Local History: By Donna Hogerhuis, Wilkeson Mayor, 2010-2014
Wilkeson lies in a narrow valley in the Cascade foothills of northern Pierce County along the meandering Gale Creek. Wilkeson was once divided into two sections: “uptown” which no longer exists was a company town where housing, businesses and land was owned by the mining company; and “downtown” originally named Hope was independent, where business and homes were owned by families.
Few people know the significance of Wilkeson to the existence of early Tacoma and Northern Pacific Railway. When Wilkeson coal was brought into Tacoma by wagon in 1874, the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) was already eyeing the area. Coal was needed to fuel the shipping industry, foundries and homes along the west coast. NP was running out of funds to pay its workers and investors. It was one of two companies commissioned by congress to build a transcontinental line. In exchange congress gave the railroad every other section of land along the route to pay for their efforts in their charter. The officials of NP had declared Tacoma as the future main terminus but paying investors would be a challenge. The discovery of Wilkeson coal deposits meant that Tacoma, with its natural deep harbors, had the potential as the leading coal loading port of Puget Sound. In 1876, the then NP Vice President, George Stark, stated: “The building of the Puyallup Branch for the development of our coal resources, seems to be the one wheel, which if started, will put the whole train in motion, and I trust that ways and means will be devised to accomplish it at an early date.” The Puyallup branch, built by both European and Chinese laborers opened in 1877 from Tacoma to the “Wilkeson” depot. NP investors bought up the mines and the first coal shipments were transported the next year.
The Wilkeson mines and sandstone quarry provided jobs for thousands of European immigrants (Welsh, Italians, Yugoslavians, Russians, Swedes, Germans, Austrians, and more) at the turn of the century. A few Chinese laborers also stayed until they were forcibly removed in 1885. It was here were the Wilkeson’s 160 coke ovens roared for days, and lit the skies at night, smelting the raw coal for impurities. The finished product, Coke, was taken by rail to Tacoma for foundries or to be loaded on waiting ships for San Francisco. Here too, at the turn of the century, sandstone was quarried and transported for use in building churches, businesses and roads especially in Tacoma. Wilkeson’s sandstone is the building material used for Washington’s State Capital.
As the coal industry declined, many of the mining towns that once dotted the Carbon Valley have since disappeared, only Wilkeson and Carbonado have survived. Today Wilkeson’s Centennial Monument Park near the town hall that honors over 340 men who lost their lives in the mines. It tells of the history of the area, and the people who made it possible.
Today Wilkeson has over five sites on the National Register the Wilkeson, Arch, the Coke Ovens, the Wilkeson Quarry, the Trinity Orthodox Church and the Pete Home. The town hall is currently being proposed by the Wilkeson Historical Society for listing. Many more sites are eligible. Fifty five sites were listed on the state register in the 1908s more than any other town at that time.
In 1992, the Wilkeson Booster Club sponsored Wilkeson’s first Tour of Historic Homes & Buildings.
Here is a brochure with map and information on the nine sites that were highlighted.
If you have any inquiries regarding Wilkeson history, or previous resident name, you can send those to :
WHS, PO Box 300, Wilkeson, WA 98396
or drop an email to : [email protected]. She will attempt to answer your question or find your ancestor.
Listing of the old Wilkeson Cemetery markers is located here: Wilkeson Cemetery (Old Section)