Mining industry transitions Issaquah away from farming

July 7, 2009

By Staff

Coal mining led to Issaquah’s transformation from farming community to bustling town. The coal industry brought hundreds of workers to Issaquah, and the growth continued as businessmen established banks, shops and other services for the growing population.

Issaquah’s miners were all ages. They came from all over the country, and the world, drawn by the promise of employment — at wages higher than East Coast miners were able to earn. In 1900, just over 60 percent of Issaquah’s workforce was employed in the coal mines. About half of the men lived with their families, often in housing rented to them by the mining company. Others were single or separated from their family and lived as boarders in one of Issaquah’s many hotels.

They rose early and spent 10 or more hours at work per day; in return, they earned $2.85 a day (as of 1903) — less if they were laborers or drivers, rather than miners. Working conditions were dark, dirty and cramped. Miners came out covered with coal dust and stopped in a washhouse, where they changed clothes and washed before entering their homes.

Mining was also dangerous. Even today, mining remains a relatively hazardous occupation. As of 2002, mine workers in the U.S. still had a fatality rate seven times higher than that of private industry as a whole.

Mining at the turn of the 19th century was even more dangerous. Work conditions had little regulation. Explosions, cave-ins, poisonous gases and falling rocks could kill entire work crews. Issaquah was fortunate not to experience the massive loss of life that occurred in other mining communities. Nearby Black Diamond lost more than 140 miners in the course of its mining history; Issaquah had 19 mining deaths.

Most fatalities in Issaquah involved only one miner. The greatest loss of life at the Issaquah mines was Aug. 21, 1900. A surface fire near one of the mine’s air shafts spread into the mine. As the shaft filled with smoke, two miners escaped, but returned in an attempt to save three co-workers. All five suffocated.

The second incident of multiple fatalities occurred in 1902. William Price and Bernard Sutter perished while working as “powder monkeys,” who prepared dynamite charges to take into the mine. The two men had just opened a 50 pound box of dynamite and were either capping the sticks or thawing them out with the open flame of their headlamps when they accidentally touched off the dynamite. News coverage of the mining accident was lurid, noting that there was not enough of Sutter left to examine for a coroner’s inquest.

Mining was frequently a family affair, with a father and one or more sons working together in the mines. Sometimes, the sons were adults with families of their own. But more often, they were young men still living with their parents and helping to support four, five or six younger siblings. Schooling was a luxury in this era; if economic need demanded it, then boys left school and went to work.

The 1900 U.S. census found that 18 percent of children between 10 and 15 were working, and it was not uncommon to find miners as young as 14 working in the Issaquah mines. Most of these boys worked as drivers, who worked with a team of horses or mules, hauling cars of coal to the entrance of the mine shaft.

Later, the advent of electrical power in the mines created another task for young workers. A cable pulled coal cars out of the mine, and boys removed the coupler pin from between them to allow the car to continue down the tracks, and the cable to be rolled up. Plucking the pin from between the moving cars at the right time was tricky business; many hands and arms were injured or lost in this job.

The concept of retiring from work was uncommon 100 years ago, and it was impossible for all but the most financially successful. In 1900, of 139 men who worked in the Issaquah mines, six were in their 60s and two were over 70.

The January 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia reminded us that coal mining is not only part of our nation’s history, it is part of the present as well. The last mine in Issaquah closed more than 40 years ago, but the marks of the mining industry are still visible if you know where to look: company homes that still stand on Mine Hill Road, low spots above air shafts and tunnels that sink, and the Hillside Cemetery graves of those who died mining coal.

Sources for this article include 1900 census records, Fire Rock, Issaquah Family Tree Database, the Seattle Post, and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Web site.

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