Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Working in a Coal Mine

Nope, this one isn't about the current job. Its about the city of Renton, just north of here.

Benson Avenue, the main artery along the East Hill, starts in the city of Renton itself, right behind the Renton City Hall and the new SAM's Club. It occupies a sliver of land right alongside I-405 at that point, and you head up the hill, there's what looks like the an old bridge support or a gun emplacement along the side of the road - moss-covered concrete with stumps of rebar sticking out of the top.

And there's a plaque mounted to the side of the concrete, and I just can't resist a historical marker. So I pulled over.

The pile of concrete and rebar turns out to be a foundation of a mine car hoist for the Renton Coal Mine. The mine itself operated between 1873 and 1920. The hoist was used to haul coal out of the East Hill, the original entrance now buried under the highway. Mules were used originally. This particular mine ran over a mile into the hill, and branched some 22 times. In its lifetime it took out 1.3 million tons of coal (according to the plaque).

The Renton Coal Mine predates Renton itself. Back then area was known as Black Bridge, for the crossing of the Black River (which as far as I know, is no longer a going concern either, but that may be another story). William Renton was a lumberman who moved up to this neck of the woods in 1850, seeing a need for lumber in Seattle, since the city regularly caught fire in those days (and was rebuilt in wood, so it could burn again - this is what they call today a "repeat purchase model"). Renton did well in lumber, and expanded into rail in order to carry the wood. And when running a planned rail line out to some virgin timber, his associates found coal in the local hills near Black Bridge and William Renton went into the coal business.

(As a digression, there are other coal towns in the area, including Newcastle and Black Diamond. Never thought of them as such, but once you realize it, its kind of obvious from the names).

Anyway, it was the Renton Coal Company until 1886, then became the Renton Cooperative Coal Company until 1907, then was part of Seatle Electic until 1920, when it shut down. Hydro and natural gas replaced coal as an energy source, but the last coal mine (out in Black Diamond) in the area closed in the 1970's.

(This is of particular interest to me, since my home town of Mt. Lebanon, PA - indeed most of southern Allegheny County - was undercut by old mines. My father said that in the 50s you could hear the picks and shovels from the basement of the schools (Which in turn leads to old European stories of Mine Spirits - Knockers and Kobolds, but I'm digressing more than usual)).

Now rural Black Bridge gave way to a larger community of immigrants that came in to mine the coal. And when the town finally incorporated in 1901 (it just celebrated its centennial a few years back), it took as its name that of its leading citizen and its biggest industry - Renton. So the town was named after the business, not the other way around. Which makes sense, because after the whole coal thing went away, the area was primed for ANOTHER company to come in and dominate the landscape - That would be Boeing.

There's more data than you need on coal mining in Renton here. And from the maps it doesn't look like there are any mines directly under this property. But all this is just an interesting exploration that started out with checking out a plaque at the side of the road.

(And there are worse things than living in the town named after a lumber/coal/rail baron. Two communities south, the community was originally named Slaughter. But that's another story).

More later,