WHEN I TEACH an annual Northwest history course to middle-school students, one of my favorite pre-COVID lessons included an often-muddy field trip to Cougar Mountain in the foothills between Bellevue and Issaquah, and their once-flourishing but nearly forgotten mining communities.
In the wet Pacific Northwest, as every homeowner can attest, iron rusts and wood rots with alacrity. Entire towns can disappear into the tangle of eager rainforest.
Case in point: the adjoining villages of Newcastle and Coal Creek, once home to more than 1,000 residents. For nearly a century, the hamlets fed the hungry maw of industry, power generation and home heating with vast tons of coal, besides helping to build the rails and docks that transformed Seattle into a major port city.
Local journalist and historian Lucille MacDonald and son Dick MacDonald first published their classic monograph, “The Coals of Newcastle: A Hundred Years of Hidden History,” in 1987, in collaboration with the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and the Newcastle Historical Society. Thirty-three years later, the historical society deemed it time for an update.
It took a village of 15 to tackle the mammoth task of revision. Nearly 18 months in the making and approaching 200 pages, lavishly illustrated with maps, graphs and many previously unpublished photos, the updated version is a history buff’s delight.
The story begins Jan. 9, 1864, when after “months of diligent search,” an exploratory party led by King County Surveyor Edwin Richardson made an exhilarating discovery on the banks of today’s Coal Creek. “This brook,” a weary Richardson recorded in field notes, “is remarkable for its numerous croppings of superior stone coal.”
Within weeks, Richardson and several companions staked out 160-acre claims surrounding the creek. Extraction soon began, at first haphazardly but increasing exponentially, and over the next 100 years yielded nearly 11 million tons of coal.
While the area’s vivid history is told with careful attention to detail, the book also shines with moving accounts of the lives of miners, their families and communities. Immigrants arriving in a new world found a toehold at the coal face.
Newcastle’s cemetery, now a historic landmark, provides haunting evidence of these lives lived and lost. The names on its moss-covered headstones reflect a record of migration from across the world. From China, from Europe, from the Americas they came, of many races and religions, confronting physical danger and exploitation, poverty and discrimination, and yet seeded with hope for a brighter future.
As my students have come to understand, it’s a lesson worth mining.
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