‘Little giant’ makes history come to life

October 3, 2014

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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By Greg Farrar Rich Crispo, Newcastle councilman, stands next to a display case with Milt Swanson's coal miner helmet and an information poster honoring the late 95-year-old Newcastle native's contributions to preserving the city's history. The Renton History Museum's Newcastle retrospective exhibit is on display until Feb. 7.

By Greg Farrar
Rich Crispo, Newcastle councilman, stands next to a display case with Milt Swanson’s coal miner helmet and an information poster honoring the late 95-year-old Newcastle native’s contributions to preserving the city’s history. The Renton History Museum’s Newcastle retrospective exhibit is on display until Feb. 7.

The first thing visitors see upon walking into the Renton History Museum’s Newcastle exhibit is, appropriately, a tribute to a man that means so much to the city’s history.

Milt Swanson’s mining helmet emblazoned with his name along the side greets museumgoers while sitting in a clear display case.

It’s appropriate because Swanson, the Newcastle pioneer born and raised in the community, spending 90 of his 95 years living in the same company house that still stands at the edge of town near the Cougar Mountain trailhead, cared immensely about Newcastle’s history, and made it his mission to preserve it.

Swanson passed away in January, but his memory and coal-mining history are preserved in the new exhibit, featuring many of his own artifacts.

“Milt would’ve been really, really happy,” Newcastle City Councilman Rich Crispo said of the exhibit. “It really honors not only his memory, but the memory of the city. I think it’s just great.”

“Newcastle: Little Giant of the Eastside” debuted Sept. 9 and is set to run at the Renton History Museum until Feb. 7. It features pictures, maps and objects, most on loan courtesy of the Newcastle Historical Society, from Newcastle’s coal-mining past.

It’s the first time the museum has collaborated with another historical organization, collections manager Sarah Samson said.

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‘Newcastle, Little Giant of the Eastside’

“Mostly, what we were trying to convey is what it was like to live in Newcastle during that time period,” she said. “It was pretty much strictly a mining town, so a large part of the exhibit focuses on the mine and life in a mining town.”

There are features about the still-standing Baima House and the Newcastle Cemetery, as well as a wall-sized present-day map pinpointing several historical locations.

“People can figure out, my house is here, but this is what used to be here,” Samson said.

The artifacts range from mining tools to wine-making devices, because, as Samson noted, “there were a lot of Italians” in Newcastle. But it’s not the exhibit objects that stand out, Crispo said, it’s the history behind them.

“The artifacts themselves are not as important to me as the stories that they tell,” he said. “The best part about all of this for me, is that if somebody were to say, ‘Tell me a little bit about this picture,’ I can tell them a story. I learned so many stories from Milt that I’m able to do that with just about everything that’s in here.”

It made sense to do an exhibit about Renton’s Newcastle neighbor, because there is so much shared history among the cities, Samson said.

“The exhibit is a really good comprehensive introduction to Newcastle history,” she said. “Personally, I am a history person, but I think it’s really important to understand the history of where you’re living.”

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