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Elk Coal: A Forgotten King County Coal Mining Town
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Among the forgotten coal mining towns of King County, perhaps none is more forgotten than Elk Coal near the flank of Sugarloaf Mountain. The town, in an area rich with coal mines, was situated one-half mile west of the dimly remembered town of Durham, 1.25 miles south of Kangley, and 1.25 miles north of Palmer-Kanaskat. Within three miles of Elk Coal there were numerous underground coal mining operations, including Durham, Hiawatha, Kangley, Palmer, Bayne, Occidental, Cumberland, Navy, and the larger Ravensdale and Black Diamond mines further west. Robert Pearson, an Irish immigrant and livery stable operator, homesteaded the south 160 acres of Section 34, Township 22 North, Range 7 East, which became the site of the Elk Coal mine and the town of the same name. Pearson, and after his death his daughter Aileen (Estby and later Gregovich), operated a store and gas station on the Kanaskat-Kangley county road, where the alternate spelling, "Elkcoal," advertised the town's existence to travelers. Locals simply called it Elko.This People's History was contributed by William Kombol, Manager of the Palmer Coking Coal Company, in Black Diamond.
Start and Stop
Coal was first prospected in 1911, and by 1919 coal mining commenced, with the initial small production of the mine's high-heating, semi-coking coal being sold locally. In 1921 production on the Big Elk vein was begun in earnest by George Parkins and the Elk Coal Company, with the first coal shipments recorded that year. However, the mine’s profitability was hobbled by limited transportation connections, so in 1923 railroad tracks were laid one mile east to the Northern Pacific mainline between Selleck and Kanaskat. In that same year, the mine built a new tipple with screening facilities, installed an electric hoist for their No. 2 mine, and purchased three new Gibbs mine rescue machines.
According to a 1924 report by George Watkin Evans, the mine was stymied by geologic faulting and labor wages too high to allow it to be profitable. This, coupled with falling coal prices in the mid-1920s resulted in the failure of the Elk Coal Company, and around 1928 the mine was taken over by the Pacific Coast Coal Company, the second largest coal producer in Washington. Former inhabitants of the district believed that Pacific Coast Coal deliberately wrecked the Elk Coal mine in order to eliminate competition and to benefit its nearby mines, but that is a matter of conjecture. In 1928 however, Pacific Coast did blast down the entrance and part of the mine workings, claiming it was a precaution against future subsidence.
A New Beginning
In July 1928, an old miner by the name of Cashman took up the lease of the property. During the winter of 1929 Cashman was snowed in near the old mine workings. While looking for coal to heat his camp, Cashman dug into a new coal seam that was found to be of commercial value. Unable to finance the opening and operation of a coal mine, Cashman took in partners, Peter Pergolios and H. Plant. A fourth, apparently forgotten, investor gave the new firm its name: the Big Four Coal Company. In 1930 Cashman sold out his interest to a fuel dealer, Nick Morton. In 1931 James Bagley bought out H. Plant. A year later, Pete Pergolios and Bagley bought out Morton and the two operated the Big Four mine in Elk Coal for nearly two decades. Pergolios was the mine manager and Bagley the mine superintendent.
Owing to the existence of five distinct coal seams on the property, the Big Four Coal Company prospered during the 1930s, and new investments were made in facilities to process and wash the coal. Melvin Adams worked at the Elk mine from 1937 until it closed. Adams explained that to wash the coal, water was tapped from an abandoned mine nearby. “The water came from the old Hiawatha mine up the road. They just ran a line up to it and collected water as it drained out the old shaft.” The washery plant supplemented its supply with water from the New Elk tunnel and a nearby swamp. A large bath house where men could shower after each shift was another plus for Elk Coal miners.
Men and Mules Work the Mine
Located on the south slope of Sugarloaf Mountain, the mine advanced deep into the hillside, using both water-level and slope entries. The water-level portal used rail tracks laid on four- by six-inch ties, with a 1 percent grade into the hillside. As the name would suggest, a water-level entry provided a natural system of gravity flow to dewater the mine. Inside and outside the mine, mules and horses were used to pull coal cars, each holding about 2,200 pounds.
