Heart’s Gold, a Story of Monte Cristo Ghost Town


h 01 entrance to monte
Monte Cristo in the 1890s, showing the end of the line for the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad

In 1987, the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad deposits Melinda Mcrea at the end of the line, a rough little mining town high in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains. Monte Cristo’s jumble of unpainted board buildings crowd a tilted triangle of land. Rugged peaks pierce the sky. From their heights echo the blasting of tunnels.

Optimistically, early prospectors named the area after the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo in a popular book by Alexander Dumas. Their town is doomed to struggle from the start by its wild, remote location, the ill-chosen route of the railroad, a poorly-timed recession, and most of all by the vagaries of weather as wild and untamed as the location.

But Monte Cristo refuses to give up. Each spring, crews repair the flood-damaged railroad and mining goes on. Hopes for a bonanza are still high in 1897, although a country-wide depression is devastating Everett, the town planned by Rockefeller and other Eastern financiers to become the center of a burgeoning West Coast empire. The ore from Monte Cristo is  part of their plans.

Melinda unwillingly postpones her dream of education in order to help support her family. She becomes involved in the life of the town while filling in as temporary schoolteacher.

Despite her vow to never marry a miner, she finds herself attracted to Cornish mine captain Quin Chenoweth, the uncle of her young friend Evan. When Evan and other boys get lost in the depths of a mine, she helps Quin search for them. Labor discord leads to an “accident” that nearly kills Quin and his crew, causing her to realize the depth of her feelings for him.

Then autumn rains bring a deluge that once more destroys the railroad. When the Eastern financiers decide to recoup their investments, upheaval for the citizens of Monte Cristo is complete. Is Monte Cristo finished? And how will Melinda solve the conflict between her dreams and her love for Quin?

Heart’s Gold is Book One of Monte Cristo Memories, the true story of Monte Cristo. Melinda, Quin and the other characters exist only in the author’s and reader’s imaginations, but they represent the real people who experienced the story.

Heart’s Gold by Joan Rawlins Husby is now available on amazon.com.

Turning Back Time on the Mountain Loop Highway

Hank and Sauk Mountain along the Mountain Loop

When the sun came out on the first Thursday in November after weeks of rain, we realized our annual drive around the Mountain Loop Highway, one of Washington State’s most scenic and historic byways hadn’t yet happened. We decided it was then or never. Within weeks, snow would likely close the road for the winter. We grabbed some snacks and a thermos of coffee and headed east on Highway 530 toward Darrington.

A rain-soaked, steaming world awaited us, but White Horse and Three Fingers Mountains stood brilliant in new snow against blue skies. Beyond the nearer mountains, we even glimpsed massive Glacier Peak, its volcanic slopes glistening like a mound of ice cream .

After a stand-up picnic at Squire Creek Campground, one of our favorite picnic spots, we turned south at Darrington. Almost immediately we left civilization behind and soon reached the start of an unpaved dirt road that would connect us with the western leg of the loop at Barlow Pass.

Rain forest moss shrouds the trees
Sword fern decorated for fall

We drove through rainforest that burgeons with life and decay at the same time. The greenest of moss wraps standing trees like untidy mummies. On the forest floor, it blankets rotting logs among gardens of sword fern. Between the last leaves clinging to maples and alders, vistas of mountains and the wild Sauk River, hidden from sight in the summer, now revealed themselves.

Dozens of large and small creeks tumbled down the steep slopes, sometimes only yards apart. We drove through spots where recent rock slides had spilled down the mountain and across the road.

Sections of the route badly needed grading . . . for long stretches the road was pitted with large, water-filled potholes. We couldn’t guess how deep they were, so we had to pick our way through a slow obstacle course to find the least jarring route. We also dodged broken trees and downed branches.

Old Man’s Beard glitters with raindrops and steam rises in the sun

In the hour or more it took us to travel the approximately fourteen miles of unpaved road, we saw only four other vehicles. We were especially glad to meet no oncoming traffic at two places where the flooding Sauk had, in years past, washed the road completely away, causing a closure of five years. Crews cut new roadbed, the width of a vehicle, into the rock cliff and the Mountain Loop Highway reopened in 2008. Those rebuilt stretches were now pocked with potholes upon potholes. The river boiled menacingly below us, but we made it safely across.

Sauk River scenes

Twilight had fallen when we reached Barlow Pass, where the railroad once ran from the Stillaguamish Valley up the last few miles to the 1890s’ mining town of Monte Cristo.

