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Black Diamond -- Thumbnail History

HistoryLink.org Essay 460 : Printer-Friendly Format

Black Diamond (population a bit over 2,000 in 2004) is located in King County, along the Cascade Mountain range, 25 miles southeast of Seattle. It was built in the late nineteenth century as a company town for the Black Diamond Coal Company. The coal mines have long since shut down but the town lives on, rich in history.

The Black Diamond Coal Company was originally based in Nortonville, California, 35 miles east of San Francisco. When coal was discovered in Washington Territory, a company representative was sent north. The coal tested well, and a crew of men and one woman was sent to homestead and set up operations.

Because heavy machinery had to be moved in, the first order of business was building a railroad. A narrow gauge rail line was built southeast from Renton and by 1884, the mines were ready to open. Workers and their families were moved up from California.

The Italian and the Welsh

Most of the families were first-generation Americans of mainly Welsh or Italian descent. The Welshmen usually came from a long line of coal miners in their native land. Because of this, a hierarchy existed whereby the Welshmen executed tasks that required more skill and were better paid. The mine superintendent, Morgan Morgan, was a Welshman and also ran the town.

Black Diamond was a company town and the company owned practically everything. Families could buy houses, but the company leased them the land on which the houses stood for one dollar a month. Morgan Morgan declared that only one church was necessary and a Congregational Church was built to accommodate all faiths. Different services were held each Sunday on a rotational basis, but everyone attended all of them. Later the town would have a company store, where workers could buy goods with the cost deducted from their paychecks. A miner worked 10-hour days, for $1.50 a day.

Around the World Bazaars

By the turn of the century, there were nearly 3,500 people of many nationalities living in town. Ethnic groups tended to group together, and neighborhoods were known (sometimes disparagingly) for the people who lived in them – Swede Town, Welsh Town, Dago Town, etc. Sometimes, folks would have “Around The World” bazaars, where each neighborhood would prepare foods of their native lands, and residents of other neighborhoods would visit house to house, sampling the dishes.

Black Diamond was isolated in the mountains, and the train was the primary link to the outside world. In 1896, the narrow gauge railroad was replaced with a standard gauge. Every evening the train would pull into town at 7 p.m., and many townsfolk would be there to get their mail or greet people. When newlyweds came to town, a shivaree (a mock serenade made up of people banging on kettles and buckets) would follow them to their new home.

In 1904, the Pacific Coast Company bought the Black Diamond mine and the town. The firm, based in New York, also owned steamships, railways, a cement company, and an island in Alaska where they quarried lime rock.

Working in the coal mines was harsh and dangerous. Unlike coal mines in places like southern Illinois, where a main shaft was dug straight down to a horizontal bed of coal, the local mines were slope mines. Coal seams in the region had been pushed upward by the formation of the Cascade Mountains and shafts were dug at steep angles along the seam. Rail cars were winched down the slope.

The Union Stump

At first, the miners had no worker’s union but were actually paid more than most union workers in other parts of the country. As time went on, though, working conditions and wages became an issue. In 1907, coal miners organized Local 6481 of the United Mine Workers of America.

When the Union started meeting near the train depot, the company wouldn’t allow them to congregate on company property. The workers walked outside of the town limits and one of them jumped on a stump to speak to the men. This stump would serve as their meeting location for many years. Later it was encased in concrete, and it still exists.

Labor Strife

World War I created a greater demand for coal. Wages had been slowly rising since the union organized and were up to $8 a day. After the war ended, the company wanted the miners to go back to $7 a day, causing an outrage.

The company labeled the most vocal dissenters “agitators,” and fired them. The union insisted that they be rehired, but they were not. Along with this, the company refused to give current workers a new contract and started bringing in non-union labor. In 1921, the men went on strike.

The company placed barbed wire around the mine entrance and along the railroad tracks to protect the replacement workers from the strikers. The company hired 35 guards to patrol the town. Still, fights broke out and even the town’s children would yell and taunt the “scabs” and “goons” as they walked the streets.

Even though some folks owned their homes, the company still owned the land. The dollar-a-month lease was taken away, and families were told to either sell their homes or move them. The Company actually bought homes at a fair price, but many long-time residents who were now out of a job were also faced with nowhere to live.

The Union stepped in and built 200 new homes on land donated by Tim Morgan (no relation to Morgan Morgan). This new settlement, to the west of Black Diamond, became known as Morganville. The houses were built quickly, with little insulation or attention to detail, yet some are still standing to this day.

Some of the strikers found work in local mills, but many moved away. Within a few years, some men begrudgingly went back to work in the mines, but many were blackballed for life and their mining careers were finished forever.

The End of the Coal Era

The mine remained non-union for 10 more years, until President Roosevelt was elected in 1932. His Depression-era New Deal economic policies, which United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis helped to write, brought strength to many unions nationwide. The coal miners in Black Diamond reestablished their Union in 1933, but it was too late.

Oil was replacing coal as a fuel source. The demand for coal was waning rapidly, and by the end of the 1930s Pacific Coast disbanded the Company town in order to save money. Power lines were given to the power company, and roads were given to the county. By 1958, Pacific Coast had liquidated their assets and closed down the mines.

In 1959, Black Diamond incorporated. Although its heyday had long passed, for many people it was still a fine place to live and raise a family. The train depot has since been turned into a museum, and oral histories have mined a tremendous wealth of information from older residents. Today (2004), with a population of nearly 2,000, Black Diamond is a city proud with heritage.

Sources:
Diane and Cory Olson, Black Diamond: Mining The Memories (Seattle: Frontier, 1988); Further information supplied by Black Diamond Historical Society.


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New Black Diamond mine opening, Renton, 1927
Courtesy MOHAI (Neg. 83.10.647.1)


New Black Diamond Indian mine, showing construction of miners washhouse (foreground, administration building and coal washery), Renton, 1927
Courtesy MOHAI (Neg. 83.10.647.5)


Pacific Coast Coal Company Building
Courtesy Mary Randlett


Black Diamond railroad depot, home of Black Diamond Historical Museum, 1999
Photo by Alan Stein


Inside the Black Diamond Historical Museum, 1999
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


Black Diamond fire station No. 1, 1999
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


 
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