History, Summer, and Kid Stuff

We kids learned about the past as we made our own fun.

Growing up in the Robe Valley, Washington, back in the 1940s and ‘50s, we neighborhood children were surrounded by reminders of the history I wrote about in Heart’s Gold, a novel set in Washington State’s gold-mining boomtown of Monte Cristo. To us kids, those reminders were just part of what made our community a fun place to live.

On warm summer days, wearing swimsuits under our clothing, we’d traipse through the woods to our swimming hole. We followed a narrow track that had once been part of the county road that ran from Granite Falls through the valley. The road took us to “Nichols Store.”

The owners had abandoned the two-story, unpainted building sometime after the present road was finished in the early 1940s, but we found ways to wriggle inside and explore the empty rooms. I could barely remember stopping there at age three or four with my parents so they could mail a letter or buy milk.

 

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Nichols Store, showing ramp and siding for unloading freight (and passengers?)

 

From the clearing in front rose a long, grass-covered ridge we knew had once been the railroad grade. The Everett and Monte Cristo Railway trains had stopped at Nichols Store on their way to the communities up the valley.

Climbing over the grade, we crossed a decaying bridge spanning a creek full of little fish, then walked on through a park-like area beside the river. Someone had built a picnic shelter there, perhaps in the earlier days of tourist excursions. But no one came for picnics now, except for us kids. The river ran past this grassy space and beyond lay the quiet eddy that was our swimming hole.

The remains of an old railroad-bridge buttress loomed above the hole. A deluge in 1897 had washed away the bridge, along with the dreams of miners and mine owners at Monte.

If no parents were along, after our swim we dared each other to climb up the slanting timbers to the cross pieces on top that had supported the tracks. Cushioned with moss, they made a soft place to dry off in the sunshine. We were careful though. We could feel the trestle wobble beneath us with every movement.

 

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Bridge #18, a double-span Howe truss bridge. Our swimming hole was beyond the right side of the photograph. When this bridge washed away in 1897, it was replaced by a higher bridge, gone by the time of the story.

On the riverbank near the swimming hole was another temptation to adventurous kids—an old cable car, still attached to a fraying cable that hung above the river. The cable ran over rusty pulleys that were fastened to sturdy trees at each end. The floorboards were loose. Some were missing. Most of us could see the danger and only speculated about how much fun the ride must have been, once upon a time.

Recently I found a story in Philip R. Woodhouse’s book, Monte Cristo, about what was likely this same cable car. For quite some time following the destruction of the bridge and the railroad through the Robe Canyon, people in Silverton and Monte Cristo held onto hope that repairs could enable mining to start up again.

Temporary repairs did start in the canyon, and while awaiting replacement of the bridge, a Silverton man established his own tongue-in-cheek railroad company—a single push car. Every day he coasted down the deserted tracks from Silverton to a cable tram installed near the site of the missing bridge. Mail and supplies for Silverton were piled on the tram and sent across the river. Then he loaded them on his man-powered push car and pumped his way back to Silverton.

The cable car would have been over fifty years old when a neighbor boy talked my little brother David into taking a ride. They hauled themselves across the tumbling river without losing fingers to the cable or falling through the rotting boards. It must have been a scary trip because once safely on the far side, David refused to get back on. The older boy left him behind and got word to our father about the situation.

Fortunately in late summer, the river was not too high. But it was swift, and the rocks were slippery. Dad waded across and carried a frightened David on his back to the other side. Then Dad destroyed the tram so that no other kids would be tempted.

We didn’t know then how the old bridge abutment or the abandoned cable car tied into the story of Monte Cristo. But as young adults, we got to know the old ghost town up close and personal. It is still a favorite hiking destination for hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts. Robe Canyon and the Stillaguamish River where we played is a well-loved recreation center for many more.

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

 

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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.