Preserving the pieces of the past
Ward Keller sees a movie when he drives past the old Weyerhaeuser mill near Snoqualmie. In his mind, a company town with 5,000 people springs...
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Ward Keller sees a movie when he drives past the old Weyerhaeuser mill near Snoqualmie.
In his mind, a company town with 5,000 people springs to life. He sees a dozen homes where laundry hangs, black soot from the power plant clinging to its fibers. Children scurry to school as the 8 a.m. mill whistle pierces the air.
"This town was everything to everyone. Nobody left. Nobody had to. It was self-contained. It's a lifestyle unknown today," said Keller, 74, who grew up in the mill town.
Now, a decrepit powerhouse and a crumbling brick smokestack are all that remains of the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co. Keller and other local residents rallied to save the structures from demolition last summer and rejoiced when the King County Landmarks Commission declared the site a historical landmark last month. But the celebration was short-lived.
Winning historical status, they learned, is just a first step. As with many endangered properties scattered across the region, the real challenge is finding the money to keep these pieces of the past protected into the future.
"Landmark status is big, but it can't save the buildings forever," said Dave Battey, secretary of the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society. "We're a small group out here. This is going to be a toughie."
Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society: Contact Dave Battey, secretary of the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society, at 425-785-2741 or visit
At its peak, the Snoqualmie mill — which later became Weyerhaeuser — employed 1,200 people. Not much remains today. At the Weyerhaeuser site, the 211-foot brick chimney and powerhouse illustrate "the rise and fall of the timber industry," according to a King County Landmarks Commission report. They are the oldest remaining relics in the county to represent logging's transition from steam to electric power.
But if no one comes forward to save the icons, Weyerhaeuser could ask the county for permission to demolish the 1.4-acre site. Snoqualmie city officials say they can't afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary for restoration.
"It all depends on who's passionate about saving this building," said Julie Koler, the county's historic-preservation officer.
Local preservationists have nominated the mill for the state's Most Endangered Historic Properties list, which will come out in early June. If chosen, the extra attention could boost the mill's profile and help attract investors willing to save the property, said Cathy Wickwire, program associate for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which oversees the most-endangered properties list.
Historical societies or nonprofits often take over management of rescued buildings, she said. Other groups keen on preservation — generally called "Friends of" particular properties — work to raise money and community support.
In the case of the Snoqualmie mill, Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser, a billion-dollar global forestry company, said it's not in the business of historic restoration.
"Historically, it's a significant structure," said spokesman Frank Mendizabal. "But there are safety issues. The stack is in danger of falling down."
The company has no firm plans for the land, he said. In August, Weyerhaeuser was set to demolish the stack and powerhouse and prepare the other 600 acres for redevelopment, he said.
But after Weyerhaeuser last August knocked down one smokestack — a concrete column built in 1944 — residents intervened and lobbied for landmark recognition of the remaining chimney and powerhouse. Keller was there when the first smokestack fell. In an instant, another remnant vanished, "like the place where you grew up never even existed," he said.
It haunts Keller now, these disappearing icons of his childhood. His father, Harold Keller, was Weyerhaeuser's photographer and director of the mill town's YMCA. He left more than 10,000 negatives to his son after he died in 1969. Keller plans to publish a book with the photographs.
Chasing these ghosts keeps him up most nights. He works until 3 a.m. scanning photos of loggers, YMCA swim teams and Halloween parties into the computer.
He comes across pictures of boys and girls he went to school with. Some of their expressions are solemn, others mischievous. He will spot a familiar face which triggers one memory, and then another. He marvels at how his father moved about the town almost imperceptibly, catching these moments.
Fighting to keep the chimney and the powerhouse is vital, he said.
"What do we have without it? Nothing." Keller said. "People should know that there was once a town like this. People should know."
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org