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, and 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 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, workers came from countries such as Italy, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia as well as from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to work in the mines. These immigrants maintained the traditions of their homeland, as seen in the historic Roslyn Cemetery with its 26 individual ethnic and lodge cemeteries. 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. Coal trains were soon replaced with diesel and 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 and an exodus of residents ensued. However, in the mid-1970s, Roslyn began to flourish again as artists and others rehabilitated the town's houses and commercial buildings.
A true "company town", life in early Roslyn was centered, figuratively, if not literally, 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. As such, a hub of life in the town was the company store, a National Historic Landmark, which still stands at the corner of First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Like many 19th-century American towns, Roslyn experienced a major fire in 1888 that destroyed most of its commercial district. Many buildings built after the fire used fire-resistant brick and sandstone, and some of these 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 and continues to serve the community.
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 and its Historic Preservation Commission restored the Roslyn Cafe, a local landmark.
Roslyn's railroad tracks have been removed and replaced by the Coal Mine Trail. 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 taken the economic forefront. 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 reconcile the demands of the strikers, the Northwest Coal Company, which conducted mining operations at Mine No. 3, a few miles away in nearby Ronald, organized more than 300 black strikebreakers in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky and transported them via special train across the continent to Roslyn. This 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 strikebreakers to arrive in Roslyn, who numbered only fifty. 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 vigilantism, having just negotiated a peaceful armistice to the great Salmon Wars of 1887. The Salmon Wars were a dispute 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. The militia was not designated as the official National Guard of Washington until January 1888, and as such 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 was able to use 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 ready itself to provide assistance at Roslyn. Semple then tried to have the guards arrested as vagrants, as they had no officially recognized occupation in the territory.
Eventually, the strike was settled and the African-American strikebreakers assimilated into the community of Roslyn. In local archives, there exist many photographs and first hand accounts of the ethnic harmony experienced by the community in the following decades, with minimal segregation between races.
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 until the robbers managed to escape. It was unknown if they were injured. Several abandoned horses and a campsite were discovered by a search party but the men couldn't be found. The entire gang was later turned in by the wife of one of the leaders but they were later released due to a hung jury.
Several of the McCartys would later be killed during an attempted bank robbery in Colorado.
The Runner Stumbles
The Runner Stumbles, a 1979 film starring Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan, was filmed in Roslyn. Numerous local residents appeared in the movie as extras and provided small bit parts throughout the filming schedule in 1978. Directed and produced by Stanley Kramer and based on the Broadway play by Milan Stitt, the film was released by Twentieth Century Fox.
The story is set in 1911 at a Roman Catholic parish in a rural town in Michigan, and depicts a young nun (Quinlan) who arrives at the parish to help run the church school. When the parish’s two elderly nuns contract tuberculosis, she is forced to move into the rectory that is home to the parish priest (Van Dyke). The close proximity between the two begins to set off gossip in the town, which turns out to be correct as the priest and the nun confess their love for each other. However, their declaration of emotion leads to tragedy.
The filming of The Runner Stumbles continues to play a role in attracting tourists to Roslyn. Immaculate Conception Church, located on the corner of Idaho and "B" Streets on a steep residential hill overlooking the town, serves as a focal point of the film with both internal and external scenes featuring Van Dyke and Quinlan being filmed there.
From 1990 through 1995, the exterior scenes for the hit CBS television series Northern Exposure were filmed in Roslyn and the surrounding area. Although the town of Cicely is widely thought to be patterned after the real town of Talkeetna, Alaska, the main street of Cicely and the filming location was actually that of Roslyn. The main production facility for the show was located in Redmond, Washington, in what is now the headquarters of Genie Industries, behind a business park.
Many local residents served as extras in the filming of the show, and some were given small parts. Northern Exposure remains a colorful draw for tourism and is a central theme for many local commercial activities.
Roslyn's Historic Cemeteries
The Roslyn Cemetery is composed of 26 separate but adjacent cemetery plots. 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.