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.
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.
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. 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.”
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?” 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.
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.
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.