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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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—
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.