Maple Valley, Black Diamond heritage: The history of Franklin

The history of Franklin, an abandoned coal mining town near Black Diamond.

An old mine cart stands where Franklin once stood.

I have to admit, when I first went to Black Diamond, I didn’t think I’d be introduced to the mayor of a ghost town.

When I first spoke to Keith Watson, director of the Black Diamond Historical Society, I expressed my interest in Franklin, the nearby ghost town. After discussing how to get there, he looked at me with a subtle grin and asked, “Do you want to meet the mayor?” At first, I wasn’t sure if he was being funny or not, but then he walked into another room. A few moments later, he reappeared with another man: Don Mason, the “mayor” of Franklin.

Mason, as well as Dan Hutson, his eventual replacement, had plenty to tell me about Franklin, and after speaking with them for more than an hour, I began to see why.

Formed in 1886, Franklin was not by any means a significant town in terms of its size. At its peak, it had no more than 1,000 people, a small speck of dust among the boulder of cities that dotted Washington State. However, like many coal mining towns, as well as small towns of the era, they had their share of miners strikes, accidents, and quaint behaviors, though the scale of the occurrences were infinitely smaller.

Franklin’s birth and death as a town are marked by two occasions; when the first post office appeared in 1886, and when that same post office closed down in 1916.

The coal veins, which were found on the slopes of the steep hills overlooking the banks of Green River, presented a predicament for the coal company when it first settled there. The mine shafts had to be built along the hill, rather than on a flat piece of ground. This forced them to develop a unique system of getting the coal cars in and out of the mines that reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland and the coal mine ride at Knotts Berry Farm.

Using heavy cables and machines on the ground higher on the hill, they would lower the cars down into the shaft. As the cars continued to descend, miners would fill them with coal. When the cars came out on the other end, now pulled up by cables, a set of elevated tracks would use gravity to gradually bring them down the hill and to a building where the miners would sort out the rocks and smaller coal bits.

The town itself also had its quirks. The trains always had to back up into Franklin, because it was the end of the line for the railroad tracks. The Franklin Wye, a Y-shaped arrangement of tracks, allowed the train to back itself up into Franklin and then go forward into Black Diamond.

And the hotel wasn’t really a hotel, but, a boarding house for single men who couldn’t find a family to live with.

Baseball, America’s eventual favorite pastime, was treated as though it were a professional league. Since there were no cars, roads or trucks, it was their sole mean of entertainment. Games were played on Sundays on a primitive field, where the whole town would gather to watch the miners play. And they played to win. Performance on the baseball diamond affected their positions in the mines — the best players were given easy jobs to avoid the risk of injuring them.

Before the days of health insurance and fringe benefits, all the miners belonged to a specific lodge, such as the Masons or the Knights of Phythias. When a person was sick and unable to work the lodge would help the family cover their medical expenses.

An equally fascinating aspect of Franklin was its diverse racial population. The Welsh, who came with experience from the coal mines in England, dominated the specialized fields, working as engineers, dynamiters, and foremen. Those from Yugoslavia, Sweden and Italy worked as laymen, but eventually obtained higher positions.

But Franklin had the same problems that existed in other coal mining towns.

In 1914, a reporter discovered that mules were being worked 24 hours a day because the company found that it was more financially viable to work them to death and then replace them than to take care of them. The practice was eventually halted after the reporter published his story.

In May 1891, when the miners went on strike, the Oregon Improvement Company, who currently owned the Franklin mines, imported over 300 African Americans miners from back east to replace them.

When the black miners arrived in Franklin, they were greeted with company men who handed them all firearms. Unaware that they were breaking up a strike, they were told that there were violent Indians in the region. They went to the mines, where fences had been placed around it to keep the striking miners out. It was a recipe for violence.

What resulted was a “small war” in July, in which two men were killed, and the National Guard had to be brought in to restore order.

Ironically, although there were racial tensions at first, the black miners gradually gained acceptance, and the local union integrated in 1904. At the time, there were more blacks in Franklin than any other city in Washington, including Seattle.

Mason joked that “in a coal mine, everyone is black.”

For as dirty a job as they had, the miners maintained a very hygienic lifestyle. Cowboys were lucky to bathe once a month and farmers would scrub themselves down on Saturday nights before church the next morning. A Franklin miner, on the other hand, took a bath six days a week in a shed situated outside of the house, where a stove, hot water and clean clothes would await him at the end of each shift.

Franklin also had the dubious honor as the site of the worst mining accident in King County history, when a fire accident killed 37 miners in 1894. A jury found that one of the miners had intentionally started the fire, but was killed as well.

Mason informed me none of the 37 miners died from the fire. What killed them was the result of human error. When the fire started, a miner shut down the fan that supplied air to the mine. Then, a gas tester, John K. Johns, opened one of the doors in order to find his son, who was one of the miners. The opened door changed the air flow and trapped the miners between two walls of smoke, where they suffocated.

John K. John’s body was found next to his son’s.

Despite the prevalent belief that it was this accident that signaled the death knell for the town, it was actually the rise of oil in California and Oklahoma in the early twentieth century that caused its demise. As the demand for coal dropped, the Company began pulling out, though people continued to live in the town through the 30’s.

What brought the mines back to life, twice, was the two world wars, when the need for coal spiked. Other than that, it simply became too expensive to mine coal.

Franklin as a town I felt was best summed up when Mason mentioned the 1946 song “Sixteen tons.” The chorus goes “Saint Peter, don’t call me ‘cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store,” which pokes fun at the trucks system that left coal companies with a virtual monopoly in the town.

“Not here,” he said proudly. “Not in Franklin. They wanted to keep people happy.”


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