Coal Mining in an east Pierce County area known as Pittsburg (1889-1909), Spiketon (1910-1916), and finally Morristown (1917-1927)

  • By William Kombol
  • Posted 11/10/2007
  • Essay 8262
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East Pierce County's Carbon River coal district was once dotted with a dozen small mining communities.  Wilkeson, Carbonado, South Prairie, and Burnett survived, but Fairfax, Manley-Moore, Melmont, Montezuma, Morristown, and Wingate all met the fate awaiting mining towns when their minerals cease to be economically viable.  This is the story of one of those communities; initially known as Pittsburg, later as Spiketon, and finally as Morristown. It is written by William Kombol, Manager of Palmer Coking Coal Company located in Black Diamond (King County), Washington.

A Pierce County Coal Town

Coal was first mined in the Pittsburg area of Pierce County in the late 1880s.  Geographically the Pittsburg-Spiketon-Morristown area is located about two miles northeast of Wilkeson and about two and a half miles south of Buckley.  Access can only be gained from Wilkeson along the Wilkeson-Spiketon Road as the South Prairie Creek separates the Buckley plateau from the coalfields of Pittsburg/Spiketon/Morristown. 

The area was initially called Pittsburg in imitation of the bustling steel and coal city in western Pennsylvania.  The name Spiketon came from a man named W. D. C. Spike,  who opened a coal prospect in 1905 with his Pacific Coal & Oil Company.  Mr. Spike was also a publisher of maps, including an 1890 Pierce County map.  Confusion surrounded this area, as some called it Pittsburg while others referred to it as Spiketon.  In 1917, the matter was settled when the State Legislature renamed the town Morristown, in honor of Abe Morris (1879-1933), the man who by then was in charge of the area’s mines. 

Abe Morris was the oldest son of George and Mary Ann Morris of nearby Wilkeson and the leader of a large family of Welsh coal mining immigrants.  The voters from the 35th Legislative District had recently voted Abe into the State Legislature.  Abe's fellow legislators changed the town's name without his knowledge when he was absent from the session. So, this coal mining area was generally known as Pittsburg from 1889-1909, Spiketon from 1910-1916, and Morristown from 1917-1927. 

Mining Coal and Manufacturing Coke

The mines of the Pittsburg Coal Company were first mentioned in the State Coal Mine Inspector’s Report after an October 25, 1890, accident claimed the life of a miner, Charles D. White, age 40, due to a fall of rock.  In 1891 the Washington Improvement Company (a subsidiary of Northern Pacific Railroad) transferred ownership of the Pittsburg mine to Reed, Williams & Company.  The mines were located at the terminus branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  The Acme Coal Company (1892-1894) and the Ouimette Mine (1893-1896) then operated mines in the area.  But, as was common in this era, mines frequently opened and closed.

In 1900 the Willis Coal Company restarted the Pittsburg mine and produced 4,800 tons of coal from one of six seams on the property.  By 1902, the mines were acquired by Gale Creek Coal Co. of Wilkeson with R. S. Loring President, E. J. Hughes, Superintendent, and John Reece, mine foreman.  A year later Gale Creek Coal Co. listed Abe Morris as general manager of the mines then producing 37,182 tons of coal with 101 men working 300 days per year.  The five-day work week had not yet taken hold.  During this time, the South Willis mine built the first of 25 coke ovens in the area.   (Coke, a manufactured product of coal, is made by baking bituminous coal without oxygen. It is used as a fuel in making steel.)

Coal Miners and Coal Mining

In 1903, the mine at Pittsburg, now called Black Carbon Coal, produced 4,000 tons of coal and operated 150 days with 10 inside and 5 outside employees.  That year Samuel Toff, a carpenter with no underground mining experience, died after entering the mine without a light and fell 60 feet to the bottom of a shaft.  Two more fatal accidents occurred at the Gale Creek Coal Mining Company in July 1904, claiming the lives of Joe Pust and Frank Mankman.  By 1905, the Gale Creek mines had closed. 

Little coal was produced during 1905-1907 except for limited production from Mr. Spike’s Pacific Coal & Oil Company, as the area became to be known as Spiketon.  In 1905, Abe Morris worked for the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Company as mine foreman, with his brother-in-law Frank Merritt as fire boss. (Frank Merritt had married Abe's sister Emily.)  In 1908, Abe Morris was the general foreman for the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co., with Frank Merritt as assistant foreman.  The Gale Creek Coal & Coke Co. was now operating the Gale Creek and South Willis mines in nearby Wilkeson.   

In 1909 a new company by the name of Coast Coal Co. opened a mine in the area, and Abe Morris found employment with the Commonwealth Coal Co. as superintendent of their nearby South Willis mine.  Frank Merritt had since become mine foreman at Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co. 

