Chasing ghosts: Museum explores vanished town of Snoqualmie Falls

Chasing the ghosts of a vanished community, Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum member Dave Battey uncovers the playground foundations of long-lost Snoqualmie Falls Grade School. The lost town is the focus of a new museum exhibit. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Chasing the ghosts of a vanished community, Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum member Dave Battey uncovers the playground foundations of long-lost Snoqualmie Falls Grade School. The lost town is the focus of a new museum exhibit.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

The forested pathways surrounding the site of Weyerhaeuser's deserted Snoqualmie Falls lumber mill hide secrets. But some people know how to uncover them.

Dave Battey, a retired telephone company employee and history sleuth for the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum, is one such man. On a cold March morning, Battey hopped a guard rail not far from his home and hiked down an elk trail just off 396th Drive. His destination: the ghostly remains of the Snoqualmie Valley's original YMCA.

The elk trail is more than it seems. Under layers of leaf litter, Battey's boots find the old loop road, once a main thoroughfare in the now-vanished community of Snoqualmie Falls.

"It's all asphalt," said Battey. Steps away, seemingly lost in the forest, is a paved school yard, hidden under the moss.

Here, the forest is reclaiming its own. Weyerhaeuser moved houses, bulldozed pavement and replanted the town with firs 40 years ago. English ivy, escaped from some mill worker's garden, entwines the trunks near the vanished community center.

In its heydey, the Snoqualmie Falls community hall drew children and adults from as far as Carnation.

"It was quite spectacular, probably the biggest Y this side of Seattle," Battey said.

Today, just finding where it stood is a challenge. Battey's only clue to the Y's whereabouts is a steel pipe among the trunks. Holding up an old photo, Battey zeroes in on a tiny signpost in the photo that directed firefighters to a water source.

"The community hall was really right here," he said. The pipe is the only visible vestige to a building that nurtured thousands of lives.

Quick growth

The company town of Snoqualmie Falls sprang up fast — and vanished almost as quickly. Snoqualmie Falls had its genesis in the creation of the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company in 1914 by Weyerhaeuser and the Grandin-Coast Lumber Company. Homes and services were needed for the mill workers, and the town coalesced as the lumber company began operations in 1917. Bunkhouses and a boarding house providing initial homes for the loggers and mill workers. Over a period of about three years, true neighborhoods developed: places called The Flats, The Gulch, Riverside and the Dirty Dozen, so-called for its downwind proximity to the smokestacks.

The Orchard neighborhood, built in 1919, was a social experiment to attract stable families, breaking the old stereotype of loggers as rough, hard-carousing men. The last house was constructed in 1924.

At its peak, the self-contained community had its own water and electricity system, company store, hotel, barber shop, hospital and YMCA, serving the mill's 1,200 workers.

To Battey, the mill town was clearly an urban environment.

"This was a town," he said. "The houses were reasonably close together. Everyone felt like they were part of their individual neighborhoods."

The mill employed small but growing numbers of women, and a small Japanese community lived at bunkhouses close to the mill pond.

"They started having families in the bunkhouses," Battey said. "They figured out how to break up the rooms inside."

Japanese children attended the mill school, and also took extra private lessons emphasizing Japanese culture.

The Japanese families were interned and removed from the Valley in 1942 by the federal government.

"As soon as they left, the company tore it down," Battey said. At that time, the wartime threat posed by Japan was very real to residents in the Pacific Northwest.

"The biggest threat the timber industry had was incendiaries from Japan," Battey said.

Vanishing town

By 1930, homes were being removed at Snoqualmie Falls. Gradually, employees and services in Snoqualmie Falls moved into the greater Valley. The Nelems Memorial Hospital, now being converted to senior housing by the Snoqualmie Tribe, replaced the Snoqualmie Falls Hospital in 1948. The bulk of the homes that could be moved were rolled across a timber bridge into Snoqualmie in the 1950s. The site of the Orchard is now a Glacier Northwest gravel pit; trees are reclaiming the other neighborhoods.

Some buildings, such as the grand manager's home, were torn down.

"There was no way to move them, and no place to move them to," Battey said.

Among the last mill town agencies to close was the YMCA.

"They tried to get the rest of the Valley to keep the YMCA going," Battey said. "It was too far out of the way. But people came to this thing from Carnation in its heyday. It was a regional draw."

Even after Snoqualmie Falls residents moved away, the Y remained a gathering place until it closed its doors in 1971. On June 30 of that year, the last piece of mail received its Snoqualmie Falls date stamp in the mill town's post office.

Searching for clues

Not much is left of Snoqualmie Falls Grade School. The foundation of the asphalt playground remains, as does a few parking berms and two gnarled, ancient cherry trees, planting long ago by a Japanese girl whose family worked at the mill.

It takes an educated eye to spot the remaining concrete, or a well-shod foot to dig out the pavement under a layer of dirt, leaf litter and moss. But once revealed, the footprint of the building is generous.

"This is not a small school," Battey said. "This is huge."

The cherries were planted in 1936 by a girl, graduating from the eighth grade, who may well have been part of the handful of Japanese families who were interned in World War II and never returned.

"They'e almost totally devastated," Battey said of the trees. But the ancient trunks still bloom. Battey notices the flowers every spring.

Across the street lie paved steps leading the onetime site of Snoqualmie Falls Hospital, once the largest facility this side of Seattle. The Valley Historical Museum recently recovered a brass plaque honoring a noted doctor there.

But the building itself has vanished, a grove of trees in its place.

The last generation born at the hospital is now in their mid-50s. Occasionally, a bewildered child of the mill town revisits Snoqualmie Falls, struggling to find their lost home.

Battey's family farm sits just over the hill from the mill. When a visitor pulls into his driveway, he can tell at a glance whether they are searching for the lost town.

"Our house is the only thing they can recognize," Battey said. "Sometimes they have tears in their eyes. They can't grasp the fact that this is all gone."

New role

After years of stagnation, the mill site's future now appears to be entering high gear. Entrepreneurs Greg Lund and Bob Morris are currently negotiating with Weyerhaeuser for purchase of the mill property, with an eye to open Ultimate Rally Experience, a driving course, corporate training center and film location.

Their purchase does not include the entire former mill town. Weyerhaeuser retains some of the former town sites, while others are privately held.

While little discussion of the old town has been taken place, Ultimate Rally Experience is aware of the site's past.

"History is a big deal and it's very important to me," Morris said. "We have plans to preserve anything and everything historic on the site as time goes on."

Museum exhibit

The story of the Snoqualmie Falls mill and community is the primary exhibit for 2010. As the museum opens this month, it will feature the history, images and story of the mill town and its impact on the Valley.

As part of that focus, the museum is reprinting "Memories of a Mill Town - Snoqualmie Falls, Washington 1917 to 1932," by author Edna Hebner Crews.

• More next week: “Ghosts of the mill town” is the first in a two-part series on the lost community of Snoqualmie Falls.

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