Coal Cars

    In 1853 when the American population in King County was 154, Dr. R.H. Bigelow first found coal on the Duwamish River in what is now Renton. Coal was an essential fuel back then, and it was actively mined in the southeast area of Lake Washington during the last half of the 19th century, and the first Quarter of the 20th century. The most important resource for the greater Seattle economy was the mining and distributing of coal.


    In the 1860s, a man named Edwin Richardson found more of this precious resource on Coal Creek in what is now Newcastle.

Among a wave of mining claims that were to be filed, the Lake Washington Coal Company was one that was organized and built by Rev. George Whitworth, the Rev. Daniel Bagley, and many others. When they started excavating tunnels up Coal Creek, they also constructed a wharf at its mouth where Newport Shores is located now. The abundant flow of coal was then hauled by boat and barge over the lake, where it met the Cedar, Black, and Duwamish Rivers and then down to Seattle.


    Coal transport on the lake became as important as the coal itself.  An example of one route; the small coal cars were loaded with coal in the mine,

let down the long inclined tram to Lake Washington, where they started on the first part of their barge trip. At Union Bay they were moved from the barge to the portage tram,

over which they were hauled to Lake Union to be again loaded onto a barge for a trip to the south end of the lake, where they were again on the tram rails bound for the bunkers at the foot of Pike Street. There the coal would await the large sailing ships, not unlike the AJ Fuller, for transport to places like San Francisco.


    Through the 1880s the coal mining industry remained the Lake Washington region’s largest.


    It is reported that In January 1875, the steamer Chehalis was pulling a barge

containing wooden coal cars across Lake Washington for its trek to the Seattle waterfront. The weather wasn’t the most favorable that day, and a gale blowing over the lake would cut this journey short. As the barge cornered the northwest point of today’s Mercer Island, it was hit full force by the fierce wind. The barge toppled and sent 18 coal cars, along with their contents, driving into the lakes bottom.

Photos courtesy UW archives


Barge like the ones on Lake Washington

Allegedly the same Steamer tug Chehalis

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Video shot by the Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team and displayed and edited by Laura James