This Week in History: Centralia Coal Mine — the Last in Washington — Closes in 2006


On Nov. 27, 2006, the TransAlta open-pit coal mine near Centralia, the last coal mine in Washington, ceases operation. Approximately 550 people are laid off, with their pay and benefits continued for 60 days. The mine was built in the late 1960s to fuel the nearby TransAlta steam-generation electric plant, which will continue to operate with cheaper coal from Montana and Wyoming.

In the nineteenth century, coal was a major product of Washington, with much of the output being sent to Northwest cities as well as to San Francisco and to railroad locomotives. Markets for coal began to decline, particularly following World War I, and by the early 1960s the industry was a shadow of its former self. In Washington electricity was largely produced via water power, but by 1960, all the available hydroelectric sites had been exploited and the state still needed electricity. Utilities turned to nuclear-fired and coal-fired power to meet energy needs.

In the late 1960s, eight utility companies constructed a 1.2 megawatt steam-generation plant next to coal deposits northeast of Centralia. The coal was dug from open pits with immense construction-industry-type equipment, washed, and burned in the generation plant. TransAlta purchased the plant in 2002.

By 2006, the cost of digging and washing the relatively dirty (meaning mixed with impurities) coal at Centralia exceeded the cost of purchasing and transporting cleaner coal from Wyoming and Montana. The owners elected to close the mine. Federal law requires a 60-day notice of major layoffs and the owners decided to cease all work in the mine to avoid accidents due to a workforce distracted by these events. All the employees were kept on full pay and benefits for 60 days. TransAlta was the second largest employer in Lewis County. 

Earthquake Near Olympia Rattles for 21 Minutes

On Nov. 12, 1939, at 11:47 p.m., an earthquake centered 12 miles northwest of Olympia rattles the area. Chimneys collapse, and as far away as Seattle, the City-County Building is damaged. There are no fatalities or injuries reported. It is the most serious seismic event in Western Washington in 19 years. The shaking stops at 12:09 a.m.

Seattle residents woke up and ran out of their homes in night clothes. Awakened by the temblor, University of Washington Geology Professor Howard A. Coombs rushed to campus to examine the seismograph there. He rated the quake as a “number three” on the F. Omori scale and it is later rated as a VII on the Mercalli Scale (“everybody runs outdoors, noticed by persons driving cars, slight to moderate damage in well built ordinary structures”). This quake was not rated on the Richter Scale, which at the time was only four years old.


Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild Strikes The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

On Nov. 21, 2000, more than 1,000 members of Local 82 of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild strike The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after rejecting a final contract offer. The strikers settle with the P-I after 38 days and with the Times after 49 days.

The Times and the P-I were owned separately but negotiated jointly with unions. The Newspaper Guild represented approximately 900 news, advertising, and circulation workers at the Times and approximately 130 news and business department employees at the P-I. Under a joint operating agreement, the papers maintain separate newsrooms, with the Times handling advertising, production, and circulation for both papers.

At issue were salaries and the use of a merit-pay system. Picket lines were established around the papers’ buildings and the Newspaper Guild began publishing its own Seattle Union Record (named after a labor newspaper published from 1899 to 1928). During the course of the strike, the new Union Record produced 18 tabloid print editions and a website.

Mayor Paul Schell’s Stand

As a show of support for strikers, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell issued an order prohibiting city workers and department heads from granting interviews or providing information to reporters from the Times or the P-I. Replacement workers and managers working as reporters would not be granted press credentials, but he would allow them to attend news conferences. Schell later changed his stand to a personal refusal to grant one-on-one interviews to replacement workers.

Joining the Newspaper Guild was Teamsters Local 174, which represented approximately 80 Times truck drivers. Teamsters Local 763, which represented 180 other drivers, reached a settlement and did not strike.

At Issue

The Newspaper Guild sought wage increases of approximately $2 an hour spread over three years (the Times offered 55 cents an hour over six years), an end to a two-tier wage structure in which suburban employees were paid less than those who worked downtown, changes to the P-I’s pension plan, and changes in the number of employees who would be required to join The Guild.

The Times and the P-I continued to publish smaller editions using management employees and replacement workers. These editions were delivered free to subscribers for a time. Production workers remained on the job. U.S. Senator Patty Murray provided the assistance of a federal mediator and the parties met in Washington, D.C.

