Art installation recalls Cougar Mountain’s coal mining past
April 3, 2014
By Christina Corrales-Toy
Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park is now home to a unique land-art installation that pays tribute to the area’s coal mining past.
The project, entitled “Black Forest (29,930,000 tons),” is spread across the forest floor in the form of nearly 50,000 pounds of biochar, environmentally friendly charcoal that appears similar to the coal that was once mined from the mountain.
“It was kind of the launching point,” artist Hans Baumann said, “this idea about rethinking what the park was, and trying to reinterpret its history in a way that might be visually compelling.”
The Cougar Mountain trails hold the stories of the region’s past, which included about a century of mining. Park visitors literally stand in the midst of history as they pass abandoned mine shafts, find remnants of carts and railroads, and discover stray pieces of coal.
The park is the site of the lucrative Newcastle mining site, which helped transform Seattle into the dominant port city it is today. The mine operated for about 100 years until the mid-1900s. Workers extracted nearly 11 million tons of coal during that period.
It’s that rich history that attracted Baumann to the project about two years ago, he said.
“The park is an interesting place to visit, but then beyond that, the existing literature about it and the amount of historical interest in it, I feel, it made my project quite rich, because I was able to draw from it,” he said.
“Black Forest (29,930,000 tons)” was funded by 4Culture’s Site Specific Arts program. The number comes from the estimation that the mines emitted 29,930,000 tons of carbon dioxide during its heyday. Baumann received $20,000 total in site-specific grants.
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The biochar has carbon sequestration qualities, allowing it to store carbon emissions and mitigate the harmful effects of greenhouse gases in climate change.
The idea is that the material will conceptually begin the sequestration process of 29,930,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the same amount released through the mine’s 100 years, Baumann said.
The project took about two years to come together, Baumann said, and much of that time was spent researching the history of the area.
The artist met with local groups, such as the Newcastle Historical Society and the Issaquah Alps Trails Club. Baumann specifically mentioned Cougar Mountain expert Steve Williams and Newcastle legend Milt Swanson as dutiful teachers as he learned about the park.
“This installation is, in part, an effort to make their work physically and visually present on the mountain,” Baumann wrote on his website.
Baumann recalled fondly visiting with Swanson at the Newcastle pioneer’s home on Lakemont Boulevard and exploring his vast coal-mining museum.
Swanson, who passed away Jan. 20 at 95 years old, was the premier historian when it came to the Newcastle mines. He was born and raised in Newcastle, and he worked in the mines as his father and grandfather did before him.
The art installation, which covers more than an acre of forest floor, and sits on what used to be a gravel mine, was unveiled to the public in a special ceremony March 15.
Baumann spoke about his project, provided a tour of the site and thanked the volunteers that helped spread the voluminous bio char.
“The only thing I hope is that people find it compelling on some level,” he said. “I’m just hoping that it affects people in some way.”
The art installation will remain in place until it decomposes, but visitors are encouraged to come early spring, before much of the piece will be covered by vegetation.