Coal deposits were first noted in the Roslyn area in 1883, with a large vein discovered at the upper Smith Creek canyon in 1885 by C.P. Brosious, Walter J. Reed, and Ignatius A. Navarre. Roslyn was platted in 1886 by Logan M. Bullet, vice president of the Northern Pacific Coal Company The first commercial coal mining operations were begun to support railway operations.
Throughout the mid-1880s, the Northern Pacific Railway, the parent of Northern Pacific Coal Company, pushed from the east to reach Puget Sound across the Cascade Mountains. The Northern Pacific began building across Stampede Pass just west of Roslyn, approaching from Wallula in the east and Tacoma in the west. A 77-mile (124-km) gap remained in 1886. In January of that year, Nelson Bennett was given a contract to construct a 9,850 foot (3,002 m) tunnel under Stampede Pass, completing it in 1888. Roslyn, which lies on the route to Stampede Pass, provided the coal for the railway construction work as well as the continuing railroad operations.
Between 1886 and 1929, immigrant workers from countries such as Italy, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia as well as from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales came to work in the mines. These immigrants maintained the traditions of their homelands, as seen in the historic Roslyn Cemetery, with its 26 sections for distinct ethnic and lodge cemetery areas. Many Roslyn residents today are descendants of these immigrant miners.
Roslyn's peak coal mine production of nearly 2 million tons was reached in 1910. As coal-fired steam trains were being replaced by diesel power, the mines began to shut down in the 1920s. Although the local coal mines were far from played out (approximately 80% of the coal in the Roslyn mines remains unextracted), the last mine in the area closed in 1963 as business became unprofitable. With the loss of jobs, an exodus of residents ensued. In the mid-1970s, Roslyn began to flourish again as artists and others rehabilitated the town's houses and commercial buildings and settled there. Some individuals own second homes in Roslyn, while working and living full time in Seattle or Tacoma, for instance.
As Roslyn was a "company town", life in the early years was centered around the production of coal. Most of the citizens of the town worked either for the Northern Pacific Coal Company or in one of the smaller businesses monopolized by the company, or were family members of someone who did. A hub of life in the town was the company store, now designated as a National Historic Landmark; it still stands at the corner of First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Like many 19th-century American towns and cities, where risk of fires was high, Roslyn had a major fire in 1888, which destroyed most of its commercial district. Many buildings constructed after the fire used fire-resistant brick and sandstone. Some of these historic structures are still in use, including the 1889 Brick Tavern and the circa-1890 Fischer Building.
During its days of prosperity, the Northern Pacific Coal Company built the Roslyn Athletic Club for miners and their families. It was completed in 1902 and contained a gym, meeting rooms, and a bowling alley. Roslyn's public library, which was founded in 1898, moved into the Roslyn Athletic Club building in 1918. It continues to serve the community from this location.
Most of the town's 500 homes were built in the 1920s on land owned by the railroad. The 1920s-era commercial district consisted of four square blocks, of which about one dozen buildings remain as representatives of western frontier commercial architecture. Roslyn has many examples of Victorian elegance in its surviving buildings, as well as simple miner's shacks. The town of Roslyn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. Recently, Roslyn became a Certified Local Government. Its Historic Preservation Commission restored the Roslyn Cafe, a local landmark.
Roslyn's railroad tracks have been removed and replaced by the Coal Mines Trail which runs from Cle Elum through Roslyn to Ronald. A walk on the trail affords visitors a look at the remains of Roslyn's mines and railroad depot site. The Roslyn Museum houses an extensive collection of photos and mining memorabilia, and features an exhibit on Roslyn's unique ethnic cemeteries.
Most recently, recreation and tourism have become the chief drivers of the economy. The business community has worked to bring in more visitors through annual festivals, including the Manly Man Festival in June, the Pioneer Days Picnic, and a Coal Mining Festival associated with Coal Mining History Week each August.
Knights of Labor Strike of 1888
Tensions between management and labor in the Roslyn mines began spilling over in the summer of 1888, when management laid off a number of labor union workers who were petitioning for higher wages. These layoffs led to a labor strike by the Knights of Labor, which shut down the mines.
Rather than work to reconcile with the demands of the strikers, the Northwest Coal Company, which conducted mining operations at Mine No. 3, a few miles away in nearby Ronald, recruited more than 300 black laborers as strikebreakers in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky and transported them via special train across the continent to Roslyn. They represented the largest increase in the African-American population of Washington territory up until that time.
