Durham: A King County Coal Mining Town

  • By Nina Elizabeth (Morris) Falk with William Kombol
  • Posted 11/01/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7996
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This reminiscence of childhood in the King County coalmining town of Durham was written by Nina Elizabeth "Betty" (Morris) Falk in 1990-1991. Betty Morris (Falk), was born on March 26, 1920, in Tacoma, Washington, to Nina Marie Morris and John Henry Morris. Her father was a co-owner with his brothers and the mine superintendent at Durham. Betty married Carl Gustav Falk (1920-1997) on December 19, 1942, in Enumclaw, and they raised five children. Betty Falk died on April 16, 2006, in Kent, Washington. Her nephew William Kombol found this memoir amongst her papers, transcribed and edited it, and added genealogical and coal production information. The Durham Colliery was originally organized by Peter Kirk's Moss Bay Iron & Steel Co in 1886 to supply coal for his planned Kirkland steel mills. Durham was named for a town in Kirk's native north England. Coal production commenced in 1888 but was shut down within a year. The mine re-opened in 1915 as Durham Colliery Co. The name was changed in 1922 to Morris Bros. Coal Co., changed again in 1932 to Durham Coal Co. and yet again in 1933 to Palmer Coking Coal Co. Bill Kombol is manager of the Palmer Coking Coal Co., today (2006) located in Black Diamond.

Durham: A Coal Mining Town

by Betty Falk

In the early days of the state of Washington the two main industries were lumbering and mining. They often existed side by side. Before the automobile the main source of transportation, besides horse and wagon, was the railroad. The site of each sawmill or mine became a small town or camp. Each town usually had a boarding house, called a hotel, for bachelor miners or loggers and traveling salesmen or drummers who arrived by train. There was usually a general store and often a saloon. The houses for the men with families were owned by the company, which ran the mine and rented the houses for nominal sums. Towns of any size would also have a school of at least eight grades and sometimes 12.

The mining town of Durham where I lived from 1925 to 1933 was situated in southeast King County, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Western Washington. It was one of many small mining towns or camps in this area of the county where the Green River coal beds had been discovered in the 1880s. The nearest town of any size was Enumclaw, a logging and farming community. Between Enumclaw and Selleck, a lumbering town several miles northeast of Durham, were the mining towns of Cumberland, Bayne, Occidental, Elkcoal, Hiawatha, and Kangley, and the railroad station town at Palmer/Kanaskat. Many of the mines in these towns had been originally opened by large companies but were shut down after World War I when the demand for coal dropped. Small operators then took over, often leasing from the large companies, and produced coal for the local market since most people had coal stoves at that time. My father [John Henry Morris, 1894-1973] and his brothers [Abraham Mathew Morris, Jonas Morris, Edward George Morris, William Morris, and Thomas Llewellyn Morris] were partners in the mine at Durham. At one time or another almost every member of our large family lived in the mining camp.

Durham lay on a hillside. Turning up from the county road [The Kanaskat-Kangley Road], a gentle climb, one crossed two railroad tracks, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee. We always called them the Milwauk and the N.P. Often, boxcars to be loaded with coal were left on sidings at the foot of the town. The doors were frequently left open so we children were able to climb in. Sometimes we had burr fights inside. Mother [Nina Marie (Morris) Morris, 1890-1967] didn't appreciate untangling burrs from my hair.

At the top of the incline the road turned left for a level stretch, past the mine office and one other house before coming to the hotel. The office was simply one of the company houses that had been converted. A short distance beyond the office was the hotel. It was a large two-story brick building, which also contained a small general store. The hotel, run by Aunt Maggie [Margaret (Phillips) Morris, 1888-1955] and Uncle Jonas [Jonas Morris, 1882-1954] was a boarding house for the bachelor miners. Along the wall as you entered the kitchen on the ground floor was a cast iron stove. A long counter, running parallel to the stove, was in the center of the room. A zinc-covered counter formed a tee at one end. This counter or worktable had a hole in the middle. All scraps went into this hole and then into a barrel and eventually into some pigs, the kitchen disposals of that day. The kitchen also contained a long table for the men, sometimes as many as 50 hungry miners. I was allowed to set table sometimes for a candy reward from the company store, which was just off the kitchen and had its separate entrance from the outside.

