnam veterans memorial in Spokane’s Riverfront Park different from statues of generals?
  • Is someone like Isaac Stevens whose treaties with Native Americans were unjust but who died at Chantilly fighting for the Union cause to be honored with street and county names, or is his name to be repressed in the public square? Is he at fault for implementing a policy of the United States government supported by the majority of citizens?
  • Can each ethnic group demand its own heroes–Christopher Columbus to Italians, Leif Erickson to Scandinavians?

The most positive thrust to come out of the panel was a look to the future. Who should be remembered? What injustices can be addressed through memorials?

Tacoma has a Chinese Reconciliation Park, remembering the expulsion of the Chinese from the city in 1885. Walla Walla has a new statue of Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox, who was taken hostage and killed during conflicts in 1885. There is a trend toward memorializing the common person, from the Pioneer Mother statue in Vancouver’s town square to Wendy Rose, representative of women welders in the shipyards during World War II.

It is also possible to re-interpret old statues. The Alki Landing Monument has added the names of the women of the landing party and acknowledged the role of the Suquamish and Duwamish in helping the group survive. A county named for the slave-holder Rufus King was renamed for Martin Luther King. Jr.

Welcome Figure, Richmond Beach

We cannot erase history by removing statues that now offend us. Nor can we excuse ourselves by pigeon holing regional identities. Spokane has a statue of Abraham Lincoln; Seattle has George Washington.

But our heroes and sheroes are not static. We can remove memorials to an unjust cause from places of honor and authority. We can change who we honor in the future.

Peace Park, Seattle

[1] Erin Blakemore, “The Lost Dream of a Superhighway to Honor the Confederacy,” The Atlantic. 29 August 2017.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power, An American Tragedy. One World Publishing, 2017.

 

Kettle Falls

When I visited the site of Kettle Falls while researching Hiking Washington’s History, I had read the description by Mourning Dove of her family’s visits to the “roaring waters.” The traditional fishing site, where many tribes gathered in the summer to catch salmon, is now buried under Lake Roosevelt, created by the damming of the Columbia River.

Last winter, I met Lawney L. Reyes at an authors’ night at Island Books.  He was clearly the oldest author there, and I bought his book, White Grizzly Bear’s Legacy.  Just a month or so ago, I met his nephew on a bike ride in West Seattle, and returned to the book.

Reyes, too, wrote about Kettle Falls, where his people, the Sin Aikst, once fished.  The Sin Aikst are now known as the Lakes tribe and have been absorbed into the Colville Confederated tribes.  Reyes describes the tribes gathering in June.  “As a boy, I would stand in wonder as the chinooks, some more than a hundred pounds in weight, leaped the churning falls…. I still recall the roar of the falls and the voices of the people shouting instructions to each other.  I’ll never forget the beauty of the hundreds of tepees of the different tribes.  They lined the shores of the river close to the falls.  There were horses and people everywhere.”

Kettle Falls was once the center of Sin Aikst culture.  Reyes quietly and poignantly tells the story of the loss of this food source and history when the dam was completed in 1942.