Carbonado, located on the Carbon River below Mount Rainier in the Cascade foothills of eastern Pierce County, prospered for decades as an industrial coalmining town. As settlers poured into the Puget Sound region in the second half of the nineteenth century, extraction industries, including timber and salmon fishing in addition to mining, flourished across the region. In eastern King and Pierce counties, companies developed coalmining operations and communities of workers grew up around the mines. Among these, Carbonado was one of the largest and long-lived of the company towns that came to life between the 1860s and the early twentieth century. Carbonado's story shares many elements with its contemporaries in the region, including rapid development, labor conflicts, tragic accidents, and inter-ethnic struggles. However, also like other locales, Carbonado's story reveals its residents' community-mindedness -- born out of remoteness and shared challenges faced by a diverse population -- from its origins to the present.
Washington Coal Mining and Carbonado's Founding
Prior to non-Native exploration and settlement of what is now eastern King and Pierce counties, people living in the lower river valleys, primarily the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes, regularly used the western slopes of the Cascade Range for raising and harvesting berries, gathering other useful plant materials, and hunting. Family groups followed the Puyallup River and its tributaries to high-country meadows where they maintained abundant berry fields and game animals grazed. Traveling to the high country also allowed trade, socializing, and intermarriage with people from the east of the Cascades who also used the mountain resources.
In 1833 William Fraser Tolmie (1812-1886), head of the Hudson's Bay Company outpost of Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound in what is now southwestern Pierce County, traveled to the lower slopes of Mount Rainier on an exploratory survey with local Indian guides identified as Lachalet (d. ca. 1849) and Nuckalkat. They passed near the Carbon River drainage but noted no coal deposits along their route. Members of the United States Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) passed through eastern Pierce County in 1841 and named the Carbon River the Upthascap, likely an approximation of a local place name. However, future cartographers failed to adopt this name.
Commercial coal mining began in Western Washington in the 1850s at Bellingham Bay. In 1854 and 1855, the federal government entered a series of treaties with Western Washington tribes as a means of opening land to settlement by non-Natives. The treaties established reservations to which local Native peoples were to move, but guaranteed their access to traditional resource-gathering areas. After a series of conflicts between settler militia and Indians resisting the influx of newcomers ended in capitulation by local tribes, settlers continued taking up claims in eastern Pierce County. Prospectors in search of new resources also combed the region for the next big mineral strike. Tribal groups continued using the lands, but government authorities and settlers usually ignored treaty provisions that guaranteed their continued access.
By the 1860s, coalmining was underway in eastern King County at Newcastle, Renton, and Coal Creek, driven mainly by demand in Seattle and other Puget Sound communities. After the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Tacoma in 1873, demand for coal expanded dramatically and more coal mines began operation in eastern King and Pierce counties, including at Wilkeson, a short distance north of the future site of Carbonado.
Even before completion of the rail line from the Columbia River to Tacoma, local promoters extolled the Puget Sound region's marketable resources to solicit support from potential investors. In 1871, a survey party initiated by Morton M. McCarver (1807-1875), an early promoter of Tacoma, discovered marketable coal on the Carbon River (which would be named in 1876 for those coal deposits.) Contractor Edward S. "Skookum" Smith (1828-1886), manager for the Northern Pacific during completion of its line to Tacoma, also strongly advocated development of coal resources in eastern Pierce County and convinced the railroad to build a spur to those coalfields.
In 1877 a mine at Wilkeson opened as rails reached the site. The possibilities for further development of coal mines in the area attracted the interest of San Francisco capitalists, who formed the Carbon River Coal Mining Company and acquired rights to mine three miles south of Wilkeson on the Carbon River. The new mine's investors worked with the Northern Pacific to secure a rail extension to their site, but the railroad was unenthusiastic because the mines at Wilkeson were less profitable than hoped. The mining company board balked at the startup costs with too little assurance of adequate returns. As the 1870s wore on, the effort to mine coal beyond Wilkeson languished.
