In the fall of 1863, surveyor Edwin Richardson discovered coal east of Seattle, beside a stream later named Coal Creek. Minors used wagons to haul sacks of coal down the hill to the eastern shore of Lake Washington where it was transported to the western side of the lake by small boat. Prospectors later discovered a richer coal seam south of Coal Creek at a place called Newcastle, named after the famous English mining town. To bring the coal from Newcastle to Seattle, the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company constructed a cumbersome system of railways and barges to haul trains of iron-wheeled wooden cars from the mines to Seattle. At the mines, coal was loaded into the wooden cars, which were then hooked together into a train and pulled on railroad tracts to the eastern shore of Lake Washington. Each wooden car was capable of carrying two tons of coal. At the waterfront, the wooden cars were loaded onto wooden barges that were pulled (or pushed) across the lake to the western shore. On the Seattle side of the lake (near present day Husky stadium), the wooden cars were unloaded from the barges and pulled on railroad tracts to the Seattle waterfront, where the coal was unloaded into bunkers. Most of the coal was shipped south to California by boat.
In January 1875, the sternwheel, steamer Chehalis was pulling a barge containing 18 wooden coal cars across Lake Washington. As the Chehalis was rounding the northwest point of Mercer Island, a gale blowing from the south struck the steamer and barge. The wind tipped the barge and sent the 18 coal cars plunging to the bottom of the lake. The wooden coal cars remain where they sank, well preserved in the cold (45 degree) water, most of them upright and still carrying their cargo of coal.
The Coal Cars today
The coal cars were located by Underwater Atmospheric Systems, Inc. (Robert Mester) using side scan sonar, and reported to the Washington Office of Historic Preservation as a submerged cultural resource.
The coal cars are presently located south of the Evergreen Point Bridge in the middle of Lake Washington. Bottom depth is 195 feet. There is a main group of approximately 10 coal cars, with the remaining cars scattered around the main group. The coal cars are wooden boxes, approximately eight feet long, four feet wide, and 2 1/2 feet high, that sit on a wooden frame with medal axles and wheels. Most of the cars sit upright on the bottom and most of them are still loaded with coal. The bottom of the lake around the cars is littered with pieces of coal. Most of the cars are substantially intact, although many have their wheels buried in the soft silty bottom.
Newcastle Mine - circa 1880.
Loading coal onto railroad cars at Newcastle Mine.
Coal miners and railroad car.
Coal Creek mine.
Coal wharf on Seattle waterfront – 1880.
Example of coal cars on barge being pushed by wooden steamer.