Coal in the Puget Sound Region

  • By Laura McCarty
  • Posted 1/31/2003
  • Essay 5158
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The history of coal in Puget Sound is tied to the development and expansion of the railroad in the West. Locomotives burned coal, and coal, which is heavy and bulky, could not be transported without the railroad. These two industries grew together in the region, the health of each enabling the growth of both. Washington coal, used to fuel locomotives and steamships, and to heat homes in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, found a major market in California.   The largest mines were located in King County (Black Diamond, Franklin,  and Renton), Pierce County (Carbonado), Kittitas County (Roslyn), and Lewis County (Centralia). In the nineteenth century coal was king, but increasingly in the twentieth century oil and natural gas were competitors.  Across the country coal is widely used as a fuel to generate electricity, but in the Pacific Northwest, coal's fate was sealed by the move toward hydroelectric generation, although when hydroelectric dam construction largely ended in the 1960s, some utilities turned back to coal as one way to meet demand. In Washington state the last underground mine closed in 1975, and the last open pit mine, which operated at Centralia, closed in 2006.

In 1833, William Fraser Tolmie of the Hudson’s Bay Company first found coal on the Cowlitz River. In 1851, Captain William Pattle, also of the Hudson’s Bay Company, discovered a seam of coal under the present city of Bellingham while scouting for timber. Though the quality of his find was poor, the seam was easily accessible and its location near a harbor made it easy to transport the coal to the south. This was the first coal transported from Puget Sound to San Francisco. Coal was mined at this location for 25 years, until a fire and a flood closed the mine.

Beginning in the 1860s, coal began to make its presence felt in the region’s economy. Most coal deposits in Washington are bituminous (soft) coal. (Coal is classified by its carbon content, with anthracite highest in carbon, followed by bituminous, and finally lignite. The higher the carbon content the greater the heating capacity.)

In 1862, L. B. Andrews and David Mowery discovered coal near present day Issaquah. A sample was carried to Seattle blacksmith William W. Perkins to test in his forge. He pronounced it to be of very good quality. The coal was tested in the steamer Shubrick and it performed well.

In 1863, another deposit was found on the eastern side of Lake Washington at Coal Creek. With two discoveries and an increasing demand for coal in California due to the growth of the western railways, a more concerted effort was made to bring the region’s coal to market efficiently and profitably.

The price in the Northwest during this period was $11 per ton. In San Francisco, coal fetched as much as $28 per ton. This large price differential made the investment in building and improving roads, tramways, and rail lines worthwhile. In 1864, a group of California business owners had organized King County's Black Diamond mine. In 1866, the Lake Washington Company (later renamed the Seattle Coal Company) focused on developing the California market. This firm's organizers were Rev. George F. Wentworth, Rev. Daniel Bagley, P. H. Lewis, John Ross, and Selucius Garfielde. Coal became a major export out of Seattle.

The first issue to address was to reduce the cost of moving coal from Coal Creek to the steamers in Elliott Bay. The coal was first carried out of the mines in sacks. By 1871, the system was upgraded with a tramway from the mine to Lake Washington. The first tramways were not much more than six-inch-wide wood rails covered in iron. But they allowed the coal cars to be moved from the mines without sinking into the often-wet soil of Puget Sound. Motive power came from men and horses. From Lake Washington the coal cars were loaded onto barges and sent to a location near the present University of Washington Crew House. The cars were again sent by tram from here to Lake Union and moved over the water to the south end of the lake. Another tramway moved the cars to a dock on Elliott Bay. The total cost of transport from mine to bunker was approximately $5 per ton.

Improvements were continually being made to this route, including the addition of a locomotive. By May 1872, coal was being dropped at Elliott Bay at the rate of 75 to 100 tons per day. On August 7, 1875, The Washington Standard reported that the best coal on the coast was the coal from the Pierce County fields. On April 7, 1885, the paper reported that the largest cargo ever shipped on the sound was 2,000 tons loaded onto the steamer Enoch Talbott. Throughout the 1870s, Seattle and the surrounding area continued to supply vast amounts of coal to California. By January 20, 1880, The Washington Standard estimated that more than 500,000 tons of coal had been exported from Seattle area mines over the past nine years.

In the 1880s, additional mines were in operation in the towns of Wilkeson and Carbonado, in Pierce County. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific Railroad owned the Carbonado mine. As with King County coal, the supply was sent to San Francisco to feed the engines of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. In 1883, the United States Geological Service pronounced the region’s coal as “true bituminous coal, hard, solid, black and clear, not equal in heat producing capacity to the best Pittsburgh coal, but a good fuel for railroad and steamship purposes”(Mineral Resources of the United States).

Mines developed in Franklin and Black Diamond in King County and at Roslyn in Kittitas County. Washington coal was the chief source of fuel for San Francisco from 1882 to 1891 and California interests continually sought to gain control over the supply of coal from Washington. The demand during these years tended to be seasonal, with prices high in the winter months when coal was most needed for home heating.

