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Wilkeson's Coke Oven Park makes state 'endangered' list, city has plans for improvements

Wilkeson’s Coke Oven Park was recently designated one of eight sites on the state’s "most endangered" list.

Members of the Town Council nominated their park.

“It seems strange to say 'thank you' for placing our town’s historic coke ovens on the Washington Trust Endangered Sites list,” Mayor Donna Hogerhuis said, "but we are pleased."

Her hope is the designation will bring greater public awareness and financial support for the project.

The council is planning on applying for park grants.

Wilkeson has five sites on the National Historic Register and more than 40 businesses and residences on the Pierce County Landmarks Register. Coke Oven Park, a 10-acre parcel just outside the town limits and owned by the town – is one of the sites on the national register.

The coke ovens – or what is left of them – are beehive-shaped firebrick ovens about 12 feet in diameter at the base. They are surrounded by a thick insulation of clay soil. The long row of ovens had, at one time, an outer wall of Wilkeson sandstone. Coal was sealed in the oven and cooked for 48 to 72 hours to smelt away the impurities. The coke was then transported by rail to Tacoma.

The ovens were built in stages starting in 1890, with firestone shipped from Scotland and masons brought in from Pennsylvania. They were used until the mid 1930s.

The ovens represent the state’s early industry, especially the Northern Pacific Railroad and Tacoma. The railroad's interest in Wilkeson coal in 1877 kept investors happy and paved the way to completing the transcontinental line to Tacoma. Wilkeson coke supplied the necessary fuel for the new industries of Tacoma and was also shipped as far as San Francisco and Alaska.

With the dismantling of "uptown" Wilkeson, a company town, and sealing of the mines, the ovens are the last tangible reminder of Wilkeson’s coal mining days. Some 30-plus coke ovens without their sandstone outer wall survived the salvaging of railroad properties in the early 1970s and the 100-year-old structures are in need of attention. The ovens are suffering from graffiti, brick removal, dumping and gravity. Some have caved in and others may suffer the same if not reinforced. A plan is called for to evaluate the ovens, reverse the damage if possible and repoint the brick.

The town would like to incorporate an ongoing maintenance plan to handle the vegetation as roots from tree stumps have undermined the brick. The park also needs better security, including lighting and fencing.

“Our town will need to pick up debris and refence the area to prevent motorized vehicles from entering the park,” Hogerhuis said. The town would like to develop a kiosk and educational programming to educate the public about the site.

The town council will be asking local residents, businesses and clubs as well as visitors for ideas on a conceptual plan during the National Handcar Races July 17. The Booster Club, which sponsors the annual event, has already raised $3,000 to begin the planning process.

Anyone wishing to help or donate money to the cause can contact Hogerhuis at mayor@townofwilkeson.com or 360-829-0790.

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