Coal Miner’s Cemetery — Part 2

July 2, 2015

By Rich Crispo

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Last month, I introduced the miner’s cemetery on 129th Avenue Southeast with a promise to remember some of those interred there.

John McKnight is a well-known name in the area, and the Renton School District even named a middle school after him. His father, also John McKnight, was an important man in the Newcastle coal mining era and is buried in our cemetery.

BackTrackingJohn McKnight, the father, had served in the Civil War and came west after the conflict looking for opportunity. He was very interested in the birth of our nation and wrote and delivered a speech commemorating Independence Day in 1875.

He came to Newcastle in the mid-1870’s to find work. He left his wife Ellen and son Willie in Oregon while he found a job and a place for them all to live.

He started off working in the coal bunkers at a rate of $2 for an eight-hour day. He could have made $3 if he had his own tools, but he had left them behind. His work shift began at 7 a.m., stopped for lunch at noon, started again at 1 p.m., stopped at 6 p.m. for dinner, began again at 6:30 p.m. and went until 9 p.m.

This extended period counted as a little more than a day and a half. As a result, John McKnight earned $3.125 for the shift. The miners were paid once a month for the preceding month’s work. Paying all the miners was done in cash and could take five or six hours to complete.

It was hard work, but it enabled him to bring his wife and son to Newcastle. When he first arrived there was not any available housing. He was able to get room and board for $8 a week, but eventually he secured housing for his family and they joined him.

John McKnight was industrious and ambitious and soon left the mines to work in the company store. The pay was better and conditions were considered less hazardous. During 1884 and 1885, he sold life and accident insurance. He was the Justice of the Peace from October 1889 until February 1891.

He passed away in 1900 at age 45. He was preceded in death by his son William who died in 1893 at age 18. His wife Ellen survived him until 1911.

All three are buried in the Newcastle Cemetery. After Ellen’s death, their other children, including son John (the namesake for McKnight Middle School) moved to Renton. John McKnight, the son, became a very successful businessman.

Every headstone in the cemetery has a story.

Victor Nyman died at 14 years old. He was picking blackberries one afternoon and decided to take a nap. While asleep he was overcome by mine gases from a ventilation shaft and died.

His headstone was stolen by vandals (a common occurrence during the mid-1900s). It was found many years later in a garbage dump.

The person who found it was kind enough to investigate and determined the source was the Newcastle Cemetery. The stone was given to Milt Swanson, of the Newcastle Historical Society, who returned the stone to the gravesite.

If you are interested in learning more about the cemetery, activities of the Newcastle Historical Society or would like to share your local history with us, email Rich Crispo at crispo@comcast.net.

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