Next to the kitchen was a large sitting room for the family, which consisted of my Aunt Maggie and Uncle Jonas, their son George [George Edward Morris, b. 1915] (my cousin), and any, visiting relatives. Just beyond this room was the sitting room for the men with its own entrance. The bedrooms for the bachelor miners were on the second floor.

Just beyond the hotel the road forked. The left fork led down a gentle slope to the washhouse, where the miners bathed, and the coal bunkers. The right fork doubled back up the hill to the next level of houses. At the top of the hill, on the left, was the superintendent's house where my family lived. My father was the mine superintendent. A boardwalk connected our house with its neighbor where my Aunt Lizzie [Elizabeth Ann (Morris) Nichols, 1886-1985] and Uncle Ben [Benjamin Nichols, 1885-1951] lived. Between these two houses were three tent houses. They consisted of wooden floors and shingled roofs with wood siding about half way up to the roof. Canvas covered the open area, hence the name "tent house." They each had a front porch and a regular door, and must have been used for housing at one time but were now used for storage. They were built right against the side of the hill so we children could climb on the roofs from the hillside and were close enough together so we could easily jump from one roof to the next. Between two of the houses was a large, hollow petrified wood stump. I wonder if it is still there, although houses and the buildings of the town of Durham are now all gone.

From the back porch of the big house a trail or path led to the mine. You might say we had a coal mine in our backyard. On the left of Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Ben's house was a large shed, which served as a garage for several families. A dirt path ran from the garage down the hill connecting the houses. Here was a perfect place to roll hoops or old tires, just as we did. Between our two houses and the hotel was a large, sloping field bisected across the middle by a pipe, which carried water to the rest of the houses. This was the camp playfield, baseball or football, depending on the season. In the winter, when we had enough snow, it was perfect for sledding. We packed snow on the upper half of the pipe for a small sled jump, which gave us a big thrill.

I have often wondered how Mother coped with raising children amid the obvious dangers in a mining camp. One answer was that she had many "eyes" to keep track of us. Besides Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Ben next door and Aunt Maggie and Uncle Jonas at the hotel, there were Aunt Nancy [Nancy A. (Boots) Morris, 1899-1969] and Uncle Bill [William Morris, 1897-1979], Aunt Marian [Marian Mae (Morris) Masters, 1902-1978] and Uncle Clarence [Clarence W. "Molly" Masters, 1897-1975], Aunt Hattie [Harriet Jane (Morris) Wheeler, 1892-1931] and Uncle Pete [Ira "Pete" Wheeler, married Harriet Jane Morris in 1918; birth and death dates unknown], Uncle Ed [Edward George Morris, 1889-1959], and the miners themselves. There weren't too many places where we could wander and be out of sight or hearing.

One place to which we did wander was the site of the bag swing. On the hillside in back of camp the Hendrikson brothers had put up the swing. That sounded harmless enough at home, but this was no ordinary swing. It was suspended from a branch of a good-sized tree. Two wooden platforms were constructed on either side of the tree. The ride consisted of a running jump from one platform over the treetops below to a landing, hopefully, on the platform on the other side. It was thrilling and scary. A miss meant a rough ride down the hill. When some rather bad scrapes and bruises began to appear at home and eventually a broken limb, Aunt Lizzie took action. No adult had inspected the swing so far. Aunt Lizzie did and then came back home to get an axe. The bag swing was no more and we went on to other diversions.

One summer diversion was damming the creek, which ran through a culvert beneath the railroad tracks near the coal bunkers. I don't remember why we dammed it. To make a pool perhaps or, more likely, it was just something to do. The railroadmaintenance men didn't appreciate this activity but they never complained to us or to our parents that I knew of. They just tore out our dam each day and we, just as diligently, built it over again. It was war. This went on until school started and we had other things to occupy our time.