Meanwhile another San Francisco investor, Richard D. Chandler, decided to learn what he could about the area. Chandler owned coalmining operations in British Columbia but wanted to move operations to the U.S. to avoid steep import tariffs. In 1879 he sent his trusted mine superintendent Robert Wingate (1840-1905) to prospect along the Carbon River. Wingate's positive assessment convinced Chandler to purchase the Carbon River Coal Mining Company's claim.
In 1880 the Carbon Hill Coal Company incorporated, and Chandler named Wingate superintendent. Chandler also sold his mine in British Columbia to finance the new mine. From that moment, development of what would soon become Carbonado was underway.
An Orderly Boomtown
Under Wingate's direction, development of the town and mine works proceeded briskly. Among the first projects was connecting the mine opening near the river to the relatively flat town site on the bluff 900 feet above. The company employed Chinese laborers to build a path from the bluff to the mine opening below, which became known as the "Chinese Steps."
Development of the town paralleled that of the mine. In 1880 Pierce County created the Carbon River voting district. That June, the census counted just 32 residents in the district. By the summer of 1880 a post office and a company store had opened, both operated by Eben Ingalls (d. 1882) under contract with the coal company. Initially the post office was called Carbondale, after Carbondale, Pennsylvania, but the name was changed within a few months to Carbonado, a Spanish word meaning "black diamond."
To house arriving workers, the Carbon Hill Coal Company built simple cottages along as-yet-unpaved streets. Initially conditions were rustic. There was no indoor plumbing; potable water for household use was only available at public taps located throughout town. Each home had its own outhouse. Workers brought their families to live in the new town. The company concentrated on hiring family men, as they were seen as less likely to risk loss of income by striking. To accommodate the influx of children, a school district formed in 1881.
Crews began mining in July 1880. While the quality of the coal was good, conditions in the mines made extraction difficult. Uplift by the Cascade Range meant that the coal beds tilted at extreme angles, requiring crews to work on steep slopes. Other hazards, including firedamp (a mix of flammable gases, including methane), cave-ins, and injuries from machinery were common. Of particular concern were "bumps" -- undetectable pressurized gas pockets that could explode when encountered.
In December 1880 the rail extension reached Carbonado. To bring coal up to the railroad, the company constructed an incline railway from the town level down the 45-degree slope to the mines. A coal-fired engine at the top of the incline powered a counterbalance mechanism that operated the railway. Once it opened the miners used the incline railway to come and go from their shifts and the Chinese Steps were used only in emergencies.
During the summer of 1881, investors from California came to see the progress at Carbonado. Among the dignitaries was Charles Crocker (1822-1888), cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western half of the first transcontinental railroad. By the 1880s he also controlled the Southern Pacific Railroad and was one of the most powerful capitalists in the western United States. Crocker was impressed with the Carbonado operation. By fall he acquired the town and mines from Richard Chandler. Carbonado's output began supplying Crocker's railroads, shipped by steamship to California via Tacoma.
Despite the new owners' desire to keep him on, Robert Wingate stepped down in 1882 as superintendent to pursue his own business interests. Under Crocker's ownership, development at Carbonado accelerated, adding bunkers to store coal awaiting shipment. By late 1882 Carbonado was the second-largest-producing mine in the region, after the Newcastle operation in King County.
One major change was the tightened control of the company store after the death of Eben Ingalls in 1882. The company began to engage in predatory practices common in company-controlled stores at the time. It required workers to shop at that store only and banned sales by outside vendors in town. Workers could take advances on their pay in scrip, redeemable only at the store. If used before payday the scrip's face value was discounted. Workers and their families in need of emergency goods found themselves in debt, prevented from leaving town until the debts were paid. These practices persisted until the 1910s when the state outlawed them.
Diversity, Unionization, and Anti-Chinese Agitation
Carbonado's population demographics throughout its existence were fairly diverse. In its early years, many workers and families relocated from mining operations in the eastern U.S. At first immigrant workers were mainly English, Welsh, and Scottish. Later additional northern and eastern European immigrants found their foothold in America working in Carbonado, as they did in similar company towns elsewhere.