Coal production continued to increase in Washington throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. In 1910, approximately 3.5 million tons of Washington coal was mined. In 1918, the figure was 4.1 million tons. A review of the exports to San Francisco shows an interesting turnaround. The percentage of Washington coal exported to San Francisco had dropped from 85 percent in 1885 to just 35 percent in 1890. A major reason for the shift had to do with the introduction of petroleum to power locomotives. Petroleum had been used for fuel in California as early as the 1860s, but it was not until the end of the century that increased extraction efficiency made it a serious contender as a fuel source. As efficiency improved, industry converted locomotives and machinery to run on oil. The demand for Washington coal plummeted.

Societal changes also impacted coal mining in the new century. Coal miners had begun to organize in the East as early as the 1870s. Strikes interrupted production in Washington in the 1880s. Work stoppages became more common in the beginning of the twentieth century, both in the coal fields and in other industries. Mine operators also had to contend with mine fires and other accidents. In May 1892 an explosion killed 45 miners in Roslyn. Four additional mine fires or explosions killed a total of 99 people in the remainder of the decade. Mine explosions, fires, and floods occurred from time to time until well into the 1930s when better working conditions were required.

In the early twentieth century the railroads found a new partner in the oil industry, fuel oil often replacing coal. Fuel oil and natural gas gradually replaced coal to heat many buildings. At the end of World War I, coal output from Washington began to decline for these reasons and because duties on foreign coal were low.

Until strip mining became popular, Washington’s coal mining was acknowledged to be more unfavorable than that of neighboring states due to its physical qualities and the size of the mines. Even at the middle of the twentieth century, Washington’s mines were dependent upon hand blasting for nearly 50 percent of the output compared to the national average of 10 percent. This was partially due to the smaller size of Washington mines compared to those of other Western states. Because the industry was already in a state of decline, mine operators were not apt to invest in greater mechanization or to increase the size of mine operations

By the middle of the twentieth century, additional markets for coal were needed if the industry were to survive. There were two possibilities: generation of electricity and conversion into liquid or gaseous form as a competitor to petroleum products. The liquid and gaseous forms as fuel had several advantages over raw coal.

Coal gas and coal oil could be stored for longer periods of time without deteriorating, as does raw coal. Also, coal in solid form had to be washed, screened, sized, and graded prior to being sold for use. Distilling coal into liquid or gas eliminated these expensive steps. Lastly, transporting the liquid or gas was less expensive per heat unit.

Ultimately, however, coal liquefaction and gasification could not compete effectively with petroleum and natural gas. This may have been due in part to the much longer lead time suppliers of oil and natural gas had over suppliers of liquid and gaseous coal to develop markets. By the time coal operators turned their attention to transporting and delivering this different form of coal, the suppliers of petroleum and natural gas had long had their systems in place

After a period of use, coal gas became inadequate because of its low productivity, high cost, and outdated technologies. Due to demands for cleaner combustion and more efficiency, the gas industry shifted from coal to naphtha and, finally, to natural gas.

In June 1964, The Argus lamented, “The rap-rap-rap of an auctioneer’s hammer at Roslyn on the Cascades’ eastern flank in Kittitas County, signaled the end of the colorful -- and sometimes boisterous -- reign of King Coal in Washington. The once prime industry was dead.”

The Argus reporter was almost correct. Beginning in the 1910s and continuing to the 1960s, hydroelectric resources had been built in the Northwest. These resources eventually accounted for approximately 86 percent of Washington’s energy generation. But coal had the advantage in being able to be used regardless of season and weather conditions. Water from hydroelectric dams required management based on rainfall and other environmental requirements. Coal could be used to backfill hydro resources for energy suppliers in the region. Over time, improved coal burning facilities eased concerns regarding the polluting nature of coal-fired generators.

Nevertheless, Washington state's last underground coal mine, Rogers No. 3 Mine at Ravensdale (near Black Diamond) in King County, closed in December 1974. With miners and retired miner gathered around, the portal was dynamited shut at 2:30 p.m. on December 17, 1975.

Coal continued to be mined in Washington for the massive power plant at Centralia. In 2001 the mine at Centralia produced four million tons of coal per year. That coal was used by the power plant along with imports from Wyoming to produce 5.5 million Megawatt hours of electricity -- about half the output of Bonneville Dam.

On November 27, 2006, the TransAlta open-pit coal mine near Centralia, the last coal mine in Washington, ceased operation.  The nearby TransAlta steam-generation electric plant continued to operate with cheaper coal from Montana and Wyoming.


Endel J. Kolde, “From Mine to Market; A Study of Production, Marketing and Consumption of Coal in the Pacific Northwest” Occasional Paper No. 3 (Seattle: University of Washington, Bureau of Business Research, 1956), 12-16; F. E. Melder, “History of the Discoveries and Physical Development of the Coal Industry in the State of Washington,”Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol 29, No. 2 (April, 1938), 151-165; Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago-Seattle: S.I. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929), 280-300; News item, The Washington Standard, April 17, 1885 p. 2; Ibid. August 7, 1875 p. 2; Ibid. January 30, 1880 p. 4; Melvin B. Voorhees, “Last State Coal Mine Closed Onetime Prime Industry Dies,” The Argus, June 26, 1964, p. 4; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Striking Miners Cause Coal Shipments to Drop in 1886” (by David Wilma),
Note: A source citation for this essay was corrected on November 4, 2006, and the essay was updated on April 17, 2007.

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