Roslyn, founded in 1886, at one time contained some of the most extensive coal fields on the west coast. Coal was discovered in upper Kittitas County in 1882. Railroad-owned coal mining began in Roslyn in 1886 by approximately 550 laborers hired by Northern Pacific. When the Knights of Labor went on strike in 1888, two trainloads of black workers were brought to Roslyn to work in the mine. Mining was a dangerous occupation; tragic disasters such as the mine explosion of May, 1892, that killed 45 men, helped define the difficult lifestyle of the miner. This was shortly before legislation denied railroads the right to work mines in 1898. The Northwestern Improvement Mine, which took over the Roslyn claims, was the largest mine in production in Roslyn. They actively recruited miners from other countries. Life went on for Roslyn’s mining families.
In 1909, ten miners died in another mine explosion. The tragedies are marked by the Roslyn Miner’s Memorial honoring local miners [in front of the Northwest Improvement Company Store]. Sculptor Mike Maiden built the statue, which was unveiled along with the burial of a time capsule scheduled to be opened in 2096. Mining ended in the town in 1963 when other sources of energy competed with coal. The economy of Roslyn could no longer afford the mines. Four-fifths of the original coal deposits still remain today.
Devastation did not keep the miners from living life. On a normal day folks took advantage of the town accoutrements to get a little pleasure when they could. They had picnics under “Castle Rock” in town, a turreted formation on Pennsylvania Avenue. They climbed under this cave to eat their wares. Those not into picnics liked to cavort on down to The Brick Tavern, built by Peter Giovanni in 1889. It still has a running water spittoon under the bar. This century-plus-old establishment is the oldest operating saloon in the state of Washington. The back bar is from England and most of the chairs and tables are original (from Sears).
Roslyn was a thriving metropolis of over 4,000 residents in the 1920’s (1998 population was 857), during the coal mines’ heyday. During those days, Roslyn’s commercial district consisted of 4 square blocks. There are about a dozen of these buildings left (including the Roslyn Theatre, which was the town morgue). At Pennsylvania Avenue and First Street are three vintage brick buildings, including The Brick Tavern (in continuous operation since the 1890’s, complete with a working running water spittoon trough at the base of the bar). At Second and Pennsylvania are some buildings built with sandstone blocks, including the Roslyn Cafe, which was recently renovated by new owners.
During its days of prosperity, the Northern Pacific constructed the Roslyn Athletic Club for miners and their families. It was completed in 1902 and contained a gym, meeting rooms, bowling alley and swimming pool. Roslyn’s Library, which was founded in 1898, moved into the RAC building in 1918, and holds the honor of being the oldest library in Kittitas County.
Roslyn retains its history in architecture and in natural features. The heavily forested boundaries provide a distinct edge between the man-made and natural surroundings with no urban sprawl cutting into the forest. Visible mine ruins testify to the coal mining heritage, while the railroad tracks have been removed and replaced by the Coal Mine Trail. A walk on the trail affords visitors a look at the remains of Roslyn’s mines, at the railroad depot site and barn, and at Powder House Road where dynamite was stored. Unlike many places in America, Roslyn’s history and heritage remain obvious after more than one hundred years.
The entire city of Roslyn is listed on the National Historic Register and warrants exploration. Take time to wander the streets to see turn-of-the-century commercial buildings containing active businesses. These false-fronted wooden buildings are typical of western towns from the late 1800’s with their tall, narrow profiles and unpainted wood. Roslyn’s residential neighborhoods are also worth exploring as most of the houses date from Roslyn’s boom days of 1888-1914, and have a definite Victorian flavor.
The Roslyn Cemetery also is a local treasure and site of great interest. It consists of 26 separate cemeteries, many of them ethnic in origin such as the Lithuanian Cemetery, the Serbian Cemetery, and the African-American’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Each individual cemetery includes touches of ethnic individuality. Some Slavic graves are marked by beautiful metal-worked Eastern Orthodox crosses, while the Croatian cemeteries contain raised plots. The Polish graves face due North while all others face East. Roslyn’s cemetery is an excellent physical reminder of America’s melting pot heritage.
The Roslyn Cemetery holds more history and memories of the town and past residents. Five thousand-plus graves represent 24 nationalities that once lived in this town. This included the first black woman schoolteacher in Washington, Mrs. Thelma DeWittig. She followed the black migration of folks who came to work in the coal mines.
Before Northern Exposure was filmed in Roslyn, the town appeared in the movie The Runner Stumbles in 1979. Dick Van Dyke played Father Rivard, a priest in a small, economically depressed coal mining town, who is accused of a young nun’s murder.