Espionage and coal: Mining Issaquah’s World War I history
March 18, 2014
By Laile Di Silvestro
It was July 29, 1914. Austria launched a bomb attack on Serbia, and Russia commenced mobilization for an attack on Austria. The German “Count” Gustav Konstantin Alvo von Alvensleben was in Germany, where the government was about to declare war on France and Russia.
On that same day, in the small town of Issaquah, Dave and Ann Morgan welcomed their first child, Ivor, into the world. He was born in coal company housing owned by von Alvensleben.
While von Alvensleben made plans to return to North America, Dave Morgan tended donkeys for von Alvensleben’s Issaquah and Superior Coal Mine on the west side of town. The donkeys hauled carts of coal from the dark, dusty, noisy and wet depths of the mines to the surface, where the coal was crushed, sorted and cleaned in preparation for shipment.
The Issaquah and Superior mine was an extensive operation, with immense bunkers, cart trestles, and train tracks, along with an impressive hotel and company houses to accommodate dozens of workers. The enterprise encompassed 2,000 acres of land under which tunnels extended as much as 1,700 feet below the surface. The “Count” planned to employ 500 workers to mine 2,000 tons of coal per day. The coal was to be used for fueling steamships and steam locomotives, and to create fertilizer in a future chemical plant.
To realize his dream, von Alvensleben had taken out a mortgage, cultivated German investors (purportedly including German Emperor Wilhelm II), and hired local workers at a good wage. Under his guidance, the Issaquah and Superior mine started producing coal in 1912.
Despite von Alvensleben’s absence, the Issaquah and Superior mine produced almost 81,000 tons of coal in 1914 and employed 175 people, including Morgan. Production dropped by half in 1915, while von Alvensleben struggled financially. Not only had money ceased flowing from Germany, but he had been classified a “dangerous German spy” by British intelligence, and Canada had confiscated his assets in Vancouver, B.C.
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Amid false rumors that he had escaped Vancouver, B.C., by train while disguised as a woman, von Alvensleben lived with his wife Edith and three children in Seattle during the first years of the war. A Seattle bank foreclosed its mortgage on the Issaquah and Superior Coal Mine property in 1916, and work halted at the mine. Morgan was unemployed. He eventually went to work at a lumber mill four miles north in Monohon. Ivor remembered heading out as a boy to meet his father as he walked home from work.
Meanwhile, von Alvensleben made several business trips in an attempt to resurrect his financial interests, and was arrested in Portland shortly after the United States entered the war. He was interned at Fort Douglas in Utah as an “enemy alien” for two and a half years. He then returned to Seattle, where he became a United States citizen in 1939.
Dave Morgan and Alvo von Alvensleben may never have known each other. Evidence of their intertwined lives is apparent, however. Some of the Issaquah and Superior company houses still stand on Mine Hill, von Alvensleben’s house is preserved in Gilman Village, and just down the street, Dave Morgan’s legacy lives on in the Triple X Rootbeer Drive-In, which he built, owned and operated.