City at a Crossroads Part II: Ravensdale’s mine explosion a nightmare

For Ravensdale, it was a coal mining community’s worst nightmare come true.

Ravensdale in the early 1910s. There were actually two towns

Ravensdale in the early 1910s. There were actually two towns

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series examining three historical events that affected Black Diamond, Maple Valley and Covington.

For Ravensdale, it was a coal mining community’s worst nightmare come true.

A massive explosion shook the ground so violently it was felt in towns as far away as Black Diamond. Ominous black smoke poured out from the ground next to the entrance to the mine. As rescuers came from Black Diamond and even as far away as Roslyn, the entire town of roughly 1,000 people gathered in the hopes survivors would be found.

For hours, rescuers donning oxygen masks worked to secure the mines. Although they quickly found three survivors, as they made their way down they came across the grisly sight of one mangled body after another. It was then they realized no else would be found alive.

In all, 31 miners were killed in the explosion, which was one of the worst in Washington state history. Due to a combination of economic, political, and even practical influences, the town never recovered. The Northwest Improvement Company (NWI), which owned the town, pulled out and operations never resumed. Slowly, the town’s population depleted to the point where it disincorporated in the 1920s, the first and only city in King County to do so.

Although the effects of the explosion did not have an enormous or immediate impact on the greater Maple Valley area, Ravensdale’s disincorporation would prove to have potentially monumental consequences as the end of the century when the state and county established the concept of urban growth boundaries.


A MINING TOWN

Ravensdale, originally called Leary after Leary Coal Company, first became host to underground coal mining in 1898. At the time it was owned by the Seattle and San Francisco Railway and Navigation Company. Northwest Improvement Company (NWI), a subsidiary of Northern Pacific, later purchased the mines. The town was officially incorporated Aug. 15, 1913, and had about 1,000 residents. In all, 230 miners were employed.

While most of the men worked in the mines, Ravensdale also had a significant population of independents who had no ties to the company.

Dick Peacock with the Maple Valley Historical Society stated there were actually two different towns. Ravensdale, owned by NWI, was incorporated and the property and buildings owned entirely by the company.

One of the families to live in Ravensdale was Anton and Lulu Kombol, the grandparents of Bill Kombol, who owns Palmer Coking Coal Company in Black Diamond. In her autobiography, Lulu Kombol, who worked at the town schoolhouse for eight years, said she was well paid in Ravensdale and the easily accessible train took them to bigger cities for theatrical plays and musicals. It was also in Ravensdale where she met Anton and later married him in 1914, a year before the explosion.

Adjacent to Ravensdale was Georgetown, an incorporated town where the residents owned the property, homes, and buildings. While they shared the same zip code, according to Peacock, they were considered separate towns. During Washington state’s peak coal mining years it was common to include every small community on the map, as long as they had a post office.

An early 1900 township map at the Maple Valley Historical Society has Georgetown listed besides Ravensdale.

Georgetown acted in some ways as a mini Las Vegas. In addition to three dance halls, Georgetown also had 11 saloons.

As for the mine, Ravensdale was unique in that it was what is referred to as a “dry mine,” which Peacock said is when there is little moisture in the tunnels, which meant it was much easier for explosions to occur unless moisture was brought in through installed systems. But at the time they were primitive at best.

 

THE EXPLOSION

As terrible as the explosion was, a fateful accident precipitating it prevented the disaster from being far worse. The morning of Nov. 15, 1915, a blown fuse left the hoisting machinery inoperable. A hundred were sent home to wait until the problem was fixed, while 50 remained in the mines. One of the lucky miners who left was Anton Kombol.

At 1:25 p.m. an earthquake-like tremor shook the ground.

In the book “Mining the Memories” numerous Black residents, such as Vera Habenicht, recalled feeling the explosion more than seven miles away.

Habenicht, who was in seventh grade at the time, said the kids knew instantly what had happened and later went to Ravensdale along with the rescue teams.

Among the more vivid things she recalls, she said, is seeing the bodies of the dead miners out in the lobby of the Ravensdale hotel.

Her grandfather, who worked in the Ravanesdale mine on the lowest level, was among those killed and was found four days later. The last bodies were recovered Nov. 21.

The rescue equipment at the time was primitive. Gas lamps, and canary cages before them, were used to test the gas levels to ensure the air was safe to breathe. Safety concerns required the rescuers, who wore gas masks resembling divers helmets, to work their way down at a slow speed at 90 minute intervals. But they would discover the miners who had been killed had died instantly or sustained fatal injuries, leaving no possibility they might have been saved had more advanced technology existed.

The 31 men were buried in the Ravensdale Cemetery. According to Bill Kombol, the deceased miners’ families received a total of $124,000 for their losses: about $4,000 for each married man and a lesser amount for single men.  All but seven of the miners killed were married.

It may never be known what or who caused the explosion precisely, though it seems there were numerous problems in the mine which led to it.

According to a 1916 report to the State Inspector of Coal Mines obtained from Palmer Coking Coal, an investigation one month after the explosion concluded that the explosion was probably caused by an overcharged shot or an explosion of gas in the chutes. The coroner’s report, however, stated that matches and a smoking pipe were found among some of the dead miners at the face or foremost section of the chute.

Whatever instigated it, the overabundance of coal dust in the mines definitely contributed to the magnitude of the explosion. Though mine officials had taken precautions to take care of the problem, the report concluded, they hadn’t been effective enough.

“This is not said in any spirit of criticism of those in charge of the mine,” the report stated. “For it is realized that the dusty conditions at the Ravnedale mine at the time of the explosion had come on in a few weeks and were something they did not have previous to that time.”

However, the report also found the sprinkler system designed to bring in moisture were not utilized properly until two days before the explosion.

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS

Ravensdale was not the first or last coal mining town to experience a deadly explosion. Black Diamond and Franklin, now a ghost town, suffered significant disasters on a similar scale in terms of devastation and loss of men. Yet in those instances, the explosions did not stop the mines from operating and the towns survived.

What makes Ravensdale’s explosion different is that the effects were immediate and dramatic. Operations immediately ceased in the mines and never resumed. According to Peacock, NWI took many of its buildings, including the hotel, and moved them to Rosalyn. Families, such as the Kombols, moved to Arizona to work in the copper mines. With no work available other than the nearby coal mine communities such as Danville, Summit or Kanaskat, there was little reason to stay in the area.

At some point in the 1920s, the population of Ravensdale fell to such a low level no one bothered to file the paperwork necessary to retain the town’s incorporation, making it the first and, at present, only King County town or city to disincorporate. Only recently has the community reached its former population. The Northern Pacific Railroad tracks are still there, operated by the Burlington Northern – Santa Fe and is one of the main east-west rail lines by which commerce passes into and out of the Puget Sound region.

Yet at the same time, in a way the spark which set off the explosion symbolized the impact the explosion itself had on the town. Though it instigated the disincorporation and mine closure, the explosion itself was not the primary cause for the aftermath. Much like the 1921 miners lockout in Black Diamond by Pacific Coast Coal, outside forces on a national and global scale played a much larger role.

Greg Oberst, whose book “Disasters of the Northwest: Stories of Courage and Chaos,” includes a chapter on the Ravensdale explosion, stated two primary causes for the town’s disincorporation: the decreasing price of coal and the demand for men in World War I. At the same time, he doesn’t dismiss the seriousness of the accident.

“The catastrophic explosion clearly was a huge event that staggered the community,” Oberst said. “There’s no doubt about it. (But) coal mining towns in Western Washington saw the exit of their local employees, but survived on one level. It was one too many events in the town to survive.”

For Ravensdale, the timing of the accident couldn’t have been worse. Coal production costs in Washington were 80 percent higher than the rest of the nation which, in addition to the discovery of petroleum reserves in California and Oklahoma, destroyed any incentive for NWI to put money into reopening the mines.

“The market place for coal that had so driven Ravensdale, all the mining communities, was starting to dry up,” Oberst said. “There were many accidents in those days. But the (other) accidents came at a time when demand was still high, so what do they do when they have accidents? Clean up the mess and keep mining. The demand was still there. It was still tragic and catastrophic in a lot of ways, but it didn’t shut operations down. After the Franklin accident they kept right on mining.”

The other contributor, World War I, sapped the town of remaining men who, unable to find work elsewhere, enlisted when America entered the conflict in 1917. By 1919, there were four million military personnel mobilized out of a population of 92 million.

“The demand for young men of the kind who might work in the coal mine was very strong,” Oberst said.

 

WHAT IF…

If the Ravensdale mine explosion hadn’t happened the community and the area surrounding it could have developed very differently.

This presents several hypothetical situations that might have led to vastly different outcomes. Nevertheless, even in such situations, some outcomes had been predetermined.

Whether or not the explosion happened, it is fair to say Ravensdale would not have thrived as a community. As it was in Black Diamond, the lockout merely reflected the declining fortunes of coal mining in the state.

One thing it might have changed, and what ultimately had the greatest impact on the larger region, was Ravensdale’s disincorporation. Had the explosion either occurred at a time when coal prices were higher, such as the turn of the century or during World War I, or not at all, Oberst said Ravensdale had a strong chance of survival.

“There might have been enough guys to run the show, so to speak,” Oberst said. “But between the three events (explosion, low prices and World War I) it just depleted the population. It was just a question of numbers. There was just nobody left. But had the explosion not happened, I think it’s safe to say the city might not have disincorporated.”

Other mining operations in the area which continued and sometimes even started in the late 1920s make this a strong possibility. According to Peacock, a mine near the sandpit by Ravensdale Lake opened in 1929 and employed 500 men.

While this may not have caused Ravensdale to grow, Oberst said, it would have provided employment for miners at some point when the Ravensdale mine might have closed due to low coal prices. Or, other industries such as logging might have come in a later date and changed the town’s identity.

Oberst theorizes that Ravensdale would likely not have prospered even if the town had survived the effects of the explosion.

“The heart of the community was coal and it was on a downswing,” Oberst said. “It’s hard to see where they would have thrived as a community and therefore grown as a community. They would have gone the way of Maple Valley and maintained a city presence but not one that was going to be driven by growth by a local industry. There’s nothing sustainable there. People had to go to find work and come back to spend their evenings.”

Had the town remained an incorporated city, it might have completely changed the way the area grew and developed at the turn of the century.

As a town, Oberst said, it would have maintained basic structures, such as a city council, a police force and a school system. The town would have also received support via taxes through the county.

“They would have had enough to keep the engine running even on a limited scale,” he said. “When you stay incorporated that affords you benefits with the county, and cities rely on those sorts of taxable bases that drive the local economy.”

This would come into play in the 1990s, when the state passed the Growth Management Act, which required every county to establish an urban growth boundary. The boundaries would determine the unit per acre allowed, with urban land allowed more densely packed development and growth than rural areas.

When King County approved its boundary in 1993, Ravensdale was placed right outside urban growth boundary, which borders Maple Valley.

Had Ravensdale remained incorporated, it is likely it would have instead been included within the urban growth boundary.

According to the GBA, cities were to be included within an urban growth area, as well as an area that had signs of urban growth.

There are a myriad of possibilities, had this taken place, as development and growth in the Maple Valley area did not occur until after the act was signed.

In 1915, Maple Valley was a small rural community of about 100 people. The Maple Valley Messenger, the community’s first newspaper, would not come out for another six years. Its population would not reach Ravensdale’s 1915 size until 1990 and the city would not incorporate until 1997.

If Ranvesdale had remained an incorporated city or town, thus remaining inside the county’s UGB, it might have drawn much of the development Maple Valley would eventually experience. Maple Ridge, a neighborhood that wasn’t annexed into Maple Valley until 2009, might have instead been annexed into Ravensdale, mirroring the city of Snoqualmie.

Rather than be the center of residential development, Maple Valley might have retained its rural roots, much like North Bend which, while experiencing modest growth, has not seen the same level as Snoqualmie.

A more fascinating proposition is that Maple Valley and Ravensdale could have switched places, with Maple Valley remaining an unincorporated community and Ravensdale the bedroom community.

Ironically enough, the area originally called Maple Valley was not included in the county’s UGB. Therefore, any town that might have incorporated would have grown south of it, as the city in fact did, particularly in the first decade after incorporation.

On smaller matters, this might have meant the Gracie Hansen center, which was moved from the 1961 Seattle World’s Fair to Ravensdale to use as a community center, was simply demolished and thrown away.

The Ravensdale Cemetery would have also been in far better condition than it is today. After repeated acts of vandalism, in which graves were desecrated and tombstones destroyed, it is currently in disrepair.

On a bigger scale, however, this could have meant the local politics and issues could have been totally different. The donut hole, a large chunk of property owned by King County in the center of Maple Valley, might have been a moot point if the rest of the area remained unincorporated as well.

Whatever the outcome may have been, it is remarkable how a small town’s worst fears realized and the lives of 31 men could become the defining moment for a much larger community more than half a century later.

 

 


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