A coal-mining life
August 2, 2012
By Christina Lords
Milt Swanson, 94, maintains local history through memorabilia, historical society
Not many people can say they’ve lived in the same house for 90 years.
But then again, most people can’t say they’ve lived 90 years period.
Milt Swanson has. And then some.
The 94-year-old was born in 1918 in what was known as Old Newcastle, the area now occupied by the Coal Creek Family YMCA. When Swanson was just 4 years old, he and his coal-mining family — two brothers, two sisters and his parents — moved up the road into what is now only one of the two company homes still standing in town.
At the time, the home was located in the area then commonly known as Coal Creek. Now it’s the home with the worn, weathered coal car standing the test of time in the front yard just across from the Cougar Mountain trailhead on Lakemont Boulevard.
“Considering everything — the country, the climate, the area — and I’ve been around the country and the world a lot, but I’ve always been happy to call this home,” he said.
Someone once told him, “Milt, you’re like a flat rock, you don’t move around very much.”
With his vast knowledge of the geography, topography and rich history surrounding him, and as one of the founding members of the Newcastle Historical Society, he doesn’t feel like he has to.
“His knowledge is the backbone of the historical society now, especially since so many of our old-timers passed on,” said Pam Lee, Newcastle Historical Society member. “He has such a sharp memory of the families, of the incidents that have shaped us here. People just love to hear him talk about it. You never know what story he’s going to come up with. Something will trigger a memory and off he goes.”
Swanson and Lee met in 1979 when both were instrumental in getting the historical society off the ground. By happenstance, Lee’s property in Newcastle boasts the other company home in town that is still standing — a similarity that would come to cement a friendship for more than 30 years.
As a major contribution to the area’s history, the historical society would also help protect the Newcastle Cemetery for years to come.
The 2.2-acre cemetery is the final resting place of immigrant miners and nearby families from the late 1800s.
“I can truthfully say I spent 20 years trying to keep it clean, keep it manageable,” Swanson said.
His contributions to the group and the community remain invaluable, Lee said.
“The fact that his memory is so sharp and the fact that he understands the whole concept of geology and mining operations in the area, as well as just life in general at Newcastle, makes him a valuable member of this community,” she said. “He’s lived there his whole life. He knew the people who made it what it is.”
Swanson’s knowledge and small museum he maintains at his home is vast and deserves to be recognized as a colorful, meaningful ode to Newcastle’s past, Lee said.
“He’s always at Newcastle Days, and that’s what gives him vitality: having people talk to him about the old days,” she said. “He loves that. That gives him sustenance, talking about the old times.”
Swanson maintains the treasure trove of items relating to Newcastle history, many of which are his own personal tools, including his coal miner’s hat with “MILT” scrawled in white lettering on the side.
Some of the items, like tools his carpenter father made in the early 1900s, hold a special place in Swanson’s heart.
“There’s 90 percent of this stuff I’ve gathered up in my travels in Newcastle,” he said. “Most of this stuff has a personal memory in my life. I can still remember where it was, what it is, how it relates to Newcastle.”
He said he hopes the city can help play a part in the preservation of Newcastle’s history.
“At the Newcastle Historical Society, we’re a real small outfit and everything, but we’re all into it because the history of Newcastle is an interesting one,” Swanson said. “It’s highly involved in the early days of Seattle. In the early days, in the 1870s, they could sell every pound of coal they could dig. There was a real market for it.”
Lee and Swanson agreed that they hope the Newcastle Library will offer a permanent home to display some of the items, photographs and maps — some more than 100 years old — in Swanson’s and the historical society’s collection.
A hard life
Swanson graduated from Issaquah High School in 1936.
“All the roads were still gravel then, nothing like the blacktop pavement now,” he said. “The bus would rumble so bad sometimes it felt like it was shaking your teeth out.”
Many of his classmates and fellow longtime Newcastle residents have moved away or passed on by now, he said.
“Life isn’t easy now,” he said. “But I have so many people that would come at the drop of a hat if I needed them to.”
Swanson, like his father and grandfather (who died in a coal-mining accident before Swanson was born) before him, worked in the mines. Swanson maintained equipment as a mechanic for the B and R Coal Co. from 1947 to 1962, before he took on a similar role at The Boeing Co. until he retired in 1983.
“Coal mining was a hard life for everybody, for the women and the kids,” he said. “It was a pretty tough go sometimes. In the 1920s, they didn’t even have an ice chest here in camp, no ice truck. Can you imagine not having an ice chest? The women had to cook everything from scratch, right then.”
Swanson said it wasn’t uncommon for young children to grow up in and around the mines with access to dynamite and other dangerous tools used in the trade.
“I tell you, it was one great education,” he said. “You soon learned what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. I survived.”