On July 18, 1909, the people of Wilkeson, a thriving coal-mining center in the Pierce County foothills, celebrate the town's incorporation. The official incorporation and celebration come several days after an overwhelming vote in favor of incorporating Wilkeson, which is located 20 miles southeast of Tacoma between the neighboring mining towns of Burnett and Carbonado. A desire to keep tax funds local, along with a Progressive Era determination to clean up and improve the town, fueled the successful campaign for incorporation.
A Town Built on Natural Resources
Resource industries dominated life in and around Wilkeson. Prospectors first found coal in the 1860s, mines opened in the 1870s, and Wilkeson boomed during the 1890s and first two decades of the twentieth century. While coal mining and the production of coke, a coal by-product, dominated life in the town, Wilkeson residents also quarried sandstone and logged the surrounding forests.
Wilkeson, named after a Northern Pacific Railway official, was divided into two sections, "uptown" and "downtown," from early on in its existence. In 1877, the Northern Pacific Railway built a branch line from Tacoma to Wilkeson, acquired land, and launched into mining. The Northern Pacific owned uptown and the worker housing, company store, and mine buildings located there. Residents owned downtown. Their ability to open independent businesses and build homes on land they personally owned fueled prosperity and allowed Wilkeson to grow beyond other mining towns in the region.
Homesteader Andrew J. Hill (1841-1905) made the first survey of the town in 1888 and named it Hope. Although his survey was abandoned, the name stuck for some time. The following year, Hill divided his homestead into lots and platted Wilkeson. Neighbors Joseph Johns (d. 1923) and W. D. Davis later added land to the growing town.
A Progressive Drive for Incorporation
In the spring of 1909, the people of Wilkeson initiated a campaign to incorporate a local municipal government. Growth had created new problems, and area residents resented paying a total of some $5,000 a year in taxes to Pierce County while local concerns went unaddressed. In May, 111 citizens signed a petition asking county commissioners for an election. Their request was granted and, on July 14, The Tacoma Times reported that the people of "Wilkeson, Hope and Briar Hill voted to incorporate as the city of Wilkeson" by the resounding vote of 71 to 6 ("Wilkeson Is Incorporated"). The voters also chose T. M. Edwards, the owner of a downtown shoe store, as the first mayor. Residents celebrated as the incorporation took effect, and the Town of Wilkeson came into existence, on July 18, 1909.
In 1909, the United States was in the midst of the Progressive Era. Among many other goals and ideas, progressives sought to use the power of government to regulate big business, reform politics, and clean up life in cities. Wilkeson's leaders shared that mindset and quickly went to work. In the first few years, among other things, they established curfews for children under 12 and 16, forced livestock owners to pen their animals at night, and passed an ordinance prohibiting women from entering or being served in saloons.
The newly incorporated town faced severe setbacks in the spring and summer of 1910. Floods hit the town in March and a major fire swept through town in June, destroying at least nine buildings. A wave of new construction followed with brick and concrete buildings replacing those lost.
Wilkeson's second mayor, Joseph McCaskey (1875-1943) took office in 1913 and oversaw significant civic improvements. The town paved Davis Street and Church Street, the main street through town (now part of State Route 165), added concrete sidewalks, and finished construction of an impressive new two-story school building constructed from local sandstone.
Decline and a New Mission
Mining in Wilkeson went into decline as strikes rocked the region from 1919 through 1923 and oil and electricity increasingly replaced the use of coal. Many local businesses closed in the 1920s and 1930s and, despite a brief revival of mining during World War II, the local economy never fully recovered.
The influence of the Northern Pacific Railway, however, endured. The company maintained control of land in the town throughout its rise and decline, and limited opportunities for development. Ownership passed to the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1970, and finally, in December 1980, the railroad put 32 lots up for sale. A few months later, the company donated two parcels to the town, including the land where the town hall, formerly a Methodist church, is located.
In the twenty-first century, Wilkeson's town government and the Wilkeson Historical Society have worked to preserve and memorialize local history. In 2009, to celebrate the town's centennial anniversary, they installed a sandstone memorial to those who worked in the mines and quarry next to a somber plaque honoring those who died in mines across the larger Carbon River region. It lists, line-by-line, 343 names with details on each person's ethnicity, their place of residence, and where and when they perished. In 2020, Pierce County Parks began developing a Carbon River Corridor Cooperative Action Plan to improve recreational opportunities and further protect Wilkeson's, and the larger region's, natural environment and compelling human history.