Early on, a small contingent of Chinese laborers also lived and worked at Carbonado. Their dwellings, separate from the orderly housing provided by the company for other workers, were what some accounts describe as "shanties," located west of town, below the main town level. At most, some 60 Chinese residents lived in Carbonado, and they may have arrived after the Crocker takeover, as he employed Chinese workers extensively in railroad construction.
In the 1880s the first tentative efforts toward unionization took hold in Carbonado. As in other diverse towns, family and ethnic ties often separated groups, limiting efforts at organizing. However, the Knights of Labor made inroads in Western Washington, mainly by vilifying Chinese workers as unfair competition. The issue united many in the Euro-American immigrant communities divided by language and culture.
In 1885 and 1886, anti-Chinese agitation devolved into mob violence. In November 1885, citizens of Tacoma forced Chinese residents to depart by train. There were also attempts to banish Seattle's Chinese residents. Intervention by National Guard troops halted the action, only to have it flare up after the Guard's withdrawal the following February. Over that winter, small outbreaks of anti-Chinese violence by white vigilantes continued throughout Western Washington. At Carbonado, the small number of Chinese workers and the company's embrace of their labor tempered overt agitation among most white miners, who were unwilling to oppose their employer's policies.
However, on February 10, 1886, a contingent of white vigilantes from Black Diamond, Franklin, and other nearby coal towns arrived in Carbonado, demanding the company fire its Chinese workers. Superintendent David Davies (1841-1901) telegraphed management in San Francisco for orders. As they waited for a reply, company officials paid the Chinese workers the wages they were owed, in case they departed. When no response from San Francisco arrived by late in the day, the officials allowed the mob to force the Chinese workers from Carbonado. The vigilantes took them to Tacoma where they put them aboard a steamship bound for San Francisco.
In the years following the expulsions, the Knights of Labor's influence among coal miners in Carbonado grew to the point where it established a local chapter in 1888. However, by 1890 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a significant competitor for memberships. That year the national Knights of Labor merged with the AFL union miners, forming the United Mine Workers Union (UMW.)
Under Davies's direction, mining continued to expand as the Carbon Hill Coal Company made improvements to the operation. In 1887, steam engines replaced mules for hoisting materials in the mine. In 1888 a second railroad spur, built along the Carbon River to the mine entrance, allowed coal shipments to bypass the incline railway. By the 1890s the mines were illuminated with electricity -- the first in Washington.
The town also saw improvements. A new school was built at company expense, complete with a $100 bell. The school building also served as the center of religious services for multiple denominations. In 1886 a chapter of the Knights of Pythias formed. The group's emphasis on temperance and moral behavior was welcomed by many, especially company management.
A volunteer fire company was organized in 1886 after a disorganized response exacerbated the damage caused by a small fire in town. In 1887 townspeople added a nondenominational church to relieve demand on the school building. In addition, growing numbers of Scandinavians led to formation of a Finnish Lutheran Church. About this time the company plumbed workers' homes with toilets and hot and cold running water.
The predominance of families in Carbonado meant women and children were an ongoing presence. Census data shows that women were mainly engaged in traditional roles -- homemakers, laundresses, and schoolteachers. As elsewhere, women likely took lead roles in organizing social events for their own families and larger community gatherings. In later years, Carbonado women took on more work outside the home, including office work for the company. In the 1940s Clarice Streepy (1903-2000) served as postmaster.
By 1890 Carbonado's population stood at 705. While upgrades to town facilities occurred regularly, residents had limited say in the order of things. There was no town government or elected leadership; all improvements were at the behest of the Carbon Hill Coal Company and occurred on its schedule. While residents were relatively content with the status quo, subsequent years under this system would prove to be a hindrance to growth and change.
One major improvement for Carbonado was the addition of a town hospital in 1892, also built by the company. Before that, medical help for serious injury or illness meant a trip to a larger city, usually Tacoma, by rail. The hospital expedited treatment of work-related injuries and helped miners return to their duties more rapidly when they fell ill, benefiting both the company and the miner's families.
