It was a beautiful Friday morning in Seattle as we packed up the dog and our camera for a field trip – we were headed to the remote foothills of Mt. Rainier, just south of Enumclaw and Buckley, to see the small but historic town of Wilkeson, Washington.
Half an hour on I-5 and another half hour on a couple of state highways and we were driving
through this beautiful old archway built in 1925.
Until around the 1920′s, all the streets in Seattle were paved with Wilkeson cobblestones. But with the advent of easily accessible concrete and steel after the turn of the century, widespread stone construction became a thing of the past, and along with it went much of the commercial success of Wilkeson.
We continued through town, stopping a few times to capture some of the old architecture. There are some storefronts made of clapboard that look unchanged since the mining days.
Further on you see the historic Town Hall and Wilkeson Elementary buildings, both of which are covered in local, split-face stone veneers.
The elementary school is the oldest one still in use in Washington, and the structure is very impressive for such a small town. Though the population is only around 450, at its height in 1909 it was inhabited by around 6000 and had a movie theater and 13 saloons which served the miners, loggers and quarrymen there.
Down the road a little ways (the whole town is about half a mile long), we turned into the quarry yard and pulled up to the old office house. Inside, I had a nice conversation with Chuck Nelson, the owner of the quarry, whose family has been around here for generations. He said that although they run on a much smaller scale than they did 100 years ago, they still keep up a steady supply that ships all over the Western states, mostly the split-faced ashlar veneer. It is also widely used for hand-carved architectural features like windowsills, facades, and columns. You can find out more about the quarry and see many historical photographs at the Wilkeson Sandstone website: www.wilkesonsandstone.com
The blocks are cut from the hill by drilling a series of deep, carefully-aligned holes and plugging them with explosives timed to go off simultaneously.
Large cranes and loaders are then used to move the resulting boulders to the fabricating stage.
I got some shots of the impressive fabricating machines they have to work with. Quarry blocks, some weighing several tons, are sawn and split into specified shapes. Two of their saws make their cuts by way of a diamond-abrasive wire (a technique that’s been used since ancient times), plus they have a couple of very large saws with circular blades.
They can also hydraulically split pieces of sandstone up to 6′ wide with this guillotine. I’d love to get my hands on one of these (they make small portable ones for use onsite) and split my own blocks from raw slabs.
The saws are used to cut each block into the desired thicknesses, and the resulting pieces are left partially intact so that they can move it elsewhere to be further processed.
Wilkeson Sandstone can be found in a variety of colors depending on the part of the hill that it came out of. This piece of flagstone to the left would be considered of the “cinnamon” variety. The saw-cut block above would be referred to as “silver”.
After having some lunch at the ol’ Pick and Shovel Restaurant, we said goodbye to Wilkeson and its legendary landmarks and returned to our bustling metropolis. It was nice to step back in time for a day and think of those who came before us.
Driving down from the foothills, I entertained myself with thoughts of this beautiful and useful local stone. I pictured carving sculptures and building huge walls made of giant interlocking blocks. I pictured a house made entirely of specially fabricated sandstone.
Ah well. I can dream, can’t I?
Mark Shepherd www.ShepherdStoneworks.com
Bringing the finest in Stone Masonry to the Greater Seattle Area.
Natural stone walls, patios, steps and rockery of all sizes.
Mortared stone veneers, fireplace surrounds, and interiors.
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