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Wilkeson rock solid at 100

oal mines and sandstone quarries put Wilkeson on the map, but these days, the most-photographed item in town is a skeleton.

A few Halloweens ago, Dale Perry, owner and resident of the Washington Hotel, put the skeleton in his 1925 Model T.

“People enjoyed it, so I left it,” Perry said.

But this year, a celebration might upstage it: The historic little town of 460 is celebrating the centennial of its incorporation.

Most of its downtown buildings date back to the 1920s, and many of its residents have pioneers in their family trees, said Donna Hogerhuis, president of the Wilkeson Historical Society.

“Both sides of the street were burned in 1910 and 1914, once on one side and the second fire burned the other side,” Hogerhuis said.

“Eagles Hall is a cool building with original furniture. The Eagles just celebrated its 100th anniversary. It’s the only fraternity left. Once there were over a dozen fraternities and ethnic halls in Wilkeson.”

One mandatory stop for visitors is Skeek’s Pizza, where history, pizza, lattes and Italian sodas share the space. When Bert Gonzales talks about the town, you’ll quickly get an appreciation for the mining and quarrying history.

Sandstone has been quarried here since 1886; the Wilkeson Sandstone Quarry continues the tradition. Local sandstone is popular because of its warm tones and fine texture. It was used for Olympia’s Capitol Campus, Vista Point on the Columbia River, Cathedral of St. John Evangelist in Spokane, cobblestones in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and Wilkeson’s city hall and school.

“It was the most famous small community in the state back then,” when most of those building were constructed, said Gonzales, who worked for the quarry from 1948 to 1955, when it was named Western Sandstone Company.

“It could take an eight-hour shift to cut a block of sandstone 6-by-6-by-12-feet,” he said.

Walk to the rear of Skeek’s for photographs and artifacts, including a 15-foot-long blade, 1/4-inch thick and 5 inches wide that cut sandstone blocks.

Mining was the other industry that carried the town.

“At one time, Wilkeson was booming with thousands of immigrants,” Hogerhuis said. “The mines played a major role in keeping Northern Pacific Railroad’s creditors at bay around 1876, long enough to keep their charter and complete the transcontinental line connecting Tacoma to the East Coast.”

Until the railroad arrived, coal was delivered to Tacoma by wagon.

Mining here lasted until the 1930s but was briefly revived for World War II. Thirty coke ovens in Wilkeson Coke Oven Park are all that remain of the original 160.

“You can see the shells of the beehives,” Hogerhuis said. The ovens, named for their domed shape, were used to turn coal into coke for steel and iron foundries. The outer walls of sandstone were salvaged and sold.

Two Wilkeson churches have a long history.

The wood-frame Holy Trinity Orthodox Church has a blue Russian-style onion-dome cupola with a three-barred cross. Slavic immigrants built this church, now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s used only for special services, weddings and funerals.

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church has an octagonal bell tower that dates to 1884. The church is still used for Sunday mass.

Perry’s 1880 hotel has much more to boast than that notorious skeleton. It is on the state Register of Historic Places.

“Many a man has died in here in gunfights,” Perry said.

In fact, in the 1880s, more than a dozen saloons gave miners, loggers and quarry workers a chance to let off steam -- and fire an occasional bullet.

Wilkeson is much quieter now.

Sharon Wootton and Maggie Savage are authors of “Off the Beaten Path: Washington” and can be reached at (360) 468-3964.

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