I was asked this weekend why I was researching coal mines in the Pacific Northwest. You know coal has an ugly image and most people wish to forget it exists or existed. Let alone that it was historically a huge business in their own backyard.
My answer was how this search for old coal mines reminds us how time changes all things. In this time of great change we are immersed in, we forget that we are not the first to upending the status quo or forever norms. In 100 years what was huge and profitable is now a forgotten memory. This quest to find old mines just punctuates the nature of change. It can be over night but usually it is just a drip drip and we hardly realize we had moved to a new plane.
Enough philosophical thought but do remember that these essays and adventures of mine hunting are rooted in my grasping the threads of change.
Indian Coal Mine or formally named “The New Black Diamond Coal Mine” was a bit of a late comer to mining in the area. The story around it is one of how the changing times came quickly, oil replaced coal, persistent mine dangers, errors made while prospecting this new mine, poor quality coal, ineptness and greed in the company, and how the land was not respected.
For decades I would drive down Maple Valley Highway (SR 169) along the Cedar River. I remember a long cement building that the King County Maintenance Department owned and occupied. Kind of an old Art Deco building for a hard working group of people who maintained our roads and infrastructure. Never really thought much about this place.
Where did this building and ground come from? I was surprised to find it was the headquarters for the Indian Mine. This plot of land in the mid-1920’s was host to this building, a huge processing plant and the mine shafts that pushed into the hillside.
A lot of what follows I have to thank the Black Diamond History Blog for helping me with my research and many of the vintage photos.
In Black Diamond we all know that Coal was King for nearly 150 years. The area surrounding it has many mines and even a ghost town. Black Diamond sits upon one of the best coal seams in the USA – the McKay Seam. The coal is low ash & sulfur making it great for household use. The first mine was founded in the early 1880s and from there many more were dug.
Years passed and what was called Mine 11 was developed in 1896 and called the new mine. It was located off of SR 169 behind what is now a small shopping center. You can see piles of construction debris and dirt back there. That is the spot.
I have to note that a mine never really goes into past tense. It is just closed up and hidden from view but the tunnels are still there. Often I have trouble with the tense to use on them. Such as …. “It was located” could just as easy been “It is located”. I pick past tense because it does not look like this picture any more. The hole in the ground is disguised and invisible. Guess that is past tense.
It was a very deep mine going down 6,000 feet when it was closed. It was reputed to be the deepest slope coal mine in the world. It had a 20 degree pitch. It was 2,200 feet to the surface at the 12th level and 1,500 feet below sea level.
It was a dangerous mine to work in. There was a condition called “bumps,” which was when the floor raised and the roof came down. It was like a small earthquake. It was caused by atmospheric pressure and became worse as they went deeper. Whenever a bump occurred it was felt in town. (from Black Diamond History).
Time (there it is again changing things) came in 1927 when they had to close it due to it’s danger. Men who worked there later said that they just left everything down in the mine. By this time the Indian Mine was open and many miners just took the train each day down the cedar river to the New Black Diamond Mine.
Let us get started with a general view of what the Indian Mine land looks like today off of Renton-Maple Valley Highway (aka SR 169). This video is from my investigative trip this week. So, you could say it is super fresh.
To give you a feel for the lay of the land. This video looks south across SR 169. It starts on the east (Maple Valley & Black Diamond direction) side of the property and sweeps towards the west (Renton).
Another thing you need to get orientated is this map below from the early 1930s. I have snipped this from a large 1931 map that included the tunnels, slopes, buildings, & processing plant. I have flipped it so the top of this map is south vs the usual north. That will help you stay orientated to the video view.
The east side of the gate is where the office-maintenance building (the long skinny one on the left) stood. Behind that was the Wash & Boiler Rooms. Behind that is a road that leads up to a small field that extends across about half of the property.
There were two mine tunnels behind the industrial complex. The first one they dug is located on this east side above where the Wash Room was located. It was a bust and then they dug the one that tons of coal flowed from on the west side.
On the west side of the gate was the tipple, bunker & picking tables. What is a tipple you ask. Here is a quick article on Wiki for you – Tipple. This was a massive structure as you can see in the feature photo at the top of this blog post. On the map you can also see a huge water tank and how the tipple was built out over the railroad tracks. Today there is no railroad at all and I can’t remember it being there in my lifetime.