While the facilities at Carbonado were, by contemporary accounts, better than at many company towns, the dangers inherent in mining meant injuries and fatalities were inevitable. In the first 57 years the mines operated, more than 130 deaths resulted from accidents.
The earliest documented work-related deaths at Carbonado were Pat Dalton and A. G. Macetti, killed in separate incidents in 1884. The following year four miners died -- two lost their lives to gas asphyxiation and two to an accidental explosion of mine gas. Into the 1890s similar accidents claimed more lives, usually one or two at a time. The company attributed these deaths to a moment of carelessness by the victim.
Then in 1899 Carbonado suffered one of the most devastating mine disasters in Washington's history. The morning shift arrived at Wingate Hill Mine No. 7 and the foreman gave the signal for "all clear," indicating the mine was free of flammable gas. Of the 75 miners on the shift, one small team prepared for an explosive charge to dislodge a load of coal for removal.
Just after 11 a.m. a large explosion shook the mine. In the ensuing chaos, miners scrambled to get to safety and begin to rescue injured colleagues if possible. On the surface the townspeople felt nothing, but those working in the mine nearer the entrance sounded the alarm. Within a short while, those who could escaped to the surface. A group of Finnish miners was able to climb to safety through an air passage. As word spread through the town, off-duty miners raced to the mine entrance, willing to go in after their friends and coworkers. Management struggled to keep them out as the stability of the mine was uncertain and the likelihood of asphyxiation was high. Families understood the risks miners faced each day and gathered to await word of their family members' fate.
News reached the state capital that afternoon and Governor John Rogers (1838-1901) quickly arranged to travel to Carbonado with a committee to survey the damage in person. He arrived that evening along with the Pierce County sheriff and coroner and an entourage of state officials. By 9 p.m. the company declared the mine cleared of gas and allowed rescue teams to enter. Rescuers found no survivors; 33 men lost their lives in the explosion.
An investigation ruled that 20-year-old Ben Zedler triggered the explosion when he opened his headlamp to light a pipe, igniting flammable gas and touching off the dynamite charge. Rescuers found Zedler's body near the blast site, lamp open and a pipe near his body.
Over the following days, newspapers reported stories of bravery and tragedy connected to the explosion. Longtime employee Howell Meredith, who was working near the surface, heard the blast and went deeper into the mine to rescue his son Daniel. Daniel made his way to the surface but Howell suffocated in the "black damp" (oxygen-deficient atmosphere) that follows an explosion.
Relief efforts from around the region sent support to the families of the victims. On December 12, 1899, the town held a community memorial service and buried most of the miners in the local cemetery. Other victims went to their last rest in family plots in nearby towns.
Boom Years and Labor Struggles
While many industries began switching to petroleum fuel in the 1890s, demand for Carbonado coal held steady due to the need for high-grade coal for coal gasification plants and for metallurgical production. In 1911 the company added beehive ovens for refining coal into coke. Increased demand during World War I insured that Carbonado production remained high and provided steady paychecks for miners.
The town itself also reflected the good economic times. In 1904 a new larger school replaced the original building, and in 1914 the town added a two-year high school. About that time the company added electricity to workers' homes and constructed 130 new houses, also with water and electricity. A new "wash and change" building allowed miners to wear their street clothes to work and shower after their shifts, greatly improving health conditions in family homes.
In this era the town supported several businesses, including a barber, hotel, and three saloons. With no elected town officials, the Carbonado Community Club took on many of the functions of a town council, organizing community improvements. Over the years it oversaw construction of a baseball field, a bandstand, and some other small improvements.
After the end of the World War I, demand for Carbonado coal fell. Workers used to receiving higher wages balked at efforts to cut salaries after the war. The United Mine Workers Union pressed companies, including the Carbon Hill Coal Company, to keep wages at their previous levels. A short strike in 1919 led to a temporary continuation of wage levels but the decline in coal prices led company shareholders to demand wage reductions.
