Meeting a Mount Rainier old-timer | All Things Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier is more than a volcano — it’s made of stories.

Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, “All Things Mount Rainier”

Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, “All Things Mount Rainier”

Correction: The building that now houses the Carbon River ranger station was moved to its present location in 1921, not 1912. This article has been updated.

In December’s column, I wrote about the presence of Native Americans that dates back over 9,000 years. Archaeological evidence at over a hundred locations indicates that people went to the mountain to hunt and collect plants unavailable or in short supply near their lowland villages. Even today, Native people head to the high country each summer and fall to pick berries and hunt game—outside of park boundaries, of course. In today’s column, let’s take note of some other folks with long-standing ties to Mount Rainier.

John and Yolanda Thompson were building a home in Edmonds in 1954, but when she read of a 167-acre homestead for sale in the shadow of Mount Rainier, it piqued the young couple’s interest. John soon flew over the property in a small plane to check it out. Without setting foot on it, they bought the spread for $18,000.

Imagine moving into a rural homestead with two children, ages seven weeks and 3 years old, with only a generator to run the washing machine and a couple of lights. A butane setup powered a water heater, refrigerator, and cooking range. Electricity wouldn’t find its way up the valley for another seven years. Groceries and errands required most of an hour’s drive each way. The “Dude Ranch,” as the locals called it, was the mail carrier’s last stop, and rangers stationed at Carbon River came down to pick up their mail. They also used the Thompson’s phone, which John kept humming with an old Army field set to test and repair the line.

Their new home started out as the school in nearby Melmont, a coal-mining town operated by the Northwest Improvement Company. After the coal bust and Melmont began fading into a ghost town memory, workers removed the top two stories of the building. They then shipped it on the Northern Pacific Railroad line to its present location on the Carbon River Road, 5.5 miles east of the Mowich Lake Road Junction. Reconstructed in 1921 by the Poch family, the original homesteaders operated a store on the ground level, living on the second floor until selling the property in about 1950. Brief ownership by two other parties preceded the Thompson’s purchase.

The years rolled by for the Thompson family at the Carbon River Ranch. The children, Alison and Fred, went to school in Carbonado and graduated from White River High School. A favorite memory of theirs is Bobcatty, an orphaned bobcat kitten that they adopted and raised for a year.

The mountain magically works its way into peoples’ lives, and it became a family affair for the Thompsons. In summertime breaks from teaching school, John assisted on projects in the park. In one of his favorites, a wind flow study conducted by a University of Washington professor, John used a firearm to shoot down weather balloons when the research ended. Alison worked at Ohanapecosh and Paradise. Fred became the Mystic Lake ranger.

The Carbon River often exceeded its banks, and after yet another winter flood that threatened to destroy the historic ranger station, it was time for a new location. John’s love of wild places and his desire to protect their beloved homestead from development led to his decision to sell the family’s Carbon River Ranch to the National Park Service in 2015. The place they had called home for 61 years now became the Carbon River ranger station.

I met John this fall through happy coincidence. We talked a number of times on the phone as John rattled off countless stories and anecdotes, his mind as sharp as a brand new ice axe. When I asked if I could profile him in an upcoming column, he quipped, “Well, you’d better hurry. I’m 95 years old, you know.”

On a dreary November morning in his Burnett apartment, we sat (masked, of course) at opposite ends of his long kitchen table. He spun yarns for nearly two hours while I busily took notes. We elbow bumped on my way out the door, making plans to visit the ranger station and walk the property. We postponed the trip a couple of times, the last when John had contracted a sore throat. “I’ll call you when I get on the other side of this,” he whispered hoarsely, “and then we’ll get up to the ranch.”

I called to check on John a couple of weeks later, but he didn’t answer. A few days later, the same result. Concerned, I emailed his daughter Alison. “Jeff,” she replied, “his sore throat turned out to be the final stages of a previously undiagnosed and untreatable neurological disorder. He passed away at St. Joe’s on December 18. But please tell his story, because the obituary will fall far short of the mark when it comes to his love of the valley.”

I’m so fortunate to have met Mount Rainier old-timer John Thompson, to learn about his deep connection to the Carbon River valley, and to share some of his tales. Once again, I find that the mountain is made of more than fire and ice, scenic vistas and raging rivers, mighty old growth and abundant wildlife. It’s made of stories, too, forged by our relationship with the gigantic snow-covered peak that the First People called Tahoma or one of its variations. And I’m eager to hear your stories, too.

If you’d like to learn more about some Mount Rainier oldtimers, you should check out the Enumclaw Historical Museum (when it can open back up, that is). The museum has an exhibit chronicling how Norwegian immigrant Peter T. Storbo joined his uncle Bernt P. Korssjoen in Enumclaw in 1902, wasting no time in purchasing over 40 mining claims in the Glacier Basin region of the newly designated Mount Rainier National Park. Their Mount Rainier Mining Company, fraught with challenge, tragedy, and even prison time, never delivered the riches of which they and their stockholders had dreamed. Eventually bought out by the National Park Service in 1984, the road from Enumclaw to the White River area remains a key part of the legacy of these hard-working Scandinavians. The exhibit was put together by Peter’s grandson, Art Storbo, with information from archaeologist Greg C. Burtchard and his 2017 book, “Mining Glacier Basin.”

In next month’s column, we’ll explore the icy, earth-shaping world of glaciers and see how Mount Rainier’s two dozen permanent snowfields are faring in a warming world. In the meantime, keep your boots dry and your spirits high.

Jeff Antonelis-Lapp is an educator, naturalist, and writer living in Enumclaw since 1982. Tahoma and Its People, his natural history of Mount Rainier National Park, was published this spring by Washington State University Press. Copies are available at https://jeffantonelis-lapp.com/. Jeff would love to hear from you about Mount Rainier. Send your questions and favorite stories to rstill@courierherald.com, and subscribe to his blog, too.


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