Mining operation in Black Diamond reinvents itself into landscaping, construction company.
What do you do if you own an 8,000-acre coal mine?
You start selling construction and landscaping products, such as sand, gravel and beauty bark.
That is what the owners of Palmer Coking Coal did to stay in business. This year the Black Diamond-based company, about 25 miles southeast of Seattle, celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“It’s also about listening to your customers. They are the best to tell you what your company has to do,” says William Kombol, manager and part owner of Palmer Coking.
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The reinvention took decades. Kombol has neatly documented that change in files stacked on office shelves.
He traces his lineage to the Morris family, Welsh immigrants who moved to the area in the 1880s and entered the coal business.
In the late 19th century, coal was the second-biggest industry in the region after lumbering. Black Diamond lies in the Green River Coal Field, one of the two big coal areas in King County. The other is the mines around Newcastle, just south of Bellevue.
“Walk through the woods there, and you can still find the remains of that industry, like concrete foundations or railroad grades,” Kombol says.
By 1912, two Morris brothers, Abe and Jonas, founded the family’s first coal-mining company, South Willis Coal, together with their brother-in-law Frank Merritt near Wilkeson in Pierce County.
Coal production peaked in Washington state during World War I. But by the time the Morris family founded Palmer Coking in 1933, the industry was in decline.
“Basically, this company always had to fight within a shrinking market,” Kombol says.
At its peak in the 1950s, Palmer had 120 employees. Today it has 20.
The family knew how to cope with the difficult market, starting with the company’s name.
“Nothing special about ‘Palmer,’ which was then a well-known railroad crossing,” Kombol says. But “Coking Coal” was a trick, for it is a high-quality coal not commonly found in this area.
“It just provided the company with a certain marketing edge; people in the business knew it,” Kombol says.
Robert Ficken, a local historian, traces the decline of the industry to labor strikes in the 1890s, a lower quality of coal compared with deposits in California, and the replacement of the coal-driven trains by diesel locomotives.
Also, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, huge hydroelectric dams such as the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River were built, providing the region with cheap energy.
“By the 1950s, the number of our competitors had shrunk from about 20 in the 1930s to about five in the King County area,” Kombol says.
In 1975, Palmer closed its mine near Ravensdale — the last underground coal mine in the state.
But the company continued surface mining until 1986 when it shut down the McKay-Section-12-Mine in Black Diamond and started reclamation work there.
In 2006, large-scale coal mining in the state pretty much ended when the TransAlta mine near Centralia closed and put about 550 people out of work.
The number of coal miners in Washington has dropped to about 50, according to figures compiled by the state Employment Security Department.
Between 1933 and 1986 Palmer sold an estimated 2.5 million tons of coal.
“In the early days, the lives of the miners and their families were strongly influenced by the coal companies, since towns like Black Diamond or Newcastle were often quickly constructed and only for the purpose of housing the workers and their families,” Ficken says.
“There were shops that belonged to the company, people spent their free time with their families, who were often large, and there was a lot of vegetable growing.”
A modest life, no doubt. “But the wages were good, I guess, at least compared to working in the logging business or in a sawmill, which were the only other major work opportunities around,” says George Costanich, who comes from a family of coal miners and worked for Palmer from 1949 to 1955.
Today, the 85-year-old lives in Auburn, Calif.
“It was hard physical labor,” Costanich recalls. The miners drilled holes into the coal, put in explosives, ignited them and shoveled the coal into cars to be carried for the surface.
Dangerous work, sometimes, especially in the early days. But even later, cave-ins still occurred.
Palmer had its worst accident in 1955 when four miners died.
“As a miner, you just didn’t think about the risk. We learned to live with it,” says Costanich, who survived two smaller cave-ins. “I have great respect for people working underground, no matter if coal or gold miners.”
With the end of coal in sight, Palmer started to experiment with new business opportunities in the 1970s.
“It was really trial and error. Our business model has always been based on the land,” says Kombol, who has been managing the company since 1981.
Today, the firm offers about 30 different products, among them six different topsoils and 20 types of washed, crushed and screened gravel.
Palmer also harvests 20 to 40 acres of timber per year.
“But this is just a small part of our business since the market is very difficult. The prices are down due to heavy competition from Russia, New Zealand or Indonesia,” Kombol says.
“Also, planting new trees is a lot of work, and the whole cycle of cutting and growing is a slow one that takes about 40 years.”
In recent years, Palmer has been profiting from the region’s booming real estate. “But lately business has been worse,” says Kombol.
The privately held company does not disclose its financials. But Kombol estimates that his sales during the first half of this year were down 30 percent compared with the first six months of 2007.
Palmer either delivers the rocks and soil, or customers can pick it up. “That’s also when people often ask for special products, like lava rocks or boulders of a certain size,” Kombol says.
In addition to those items, Palmer sells different types of cinder, including their “Safeco Field warning track cinders” used by the Seattle Mariners and Little League and high-school baseball fields in the area.
Although Palmer has changed its business model, Kombol has not given up on coal as a business opportunity.
“In Great Britain they are experimenting with burning coal underground, thereby extracting the energy without mining the resource. With technical progress and rising oil prices, that might be profitable someday,” he says.
“Hey, coal has been big once, why shouldn’t it come back?” Kombol asks.
But mostly he concentrates on change.
“Because that’s what has kept our company around for 75 years.”
Seattle Times news researcher David Turim and desk editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.