Coal was first discovered east of Bellingham in 1849, and mining began in 1855. Discoveries of coal in the Cascades in the late 1800s gave rise to a number of small mining towns (such as Black Diamond, Carbonado, Wilkeson, Newcastle, Cle Elum, and Roslyn) on both sides of the Cascades. Though coal was plentiful—geologists today believe there are 6–65 billion tons in the state—it was soft and therefore limited in its uses. Often found in steep ravines or streams, it was also difficult to extract and transport. Underground explosions and other accidents gave Washington more mining fatalities per number of miners than any other state for several years in the late 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, coal from the Rocky Mountains had become a cheaper and more practical fuel source, and by 1930 coal mining had virtually disappeared. Today, coal mining is seeing a minor revival; for the past several years, over five million tons of coal per year have been strip-mined near Centralia for use in a thermal-electric power plant there.
Other minerals begat industries that met with varying degrees of success. Discoveries of gold and silver in the mountains of Washington’s northeastern corner caused short-lived rushes—and Indian wars, as whites crossed onto reservation lands—but outfitting miners for the gold rushes of Idaho and the Yukon yielded better returns. A successful silver, gold, and lead refinery in Tacoma was started in 1890 by William R. Rust; he later sold the plant to the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) for processing copper.
A gold mine still operates in Republic, but Washington’s most valuable minerals are the least exotic: 60 percent of the money made from mineral production is derived from cement, stone, and gravel pits in the western half of the state.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition