Skook. Another Chapter.
The storm broke that night. I built a hot fire in the fireplace with some of Petoskey’s Wingate Seam coal, spread a blanket in front of it and played with my son. He had a string of those multi-colored egg-size pull-apart beads and some old fashioned wooden alphabet blocks. He loved popping those beads apart and scattering them from hell to breakfast. He already had figured out that if he slung them away from him, Paka would pick them up and bring them back. She’d drop them right by him and stand there wagging like crazy waiting for him to do it again. He was learning to stack four or five blocks one on top of the other, and then kick hell out of them to see how far they’d tumble before she was on them, trying to bring back two at once while he chortled. Harry could not shut off his tracking radar. He knew where every bead and every block flew. But it was beneath his dignity to involve himself in puppy shenanigans. He lay with his muzzle between his paws, eyebrows twitching to follow the arc of every missile. Occasionally he would utter an almost human sigh.
Sticks and twigs pattered on the flat tin roof. The wind shrilled like a lost ghost around the corners of the cabin. The lights flickered a time or two and I thought about that drooping power line descending through the trees from the county road. Let one good-size branch break loose and we’d be in the dark. I primed and pumped my Coleman camp lantern and laid a flashlight by just in case, but the power held.
When the rain cut loose, it came in monsoon torrents as if to make up for dry September days just past. It roared on the tin roof as loudly as I imagined one of those old coal-fired locomotives sounded from under the vanished bridge to Lower Melmont. I fed the boy his bottle when he had played himself out, put down food for the dogs, and built myself a chili omelet with salsa, an acquired taste from my sojourns in Southern California. The dogs scooted outside for a nightly constitutional during a slight lessening in the downpour, got their business done and came back in and sprayed the whole cabin down shaking out their wet fur. Then they sprawled a safe distance from the blazing coal to dry out. That feeling of smug contentment crept over me again.
I uncased my old Royal portable typewriter and noodled along, converting some of my notebook entries and expanding them with remembered details I hadn’t written down. My story of the vanished towns was beginning to take form and substance. I decided to let Mr. Tuchi’s contribution mulch and went back to fill out the section on Burnett. Blink twice on the way to Wilkeson, I typed, and you will miss Burnett. If Wilkeson now could muster 284 souls exclusive of livestock, I doubted that Burnett could boast 20, perched beside the road on a wooded slope above the locally notorious Chinaman’s Slope.
But Burnett’s coal, and the men they hired to mine it in the latter part of the nineteenth century, stood at one of those crossroads in the affairs of men where local and international politics clashed dangerously. It was about a quarter of a century after a certain Van Ogle, around the time of the Battle of Bull Run, walked up to a cliff face in the Carbon Gorge and broke off a chunk of what proved to be some of the best coking coal on earth.
Poor Van Ogle got excited as John Sutter in that mill in California. Gold was precious metal, but coal was the engine of nineteenth-century commerce. The story goes that the more he looked, the more coal he found, and the more suspicious he became of his good fortune. He just kept stumbling over the stuff until he finally decided that if there was that much of it, and no one else was dancing a jig about it, it must be worthless. He didn’t even stake a claim.
Others did, and when they needed cheap labor to mine the black lode, they turned to Chinese coolies. The Burnett coal that filled Tacoma waterfront bunkers, and made it a major port of call between the days of sail and diesel, was picked and shoveled out of the ground by Chinese miners. Far across the Pacific, times were tough in Imperial China. The only real export the Emperor had to offer the world was the indefatigable coolie.
By 1886, six hundred Chinese lived in a close-packed tent city on Chinaman Slope below Burnett, their back-breaking labor powering the coal-fueled ships of the world that called at Tacoma. They took their pay in gold double eagles and, so the story went, buried it beneath their tents until they could send it home to their families. By 1886, the Tacoma Knights of Labor had had enough of immigrant labor taking their jobs, and formed an angry mob to march on Chinaman Slope. They drove the Chinese out of their tent town and put it to the torch. It was a miracle there wasn’t a slaughter.
I paused in my typing as the wind picked up, flinging debris against the roof. Particularly loud bangs would rouse the dogs with lips curled back over their teeth, suspecting an intrusion. Then they would settle back down. I had found nothing about running Mr. Tuchi’s Chinese laundries out of the coal fields, so apparently the Knights of Labor considered washing clothes beneath them.
It was amazing to me, given the slowness of communications back then, how fast the Imperial Court in Peking got word of the attack on Chinaman Slope, and how fast the mandarins in turn grabbed the attention of the White House in no uncertain terms. The Washington Territorial Governor got his marching orders in a matter of days, and railroad flatcars were commandeered and sent up Carbon Gorge to rescue the coolies from the angry union men. They were hustled aboard quickly and shipped off to Portland to avoid a worse international incident.
