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Skagit River Journal

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In the Cascades' Heart

A journey through a Western Washington Jungle
The new Monte Cristo country and its great undeveloped mineral wealth
Discovered by a prospector with a field glass
A great future predicted

By Frank Wilkeson, New York Times, Feb. 27, 1893
(Harry Strom)
Harry Strom, in light winter gear, with rifle and a furry critter (bobcat), heading home for a snack. Photo courtesy of Betty Knowles of Darrington. Read his story here.

      Tacoma, Washington, Feb. 26. — Northward from the Columbia River and stretching far into the solitudes of British Columbia, the long western slope of the Cascades is overspread with a huge blanket of forest. As if in revenge for barring their rain laden flight to the East, the clouds blown in from the Pacific send down here a rainfall of fifty-six inches annually. It nurtures the great spruce and fir and the close matted undergrowth that makes the greater part of Western Washington a deep and almost impenetrable jungle.
      We had been threading this jungle for a monotonous five hours. For a hundred miles north of Seattle, on the line of the [Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern road], the loitering train had left behind a long succession of logging camps, supply stations, and shingle mills; it drew up at last in a more ambitious clearing known at one end as Sedro and at the other by the suggestive name of "Wooley" [Woolley]. But this latter was not a bit of characteristic Western humor; they were rival towns, bearing the names of their respective founders. [Ed. note: Actually Sedro was a name concocted by town founder, Mortimer Cook, but we will allow Frank some poetic license here.]
      The incoming of the train lent a passing flush of animation to the scene; with its departure came back the faded listless aspect of a "busted boom." Miscellaneously about in the stumps of the broad clearing were scattered a hotel and some cottages of modern type; about the station in a sort of irresolute way stood the formless shacks, typical of a new settlement. The narrow sharp-cut aisles of the railroad struck into the deep timber on either side and through these the "mixed" train of coaches and lumber trucks plunged out of sight. Against the eastern skyline rose the dark, frowning purple of the mountains. Here, at last, was the search of a pair of exiles from New-York rewarded. Civilization had been left behind. Here, at last, was a region not only new but raw, that with the next plunge would become wild. For from here our way was over wagon road and trail, by stage, and by "cayuse" into the new mining regions far up in the heart of the Cascades.

Mines were everyone's destination
      The train had set down its usual load of human and other freight, likewise destined for the mines. It was of the mines, in fact, that one heard chiefly since the Sound had been reached; of the treasures that daring pioneers, penetrating the deep woods and into the mountains, had laid bare in "the Monte Cristo country"; of rich "finds" and new "strikes" in the Troublesome, Ruby Creek, Silver Gulch, and Thunder Creek districts, and more especially in the new district of magical name, Monte Cristo itself. It was far from the old mining centres, and the rush as yet was not great. Still, it stood upon a guess that a good 2,000 had "gone in" thus far. We followed.
      A September sun filtered a mellow light through the heavy green leafage; a soft haze, not like the blue smoke of the Eastern Indian Summer, but warmer, flushed the sky lines of the mountains to a tinge of reddened amber. The heavy-jolting spring wagon that served as a stage wound its way through a narrow defile in the forest and by the side of the swift-rolling Skagit, its flood of muddy green sweeping past with the impetuous current of its mountain sources.
      The stage carried a chance dozen of assorted types. On the rear seat the "veteran," deep of voice and shaggy of beard, who had "been prospectin' the country now for three years," was voluble of his acquired knowledge of the mines.

