A short section of old railroad line, rusty but intact, hidden deep in the woods near Lake Sawyer in Black Diamond in Southeast King County, inspired this People's History contributed by Bill Kombol. It tells the story of the Columbia & Puget Sound rail line from Renton to Black Diamond, built in the early 1880s to access the company town that the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company was developing to mine a seam of coal near the Green River, and the line's subsequent operation, for many years as the Pacific Coast Railroad, until 1970.
"Who Laid These Rusty Rails?"
In April 2018, Kent photographer Bob Dobson stumbled upon a short section of railroad hidden in the midst of a dense forest near Lake Sawyer. He took a photo that inspired a question: "Who laid these rusty rails?"
Little did he know that the answer is the story behind the men who founded Black Diamond.
Since 1861, the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company of Nortonville, California, had been extracting a low grade of coal and selling most of it in San Francisco, 35 miles to the southwest. San Francisco's population had quadrupled since 1860. The growing city needed energy -- lots of it.
The company sent Victor Tull to the Green River region of Washington Territory to find a better grade of coal. In July 1880 Tull located a seam just above a lake in section 14, two miles west of the Green River. The area was covered by an old-growth forest. A few Indian trails might be found but there were no roads, homes, or settlements. It was unreachable except by foot or horseback.
B. B. Jones was dispatched to the site in the fall of 1881 to open a prospect tunnel. Jones Lake in section 14 now bears his name. The following spring Victor Tull shipped 880 pounds of coal to San Francisco for testing. The successful results prompted mine superintendent Morgan Morgans and company president Pierre Barlow Cornwall to head north to confirm these reports.
The coal prospect was situated among tall stands of timber that could provide lumber for an underground mine's workings and for homes and buildings. The Black Diamond Coal Mining Company decided to acquire the property, open a mine, and build a town. The town's name would be the same as the company's: Black Diamond.
Need for a Railroad
Only one thing was missing -- a railroad to transport men and machinery to open the mine plus trains to haul coal to port.
Meanwhile the growing city of Seattle had its own needs. Stung by the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway's decision to establish its West Coast terminus in Tacoma, the entrepreneurs of Seattle decided to build their own railroad. The Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad reached Renton in 1877 and later Newcastle, but no went further.
The venture failed in 1880 and was purchased by Henry Villard's Oregon Improvement Company (OIC) and renamed the Columbia & Puget Sound (C&PS). Villard also gained control of the NP through a famous blind pool on the stock exchange, thereby developing a monopoly over Northwest transportation.
Around the same time, Bailey Willis, a prospector working for the NP, found a coal exposure along the Green River of the same seam that Tull had uncovered in Black Diamond. Willis named the coal seam McKay and the town that sprung up around it was called Franklin.
Empowered by the Northern Pacific's land grant to every odd section of land, OIC finagled control of section 19 on the Green River and assumed ownership of Franklin. The coal, however, would still need to be shipped on someone's railroad.
Building the Line
Morgans and Cornwall needed the C&PS rail line extended from Renton up the Cedar River valley to Black Diamond. They struck a deal with Villard and railroad construction began in 1882. The narrow-gauge railroad reached Black Diamond on December 12, 1884, and then connected to Franklin.
The extension took more than two years to complete. It was built mostly by Chinese workers who lived in a settlement on Jones Lake. An 1885 census of the area showed the majority of 175 laborers to be Chinese, but they departed shortly after the railroad was completed.
Coal was shipped from Black Diamond in April 1885 and Franklin shortly thereafter. In time branch lines were extended to Taylor (coal and clay tiles), Bruce (coal), Lawson (coal), and Kummer (coal and clay). The Cedar Mountain coal mine also operated along the C&PS main line about half way between Renton and Maple Valley.
Strikes, mine disasters, and the Panic of 1893 eventually sent the Oregon Improvement Company into bankruptcy, pulling its sister company, Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad, along with it. In 1897, those pieces to a corporate puzzle were reorganized into the new Pacific Coast Company, combining a coal subsidiary -- Pacific Coast Coal; a shipping concern -- Pacific Coast Steamship; and the C&PS rail line under one corporate umbrella. That same year narrow-gauge rails were replaced by standard gauge, allowing C&PS freight to easily transfer to other lines.
Within the next few years the Pacific Coast Coal arm of the conglomerate acquired the Black Diamond and Lawson mines, adding to existing operations in Franklin and Newcastle. Eventually its reach would include mines in Issaquah and Burnett. Its parent, Pacific Coast Company, eventually also included cement and engineering divisions.
The C&PS was renamed the Pacific Coast Railroad (PCRR) in 1916. At its height PCRR track spanned 55 miles throughout the Seattle area.
Branch Closures, Last Trains Run
As coal mines begin to close, branch railroads were no longer needed. The Lawson branch of PCRR was the first to be abandoned in 1918, followed by Bruce in 1922. The Kummer branch closed in 1931, Franklin (renamed Pacosco) in 1934, the Newcastle line was shortened to Kennydale in 1934, and the Taylor branch was discontinued in 1945. Regular passenger service ended in 1925, although a special accommodation to transport coal miners to the New Black Diamond mine near Cedar Mountain continued until 1931.
By 1948, the PCRR had been reduced to one line running from Black Diamond through Maple Valley and Renton to Seattle.
PCRR was spun off in 1951 and acquired by the Great Northern Railway, but operated as a separate company retaining its name. Great Northern's diesel locomotives were regularly used by PCRR together with its own equipment. In September 1958, a Great Northern locomotive was commissioned to pull several passenger cars to Black Diamond as part of a ceremonial excursion by model-railway conventioneers from Seattle.
April 1969 saw one of the last coal trains leave Palmer Coking Coal Company's Mine No. 11 facility in Black Diamond with its load destined for the University of Washington. On March 3, 1970, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad; the Great Northern; and the Northern Pacific merged to become Burlington Northern Railroad (BNRR). Great Northern included PCRR, along with itself, as part of that merger.
Removing the Line
The Black Diamond rail line remained operational until September 22, 1970. However, the spur line from Henry's Switch to Black Diamond was not officially abandoned until 1982. The tracks through Maple Valley remained operational as a local route by BNRR to the Snoqualmie mill until 1990.
Most of the tracks and ties along the remaining lines between Black Diamond and Maple Valley were removed in the early 1980s. The repurposing of railroad ties for landscaping and rail for scrap metal was a good business during those years. In 1991, a specially configured train removed long sections of cut rail between Maple Valley and Renton bringing the rail history of this line to a conclusion, but not an end.
Many portions of the right of way were owned "fee simple" by the railroad and those segments were acquired by King County Parks as part of a national rails-to-trails program. Some segments reverted to adjacent landowners following abandonment although some portions were later purchased for trail purposes. One former PCRR property historically serving the Shuffleton steam plant was sold by Great Northern to the City of Renton and became part of Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park on Lake Washington.
In time much of the former rail route between Renton and Maple Valley became the popular Cedar River Trail, with future plans to extend it south through Black Diamond to Flaming Geyser State Park on the Green River.
Rusty Rails Remain
One section of the historic railroad, however, was left -- covered by decades of vegetation. This small segment of the line remains intact in Black Diamond. The underlying parcel was acquired by Plum Creek Timber as part of the breakup of Burlington Northern into railroad, timber, development, and mineral divisions.
Whether by corporate inattention, bureaucratic lapse, or luck, that short span remains untouched -- a 135-year-old time capsule embodying the blood, sweat, and tears of rail workers that helped bring Black Diamond and Franklin to life.
On that spring day, Bob Dobson discovered that even rusty rails have a story to tell.