All Over The Map: Wilkeson, Washington’s tragic Civil War namesake

Jul 5, 2019, 8:49 AM | Updated: 1:47 pm

(Wikipedia, Creative Commons license) Wilkeson's coke ovens appear on the US Geological Survey's topographic map. (USGS) A "battery" of historic "beehive" coke ovens in Wilkeson, Pierce County. (Feliks Banel)

A little-remembered Civil War tragedy 156 years ago this week struck the future namesake of the Pierce County community of Wilkeson.

Wilkeson is an old mining community in northern Pierce County, south of Enumclaw and Buckley on State Highway 165.  The town dates to the 1870s, and if you look in any of the old books about place names, you’ll read that it was named for “Samuel Wilkeson, the secretary of the board of the Northern Pacific Railroad that laid track to the town in 1876 and began coal-mining operations in 1879.” At least, this what place name expert James W. Phillips wrote in his essential book, “Washington State Place Names,” back in the 1970s.

But it also turns out that before he joined the board of the railroad, Samuel Wilkeson (born in 1817 in New York) was a correspondent and Washington DC Bureau Chief for The New York Times. He also took part in the survey of possible routes through the Cascades for the Northern Pacific, and in 1869 he published a very boosterish pamphlet – boosterish of the Northwest and boosterish of Samuel Wilkeson — called “Notes on Puget Sound, Being extracts from notes by Samuel Wilkeson.”

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But before all of that, Wilkeson was famous for his coverage of the Civil War, including a definitive (and what some consider the most poetic) account of the Battle of Gettysburg. Wilkeson’s account was published in the New York Times July 6, 1863, 156 years ago this week.

The tragic part is that when Samuel Wilkeson was reporting at Gettysburg, he discovered that his 19-year old son Bayard Wilkeson had been killed in the battle on July 1. In commemorating Wilkeson’s work in 2018, The New York Times wrote that, “Despite his wounded soul, the elder Wilkeson maintained his sharp reporter’s eye” in putting together a coherent and powerful description of the iconic Civil War battle.

“Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest – the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?” Wilkeson wrote in 1863.

Samuel Wilkeson died in New York City in 1889, but he had two other sons who settled, at least temporarily, in the Northwest during the 19th century.

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The most striking thing about the town of Wilkeson today is the “battery” of old coke ovens left over from more than a century ago. These “beehive” ovens are not far from the center of town, just east of the school in a place called, not surprisingly, Coke Oven Park. Coke ovens were used to refine coal to make coke, which is a fuel used in iron smelters, from the 19th century until the 1920s.

At its peak, there were 160 beehive coke ovens in Wilkeson, plus additional coke ovens in other nearby towns including Fairfax, Montezuma, Carbonado, South Willis and Crocker. Some estimates put the total number of coke ovens in the United States in 1905 at 31,000.

All but 30 beehive ovens at Wilkeson were demolished in the 1970s, and they may be the only such structures left anywhere in Washington. The remaining ovens are arranged in two rows of 15, and each is made of firebricks, and is covered with earth. They measure about eight feet high and 13 feet in diameter.

In addition to coal, Wilkeson was also known for sandstone. Wilkeson sandstone was used to build the retaining wall around the oven battery, and was famously used to build the state capitol building in Olympia.

Coke Oven Park is also where the annual Wilkeson Handcar Races will take place on Saturday, July 20.

More from Feliks Banel.

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All Over The Map: Wilkeson, Washington’s tragic Civil War namesake