Thunder Creek and Monte Cristo, hot prospects
      "Mostly galena and pyrite," he explained; "gold and silver about even; runs curious, though. Big ledges and low grade, small veins and high grade. Take up in Thunder Creek — the boys got some three-thousand-dollar rock — fact! Saw the assay. But the ledges are small. Then, again, up in Monte Cristo, why some of Pearsall's leads are a mile long, solid mineral. Ever know Jo? Didn't? Never heard how Pearsall found Monte Cristo? You must be new out these parts!"
      We admitted as much; other things probably did the same for us. The old prospector discovered something in his pocket, felt better, several joined him, and then he proceeded: "Lucky cuss, Pearsall. Monte Cristo, y'know, ain't mor'n five or six miles over from Silver Creek--just over a divide. Show's how luck's right under your foot when yer don't know it. They's been diggin's round Silver Creek for fifteen years or so. But nobody, 'parently, ever clumb over the divide right up the head o' the creek to see what was on tother side. Jo was broke when he struck Silver Creek, I guess--just come over from Salmon River, Idaho--say, d'y'ever heer what'd become of old McCombey? Killed up in Coeur d'Alene,eh? Thought as much. Well, Jo got a grub-stake and struck up the creek. Seems he'd been out a little with one o' the boys one day afore that, he and Peabody, I think. Peabody had a glass--prospecting with a glass! Why, if the blankety blanked idiot had a started out prospectin' that fashion down in the country I come from down 'n old Arizon' they'd took 'im fer a goat pasture and peppered 'im a bit just to see if ther want some goats there!

Pearsall, the Wilmans brothers and the '76 claim
      "However, up this way its dif'frent, I guess. Jo an' he'd seen some big red stains way 'cross the valley--show'd up big in the sun, anyway, and Jo went over t' spy 'em out. Never up there, was ye? Mighty bad place to prospect. Never seen how Jo ever got there and got back. T'other side the divide they's a great big basin--the head of it round like a bowl. Jo was on one side, the ledge on the t'other, and he had to shin round the rim of it and over that big glassier [glacier] to reach it. Well, y'know what he found--er mebbe yer don't. He never reached the ledge he saw with the glass, not that year, anyway. The one he saw's now the Monte Cristo mine, with 'bout the richest ore in the district. The Wilmans, down to Seattle, 'ave got it. The one Jo found that day and set stakes on was the '76--short fer "Independence o' 1776"--found it Fourth of July. That was three years ago, I think, yep--in '89. Never said a word when he come back--just kep snapping them durned blinking blue eyes o' his and went off down to Snohomish to file.
      "I think he was goin' down the trail when he met 'Mac' Wilmans and struck him to go in. Jo wanted money and Mac had it. Heerd 'bout the Wilmans down to Park City, Utah, didn't yer, in the Woodside Mine? Fred Wilmans came along one day and found the Woodside abandoned. They'd lost the lead and spent all they had tryin' to find it. Then come orders from the East to shet down, an' they quit. Wilmans was an ole hand--come from down in Arizon'. He went over the hill, and durned if he didn't stumble across that lead! He got a lease, worked the thing a while, and then sold out. They took $600,000 out of the Woodside in all. I got that straight.
      "Well, Mac sent for Fred, and they went up, an' them three corraled about all there was in the district, leastways a good share of it; got some New-York fellows in with 'em, and now they're building a railroad in. And Jo, y' know--why, Jo's rich now--be a millionaire, mebbe, when they get things workin'. Goin' up there, be ye? Well, you want to look up Jo. He's up there sharpenin' tools for his men and openin' up some new claims. Tell 'im y' saw me!"

Spanning streams by the go-devil
(Go-devil across Thunder creek)
This go-devil crossed above the rushing waters of Thunder creek in Skagit county, decades before Ross lake flooded the area. It illustrates Wilkesons' comments about the tram used at Monte Cristo. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Joyce Bergman Rickman, whose uncle mined at the Skagit Queen mine. If you would like to learn more about a go-devil and the way it operated at mining areas, see this Journal website about Ella Thompson.

