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Skagit River Journal

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Discovering Washington's Historic Mines
Vol. 3: The Northern Cascade Mountains

(Ruby Creek)
      This photo shows the junction of Ruby Creek and the Skagit River where Ross Lake is located today. It is from the Tommy Thompson collection, courtesy of Will D. "Bob" Jenkin's definitive book about the mountains, Last Frontier in the North Cascades , which is till for sale at the LaConner Museum. The caption reads: "This picture that also shows [John] McMillan's Roadhouse (the long roof at the right). The Upper Skagit flows beneath the cable suspension bridge in middle foreground while Ruby Creek enters from the high Cascades at lower right. The combined streams rush through the famed gorge of the Skagit. This picture was taken in the 1920s after the City of Seattle began core drilling the foundation bedrock for Ross Dam and built the temporary footbridge in the lower foreground. Ross Lake now covers the area right up to the steep slopes of Pierce Mountain on the left, Jack Mountain on the right, and the Canadian border in the distant north."

(Phil Woodhouse, Daryl Jacobson, Victor Pisoni, authors, 2006)
(Book cover)
      Run, don't walk, to your bookstore or to your keyboard and order or buy this book. Readers of the Journal know how much I have praised the authors for two of their other fine books. I am just as enthusiastic about this one because by reading it, you will understand the point I have often made: the Northwest wilderness was conquered mainly by men who were miners or prospectors. This is a rollicking good read as you imagine yourself trying to keep up with the miners while they trip across boulders and deadfalls, and along the way you learn about the gamut of "hot" ore: gold, silver, coal, galena, asbestos, limestone, and more.
      Of course the Europeans fur trappers came here first, and many brave, hearty men came here to fell timber, fish the sea and rivers and build the railroads. But the chronology of the West Coast frontier in general is highlighted by the search for and discovery of metals and minerals. California and Alaska were obviously magnets for argonauts who came by the thousands to mine for gold. When you read about the early history of northwestern Washington Territory and state, however, you also learn that settlement of the counties of Whatcom and Skagit counties was kick-started by those seeking coal, which heated homes and powered both ships and trains. For instance, in 1888, Nelson Bennett designed the route of the Fairhaven & Southern — the first standard-gauge railroad in Washington north of Seattle, specifically so that he could transport the coal from mines (later called Cokedale) northeast of old Sedro to the bunkers at Fairhaven on Bellingham Bay.
      I am especially indebted to two of the authors for the tireless help they have provided during research for the Journal . I recognized author Phil Woodhouse's expertise when I read his seminal book, Monte Cristo . Written 25 years ago, it has never been challenged as the basic source about the brief but important rush to the Sauk and Suiattle rivers and the North Cascades Mountains. I have also corresponded with author Daryl Jacobson for six years since the website started and have depended on his knowledge and expertise. They last teamed up on another beautiful book, The Everett & Monte Cristo Railway. The third author of this newest book is Victor Pisoni, who first teamed up with Phil and Daryl on Volume II: the East Central Cascade Mountains & Wenatchee Mountains .
      Volume III includes history of these sub-regions: Nooksack River, Skagit River, Harts Pass/Slate Creek, Pasayten Wilderness and Twisp/Winthrop. In each area they explore in detail the mines that were heralded and promoted, as well as those that shone only briefly or have been long forgotten. They also include sections on the Global Positioning System (GPS), The Law and You, North Cascades Geology, and their hallmark — detailed bibliography, maps and photos. In the Slate Creek area, for instance, they list more than 100 claims staked in just one tightly packed area.
      Their scholarship and writing are both worthy of emulation, but I especially commend them for the reality check they present right up front. They warn the foolhardy to stay out of mine shafts and delineate the many hazards and dangers, especially from deadly and explosive gasses, and especially the hazards of coal mine shafts. They also explain how to be good neighbors and stewards of the fragile landscape and they go into great detail about how to prepare for a trip to the mine regions, what to pack and what to look for and avoid. They explain how miners and prospectors overcame the natural obstacles, such as gigantic boulders left behind by glaciers; how they crossed streams on devices like a "go-devil," and they give many details of the process of mining and the tools and equipment. I was especially impressed by their research and their summaries of the upper Skagit River mines and their ear what questions the reader might ask, such as: what was the first bridge over the upper Skagit? They answer and show the photo of the Goat Trail suspension bridge over the Skagit Gorge near the town of Ruby, the area that now lies under Ross Lake behind the dam.
      This book and the two before — including Volume I: the West Central Cascade Mountains , are all the result of the gathering of a loosely knit group of roughly two-dozen mountain climbers, hikers, photographers, researchers and authors in 1988. The group adopted the name, Northwest Underground Explorations, and the members dedicate themselves to "locate, research, interpret, document, and preserve the mines and the rich mining history of the Pacific Northwest." They long ago found a friend and business associate in Dave Rygmyr, the president of Oso Publications, the publisher of this whole Discovering series as well as the Railway book. With this line of books, Oso supplements its extensive list of books about logging railroads and short lines of the Northwest. The next book in the series will be: Volume IV: Okanogan .