Now that I have the big picture set for you let’s go into more detail on the individual pieces; The Office Building, the Tipple/Bunker, the Mine Entrances and a Tramway.
The Office-Maintenance Building:
This was built after the Tipple/Bunker and lived a much longer life. It was erected in about 1927 and was demolished in 2016. Some wanted to preserve it due to historic designation. However, it had deteriorated too far to be saved. All that is left is the concrete slab and the entrance road that ran between it and the Tipple.
This first picture above shows the building’s beginnings with the already existing Tipple/Bunker. The stacks in the photo are on the Wash/Boiler Rooms building. The next photo is from the hillside and faces north toward the highway & railroad. The mine tunnels are behind and to the right of the photographer.
How about a view of it from the road? This is in the late 1920s and shows off why some wanted to save this building. It was pretty spectacular for a place out in the sticks.
Now comes the end of it’s life span with a couple photos from google. There are two street views along Renton-Maple Valley Highway (MVH). One is from the street and the other from the trail that runs parallel to it. They have updated the one from MVH but not the trail nor the satellite view of the area.
This google satellite view of the site shows not only the office building but where the other pieces of the complex stood. That white dirt blob in the trees is the upper area I mentioned earlier. I believe this is the support area of the mine entrances.
This huge coal mining processing plant had a much shorter life span. It was built in the early 1920s about the same time the mine tunnel/slope was being dug. They rushed to get it all finished in time for opening of the mine on 1926.
The first view above at the top of this article shows it from the railroad/highway side or looking southwest. This one below is viewed from the hillside and is looking northwest.
It must have been huge!! Look at the rail trestle that connects it to the mine. It must be 3 to 4 stories high.
Next we have the photo of it being dismantled. When the mine finally failed they scraped the building and sold the metal to Japan. This was right before World War II.
In the book published by Black Diamond Historical Society called “Black Diamond – Mining the Memories” Evan Morris stated it pretty simply:
“They never really made any money on it, so they shut it down and sold the big steel bunker and machinery as scrap to the Japanese before WWII. We got it back at Pearl Harbor and the South Pacific.”
Nothing left of this huge complex except the ground and cement entrance road.
One thing is left of the complex! The concrete road that ran between the Office & Bunker.
The Mine Entrances:
Let us start with a photo of a bunch of proud miners and owners in front of the Indian Coal Mine Slope Entrance on it’s opening day in October 1925. Not really open to mine but rather when the vice-president pulled the switch which set off the final blast breaking down the 9-foot barrier of solid rock separating two tunnels.
In a future article I will talk about the Jones Brothers and how they found the coal seam up on the hill behind this area on the Cedar River. They were bought out by the company, who then dug a tunnel into the hill to met up with the Jones Brothers shafts. This photo was from the day these two tunnels met up.
This mine was so modern and it created a lot of excitement in the workers. They hoped to go from the dangerous Mine #11 to this safer and up to date new mine.
I think this excerpt from Russell Mowry in the Black Diamond – Mining the Memories sums up what really happened to the New Black Diamond Mine (aka Indian Mine).
“The Company sold the steamers of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company and took that five million to invest in that property at the Indian Mine. They had a partner Tozer who matched that.
They thought they had the McKay seam there but they did not. They spent a lot of money on that Indian Mine out there on the Cedar River and all they did was hit water. They built two holes in there. That one tunnel they put in there, they ran into water. I was in there about the day they hit the water. Underground rivers running in there about like the Mississippi. There was nothing but sand, you know how water will eat into the sand. It was coming in there so fast they couldn’t stop it.
So they gave up and moved over to the other tunnel. It caught fire too you know. We spent a lot of money there on the bunkers and warehouses and all that. The Company never made a penny on the Indian Mine.”
As you can tell they worked hard to overcome all the obstacles that they missed when they prospected the area. It all lasted about 15 years but just was not the McKay seam and the coal was poor quality. Add to that how King Coal had been unseated by Petroleum. Like I said time caught up with them and they did not see it coming.
Back to this week and the search for the mine entrances. Have to admit a dangerous exercise and due to caution I had mixed success. Here is what I found on the west side or second successful tunnel that was connected to the Tippler/Bunker complex.
This is where I climbed up thinking I might follow a trail right up to a closed mine. Oh if it was only so simple. First I found a well pump house right behind the first string of saplings, tall grass and blackberries.