Ben Nanewicz, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1907, was one of the coal miners who worked the mules. In addition to a number of photos which his family donated to the Renton History Museum, Nanewicz also provided the following broken-English account of the taming and care of coal mine mules:
"History of mule whip: Made a cracker out of strand of hemp rope taped to point and tie to end of a whip. Mules are stubborn animal, he kick you, bite you and ??? on top you, have to break mules in to work, always crack your whip 1st, put harness on mule walk him around so he get used to harness, then hook one on mine coal car and let him pull around and always give him some thing like lump of sugar or tobacco, after each work he does, after you get him broke in to work you teach him to stop, to go and turn right and left; to go ‘get up’; to stop ‘oh’; to turn right ‘gee’; to turn left ‘ha’; mule can pull 5 to 6 coal cars and spot cars under the coal chute by holler to him if you want car ling??? or half car for all car lings??? Mules also make good pets, if he likes you he do any thing you ask him, and if new driver take him he won’t work for him, he won’t pull any mine cars for him and get stubborn, kick and fight with the driver.” [Note: original misspellings corrected and punctuation added for ease of reading].
George Litras, a coal miner who emigrated from Pauvleeny, Greece, came from Centralia to work in the Elk mines in 1929. In a 1976 interview with the Kent News Journal, Litras recalled, “I was getting $4.10 per day as a miner.” But work wasn’t always steady, often only two or three days a week. Litras found extra jobs around town, as his wife Eva (Walls) Litras explained:
“He got the job of taking care of the mules they used at the mine, but he told everyone he was a donkey engineer’. Well, one day a man came up and wanted to know where to find the donkey engineer. I pointed over to the corral and there was George.”
Their son, John Litras, remembers a big white mule called Kelly, who was blind but still worked in the mine pulling out coal cars. George Litras was the acting foreman and fire boss at the Elk mine, meaning he was the first one down on the morning shift to make sure the mine was safe for the miners to enter. Litras obtained his citizenship papers and then later helped others become citizens by teaching classes at Elk Coal. During their 13 years at Elk, Eva “picked so many tons of blackberries, up on the mountain; the tiny, wild ones, and sold them for 60 cents per gallon, delivered to the big Lee Hotel in Enumclaw.”
Getting the Coal Out Safely
Until 1936 a steam hoist, later replaced by a 75-horsepower motor, was used to pull the coal cars up the slope to the surface where the coal was dumped into a single car tipple. A 2.5 inch shaker screen passed the coal to a picking belt, where impure coal and rock was thrown to a rock conveyor for disposal at a nearby refuse pile. Three sizes or grades of coal were produced: one-inch and smaller steam coal; one- to two-inch pea coal; and two-inch and larger nut and lump coal. The preparation plant of the Big Four mine was built on the side of Sugarloaf Mountain. The prepared coal went directly from the plant via a short elevator to gravity bins, or bunkers, located over the railroad tracks.
At the Little Elk vein, no regular support timbering was used, as the strong sandstone roof was generally self-supporting, needing only an occasional timber prop. However, the other four veins -- the Big or Upper Elk (aka Durham No. 1), Lower Elk, Cashman (aka Victory), and an unnamed vein once thought to be the famous Mckay -- required timbering. To support the roof, typical three-piece sets of second growth Douglas-fir timber were used. A three-piece set is a conventional timber framing system by which two upright or vertical timbers of 10 inches to 16 inches diameter are used to support a similarly sized horizontal log. Recurring sets each eight to ten feet apart were connected by split or sawn lagging boards to hold up the roof for mine safety.