Although there were other children in camp, families moved in and moved away again. The constants were my older brother Jack [John Abraham "Jack" Morris, b. 1918], my cousin George, my younger brother Evan [Evan David Morris Sr., 1922-2006], and myself. We weren't exactly buddies. The two older boys spent a lot of time trying to lose Evan and me. It was called ditching. Their plans for the day didn't usually include us. We were usually determined to do whatever they were going to do even if we didn't know what it was. We would just follow them. They never told us we couldn't come with them. They just started off at a fast pace through field and woods, walking faster and faster, with the two of us panting behind. Sooner or later they always managed to lose us. Always.

Sometimes they needed us though. To play football one needs two teams. George and Jack were always captains, and of course and Evan and I were the teams. I think they must have taken turns as to who was going to have to take which teammate. George, or Jack, and I would go into the huddle and solemnly he would decree a forward pass. I would run obediently toward the goal line but I don't think I caught too many passes. I might have gotten tackled.

Baseball games might involve the whole camp. Those who didn't play watched. There were no teams -- we played work-up. Anytime a player struck out or was put out, he became an outfielder and everyone moved up a position. Democracy at work!

With no formal yards and lots of hiding places, group games such as "Hide and Seek," "Kick the Can" and "I Want a Beckon" were played on the long summer days and evenings. Sometimes some of the younger adult members of the community joined us.

Another favorite game was "Cops and Robbers." Our guns were made of wood boards cut to resemble a gun barrel and handle. On the handle was fastened a wooden clothespin with a spring on it. The bullet was a heavy rubber band cut from an inner tube. Held by the clothespin at the handle and extended over the end of the barrel, these rubber bands made pretty good, non-lethal weapons. A hit meant you're dead and fierce arguments arose over whether a hit was really made since the "bullets" left no marks.

Durham Coal Production, 1888-1944

Coal production records for Durham during its years of mine operations are from the Washington State Coal Mine Inspectors' Annual Reports. The total tonnage mined at Durham from 1888 to 1944 was 733,566 tons. In the following list, the name of the firm precedes the name of the mine.

  • 1888

    Oregon Improvement Co: Durham Mine -- 6360 ton

  • 1889

    Oregon Improvement Co.: Durham Mine -- 22,319 tons

  • 1915
    Durham Colliery Co: No 1 and No. 2 -- 18,854 tons
  • 1916

    Durham Colliery Co.: No. 1 and No. 2 -- 39,888 tons

  • 1917

    Durham Colliery Co.: No. 1 and No. 2 -- 70,064 tons

  • 1918

    Durham Colliery Co.: No. 1 and No. 2 -- 51,630 tons

  • 1919

    Durham Colliery Co.: No. 1 and No. 2 -- 50,771 tons

  • 1920

    Durham Colliery Co.: No. 1 and No. 2 -- 34,614 tons

  • 1922

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 21,127 tons

  • 1923

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 24,517 tons

  • 1924

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 27,866 tons

  • 1925

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 23,473 tons

  • 1926

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 29,189 tons

  • 1927

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 23,583 tons

  • 1928

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 18,889 tons

  • 1929

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 2 -- 2,907 tons

  • 1930

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham No. 1 -- 4,946 tons

  • 1931

    Morris Bros Coal Co, Durham -- 5,232 tons

  • 1932

    Durham Coal Co., Morris -- 1,454 tons

  • 1933

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 4,339 tons

  • 1934

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 20,469 tons

  • 1935

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 24,409 tons

  • 1936

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 28,732 tons

  • 1937

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 42,823 tons

  • 1938

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 28,063 tons

  • 1939

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 15,633 tons

  • 1940

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 10,721 tons

  • 1941

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 19,070 tons

  • 1942

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 31,326 tons

  • 1943

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 16,329 tons

  • 1944

    Palmer Coking Coal Co., Durham -- 13,969 tons


Washington State Coal Mine Inspectors Annual Reports, 1887-1962; William Kombol, compiler, "From Wales to Washington: The Children and Heritage of George and Mary Ann (Williams) Morris," January 2004; Washington State Coal Mine Inspectors Annual Reports, 1887-1962; Black Diamond Historical Society Newsletter, February 1996; Arline Ely, Our Foundering Fathers: the Story of Kirkland (Kirkland: Kirkland Public Library, 1975), 30, 50.

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