I scrambled up this rock pile next. This shot looks back from the levy they built to control a creek that seems to flow down swiftly during heavy rain.
This was an interesting spot I stood on. In front of me was a washed out gravel creek bed that was bent by man to the west instead of flowing down upon the pump house.
That creek bed looked rough but my engineering mind said. “That mine could have funneled water down this after it was buried shut.” I did not know what I would find but climbing a little bit up was required. Before I climbed up look what I could see to my left (or east).
What was this? They were all in a row & still had huge spikes sticking out of them. Not power poles for sure. Here is a closer view.
I will come back to these but at the time I thought it was a hopeful sign from a time about a century ago vs the new pump house below.
Next I scrambled up the rocky creek bed. It was tough going and I climbed around the log you see in the picture below. There I found myself blocked by a very large tree. Beyond that the creek bed got more overgrown by brier and debris.
I got around that obstacle since it did not 100% block the rock creek bed. However, soon I found a tree I could not easily get over. I suppose I could have but it seemed prudent to turn back.
Well that was a bust but it did give me good info. Perhaps the mine was up there or perhaps it is in the hill to either side of this steam bed.
I then walked over to the other side of the site to where another road moved up into the trees. This one actually is a small road (vs a rock creek bed) and leads to that plateau I mentioned earlier.
When I arrived I found a field of grass and a small building. The grass was all dewy and the sun reflected brightly making for this imperfect video.
Someone else had been there in the recent weeks. They had left trails in the grass for me to follow. Which made it a bit easier and I got less wet because of this. A small building was off to my left (east) and piles of brush were off to the right (west).
I decided to start with the main mine which was to the right. When I got over there I realized that I was above where I had been earlier. I saw the poles in a row again on the bank of this upper area. Here is a photo that if you look hard you can see them.
Behind me I found the trail someone else blazed thru the grass. It went up towards a trail into the hill. That sure smelled like a good way to get to the mine entrance. Off I went.
This time I was thwarted by my evil nemesis… Stinging Nettles and a trail that became very bushy. Not dressed nor desired that much adventure I only went a small distance up. I did find some old timbers and concrete. Plus if you look at the view looking back it lines up with the poles in a row.
Once I got home I reviewed all my photos and maps. I have concluded that the poles in a row were the support timbers for the trestle that came over to the mine from the Tipple/Bunker building.
That means I was correct on where the mine entrance was. Since they had to seal it with a bulldozer I could even have stood on it. The other option is it was just beyond where I had hiked to. Much closer than I thought.
Next I was off to the other mine entrance. The one that leads to nowhere and the water ran like the Mississippi River. First I stopped at the odd building that who knows why it was there and a pile of junk including old timbers.
Yikes, the path was also blazed here for me but the nettles were even more proflific. I again only went so far and stopped because I was not prepared to battle nature.
Here is a view looking back towards where the complex stood. I found this carved out area interesting. At first a potential mine entrance but perhaps it was where a water tank and small building stood. Or it was direct access to the first tunnel that failed and the plateau was built later. I still wonder if this upper area was support for the mine at the time it was in operation or built to close things up.
To solve the problem of where to dump all the non-coal rock and rumble they built a tram to transfer this material. It went over the hill and deposited the debris into a gully on the other side. Here is a link to the Black Diamond History Blog with more info on the Tram. Plus here is a photo from that article.
I am pretty sure the photo below of a bank covered in blackberries is the location of this tram. At one point I was thinking it was the debris below the mine entrance. However, under much examining of things it did not line up. Then I remember the tram & bingo…. we have a winning match.
Of course I had to figure out where this gulch was so I pulled up a USGS map of the area. Lo & behold you can see right where it all went. See the blob with little speckles next to the road to the left of the mine entrance which is a little y shaped line?
Before I go, I found the flat scraped land where the industrial complex had been was full of Killdeer. They are the little birds that pretend they are hurt to distract from their nests. I would say there was at least 30 of them.
That is enough today on this big messy coal mine. Hope you are feeling my message about how time changes all things. How nearly 100 years later a huge mining complex is only a ghost of it’s once past glory.
I have been reading Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr”. Here is a quote I leave you with:
“Oh there are ghosts among us. But then what are memories but shadows of objects gone to dust?”
Want more on Lost Coal Mines? Here is a link to a directory I created of all my coal mine seeking adventures. Locating Lost Old Coal Mines of King County