To give an idea of the size of the three, Coast Coal Co. of Pittsburg produced 78,000 ton of coal utilizing 122 inside miners and 77 outside employees in 297 days of operation and experienced three injuries. Commonwealth Coal Co. of Wilkeson produced 31,000 tons of coal utilizing 48 inside miners and 23 outside employees in 242 days of operation and experienced one injury. Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co. produced 119,000 tons of coal, of which 64,000 was charged through coke ovens to produce 39,000 tons of coke. That mine operated 276 days, with 145 inside miners, 112 outside employees, and experienced four fatalities in 1909.  All three mines were listed as having drift openings (meaning the entry was driven horizontally into the coal seam, usually at a slight angle to allow water to drain out), using a breast and pillar mining system (in which passageways and "rooms" were excavated around pillars of coal left standing to support the roof), ventilated by fans, and using steam power. 

In 1909 the typical miner earned $3.80 per day with inside-the-mine wages ranging from $1.60 for a trapper boy to $3.95 for a shot (i.e. dynamite) lighter.  Outside employees earned from $1.45 per day for greasers to $3.70 per day for a first class carpenter.  Stableman earned $85 per month.   

Developing and Improving

In 1910, Frank Merritt became general foreman for the Commonwealth Coal Co. of Wilkeson.  The Commonwealth Coal Co. had acquired the Pittsburg-Spiketon area mines from Gale Creek.  That same year showed significant investments by the Coast Coal Co. in ventilating fans, electric generators, electric motors, lightning engines, hoists, boilers, and bunkers with coal hauling equipment, all used for operating their two mines in Spiketon; one on the Pittsburg seam and one on the Lady Wellington seam. 

In 1911 the Coast Coal Co. continued operating the Spiketon area mines with W. D. C. Spike as President and Abe Morris as superintendent.  That same year the Morris and Merritt families led by Abe Morris and Frank Merritt formed the South Willis Coal Co. with Abe Morris, of Wilkeson, President; Frank Merritt of Wilkeson, general superintendent; H. V. Beane of South Willis, engineer; Jonas Morris of Wilkeson, general foreman; and Frank Purse of Wilkeson, outside foreman.    

By 1912, the Coast Coal Co. was defunct, having been replaced by the American Coal Co. which mined 89,000 tons of coal at two Spiketon mines, utilizing 131 inside and 45 outside employees in 196 days of operations and experiencing two injuries.  The same year the South Willis Coal Co. was operating one mine on the Winsor Seam in Wilkeson, extracting 24,000 tons of coal in 144 days of operation using 18 inside miners and 19 outside employees, and experiencing one injury, when George Shiveley an Austrian miner age 36, had the toe of his right foot bruised by a piece of coal. 

The South Willis Coal Co. used the Northern Pacific Railroad to serve their coal markets throughout Washington.  Their Winsor mine had a slope opening, utilized a chute and pillar mine system, was ventilated by a fan, and powered by steam.  The coal from the Winsor seam was a high ash (21-23 percent), low heat (11,000 BTU) product competing against eight other Pierce County mines operating in Burnett, Carbonado, Fairfax, Spiketon, and Wilkeson. 

In 1913, the South Willis Coal Co. continue mining in nearby Wilkeson producing 22,000 tons of coal, operating 217 days with 17 inside miners, 10 outside employees and experiencing four injuries. The mine averaged 3.71 tons produced per employee per day, nearly double the Pierce County average of 2.03 and well ahead of the state average of 2.76 tons per employee per day. South Willis Coal Co.’s production fell to 3,500 tons in 1914 with just 11 total employees.  Frank Merritt had left for the American Coal Co. in Spiketon. 

The South Willis Coal Co. opened 800 feet of the Champion mine gangway on the first level as the only development work for the year.  The company listed Abe Morris's brother, Jonas Morris, as its manager.   

War Years

In 1915, South Willis Coal Co. again had a slow production year showing a mere 1,000 tons of coal mined by seven employees.  Abe Morris was President, Frank Merritt was back as manager, and Jonas Morris was mine foreman.  Interestingly, the American Coal Co. also lists Frank Merritt as superintendent and the Wilkeson Coke & Coal Co. lists Abe Morris as mine foreman.  During the busy production years of World War I the Morris/Merritt men were operating several mines simultaneously. 

In 1916, the American Coal Co. ceased existence, having been acquired by the Morris-Merritt family-owned South Willis Coal Co. That year the South Willis production came from two mines: the No. 10 in Spiketon and the Champion mine in Wilkeson.  The No. 10 mine produced 28,000 tons of coal, operating for 158 days and utilizing 41 inside miners and 14 outside employees. The Champion mine produced 4,000 tons of coal, operating for 68 days, and utilizing 19 inside miners and 10 outside employees.  The No. 10 Spiketon mine was able to produce 3.27 tons of coal per employee per day compared to the Pierce county averaging of 1.80 and the state averaging of 2.91.  

In 1916, Abe Morris was both President and manager of the South Willis Coal Co.’s two mines, and Frank Merritt was the superintendent of No. 10 Spiketon mine with James Webb as mine foreman.  Jonas Morris was both superintendent and mine foreman of the Champion mine.  In 1916, the No. 10 Spiketon mine saw 900 feet of gangway driven while the Champion mine had 1,000 feet of old gangway reopened.  The South Willis lists its post office address in Spiketon (soon to be renamed Morristown), its shipping facilities as Northern Pacific Railroad, and its principal market as Washington. 