      This circa-1890 map of claims on Coal Mountain, south across the Skagit from Hamilton, is just one of many maps that will help you navigate the North Cascades while reading. It tells the researcher so many important details, including two locations that help us with other research: the location of the very brief town of Bessemer and the early location of the village of Birdsview, east of Hamilton on the north shore of the river.

    Any time, any amount, please help build our travel and research fund for what promises to be a very busy 2011, traveling to mine resources from California to Washington and maybe beyond. Depth of research determined by the level of aid from readers. Because of our recent illness, our research fund is completely bare. See many examples of how you can aid our project and help us continue for another ten years. And subscriptions to our optional Subscribers Online Magazine (launched 2000) by donation too. Thank you.

We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down bedding. See our Journal feature on this local business and learn more details and how to order items at their website.

      One of the other aspects of this book that I especially enjoy is how the authors avoided the deadly dull, dry, laundry-listapproach and instead, researched rare and sometimes obscure sources. In turn, they share some of the humorous moments from those early days and those details that help you imagine you are sitting around the campfire with the miners and hearing their stories. Here is one example, from the section on "Upper Skagit Mines,"
(Cave entrance)
This photo makes us wonder about the thoughts in miners' minds, especially on those dreary, rainy November days, as they looked out the entrance of a cave or mine shaft. Did they harken back to their cave-dwelling ancestors when they lived in the caves of Europe several millennia before?

      One novel way that prospectors in this area used to retort gold on site was to put a mix of black sand and mercury amalgam into the pan of a shovel over a hot fire and place a hollowed-out potato over it. The heat from the hot shovel would retort the mercury into the spud, leaving a button of pure gold in the shovel pan.
      We have uncovered some interesting tales from this region, one of which concerns a character named Isaac LaRush who was well known on the upper trail. This trail was named the Goat Trail because of the way it meandered up and down the cliffs along the creeks. Most folks would not have known the name Isaac LaRush if you mentioned it to them, because he went by a curious nickname, "Kiyu." The origin of the name is lost in the mists of time, but that's what everyone called him. When he was in his 70s, Kiyu was working as mule skinner, handling the mules that worked in the. Empire Tunnel of the Anacortes Mine Group (see the Harts Pass/Slate Creek chapter). Though his hair was gray, he was wiry and powerful at his advanced age.
      One night, Will Jenkins and [packer Herman] Rohde were spending the night with Luke Hendrikson and his father in their near the confluence of Canyon and Creeks. The cabin was situated just off trail and perched on the mountainside al the creek bed, such that they were able catch their dinner of rainbow trout right off the back porch. After night had closed around them, they settled down for a long sleep. The others dozed off before Will did, and the sound of the mingled with their snores. Just as Will was drifting off to sleep, he became aware of a strange, low hum that seemed clearly distinct from the other sounds that surrounded him, kind of an off-key hum that rose and fell. After listening for a few minutes, Will woke Herman and asked him if he heard the humming. He did. As the two conversed, Windy awoke, and together they got Henry out of bed
      Not knowing what was in store, they lit the lantern and ventured out the door facing the trail. There, in the middle of the trail, was Kiyu, with his stag shirt rolled up as a pillow, nestled in the warm rocks. He sat up, blinked and looked around. The fellows asked him why he hadn't come to the cabin. Kiyu said that it was so dark he hadn't seen the cabin. He'd just lain down, as he had numerous times before, to spend the night. The men got old to the cabin and arranged for a more inviting sleeping provision for him. It was then they learned that Kiyu's habit of humming himself to sleep.