Fog rising below Big Four Mountain

Would we go again so late in the season? Yes. In summer, more people drive the route, and many drive too fast for the narrow, twisting road. They stir up dust that coats the roadside greenery. Autumn rains bring a new perspective, a different beauty. It’s easy to imagine how it might have felt to be a miner following the original wagon road to Monte Cristo.

Should you go? Yes, if you have a sturdy, dependable vehicle that won’t easily bottom out on rocks or potholes. Yes, if you’re willing to take your time and drive carefully. You can check weather and road conditions at the Verlot Public Service Center or the Darrington Ranger Station. Pack some food and warm clothing. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Then enjoy a one-of-a-kind autumn adventure.

Microbursts, Sneaky and Dangerous

Damage resulting from a microburst near Butte, Montana in 1999
According to Green Gables General Store owner Edith Farrell, who runs
the information center near Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway,
microbursts are common storms in our Washington State mountains.
A number of years ago, wind felled a patch of trees on both sides of the Mountain Loop Highway, near Big Four Mountain. As years went by, their bleaching trunks lay pointing west, as if pushed over by a mighty hand. Each time we passed them, I wondered why so many had fallen simultaneously in one small area. It looked as if a powerful but short-lived wind had blasted through, toppling everything in its path.

As I found out, that’s exactly what happened. In a microburst a bubble of cold air drops rapidly from the clouds and bursts like a water balloon when it hits the ground, sending winds at speeds of up to 100 mph or more racing outward from the center. In dry climates, the storm might be invisible except for the dust kicked up as the winds shoot out from the point of impact. In more humid climates, it may be accompanied by thunder and rain.

Until Edith mentioned microbursts, I had no idea that the trees near Big Four had been destroyed by such a storm. And yet, microbursts are relatively frequent, occurring ten times more frequently than tornadoes.

Any strong winds descending from showers or thunderstorms are called downbursts. A microburst is a downburst covering an area of 2 1/2 miles or less in diameter. If the storm is larger it’s called a macroburst. Microbursts’ small size and short duration make them hard to predict. That’s why I call them sneaky.

You can differentiate a downburst’s damage from that caused by a tornado. In a tornado, winds spiral upward into the storm, leaving a swirling pattern of damage. In a microburst, the wind blasts downward, then outward. The pattern of damage lies in straight lines, which is why they are called straight-line winds.

In 2007, a macroburst with straight-line winds of 120 mph felled long swaths of timber along Highway 101 near Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. We drove through that area the following spring, and saw hundreds of acres littered with trees like toothpicks spilled from their container. This spring, in 2016, a new forest had sprung up. Only the broken stumps of the older forest poked through.



Broken trunks from the storm of 2007 rise above the new forest.

Microbursts are particularly dangerous for aircraft since the storms’ small size make them difficult for pilots to detect. Wind shear, a radical shift in wind speed and direction that occurs over a very short distance, has been perhaps the biggest cause of weather-related plane crashes.

The following graphic, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
illustrates what happens when a pilot unwittingly flies into the wind shear inside a downburst. As the plane encounters the winds rolling outward andupward, the plane is briefly lifted up by increasing airflow over the wings. Then the sudden shift of wind speed and direction slows and drops the plane.
Before the pilot can adequately increase airspeed, the plane collides with the ground.

Our friend Dave Penz, former director of the Kako Retreat Center in western Alaska, had a frightening experience one day on the Center’s airstrip, within a few hundred feet of his own front door. Following the annual retreat for bush village educators, he took off with three teachers aboard. They were barely aloft when a microburst hit them. The plane lifted momentarily as the front of the air current rolled under them, but as they flew into the tail wind, the plane plummeted into the evergreens lining the airstrip. One tree sheared off a wing and the tail. The rest of the plane caught on the next tree and slid to the ground, landing upright on all three wheels. Except for bumps and bruises, no one was hurt.

There have been no downburst-caused commercial plane crashes in the decades since improved weather detection systems have been installed at major airports and on commercial planes. But downbursts, whether micro- or macro-, are sneaky and dangerous. They are nothing to fool with.

photo credit: Trees blown down by a burst 1 via photopin (license)

Taking a Day Trip in Our Own Back Yard–the Mountain Loop Highway

Growing up in the logging community of Verlot, Washington, I loved our occasional family drives around the Mountain Loop Highway. Then, as now, the road connected the North Cascades towns of Granite Falls and Darrington. We lived on the south end near Granite Falls, so the area was almost in our own back yard. Now Hank and I live near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River, near Stanwood. 
When we drive the Mountain Loop, we drive the opposite direction, through Arlington to Darrington, on the north end of the mountain section of the loop. It’s still a peaceful, lovely, and sometimes rough route through rainforest, rugged peaks and valleys, and along the Sauk and South Fork Stillaguamish Rivers.

