Smoke stack and powerhouse get preliminary historical designation

SNOQUALMIE - A more than 80-year-old historic smoke stack and powerhouse located on the Weyerhaeuser mill site outside of Snoqualmie have been saved from demolition, at least for the time being.

The King County Landmarks Commission voted last week to give the structures, and all the equipment inside them, a preliminary determination of significance. That designation provides the structures a temporary landmark status while issues regarding the boundaries at the site are clarified with Weyerhaeuser, which will continue to need access to the area in order to service utilities on the property. A final determination with the new boundaries is expected at a March 24 Landmarks Commission meeting.

The decision followed testimony by members of the Valley community and the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society, which submitted the application to preserve the mill structures, at a public hearing held March 3 at Si View Community Center in North Bend. Valley historians and longtime residents have long vouched for the historical significance of the mill.

Construction on the mill started in 1916, and the smoke stack and powerhouse were completed the following year. It grew to an industrial community named Snoqualmie Falls that included neighborhoods, a YMCA community center, a hospital and a school. Work waned over the years, however, and the mill closed in 2003. Since then, the structures at the site have been systematically disassembled, with the younger of the two smoke stacks (built in 1944) coming down last year. Only a few of the buildings at the site remain standing.

Residents spoke at the public hearing of the deep, personal connection the mill had with the community. Harley Brumbaugh, a North Bend resident who grew up in the now-defunct town that housed mill employees and their families for generations, spoke of his first days in Snoqualmie Falls after moving there in 1943 as a young boy.

"We are talking about the heartbeat of the community, we are not talking about a bunch of bricks," he said.

The landmark nomination was recommended for approval by the historical commission staff. Julie Koler, a historic preservation officer for King County's Historic Preservation Program, said the mill site met the county's criteria for preservation due to its history in the timber industry and economy of the region. According to staff recommendation documents, the mill was for years one of the largest mill operations in the nation and the most expansive mill operation ever in King County. It was the second all-electric mill in the United States and the first of its kind to employ electrical-powered cutting operations in the woods. Such relics are disappearing across the country and need to be preserved, the recommendation said.

While the structures have been saved from demolition for the time being, they haven't been saved for perpetuity. Should the buildings become too much of a burden to maintain safely, Weyerhaeuser can appeal the landmark designation in order to demolish the structures, Koler said.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said the company is not in the business of historic renovations and that it would like to work with some historical group to take over and/or manage the historic structures. The buildings are decrepit and he said there have been varying estimates on how much it would cost to stabilize the structures, let alone restore them. Since there are no final business plans for the site, nor any group coming forward to take over the care of the historic structures, he said it is unclear exactly what kind of agreement the company could go into regarding the future of the mill site.

"Anything is on the table," he said.

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