Forty-eight armed guards hired by the Northwest Coal Company escorted the first unit of 50 strikebreakers to Roslyn. The recruitment of these armed forces raised the interest of Governor Eugene Semple, who was unsettled at the prospect of such a large private militia operating within his territory.
Semple was weary of vigilanteism, having just negotiated a peaceful armistice to the Salmon Wars of 1887. The Salmon Wars were a series of disputes between Washington and Oregon settlers over fishing rights to the Columbia River. The battles between vigilante fisherman and the intervention of the territory’s militia in the incident exposed the danger of private armed forces, as well as inadequacies in the territory’s own official armed forces.
The Washington militia suffered from a lack of supplies, training, and a clear chain of command. Semple struggled with the militia throughout his time as territorial governor and at times was undermined by his own officers in matters as serious as troop deployments. As the militia was not designated as the official National Guard of Washington until January 1888, the armed forces available to Semple at the time of the Roslyn strikes were still poorly trained and poorly equipped.
Semple ordered Sheriff Samuel T. Packwood to investigate the situation at Roslyn and to try to find a way in which the government could lawfully disarm the guards. Packwood arrested all 48 guards, along with the black strikebreakers, on trespassing charges. Packwood used trespassing charges because of an ongoing dispute between the Northwest Coal Company and settler Alexander Ross over the ownership of the land. The matter had been contentious since coal was discovered there three years earlier.
Once the prisoners were released to stand trial, they constructed a barricade of logs and barbed wire at the site of the mines. At this point Semple ordered a portion of the Washington militia to prepare to provide assistance at Roslyn. Semple tried to have the private guards arrested as vagrants, as they had no officially recognized occupation in the territory.
Eventually, the strike was settled and the African-American strikebreakers were assimilated into the community of Roslyn. In local archives, many photographs and first-hand accounts attest to the ethnic harmony in the community in the following decades. There was minimal racial segregation.
Mine Accident of 1892
In 1892, 45 miners were killed in an explosion at Mine No. 4 near Roslyn, the deadliest mining accident in Washington history.
A local newspaper, The Cle Elum Echo, reported,
"The city of Roslyn is situated on land directly over the tunnel of Mine No. 4, and the shock caused by the explosion was not unlike an earthquake, shaking buildings in all parts of the city, while the burning, oil soaked timbers, vomited out of the shaft, were scattered in all directions, falling upon shingled roofs and causing over twenty roof fires, which were controlled by bucket brigades, all the city water and the fire department being concentrated upon the shaft and abutting frame structures, in spite of this all frame structures within two hundred feet of the shaft and tipple No. 4 were entirely destroyed."
1892 "McCarty Gang" Bank Robbery
On September 24, 1892 a group of six bandits known as the McCarty Gang held up the Roslyn branch of the Ben Snipes Bank of Ellensburg. Three of the men stood guard with the horses while the other three went inside. One proceeded to empty the vault of an undisclosed amount of cash while the other two kept the bank employees in check, shooting the assistant teller in the hip as well as striking several bystanders on their way out. They made a clean getaway.
The following day, several men from the group were seen at the Northern Pacific Railway depot in Cle Elum, where the money to meet the payroll for the Roslyn miners was transferred to the train to Roslyn. The sheriff was notified and formed a posse that confronted the bandits. A brief shoot-out occurred but the robbers managed to escape. It was unknown if any was injured. Several abandoned horses and a campsite were discovered by a search party, but they did not find the robbers. The entire gang was later turned in by the wife of one of the leaders. They were tried and released due to a hung jury.
Several of the McCartys were later killed during an attempted bank robbery in Colorado.
Roslyn's ethnic cemeteries
The Roslyn Cemetery is composed of 26 separate but adjacent cemetery plots, reflecting the diversity of early immigrant society. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Clustered on of woods and hills above the town's main street, the land was donated by or purchased from the Northern Pacific Company by fraternal, ethnic and civic organizations for burial of their deceased members.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), Knights of Pythias Lodge, Soloka Lodge, Wanapum Tribe 28, Improved Order of Redmen, Cacciatori d’Africa (literally Hunters of Africa – an Italian lodge), Croatian Fraternal Union Lodge No. 56, SNF Lodge No. 79 (Croatian), St. Barbara Lodge No. 39 (Greek Catholic), and Dr. David Starcevich Lodge No. 56 (Croatian) are among the organizations and ethnicities represented at the cemetery. At least 24 nationalities are represented among the nearly 5,000 graves.