Monte Cristo: A family-friendly hike into historyon June 1, 2012 @ 5:44 am (Updated: 1:20 pm - 6/1/12 )
At the far end of the Mountain Loop Highway, in Snohomish County, is the trailhead for the hike to Monte Cristo, an abandoned turn-of-the-20th-century town located in a steep valley in the rugged Cascade Mountains.
"I would classify [the trail] as easy, there's only 400 feet of elevation gain, it's four miles long," said Matthew Speten, a volunteer interpreter working to keep alive the history of Monte Cristo. "There is one little intermediate section that's a log crossing of the river where the bridge is washed out [but] hundreds of people come up on the weekend and a half to a third of them are kids, coming with their parents."
Speten tells the story of two miners, Joseph Pearsall and Frank Peabody, who explored what they thought was a ridge rich in gold and silver that they spotted from the Index area in about 1879.
"They got financial backing from the East Coast and by 1893 they'd established the town, built the railroad from Everett all the way up here and had a real, booming mining town going," explained Speten.
When you hike to Monte Cristo, at 2,800 feet, you can close your eyes and imagine what the town must have looked like nestled beneath peaks that rise to more than 7,000 feet.
"There were several hotels, there were hundreds of people at that point, that included families. It wasn't just miners anymore. There were stores, a school set up, it was a classic Old West town at that point," said Speten.
It worked, for a few years. But ultimately, Monte Cristo failed. One big reason, says Speten, was that the railroad was impossible to maintain.
"Because of avalanches. Because of the choice to go through the Stillaguamish Canyon, avalanches constantly blocked the road there and also floods. The river would go from a trickle, or a 'trout stream,' as the eastern engineers called it, to a raging torrent overnight during the winter. It would block the tunnels up with rocks and sticks and trees and it would wash the rails out over and over every year," Speten said.
Also, the concentration of ore decreased as miners dug down, increasing the cost of the operation. The town had a long, excruciating period of decline, with a few revivals, before it was essentially abandoned for the purposes of mining as the U.S. entered World War I.
A few attempts were made to turn it into a resort town and it did well in the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually, neglect, fire, floods, avalanches and heavy snows made for the end of the town of Monte Cristo.
Today, hikers will find artifacts, including a working, steel railroad turntable. "There is cable, ore buckets, tools, brackets," said Speten. "Especially for the railroad [fans], there's a lot of sheer plates, bolts, tie rods, things like that and rails still laying around."
And one remarkable remnant found at the end of a ridiculously steep trail out of town.
"There's an eight-foot diameter cast iron wheel that was used as a brake for one of the trams up on top of Mystery Ridge. How they got it there, I don't know," remarked Speten, who just hiked to Monte Cristo last weekend and says June would be a great time to visit.
"Most of it was under snow, but the next month or so, before the brush grows up, is a great time to wander around Monte Cristo because you can see stuff," advised Speten
But Speten warns us to leave things where they lie. He says one guy was actually prosecuted for stealing an artifact from Monte Cristo.
The trailhead to Monte Cristo is located off the Mountain Loop Highway, which you can get to from Granite Falls.
(Outside photograph: Boston American Mining Company buildings, Monte Cristo, Washington, 1912. Photographer unknown. From the University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division.)
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