The country is full of history. As you peer through overhanging branches, up forested slopes, you can feel the shadowy presence of Native American hunters on the trail of elk or mountain goats. In the 1890s, the mining boom at Monte Cristo broke the silence of the forest as wagoners hauled heavy machinery and freight along a puncheon road following the Sauk. That first route was soon replaced by the Monte Cristo railroad, built to carry the ore to the smelter in Everett. Trains ran through our valley along the Stillaguamish to Barlow Pass and four miles beyond, ending among the spectacular peaks that surround the townsite of Monte Cristo.

By the early 1900s, the railroad’s frequent washouts made it economically unfeasible to continue large-scale mining. The work at Monte Cristo slowed to a halt.  Then tourists discovered the area. Train excursions continued for a while, then what had originally been a wagon road through our valley of the South Fork Stillaguamish was pushed through to Monte Cristo. In 1936, a dirt road connecting Barlow Pass with Darrington was begun. In 1941, the Mountain Loop Highway was completed. The whole area became a destination for outdoor recreationists, with hiking trails and campgrounds all along the way.

Snow still closes the route in the winters, and in recent years several bad storms have caused enough damage to keep the road closed in summer too. It’s open now, except for the private four-mile section that leads from Barlow Pass to the old mining town site.

 Work is presently going on to remove arsenic-laden tailings from around the old mine tunnels, so Monte Cristo town site is closed to visitors. In order for trucks to reach the area, a road along the route of the old Sauk wagon road was reopened. Many who love Monte Cristo for its recreational values hope that the public will someday be allowed to use this road.

We recently drove our California daughter and her friend around the part of the Loop that begins in Arlington. We stopped to reflect at the temporary monument to 43 men, women, and children who lost their lives in March, 2014, during the horrific landslide near Oso.

When Hazel Hill broke away, it unleashed tons of mud and debris on the Steelhead Drive community and temporarily dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish. A more permanent memorial is planned someday.

Forty-three cedars stand watch over the site.

Outside Darrington, we also took time to circle through Squire Creek Park, one of the loveliest and least-used parks along the route. Quiet campsites and picnic spots are tucked among large evergreens. The park has a shelter, restrooms, and a grassy area next to the sparkling stream. In the fall, salmon swim past on their way to their birthplaces, where they’ll spawn and then die.

A peaceful scene at Squire Creek.

After a satisfying lunch in Darrington at the recently reopened Bradley’s Diner, we turned south for the first nine miles of the connecting road. They’re paved, and alongside creeks tumble down to join the Sauk. We glimpsed rocky peaks through the trees. Just beyond the White Chuck Mountain overlook with its unobstructed view of the mountain—bottom to top—the paving ended. For the next 13 miles, everything looked about the same as it did when I was a child, except the road was a little wider. It’s still one lane with turnouts, it can still be washboardy and potholed, and people still pull out into cleared spots in the forest to camp.

I think fall is the best time to make the trip. September’s bright blue skies and crisp temperatures redden the vine maples. Yellow aspen leaves sift through the evergreens. Rivers run clear and shallow. We were surprised to find salmon spawning in the high reaches of the Sauk. They were battered from their long trip up the Skagit River and the rock-filled Sauk, but they were determined to complete their purpose.

This salmon was exhausted but determined to make it over the foot high channel to where the female waited, circling above the redd she’d scooped out to receive her eggs.

Counting spawned-out salmon on the bank of the Sauk River

Daughter Kari and her dad. The tree has grown on and around a big chunk of granite that an ice-age glacier probably bulldozed from one of the surrounding mountains.

As we neared the spot where the Sauk hurries down from its beginnings near Monte Cristo, we noticed a gash in the forest.  This was the rough road, closed to the public, that has been built along the route of the old Sauk wagon road. Trucks loaded with mine tailings dump the arsenic-tainted debris into a depository that will be be capped with clean material.
Of all the many places of interest along the Mountain Loop west of Barlow Pass, we had time to stop only at Big Four Mountain before making the hour-and-a-half trek back to our starting place in Stanwood. Snohomish County’s most popular short hiking trail, to the ice caves at the base of the mountain, starts here. It is still closed after a cave collapsed this summer, causing the death of one and injury of others who had ignored warning signs. But we still  enjoyed the view of the mist-shrouded mountain and of the Stellar’s jay that came to beg for a cookie. Our California visitors were in awe of the wild scenery along the way. They agreed. Driving the Mountain Loop Highway makes a perfect day trip.