Remarkably, during the 33 year history of coal production in which 850,000 tons of clean coal were mined, there were no fatalities at the Elk Coal mines. However, there were several close calls. In 1950, coal miner John Wolti was trapped by a cave-in for two days, generating widespread newspaper coverage before his rescue. Despite being trapped for 54 hours, the official report notes, “Evidently he was not seriously injured, and after a shot of black coffee, sugar and whiskey was in excellent spirits.” A number of coal miners assisted in Wolti’s rescue including Fred Davis, Bill Moses, Jack Darby, Alex Noble, Charles Cooney, Joe Bertelli, John Ceatlio, Vic Booth, Bill Zaputil, Ted Stasiak, Tony Stasiak, Bob Peterson, Fred Benedetti, Grover Smail, Paul Readshaw, Mrs. Rose Martindale, and Dr. Gordon Adams. David J. Williams and Henry Benson were the mine managers at the time.
Melvin Adams and a Greek miner from Durham named Nick Hanus had a healthy respect for the hazards of mining. “I remember one cave-in of coal and rock that trapped two men for a little more than two days, without food and water,” Adams said. “It was an awful feeling, digging and shoveling, looking for a guy. You think -- what if you put a pick into a body?” Nick Hanus himself was lucky to have been kept out of harm’s way at the Durham mine. Hanus explained, “There was an explosion one time there, but I was home because my wife was having her third baby.”
Life Outside the Mine
Miners from Elk Coal would often make their way to the nearby coal mining town of Durham. There, the three-story brick hotel operated by Jonas Morris and his wife Maggie acted as a community center. The Durham Hotel also served as a boarding house where Maggie (Phillips) Morris would cook for 60 miners at a time. Aileen Gregovich (in a prior marriage, Estby), the daughter of Bob Pearson, remembered: “They had miners’ meetings on the top floor in the 1920s. I can remember going to dances there.” The hotel also had a banquet room where Jonas’ parents, George and Mary Ann (Williams) Morris celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Christmas Day, 1926. Across the street Aileen Gregovich ran the Elkcoal store and service station. The store had a penny candy counter, served ice-cream cones, and carried basic canned and boxed grocery goods. One of Aileen’s sons, Bob Estby studied music in the living quarters behind the store and later became a revered choir director and chess team coach at Enumclaw High School.
Back at Elk Coal, Margie (Litras) Markus has fond memories of the cook house run by Harold and Bertha Downing, where small dances were sometimes held. Margie recalled:
“Elko was a mining town much like Durham, which was across the road and up the hill. There were bachelor houses and the wash house for miners. There was a big weighing scale where people could drive right up and buy sacks of coal.”
In a 2006 interview with the Voice of the Valley, Margie painted the picture of a small mining camp with a bunkhouse and twenty cabins and houses, where men with delivery wagons serviced the town’s residents. “Mr. Bigger from Kent came with fresh fruits and vegetables.” Other wagon vendors included Mr. Christiansen from Enumclaw with fresh meat, a Greek named Vangell from Enumclaw with fresh fish, and Joe Laush from Veazy delivering milk.
When a baby was born, Dr. Leo DeMerchant of Enumclaw or Dr. Sweet from Selleck came out to assist in the delivery. Bill Bryant, Bernell Kombol, and Leonard Flothe delivered the Seattle Star, the Tacoma News Tribune, and Enumclaw newspapers. Robert Hunt and Mr. Estby were the school-bus drivers, taking grade-school students to Selleck and high-school students to Enumclaw. The Hunt family lived next door to Pearson’s store. Across the railroad tracks from the Hunt home was a hobo camp. Margie remembers, “We used to call them bums.” The hobos would go around from house to house asking for food. “If they received something they would mark it [the house] with chalk so the next one would know it was a good one.”
Ups and Downs
In the first year of mining, all coal from the mine was transported to market by rail, but by 1929 the size of motorized trucks and evolving home consumer markets caused over half of the coal to be shipped by highway. From the 1930s to the early 1940s, the Big Four mining operation at Elk Coal was aided by increased population in western Washington, an increased number of furnaces in Seattle homes, and most importantly, a decreased number of local coal mines. During the 1930s Elk Coal production was between 25,000 and 40,000 tons per year, and over the history of the mine averaged 25,750 tons annually. In fact, the Elk Coal mining operations had a higher average production measured by tons per man per day, than did the typical King County coal mine.