      The last was the old prospector's parting shot, as he announced that "this's fur as I go," and swung down. We had reached the confluence of a mountain stream and were waiting for the ferry. The contrivance of the latter was ingenious; on a taut iron wire stretched across the rollant stream ran two pulley wheels, connected by tackle with the lumbering scow; as the tackle was lengthened or shortened, reversing the slant of the boat to the stream, the hot impetuosity of the current swung it, creaking laboriously, from bank to bank.
      A little higher up we crossed the main river on a similar device, and, exchanging the torture of the stage for the easy back of a "cayuse," struck up along the side of the roaring, swirling Sauk, at the headwaters of which lay Monte Cristo. You have doubtless swung round Buckram Wall on the "picturesque Baltimore and Ohio," or fled breathless on the Pennsylvania limited down the side of a yawning gorge. Flip your railroad train over the mountains, blot out towns and villages, fill in a stray rancher's home, seat yourself in fancy on a lazy little "cayuse," and ride along with me on this gorgeous September afternoon. Day and view and air, such painting as never canvas held, hold you chained in their charm; not all the bluster and roar of the eddying, trembling, storm-green scene below able to break the caressing stillness.
      Fifty miles above the Sauk's junction with the Skagit, that is to say, eighty-five or ninety miles beyond the pale of even a new-cut railroad through the forest, we reached the principality of Pearsall, otherwise Monte Cristo. As we near the headwaters, the deep-wooded flanks of the mountains lift higher and higher their red-stained fronts and crowd closer and closer upon the deep, narrow ravine we travel. The rough-hewn road grows to the likeness of a tunnel in the deep woods and seems bent to lose itself and us also in the dark tangle of towering trees, festooning moss, and dense impassable undergrowth. Of a sudden the ripple of a row of white tents against the green monochrome, and we face a black, bleak, burned-over open. Distantly above, a clutter of log cabins squatted amid the smolder and char. In the depths, where we pause, a long, low ridge, its fallen giants thrusting up their blackened stumps in mute protest of the sack; above, the fir-clad front and gray-pinnacled towers of Mount Wilmans. Of Monte Cristo as yet but the fragments of a beginning. On the side hills we shall see many camp fires, and go we which way soever we shall find everywhere "claims" and claimants.

Monte Cristo needed a railroad to boom
      Monte Cristo itself awaited for its development the coming of the railroad which was then finding a short cut up the south fork of the Stillaguamish, building straight east from Everett, the new manufacturing city Eastern capital is establishing in Puget Sound. It takes fifty miles of this Everett and Monte Cristo railroad to reach the mines, fifty miles through virgin forest into hitherto unbroken solitudes. The road will cost $1,800,000, the expense of slashing and clearing the right of way in itself a heavy item. The road was being built, they said, solely for the purpose of developing the Monte Cristo mines and is backed by the latter's owners.
      The whole story of the development of this new district is certainly unique in mining annals. Although exposing marvelous ledges in extent, the ores were not high grade, and, moreover, shipment by wagon over the "punching" [puncheon] roads of a Western Washington jungle was out of the question. A railroad was a necessity. On the sound a syndicate of New-York capitalists was building a new city, Everett. Monte Cristo, due east, was a natural tributary. Hence the construction of the railroad by New-York bankers and the purchase of a controlling interest by them in some of the leading Monte Cristo mines.
      In all, some $3,000,000, they said, is being spent in this single work of development, every dollar of which must be expended before a dollar of return can be had. At Everett a smelter was being constructed at a cost of $300,000, and backed by a capital of $900,000; at Monte Cristo the concentrator will cost $250,000; the new Everett and Monte Cristo railway will connect them. Perhaps $100,000 had been expended in an extensive system of tramways, reaching from the mines to the ore bins and concentrator, and considerably more is being spent in opening up the mines themselves. Before this work was begun, several heavy purchases were made, a controlling interest in one of the mines, the Pride of the Mountains, selling for $375,000.
      The astonishing part of all this is that these purchases were made and the immense outlays for development begun simply on the strength of the wonderful surface exposure of ore in the district. With the work of the Summer and Fall, however, passed the tentative stage of the camp's development. Several hundred feet of tunnels in each of the larger ledges have converted what were prospects into mines of established value and the rich promise of the district into a reality.
      In its physical aspect the District of Monte Cristo is made up of two great parallel basins, carved out by the glaciers. On the high mountain ridge between the two basins the huge remains of these latter still lay, exposing a field of ice, unmelting in hottest August. On the sides of the two basins lie the mines; at the junction, below Mount Wilmans, lies the camp. Six principal companies operated in the district last Fall, as well as a number of smaller ones. The former include the Monte Cristo, Pride of the Mountains, and Rainy Companies, controlled by the Colby-Hoyt syndicate, of which Joseph L. Colby of Cleveland, Ohio, is President; F. W. Wilmans Vice President; A. L. Dickerman Consulting Engineer, and William C. Buller, General Manager; the Wilmans, Pearsall, and Pearsall-Blake Companies, controlled by the Wilmans Brothers, of which F. W. Wilmans is President; Edward Blewett Vice President, and J. M. Wilmans Treasurer.