Kari beside the chimney base, all that remains of the elegant Big Four Lodge that once stood at the foot of Big Four Mountain.
Coffee and lemon bars at Big Four.

Two Men, a Book, and Mt. Pilchuck

Edith and David Capocci, with David’s book, Rambling and Scrambling around the Mountain Loop, courtesy Edith Farrell
Green Gables interior with a customer playing a hand-crafted flute, courtesy Edith Farrell

To the delight of travelers along the Mountain Loop Highway, an almost 80-year old landmark at Verlot has been renovated and reopened after closing last September.

The new owners of the Green Gables general store, Edith and Randy Farrell, offer friendly advice to hundreds of hikers and campers who come to play in Snohomish County’s backyard. They also offer food, coffee, and vacation necessities, as well as an eclectic mix of specialty items. For those wanting to know more about the Mountain Loop area, they carry a variety of new and used books.

Green Gables sits at the base of Mt. Pilchuck, the destination of an estimated 28,000 visitors each year. The store is also only a mile or so from where I lived as a child. Almost every day of my life until I left home for college, I looked up to see Mt. Pilchuck looming to the south. Some of my pleasantest memories are of exploring the mountain’s flanks or climbing its peak.

For six years while I was growing up, two naturalists, Harry W. Higman and Earl J. Larrison, studied the plants and animals that inhabit the forests, bogs, lakes, meadows, rocks and cliffs of the mountain. In 1949, they summarized their findings in an unusual, very  readable work of fiction they called Pilchuck, the Life of a Mountain. I’d never heard of the men or their work until I found a copy for sale in the Farrells’ collection.

From Amazon.com

The story’s main characters are Doc, Merle, and their woodsman friend Frank. Although these naturalists are fictional, their adventures, work, and descriptions of life on the mountain are obviously drawn from the authors’ own experiences. Edmund J. Sawyer contributed beautiful line drawings. Since I’ve been an avid nature observer and a lover of Mt. Pilchuck for many years, I found the time on the mountain with Doc, Merle, and Frank a treat not to be missed.

The mountain, like all mountains, is a living entity whose plants and animals are perfectly adapted to their own niches in the ecosystem.  I loved the historical and geological bits sprinkled in, although some of the latter are a little outdated now. The authors give marvelous descriptions of the incredible views, the quickly-changing weather, and days and nights spent at the lookout station on Pilchuck’s summit.

Today’s hikers have easy access to the mountain from the Interstate 5 corridor. They can drive to the 3,150 foot level, leaving only 2,200 feet of altitude to gain in about three miles of hiking. But when Higman and Larrison worked on Pilchuck in the 1940s, the trail began at the Stillaguamish River and climbed upward for five miles, much of it through timber. A trailside cabin had been built at timberline for a man who lived there during fire seasons. He made trips to the summit to watch for fires. In good weather, he found it easier to stay in a tent at the top.

The Forest Service ran a telephone line to the peak and eventually built the lookout a cabin there, with a cupola atop where he could have an unobstructed view. That lookout station was first built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1920, rebuilt in 1941, and renovated by the Everett Mountaineers in 1977.

While reading about that unknown watchman and his cabin, I remembered my first climb to the summit with a group of high-school friends. We wore old shoes and light jackets and carried our lunches in brown paper bags. As we labored up through the forest, the fog turned to mist and then to drizzle. Noticing lengths of rusted wire paralleling the trail, running through porcelain insulators or just nailed to rotting stumps not far above the ground, we guessed we were looking at an old telephone line. We paused to eat part of our lunch at a level spot where piled stones indicated a low wall. Rotted timbers, sunken in moss, outlined a rectangle. After many decades, I finally know why someone had built a cabin halfway up Mt. Pilchuck.

When Larrison and Higman roamed the mountain, they occasionally shared it with mountain goats, cougars, coyotes, and even a wolf. They studied shrews and six kinds of mice, fish, many kinds of birds, and they even found toads at the very pinnacle of Pilchuck. The larger mammals are scarce now, but marmots and pikas, two rodents of the high places, can still be seen by the hikers who stream to and from the lookout on an average day. Those with skill and know-how can still enjoy wonderfully wild and untouched spots on Pilchuck.

But for those who must do their adventuring from an armchair, Pilchuck, the Life of a Mountain, will serve as a lively, enjoyable guide.

Although the book is out of print, copies are available in libraries and through online booksellers.

    Henry Wentworth Higman and Earl J. Larrison, Pilchuck, the Life of a

Mountain, illus. by Edmund J. Sawyer (Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1949)

Look here for a list of libraries in this region that have copies:


Download the book to your computer: