Just the words send a bit of a chill down your spine, don’t they? The thought of a boarded up and abandoned old place that once pulsed with energy, well, it’s certainly enough to get my imagination wheels turning. Which is perhaps why I have visited more than a few ghost towns in all my years of traveling. It’s been easy for me to do too, since ghost towns are especially prevalent in the Western half of the United States, which is where I lived for a good many years.
And I suppose that makes sense. In the country’s Gold Rush years, in the New Frontier era, in the early days of mining, little towns sprang up all over the west, only to dry up and die when the resources ran out. Citizens boarded up their homes, packed up their possessions, and put themselves on the move again. Across the thirsty landscape to places and promises unknown.
Yet they left a lot of remains behind. Crumbling buildings in the weeded prairies. Toppling structures high up in the Rocky Mountains. Foundations covered over with bushes and undergrowth. Rusted pieces of a once-booming civilization, sitting and decaying in the silence. Known and seen only by the curious visitors like myself.
Back in 2017, I had an especially eerie visit to one of these old west Ghost Towns. A once prosperous mining town that, over one hundred years after its hay day, has virtually vanished into the deep, green, and expansive woods of the Pacific Northwest. Franklin, Washington is located on a hiking trail in the woods of King County, right along the Green River. But there really isn’t too much left. A ghostly old rail car. Some rusted over mining tracks. And the graveyard. Because what is a ghost town without a creepy graveyard?
It was a place we more or less stumbled on at the time, being more interested in a nature hike than a historical one. But once we found it, hiding there in the steaming fog and mist, I discovered it was pretty hard to tear myself away. Because Franklin is a Ghost Town gem, in large part due to its graveyard. Smothered almost completely underneath a bed of forest undergrowth, yet several stones are still legible. And there was something that stood out sharply as I explored them, wondering from stone to stone and reading name after name. A lot of those stones marked the graves of extremely young people. In fact, it was hard to find anyone in there over the age of thirty.
Odd, eerie, tragic. It got me wondering, that’s for sure. So, almost as soon as we got back to our lodgings, I started doing some digging. As it turns out, there isn’t much out there on Franklin, but the basics look a little something like this:
Franklin sprang into being in the 1880s, thanks to all the coal mining going on in the area during those years, and the people flocking to the industry to make a living. Things happened quickly, and by 1886, the town of Franklin had grown to include a post-office, several mining houses, the Oregon Improvement Company mine, and even a very handy railroad connection. One that allowed all the town’s coal to be shipped as far south as San Francisco.
In short, things looked pretty promising for Franklin, but as it happened, the town was destined for disaster, and it earned more than one dubious distinction during its brief existence. The first came in 1891, when black coal miners came to town from Missouri, landing in Franklin looking for work in the midst of a coal mining strike. Tensions rose quickly between black and white miners, until a deadly riot broke out in July of that year. Two people were killed, and the governor had to call in the National Guard to restore order.
Not the best way to kick things off in a town trying to take root. Yet things only got worse around the coal mines. Franklin would soon earn another notorious mark on its record when it became the site of the deadliest coal mining disaster in King County history. Which very well might be the reason for all those young ages on the grave markers through the town. On August 24 of 1896, a fire broke out in the Oregon Improvement Company mine, one that was likely started intentionally. Whether the work of an angry arson, or just a nasty turn of fate, the fire moved through the mine at a rapid pace, trapping and suffocating over three-dozen miners before it was all said and done.
Despite the horror of the tragedy, Oregon Improvement Company continued to operate in the area for as long as they could. Which wouldn’t be long at all, as it happened. Because local demand for coal fell rapidly in the ensuing years, eventually closing down the mines. Franklin died along with the mining company. With no jobs left, the miners packed up and abandoned the town. By 1916, only a handful of families remained, and even the post office ceased operations. By 1919, Franklin had become a ghost town, with only one real family of note staying behind. A member of this family, Ernest Moore, would eventually pen a book, the Coal Miner who Came West, detailing his African American experience in Franklin and in the mining community in general.
Things were pretty quiet around Franklin until the 1940s, when another coal mining company came in to try their luck around the area. Palmer Coking Coal Company mined both above and below ground around Franklin until 1971, when the bridge leading out of the town was blasted down, and coal could no longer be shipped to the surrounding towns. Which spelled the official end for Franklin.
It lay abandoned in the woods, forgotten by all, silently rotting away, until the 1980s. Exactly one hundred years after it was first founded, a team of Archaeologists from a nearby school did some digs on the site. Unearthing some of the few remains that the coal miners had left behind in their haste. Today, it remains a popular hiking trail in King County, and a very interesting place to explore for historical enthusiasts like myself.
For me personally, I think I was most affected by the amount of tragedy that occurred in the town, which seemed like an awful lot for a place that didn’t exist all that long. Perhaps that tragedy is what I felt in the air as I walked around the ruins. As the fog came creeping up over the hills, as the decay of the forest closed in. A certain sense of failure, like some things just aren’t meant to work out.
It’s a feeling quite similar to the one I’ve had recently, in all honesty. I don’t know if it’s just me, but lately, it’s been hard to see the world through any sort of rose-colored glasses. Because it seems like every time I turn around, there’s another disaster waiting in the wings. If not in my personal life (see below…) then in the world at large, with wars, mass shootings, natural disasters, and all other sorts of mayhem just waiting to take a wrecking ball to someone’s life or fortunes.
It’s a lot to take in, and sometimes I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to handle any of it. Sometimes, the only recourse I have is taking a quiet walk in the woods, and even in those cases, I often stumble on the rusting signs of tragedy. The fading history. The silent, ghostly whispers of stories that need to be told.
Sometimes, like the people of Franklin must have felt, it can certainly feel like everything is working against us. Like the chips will just keep on falling, and maybe like the sky itself will fall next. It might feel like we’re all destined to become ghost towns in the midst of so much disaster.
But also like Franklin, there are markers amongst the ruins. Little signs of what could be mixed in with what is not. A helping hand here. A new idea there. A strongly-worded letter or two. People who roll up their sleeves, who stand strong, who don’t give up. Things like the little rusting rail car that’s still there in Franklin, standing tall despite the elements closing in around it. The small things that say “I am here, I can still make a difference, I can still make a mark.”
That’s what makes the ghost towns survive through the ages. And it will help us keep going too. We just have to keep standing tall.
Franklin Ghost Town Trail
Washington Trails Association
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from my Seattle and surrounding area travels, click here.
My husband and I are very sad to announce the passing of one of our beautiful kitties, Miss Bella Two Face. She was the cutest, cuddliest, most loving little creature we’ve ever had the pleasure to know. The time we have had with her has brought us nothing but joy and smiles. Her absence around the house has left a huge hole in our hearts. RIP, sweet Bella girl. You will be forever missed.