Wilkeson & Carbonado

Center map



Katelyn Huff

Mar 25, 2014

The first person to find coal in the Carbon River Coal County in 1862 was Van Ogle. The Carbon River Coal County included 11 small towns: Burnett, Carbonado, Wingate, Melmont, Fairfax, Montezuma and Manley-Moore. I am only going to cover some of them and today, I am going to explore Wilkeson.

Brothers William and James Flett, with their brother-in-law John Gale, were the first to find coal in the Wilkeson area. They found coal near a creek and claimed it in 1874. They named the creek Flett Creek but it later changed to Gale Creek. It covered 25 square miles.

A bigger company named NPR took over after a while. They built a railroad and a post office. The Fletts and the Gales left and more new people came to stay and see how things developed. Builders built coal bunkers, a miners’ boarding house and more. A man named John Jones set up the first store. It was not just for Wilkeson. People all over the area came to buy supplies. As people began building houses, there was also a sawmill and a one-room school house for the children. St. Luke Church (1883), the Pierce County Courthouse (1886) and Cowlitz River Bridge (1886) were built out of Wilkeson sandstone. The first big NPR mine finally opened and began to ship coal in 1879. Wilkeson is now becoming bigger and bigger.

The lands of Wilkeson were split into two by a railroad, but both sides are still the same town. Above the railroad tracks, toward the mines, belonged to NPR and was called uptown. Below the tracks was downtown, where most of the homes and businesses were privately owned. In 1889 the territory of Washington finally became a state in the United States. Both sides of Wilkeson became established as a small town.

Katelyn Huff is a student at White River High School and attends Carbanado Community Church. She lives in Carbanado and recently moved to the area from Chillicothe, Mo. Katelyn has moebius syndrome and is hard of hearing, but communicates effectively through American Sign Language. She enjoys working with children and wants to be a writer.



 The Town of Wilkeson was named after Samuel Wilkeson, Northern Pacific Railroad Secretary, who, in 1869 noted rich coal deposits in the Carbon River area while conducting a geological survey for the railroad.  In 1874, two brothers (William and David Flett), along with their brother-in-law (John Gale), staked a coal claim on a creek in the area that would later grow into the Town of Wilkeson.  They named the creek “Flett Creek” but it was later re-named “Gale Creek.”  William and David Flett grew up in the nearby town of South Prairie and were sons of John Flett who started Flett Dairy in Steilacoom, WA, which is still in operation today.

The Puyallup Valley Coal Company staked a second claim across the creek from Fletts in the same year (1874).  This company was connected with the Northern Pacific Railroad and had the financial backing of the railroad.  In the same year, William Wilson claimed the first homestead in the area about a mile and a half from the coal claims.

The Northern Pacific Railroad constructed a line to the coal fields in 1877 and operated the first major mine two years later.  Initially nearly all of the coal mined in Wilkeson was used to power locomotives and ocean going steam ships.  Then, in the 1880’s, the suitability of Wilkeson coal for coke production was determined.  The Tacoma Coal and Coke Company built the first coke ovens in Wilkeson in 1885 and, by the 1890’s, operated over one hundred beehive shaped ovens in Wilkeson.

On March 29, 1889, Wilkeson was platted by Joseph and Lydia Johns.  North of the railroad tracks, (where the mines were located) was known as “Uptown” and was all owned by the Northern  Pacific Railroad.  This was a company town and the Northern Pacific owned the hotel, a store, mine buildings, the train depot, post office, school, and rows of miners’ cottages.  South of the tracks was privately owned and known as “Downtown.”  Downtown housed numerous businesses, fraternal organizations, and other community and social groups.

Wilkeson boomed from the late 1800’s through World War I.  Hundreds of immigrants were recruited to work the mines and ovens, including from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The sandstone quarry officially opened in 1886 and logging and milling soon became as important to the regional economy as mining.  Tourism to Mount Rainier was another aspect of Wilkeson’s economy once the railroad arrived.  Outfitters met tourists arriving by train in Wilkeson and then guided them by pack horse to the park.

Coke Ovens

The Wilkeson area remained an important center of coal and coke production through World War I, at which time it had the only coke ovens in the United States west of Utah.  By 1918 Wilkeson had two freight trains daily pulling 80 to 100 cars each.  The Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company employed 200 men; the Gale Creek Coal Mine employed 75 men: and the population of Wilkeson was over 2,000.

Mining, logging, and coke production gradually declined from the 1920’s to the 1970’s and the population declined as well.  The Wilkeson Coal and Coke Company quit mining in 1936 and the last year of mining in Wilkeson ended in 1974.  In 100 years of coal mining, 21 million tons of coal was produced from the Wilkeson area mines.  The estimated amount of coal still in the Wilkeson area is 222,000,000 tons.

More information on the town of Wilkeson can be found in the recent Courier-Herald article:
Pioneer Days on the Plateau, March 1 2017