However, the 1940s were not so good for the Elk Coal operations. George Watkin Evans, a respected consulting mining engineer was brought in to see if the mine operations could be salvaged. He reported that the mine’s operations had suffered due to a prolonged illness of the principal owner, Pete Pergolios. Also, the mine office had burned to the ground and along with it all the mine's records. By 1942 the mine is shown under receivership, being run by John C. Damascus.
Evans’s 1943 report to the War Production Board attempted to secure additional capital to improve the mine. There was a jump in coal production from 1945-1947, aided in part by the start of surface mine-stripping operations on the Big Elk seam. However, by the late 1940s production dropped significantly, and in 1953, coal-mining operations at Elk coal ceased.
After the end of the coal era, Mutual Materials mined the same geologic strata for clay and shale. The Elk clay pits were mined by surface equipment, primarily a bulldozer, front-end loader and dump trucks. The clay was then transported to Mutual’s brick plant in Newcastle and used to make structural clay ware.
With the end of the coal mining era, families began to leave in search of new opportunities, as the automobile helped to sever the tie that had kept miners close to the mines. Some of the cabins and small houses fell into disrepair or were torn down, a fate that befell all of the buildings in Durham. The store and gas station are gone, as well as the sign which gave Elkcoal its name to the wider world. All that is left are about a dozen houses along a country lane where coal laden trains came and went; where miners and residents walked to the Elkcoal store or the Durham Hotel; where trucks carried coal and then clay to market; and where today decades of mining are barely visible to the modern eye.
ELK COAL PRODUCTION RECORDS: 1919-1953 REPORTED TONNAGE
YEAR COAL TONNAGE COMPANY
1919 sold locally Elk Coal Company
1920 sold locally Elk Coal Company
1921 5,253 Elk Coal Company
1922 49,207 Elk Coal Company
1923 65,274 Elk Coal Company
1924 35,745 Elk Coal Company
1925 19,579 Elk Coal Company
1926 19,031 Elk Coal Company
1927 37,420 Elk Coal Company
1928 14,499 Elk Coal Company (closed indefinitely in May,
1929 3,429* Pacific Coast Coal Co.
1930 14,618 Big Four Coal Company
1931 37,947 Big Four Coal Company
1932 39,080 Big Four Coal Company
1933 43,503 Big Four Coal Company
1934 28,537 Big Four Coal Company
1935 25,953 Big Four Coal Company
1936 28,689 Big Four Coal Company
1937 26,654 Big Four Coal Company
1938 23,857 Big Four Coal Company
1939 31,079 Big Four Coal Company
1940 26,230 Big Four Coal Company
1941 28,074 Big Four Coal Company
1942 28,892 Big Four Coal Company
1943 20,662 Big Four Coal Company
1944 16,834 Big Four Coal Company
1945 32,264 Big Four Coal Company
1946 29,916 Big Four Coal Company
1947 34,046 Big Four Coal Company
1948 14,586 Big Four Coal Company
1949 8,670 Big Four Coal Company
1950 19,220 Big Four Coal Company
1951 19,720 Big Four Coal Company
1952 15,137 Big Four Coal Company
1953 6,818 Big Four Coal Company
Total 850,423 tons
* 1929 production figure shown in one source, but not in another.