In 1917, the South Willis Coal Co. abandoned the Wellington mine but opened three new mines near the South Prairie Creek on the No. 7, 8, and 10 seams.  Production from all South Willis Coal Co.’s operation totaled 74,000 tons with 18,000 tons coming from the Wellington mine; 40,000 tons from the No.’s 7, 8 and 10 mine; and 16,000 tons produced by the Champion mine.  The Wellington mine and the No. 7, 8, and 10 mines were in Spiketon / Morristown and the Champion was located in nearby Wilkeson. Employment at the three mines totaled 133 men with miners earning $5.89 per day and coal being sold for $3 to $4 per ton. 

The South Willis No. 8 was a drift mine utilizing a Capell fan and using electric power.  The South Willis No. 7 was also a drift mine using natural ventilation with no power source.  Both mines utilized chute and pillar mining methods and dangerous open flame lighting was still in use.  The company drove a total of 3,500 feet of entry gangway during the year. 

The company’s miners experienced six non-fatal injuries in 1917 resulting in 122 days of time loss before the injured miners could return to work.  A January 2, 1917, gas explosion burned four men, Leland Garland, Nick Dragovich, Joe Webb, and Pete Venovish, but fortunately no one was killed.  There was one fatality when Oscar Kalkkone of Finnish nationality, age 25 years and single, fell down a coal chute and died of suffocation.  In 1917, the South Willis Coal Co. in the recently renamed Morristown showed Abe Morris as manager, Frank Merritt as superintendent, F. J. Dorher as mining engineer, Eric Jackson, James Webb, F. T. Dohres as mine foremen, Bill W. Westbo as master-mechanic, and John H. Morris, Abe’s brother, as office manager. 

In 1918, the South Willis Coal Co. permanently abandoned their Champion and Wellington mines.  The No. 7, No. 8, and Winsor mines continued to operate and by now, all were using electric power.  All three mines used the chute and pillar mining system and all three continued to use open flame light.  The No. 8 and Winsor are shown as using one mule.  Total coal production in 1918 was 105,000 tons employing 79 inside miners and 41 outside employees for total employment of 120 men.  The average daily output per man was 2.84 tons compared to Pierce County average of 1.73 and a state average of 2.65. 

The South Willis Coal Co. drove 525 feet of incline slope and 2,840 feet of gangway.  New equipment included two new fans, two steam hoists, one electric hoist, two electric haulage motors, and one steam locomotive. 

The South Willis Coal Co. also experienced two fatalities: one on June 8, 1918, when Charles Savicky, a 45-year-old Russian, died after loosing his footing on a 65-degree pitch while wearing rubber boots.  After the accident, the local mine union in Morristown passed a resolution to stop the practice of wearing rubber shoes on a pitch, because they were so slippery. A widow and four children survived the deceased miner.  On October 19, 1918, John Evans, a 23-year-old American and single, died after being buried in 20 feet of coal and was suffocated. 

The 1918 report shows Abe Morris as manager of the South Willis Coal Co. mines, F. J. Dohrer as mining engineer, and Jonas Morris as mine foreman. 

Post-War Changes

At the conclusion of World War I, South Willis Coal Co.’s production fell to 54,000 tons in 1919 as weak markets and a nationwide United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) coal miners’ strike limited production.  Another fatality struck the mine on March 1, 1919 when Joseph Katzlish, a 54-year-old German miner, married, died as a result of pneumonia from injuries sustained after falling down the pitch and being struck by a timber. 

On November 8, 1919, almost one year after the end of World War I, the South Willis Coal Co.’s Morristown mines were sold to the Peabody Coal Co. of Illinois, one of the largest coal mining companies in the world.  Peabody had dreams to greatly increase production, but post World War I markets hit rock bottom.  The company shut down operations and in 1927 the Northern Pacific Railroad quit maintaining their spur-line into town.  Morristown was no more and locals began referring to the general area as Spiketon.  At about the same time, Abe Morris’ father, George Morris sold his livery stable and moving business in Wilkeson to Adolph and Charlie Angeline. 

With the sale of the South Willis Coal Co.’s Morristown mines and the family’s Wilkeson livery stable and moving business, the Morris family’s investments in the east Pierce County coal district came to an end.  Within two years, the family relocated to the coalfields of southeast King County in and around the towns of Bayne, Durham, and Occidental.  With the formation of the Morris Brothers Coal Mining Co., Inc. on December 15, 1921, by Abe Morris, Frank Merritt, George Morris, John H. Morris, Jonas Morris, Edward G. Morris, and brothers-in-law Ben Nichols and Clarence Masters, a new chapter was about to be written in the Morris-Merritt family coal mining history.


“Carbon River Coal County” by Nancy Irene Hall, 1980; Washington State Coal Mine Inspector Reports, 1890-1919; Joseph Daniels, "The Coal Fields of Pierce County, September 1914” Washington Geological Survey – Bulletin No. 10; The Wilkeson Record,   December 21, 1917; Morris Brother Coal Mining Co., Inc. corporate records; Pierce County map, 1890, by W.D.C.  Spike & Co. (Identifier: uwm118 G4283.P5 1890 .P5) University of Washington Libraries Map Collection.

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