In 1921 mine operators throughout Western Washington collectively lowered wages. The UMW held to its wage demands, which led to a region-wide strike. In Carbonado, workers left their posts in June. The union allowed a skeleton crew to stay on to maintain the mines. As the summer wore on, those workers also joined the strike.
In August, mine operators began hiring non-union employees, garnering much outrage from union miners. Mine operators brought in security guards to put down any actions the union might take against the strikebreakers.
The strike wore on into 1923, when the miners declared defeat. As they returned to work the company no longer recognized the UMW as representing the miners and the workers accepted lower pay. The enmity between workers and the company generated by the strike ran deep, and may have been the catalyst for the company's next move.
Last Years of Mining
As railroads and other industries continued their conversion to petroleum fuels, the Carbon Hill Coal Company decided to turn over operations at Carbonado to another firm. In 1924 the Pacific Coast Coal Company, which also operated mines at Black Diamond, Burnett, South Prairie, and Newcastle, leased the Carbonado mines as well.
Under the new management, mine operations continued at a reduced capacity. Pacific Coast consolidated labor and equipment from its various operations and even began moving worker housing from Burnett to Carbonado to replace older, rundown dwellings. In 1926 it halted the coking operations to cut costs.
During the years that Pacific Coast ran the Carbonado mines, two significant accidents resulted in multiple injuries and deaths. The first, in 1927, was the result of heavy rains. Seven miners died when a saturated layer of mud and rock below the river blew out and flooded a passage. The other occurred in 1930 when an explosive charge ignited flammable dust in a passage, killing 17 miners.
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the continued decline of coal prices finally ended large-scale mining at Carbonado in 1937, leaving the town without a major employer. Former mine employees were finally able to purchase their homes for $250 to $340 each. However, the Pacific Improvement Company, parent company of the former mine operator, retained mineral rights to the land beneath the homes and restrictive covenants limited homeowners' ability to make improvements to their properties.
While many workers departed with their families in search of new jobs, improved roads and automobiles enabled some to remain in Carbonado and commute to other mines in the area. Others who stayed changed careers, entering logging and construction. One source of relief was the federal Works Progress Administration, which during the Depression hired local men for road-building and other projects. Independent mining companies occasionally worked small-scale operations in the Carbonado mines, when the economy made it profitable to do so.
From Company Town to Bedroom Community
With the withdrawal of coal-company control, Carbonado needed to regularize local leadership. In 1948 residents incorporated the town. One of the new government's first actions was to purchase the existing water and sewer systems from the mining company and professionalize the town's firefighters.
Despite these advances, the town continued a general decline as the restrictive covenants imposed by the company made banks unwilling to loan money to homeowners for renovations or new construction. By the 1960s many buildings were dilapidated. The company sold its general store to a salvage outfit that razed the building, leaving only the empty vault.
In 1966 Carbonado finally persuaded the company to end its remaining hold on local landowners. Pierce County assessed the mineral claim at $4,000, and Carbonado's town council offered to pay that amount for the rights. When the company demanded $250,000, Carbonado's attorneys notified the county, which reassessed the taxable value at $50,000. Faced with the increased tax burden, the company deeded the mineral rights to the town, ending the covenants.
In the years since, Carbonado has transitioned to a quiet commuter community. Its school district serves about 180 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. In 2018 a gymnasium constructed in 1929, and listed on the Washington State Heritage Register since the 1980s, still continued in its historic role.
Carbonado residents remained proud of their community's history. In 1980 the town hosted a public centennial celebration drawing many old-timers and descendants. In 1999 the town also held a memorial event, commemorating the lives lost in the 1899 disaster. A marker honoring the memory of those killed in local mining was dedicated in 2002, installed in Carbonado's cemetery.
Carbonado's significance as a historic community is rooted in its role as the place where many families first lived and worked in the region. The names of immigrants from many lands stand in solemn testimony in its cemetery, not just to the lives that were lost in the mines; but to the diverse peoples that lived there together, becoming part of America's cultural fabric.