BIG FOUR COAL COMPANY’S LIST OF EMPLOYEES FOR 1943*
Name Occupation Rate Per Day
Alex Chohlas Acting Foreman $9.51
Geo. E. Litras Acting Foreman $9.51
Hiram Adams Mule Driver $6.50
Melvin Adams Miner $7.40
Gaffi Attilio Miner $7.40
Arthur C. Backhus Miner $7.40
George Bertoldo Trackman $7.40
Lee W. Campbell Miner $7.40
Woolery Campbell Miner $7.40
J.F. Christensen Rope Rider $7.00
B.J.Costanich Miner $7.40
D. Geminiomi Miner $7.40
James Greggs Miner $7.40
Martin Guerrini Sr. Miner $7.40
Emil Hall Miner $7.40
Peter A. Kauzlarich Miner $7.40
Earl Miller Miner & Hoistman $7.40
Joe Mykut Miner $7.40
Alex Noble Sr. Miner $7.40
Alex Noble Jr. Miner $7.40
Tom A. Pappas Hoistman $7.30
Geo. A. Pillatos Miner $7.40
Harry Pillatos Miner $7.40
Wm. Pillatos Miner $7.40
Wm. Russell Miner $7.40
Bud F. Sherwood Miner $7.40
Robert Skolski Miner $7.40
Marvel E. Walls Rope Rider $7.00
Dayle Walters Miner $7.40
Arthur S. Barton Washerman $6.70
Jas. P. Fell Picking Table man $6.10
Nick J. Hanus Truck Driver $6.50
Lee E. Moses Mechanic $7.40
Martin Kokol Wash House attendant $125.00 per mo.
Chas. G. Ault Bookkeeper $150.00 per mo.
* from A Report on the Elk Coal Mining Property by George Watkin Evans, 1943.
James David Vine, "Geology and Coal Resources of the Cumberland, Hobart, and Maple Valley Quadrangles, King County, Washington," Geological Survey, No. 624 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1969); Vaughn E. Livingston Jr., "Geology and Mineral Resources of King County, Washington," Washington Geologic Bulletin No. 63 (Olympia: Washington State Printing Plant, 1971); Henry W. Schasse, Timothy J. Walsh, William M. Phillips, "Coal Reserves of Washinwgton Addendum," State of Washington Department of Natural Resources website accessed May 13, 2010 (http://www.dnr.wa.gov/Publications/ger_b47_coal_reserves_wa.pdf); Stephen H. Green, "Coal and Coal Mining in Washington -- Report of Investigations No. 4," State of Washington Department of Natural Resources website accessed May 13, 2010 (http://www.dnr.wa.gov/Publications/ger_ri4_dmm_coal_coalmining_wa.pdf); George Watkin Evans, "The Coal Fields of King County," Washington Geologic Bulletin No. 3 (Olympia: E. L. Boardman Public Printer, 1912); "Durham Couple’s Golden Wedding,” Enumclaw Courier-Herald, December 31, 1926; George Watkin Evans, "Brief Geologic Report on Certain Phases of the Elk Coal Mine," 1924, Division of Geology & Earth Resources Library, Washington Department of Natural Resources; George Watkin Evans, "A Report on the Elk Coal Mining Property" and accompanying correspondence, December 1942, Division of Geology & Earth Resources Library, Washington Department of Natural Resources; George Watkin Evans, "A Report on the Elk Coal Mining Property" and accompanying correspondence, 1943, Division of Geology & Earth Resources Library, Washington Department of Natural Resources; W. J. Evans and Clarence Holmes, “Report on Accident and Recovery of miner, John Woldi,” State of Washington Annual Report of Coal Miners, 1950, Division of Geology & Earth Resources Library, Washington Department of Natural Resources.
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Miners at entrance to Elk Coal mine, Elkcoal, King County
Courtesy Renton History Museum (Image No. 19669990858)
Coal miner Ben Nanewicz, Elko Coal mine, Elk Coal, King County
Courtesy Renton Historic Museum (Image No. 19660920536)
Map showing King County coal mining towns.
Courtesy Palmer Coking Coal Company
Eva Litras, Elk Coal company, Elkcoal, King County, late 1930s
Courtesy Margie (Litras) Markus
Service station and grocery, Elkcoal, King County, April 1940
Courtesy King County Assessor
Workings, Elk coal mine Elkcoal, King County, April 1940
Courtesy King County Assessor
Dr. Leo DeMerchant (right) with coal miner, Occidental mine, King County, May 13, 1940
Courtesy Palmer Coking Coal Company
George Litras and Nick Hanus with miner's hardhat, Elkcoal, July 14, 1975
Courtesy Margie (Litras) Markus
Bill Kombol (center) with siblings, Elkcoal, King County, July 1956
Courtesy Pauline Kombol