What do you see when you look at Mount Rainier? A world-renowned national park, perhaps, or maybe a ticking time bomb, for those living in its shadow.
But when Pete Storbo immigrated from Norway to Enumclaw in the early 1900s, the mountain was his way to fortune and fame.
He never did strike it rich (at least in regards to his mining operation) but his story is now being told in a new display at the Enumclaw Plateau Historical Museum.
The display was put together by Pete’s ancestor, Art Storbo, a Bellevue resident and Enumclaw Plateau Historical Society Board member, and Cara Landwehr, a local volunteer, over the last several months.
“What peaked my interest was the humanness of the people who did this work, who had the vision of the mother load of copper on Mount Rainier,” said Landwehr, who helped organize Pete’s history into a story-telling format, while Storbo provided the facts and photos. “[Pete] had a very interesting, hard life.”
According to Storbo, his distant relative came to Enumclaw specifically because of the mountain, because the Norwegian town he was from, Roros, was famous for its copper industry.
Hoping to find deep reserves of copper in Mount Rainier, Pete arrived in Enumclaw in 1902 and immediately began prospecting with an uncle up around Gold Hill, near Crystal Mountain.
“Within a couple of years, they incorporated the Mount Rainier Mining Company, because they felt they found a significant amount of copper, with a little bit of gold and silver,” Storbo said. “Over the course of the next 30 years, until 1928, they did, in fact, find some copper — they probably produced about 150 tons of ore, which [was] reduced at the Tacoma smelter to about 15 tons of copper.”
In other words, it wasn’t exactly the “mother load” Pete had expected. However, his faith in the mountain led to his company building a historical legacy — the now nationally-recognized Chinook Scenic Byway, or as more people know it, state Route 410.
“Their major obstacle was getting a road to the north side of Mount Rainier National Park to haul materials and personnel in and out. The company spent probably a majority of their financial resources building the road,” Storbo said. “Pete and his company initially built the road from Greenwater south into Mount Rainier National Park.”
The historical road diverges from the highway around the Silver Springs Sno-Park area, where there is a large wooden arch welcoming drivers to the national park.
You can’t drive on the road, but you can hike on it, taking it down to where Pete also had to build what was called the Storbo Bridge over the White River. The bridge, sadly, no longer exists.
This was not an easy life for Pete, though it appears he rarely let his bad luck keep him down for long.
“The mine was successful, and there was a war then, then it was successful, and then there were economic problems,” Landwehr said. “[Pete] ultimately got framed and falsely indicted for mail fraud, but he was such a fixture in this community that over 1,200 people signed a petition to get him out of jail and got him pardoned.
“I ran into people when we were first starting to work on this, I mentioned the project to them, and they said, ‘Oh, my parents knew Pete Storbo. He used to come into their store. He was their favorite.’ He must have been extremely colorful and friendly,” she continued. “I just think there’s a lot to this story that should make people think, not just about where the road to Mount Rainier came from… but all the humanity that is in this story.”
The Mount Rainier Mining Company owned the last claims in the national park, eventually selling its remaining 180 acres to the park for about $55,000 in 1984.
The Enumclaw Plateau Historical Museum, located at 1837 Marion St., is open Thursdays and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m.
More information about mining at Mount Rainier can be read in the book, “Mining Glacier Basin” by Greg Burtchard for free at www.nps.gov/mora/learn/historyculture/upload/2017-mining-glacier-basin-burtchard_web.pdf. Copies of the book can also be purchased at the museum.
Ray Miller-Still serves as the President of the Enumclaw Plateau Historical Society.