They were hardly down the tracks when rumors raced through the Gorge that they were packed off so quickly they hadn’t had time to sort through their burned-out tents to retrieve their buried gold stashes. Petoskey told me treasure seekers still combed the now heavily forested slope looking for gold coins. If anyone had ever hit the bonanza, they weren’t talking.
Poor old Van Ogle — certainly one of history’s biggest losers. For 99 years, Chinese and then European miners sent enough coal pouring out of those seven towns — four vanished and three on life-support — to power all the locomotives of the Central, Southern and Northern Pacific’s locomotives, and Northern Pacific’s ocean steamers; and the steel mills in Seattle, Portland and Tacoma. The beehives turned out so much coking coal that by 1880 the dockside San Francisco price of coke was halved. A total of almost 22 million tons moved out of the Gorge by the time the coal companies went belly-up. The Bureau of Mines estimated there remained 362 million tons buried under 54 square miles of rugged terrain.
I closed up my typewriter for the night on that thought. By the time I was writing this, the first Earth Day had come and gone, and environmentalism was the new craze for those who would soon be without a Vietnam War to kick around anymore. Anybody tapping natural resources in the mid-seventies was now viewed as the new LBJ baby killers. Meanwhile, up in Carbon Gorge, nature had obliterated almost every trace of a 22-million-ton mining operation as if it had never existed.
Three towns where all that was left was the memory of their names: Fairfax, Melmont and Spiketon, which had also been called Morristown. One town so utterly gone that local memory was dim even as to its name. Two more towns hanging on grimly and one fading like the Cheshire Cat — but I had a hunch the last sight of Burnett would not be its smile.
The dogs trooped into the bedroom with me and found spots at the foot of the bed. The warmth of the coal fire didn’t quite reach in here and it was chilly and damp. I snuggled my son in extra baby blankets and wrapped my Eddie Bauer down vest around him for a snug cocoon, then kicked my boots off and crawled under my zipped-open sleeping bag fully clothed — another of the simple pleasures of camping out without wifely supervision. The fire made dancing shadows on the ceiling through the open door. I tucked my son in the curve of my arm and let my mind wander as the storm renewed its overhead assault. Salmon-eating wild men, who stalked and entombed miners who poached their fish, drifted around in the corners of my mind.
I had been out on Carbon Creek once with members of a hairy, inbred-looking family, some with strange fleshy protuberances growing on their faces. They made me think of Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell’s book that infuriated my Georgia kin before I made grade school. They poached deer with .22s. They wired knife blades to broom handles and knelt, silent as blue herons, above eddies on the creek where returning salmon and steelhead — supposedly protected on that creek from all fishing — rested in their upstream battle to the spawning gravels. They had been doing it so long their knees wore moss away in their favored spots, leaving muddy indentations. Their lodgings were so well-hidden it would take a seasoned woodman to find them unaided.
A former outlaw biker, working in an auto-wrecking yard on the county road near Burnett, led me to the strange tribe and told them I could be trusted. The biker had resurrected the old Pontiac Bonneville my wife drove to work. He sold it to us for forty dollars rather than stripping it and sending it to the automobile-graveyard recycle plant on the Tacoma tide flats, and showed me how to keep it running.
I had asked him where they got the fresh salmon that seemed to keep their big smoker at the wrecking yard going round the clock. If the yard crew liked you, you were invited to lunch. Even if they didn’t particularly like you, but knew you to be worthy of trust, they’d sell you smoked salmon out the back door for a good price. I was lucky enough to be on both lists, so he took me to their source.
The strange family that supplied the wrecking yard lived in the depths below the Burnett Bridge, and traded salmon for parts off wrecked vehicles to keep their old junker on the road, or cash for staples. Their albino patriarch, Aaron, shunned all daylight. He lurked in their concealed ramshackle tarpaper shack well back from the creek tinkering with his augmented Citizen Band radio set, eavesdropping on CB chatter to keep tabs on game wardens and the fisheries patrol. If he spotted a Game or Fisheries vehicle on the high bridge, he keyed his microphone through a loudspeaker buried on the moss-covered roof: two long bursts of static for Game Department, three short for Fisheries Patrol. His brood would melt into invisibility. He managed their small commerce in poached salmon and venison.
The Cascades were full of such hidden pockets of outlaws or ex-hippies or survivalists living off the land. Aaron’s brood evinced no fear of skulking wild men who might resent their poaching; I thought maybe they were Signor Tuchi’s wild men. I was wondering what Mildred, the Soldier’s Home nurse, would have to tell me about that when the storm lulled me to sleep.