Not the high grade, but the extent of the ore
      In general character the ores are galena and pyrite, with some arsenic, antimony, and zinc blend. They average from $5 to $50 in gold, $8 to $90 in silver, and from 8 to 58 per cent. lead. Average assays from the Monte Cristo Mine run from $50 to $70; from the '76, Mystery, and Pride of the Mountains from $35 to $50. In general the average of the leading mines, such as the above, the Rainy, Congress, Emma Moore, and Ironclad, is from $30 to $50 to the ton. At a rough estimate perhaps 60 percent of the ores is concentrating, and to reduce them the Union concentrator was being built. It is not, however, the high grade of the ore, but the extent of the ore bodies, that makes Monte Cristo a great camp. The surface development, too, is astonishing. Nature has, in fact, done a large share of the mining. All that remains is to take the ore out, reduce it, and treat it. The glaciers have cut the ledges sharply at right angles. They have exposed them at depths ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Some of them are of great width.
      The Pride of the Mountain's vein, from 14 to 28 feet wide, forms a great girdle of the mountain in its outcrop. The latter is continuous for a distance of 4,000 feet. The vein of '76 is still larger. From 40 to 75 feet wide, it is exposed from the bottom of the gulch up the side of the mountain 2,000 feet, until it is lost beneath the glacier's unmelting snows. The Rainy, probed for a depth of 150 feet, shows a vein from 20 to 60 feet in width. The ledges are traceable to the north and south for ten or fifteen miles on either side of the district. Their continuity, parallelism, and great depth exposure indicate, so far as it is possible to judge, their indefinite depth and permanency.
      Though it is, of course, more than idle to attempt to predict the future of any mining region, such is the conformation of the district and such the extent of the ledges exposed that, with the work that has been done, it is almost inevitable that this must take rank among the bonanza camps. The tunnels that have been run, all at considerable depth, show that the ledges hold their size and character as they are pierced, while the grade of the ore tends to rise as it is tapped deeper.
      It is a familiar saying in the mining West that it takes a mine to make a mine; the great profits of gold and silver mining nowadays lie in development on a large scale, as in mines of copper, coal, and iron. This is especially true, from the character of its ores, of Monte Cristo, and this, indeed, is the manner of the district's development. The success of the enterprise will give immense impetus to the mining activity and general growth of Western Washington. Despite the inaccessibility of the region a number of districts have been opened up and now await the vivifying breath of capital. Eight miles southeast of Monte Cristo is the Troublesome district; six miles to the south lies Silver Creek; ten or twelve miles west lies Silver Gulch and the Sultan district; thirty miles to the north lies Ruby Creek and the wonderful "strikes" on Thunder Creek, in the Cascade district.
      Although it is now three and one-half years since the discovery of Monte Cristo, it is only recently that the tide of prospectors and mining men began to flow in this direction. Everything is yet new and the country not half "prospected," but enough has been found and enough done in Monte Cristo alone to establish beyond doubt that Western Washington will in a few years come to rank as one of the great gold and silver producing sections.

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