Ruby Creek rises and falls
and the young whippersnappers get the last laugh
      The town of Ruby served as a gateway to the Upper Skagit River Mines. Established at the confluence of the Skagit River and Ruby Creek, it was home to a small hotel, stables, and supply stores for the prospectors in the area hose headed farther up Ruby Creek. The little town was even home to a post office that was established on March 10, 1880, and operated until it was closed on October 12, 1882. Thereafter, mail came through the post office at Birdsview. Ruby didn't last too long. It ended up submerged under Ross Lake, now impounded behind Seattle City Light's Ross Dam. When City Light began its surveys of this portion of the Skagit River Valley, there was a large influx of neophytes into the area. The interactions between these newcomers to the area and the old timers sometimes produced humorous results. One local mountain man, Bert Ferguson, was a well-known practical joker. When two of the City Light's young, college-educated crew, shovels and pans in hand, sought his expertise on how to find gold in the area, Bert couldn't resist.
      At the old Ruby town site stood an abandoned "stiff-leg" crane, consisting of one vertical spar and one angled spar. Bert told the fellows that it had been used to lift the great boulders from the creek, exposing a number of gold nuggets beneath. Bert told them he was sure that, at a certain sharp bend in the creek, there were still boulders that could be removed by more conventional means and that the boulders had never been removed here. Why, some of them could probably be manhandled out by a single person. The City Light guys took the bait. Bert furnished the amateurs some crowbars and a nine-pound sledgehammer, and the pair descended into the creek.
      Now, it was a late summer Sunday, and not much air was moving through the canyon as the intrepid duo began their task. They chose a likely boulder and worked at muscling it out of the streambed. They pushed, they pried, and they lifted, but the stubborn mass of rock just wouldn't move! They quickly realized that the rock would have to be broken into smaller pieces and set to work with the sledge. Slowly, the great pebble began to succumb to the onslaught as the two men labored in the sweltering summer sun. Chip by chip, they reduced the size of their chosen adversary, but it still wouldn't budge. Toward the end of the day, they began to get some movement from the now-shattered boulder by prying with the crowbars. A little more pounding, some prying, and the thing began to move. Between the crowbars and some wooden poles, the exhausted fellows were finally able to lift the boulder from its resting place and move it aside. The telling of the tale might get a little exaggerated at this point. As Will Jenkins writes in his Last Frontier in the North Cascades , "In the deep pocket where the stone had lain so long that it had become as smooth as marble under countless years of erosion, the yellow of free gold lay like peanuts in a bowl!" It is rumored that the find was worth nearly $1,000, not a bad day's work.
      Because values of this amount are not consistent with previous finds in Ruby Creek, there is some doubt about veracity of the tale. Was the joke on old Bert Ferguson, or did the embellishments just make for good storytelling around the campfire? Ferguson reportedly went on a week-long drunk following the pair's find.

      This is one hellaciously fine book. ISBN Number 1-931064-15-6

      Journal ed. note : We have volunteered to help the authors of the Discovery series with a clearing house for feedback from readers of the book. If you have family memories or copies of documents or articles and photos that will provide more information about the mines of the North Cascades. We will incorporate that information in our upcoming stories and we will share it with the book authors for their subsequent books and articles. And if you have corrections or more background on any mine or pioneer or their families, please send us that, too. Thank you for helping.

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Story posted on Aug. 7, 2006, moved to this domain Oct. 20, 2011
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