On December 28, 2000, the Guild settled with the P-I for a $3.30 an hour raise phased in over six years. Times workers stayed out pending resolution of issues over retention of replacement workers and a schedule for rehiring strikers. The Guild settled with the Times on January 9, 2001.

There Were Gains

According to Larry Hatfield, Guild Administrative Officer, writing in the Union Record:

“The contracts we’ve ended up with are not the best contracts. They don’t have all or even most of what we wanted. But there were gains, including the elimination of the Times’ draconian two-tier wage scales that discriminated against reporters and photographers just because they worked in the suburbs. Among other gains was a significant improvement in the P-I’s still-unsatisfactory pension plan, the first such improvement in decades.”

In 1953, The Seattle Times ceased publication for 94 days while six trade unions struck for wages. In 1936, the newly founded American Newspaper Guild struck the P-I for 103 days.


Demolition of Buildings on Century 21 Exposition/Seattle World’s Fair Site Begins

Nov. 12, 1958, demolition of existing structures on the future Seattle World’s Fair grounds begins.  The first home to fall is a two-story, eight-room wood-frame house at 619 Nob Hill Avenue (future site of the Mercer Street Parking Garage).  The house dates from 1895.  Seattle real estate magnate Henry Broderick (1880-1975) releases the wrecking ball’s first swing.  Broderick owes this honor to his singular role as a trustee of both the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

A Family House Toppled

Broderick performed his demolition duties in a pelting rainstorm.  The honorary swing smashed a window and part of a wall and was accomplished to applause. Broderick then clambered down from the 15-ton construction crane to join fellow dignitaries under a nearby awning. Musicians, also under cover, struck up a sprightly tune.  Professional construction workers, inured to Seattle’s usual November weather, took over demolition work. 

Despite the drippy weather, a large crowd gathered to watch the first building fall.  Among those watching was Charles Burkman, age 68, who had lived in the house from 1897 to 1948. Fighting back tears, Burkman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that his father John Burkman had paid $1,300 for the house. The house, he said, had been “a member of the Burkman family for 60 years.”  The clamshell claw toppled the home’s brick chimney and began ripping through the roof.  “That roof cost me $600,” Burkman added. “I put it on just before I sold it.”

Looking up at the first crane-smashed wall and window, Burkman continued: “That was my old bedroom. It was the warmest room in the house. The chimney ran through it. There was no band music when we moved into it. I’ve had enough.” 

Site Preparation for a World’s Fair

The fair site had been selected in March 1956. From the beginning, fair organizers and civic center proponents planned for the site to serve as a civic center after the exposition. The land was part of David (1832-1903) and Louisa Boren Denny’s (1827-1913) 1852 donation land claim.  The two-block section on which the Mercer Street parking garage would rise was part of Thomas Mercer’s (1813-1898) claim.  

On November 6, 1956, Seattle voters approved a $7.5 million bond issue to fund the acquisition of land and new construction for the future civic center. On September 15, 1959, the federal government appropriated $9 million to fund land acquisition and construction of the United States Science Pavilion.

In April and May of 1957, hundreds of individuals within the area slated for acquisition with Seattle bond monies received summonses informing them that their property was being condemned. Some of the property was bank-owned, and many properties had absentee landlords — the children or grandchildren of the original homeowners.

The city and the state issued a series of calls for bids for buildings to be razed or moved.  Harold G. LaVelle Construction Company of Portland, Oregon was low bidder on one of the largest jobs, the demolition of Warren Avenue School.  LaVelle also cleared many other structures on the fair site.  McFarland House Wrecking, Overland Construction, Romano Incorporated, and Iversen Incorporated also demolished buildings on the exposition site.

By mid-July 1959 some 84 structures had been demolished, including duplexes, multiplexes, and commercial structures.  By late October 1959, 49 more had fallen, and by the end of December another 70 would go.  

Creative Re-Use

Although fair planners deemed Warren Avenue School unusable, several large structures on the fairground site were utilized during the fair.  These included:

 The Washington National Guard Armory (used as the Food Circus

 The Nile Shrine Temple (used as the members-only Club 21)

High School Memorial Stadium (the fair’s Stadium

The Blue Spruce apartment building (used as the fair’s Administration Building)

The Western Pacific Insurance building on the far west of the fair site (used as Fair Headquarters

The Veterans of Foreign Wars building.