Remember Wilkeson: A Sign of the Times | The Wilkeson Weigh

Wilkeson has hit low points in the past — but we can use those lessons to make our town’s future brighter.

“Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.”

– Ingrid Bengis

I see the words “Remember Wilkeson” daily, suspended from a log atop two sandstone pillars straddling a highway.

Now, the story of the Wilkeson sandstone arch will certainly be shared, one Weigh or another, but this article will focus mainly on the sign dangling from it.

The 1920s began in low spirits for the Wilkeson community.

Heavy on the sale and consumption of liquor, Prohibition brought swindling and trickery to the forefront.

In February of 1921, Pierce County announced that the promised road through the mining district would not be built that year.

As one of the wealthiest sections of the county, the people felt they were being ‘flim-flammed’.

They’d paid their taxes and now the money was being spent elsewhere. Not to mention, the town of Fairfax had no other outlet than the train which arrived and departed only once a day.

Later, in March, the Union miners refused a cut in their wages and went on strike.

Most Washington mines closed.

The strike continued and in August, mine operators instructed the Union miners to vacate the company-owned homes.

Dishonesty, disloyalty, and disagreements disbanded the community within the Carbon River Valley.

Two years later, the Wilkeson Community House was built.


“Rev. Thomas J. Gambill, a member of the Methodist conference, came to Wilkeson several years ago. There had just been a disastrous strike that paralyzed the industry and left everybody bitter and discouraged. Gambill did not preach very much, but he did a lot of practical work with his hands, helping the families of those discouraged miners and townspeople. And so they grew to have confidence in him, and two years ago he dedicated a magnificent stone community house. It was complete with auditorium, gymnasium, dining room, kitchen, social halls for boys and girls, bath, and a library. And he called it the community house of the Wilkeson Christian Society. The society has a constitution which says it is devoted to the ‘Physical, intellectual, social and religious interests of the people of Wilkeson,’ and that is all the creed there is.

This building is always open. There are banquets two of three times a week in the dining room to which come the boys and girls and men and women from the mining camps and homes of Wilkeson. There is never a night when the lights are out or the rooms empty.

New Religion is Dawning

In one of the entertainments when the hall was crowded, Rev. Gambill brought out an arm full of flags. He asked the groups who formerly lived under the different banner to rise as they were displayed and from the groups he picked a boy or girl and had him come up and hold the flag of his former country. When he had finished, he had 27 on the platform, each holding a different flag. And every one of the 27 is in the melting pot of that stone community house of Wilkeson, getting an inspiration for higher things, earning the value and lessons of culture and becoming enthused as a factor in the development of character in the community.”

Locals of all ages and big city businessmen boosted the town of Wilkeson from the inside out.

The dark and wet corners within houses of ill-repute and hidden hooch were brought to light.

Industry picked up, once again, with the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Company taking over the mining property at Fairfax and the Walker Cut Stone Company furnishing Wilkeson sandstone for the State Capitol.

And, finally, public transit to the northeast entrance of Mount Rainier National Park was set in motion and Pierce County began to carve out the Carbon River Highway (WA-165, now the Carbon Glacier Highway) from bottom to top.

Encouraged by good progress, Wilkeson was welcoming again.

In Nancy Irene Hall’s collection, Dateline Wilkeson:

“October 24, 1924. Angeline Brothers are very busy these days moving new residents into Wilkeson. It is reported that nearly every vacant house has been taken recently. A ‘boom’ seems to be in progress in this fair town and things certainly are humming.”

The Wilkeson Booster Club formed with many committees covering a broad range of community needs, including a Road committee (partnering with Buckley to create signage directing people to Wilkeson) and an Entertainment committee (arranging picture shows and dances to fund projects).

The boosters, town council and Walker Cut Stone Company foresaw the impact the new road would have on Wilkeson and, taking advantage of the roaring consumer culture, designed a monument to showcase the industrial goods of the area.

A sign was to be included; the inscription to be painted in white by coal miner Charlie Bonato.

The first message put nature at the forefront (again from Dateline), “April 3, 1925. SKETCH OF SANDSTONE IS APPROVED…A large sign, welcoming visitors to Wilkeson, ‘Gateway to Carbon Glacier and the Mountain’ is to be supported by the columns.”

Then the wordage changed to this full-frontal in, “July 31, 1925. The inscription on the entrance sign will be ‘Wilkeson Coal Mines Wilkeson Sandstone and Gateway to the Carbon Glacier’. On the exit side will read ‘Remember Wilkeson Tacoma 30 Miles Seattle 50 Miles’.”

I mean, if you’re aiming for propaganda, you might as well pack a punch.

Tourists then and now may be taking the Wilkeson Way to Wonderland as the quickest route to get to the Mountain, but the message on the ‘Glacier Gate’ gives more direction than simply “You are here”.

Moreso even than showcasing pride of the industrious coal, sandstone, and timber appropriately advertised upon the entrance.

“Wilkeson News (From the Wilkeson Record)”, in a July 1925 Buckley Banner describes, “PACIFIC PARK AUTO TRANS. CO. TO PHOTOGRAPH WILKESON. …Undoubtably, the result of this initiative step taken by the Pacific Park Auto Transportation Company will disclose many interesting features of the ‘home town’ to the residents and others who have hitherto remained indifferent as to Wilkeson’s merits.”

Flags can be distracting, take them down and you’ll see the sign.

‘Remember’ can be defined as the power or process to reproduce or recall what has been learned and retained.

Neighbors, “Remember Wilkeson” was painted in providence.

As in the past, RESIDENTS remain indifferent to Wilkeson’s merits. We’ve circled back to that part of the story: division and indifference.

The difference now is that we have many ways to remember what worked and what did not and make an educated move forward; Truth of the past as an integral part of living in the present and imagining the future.

Keep in mind, preserved and unforgotten, the lesson of Wilkeson: do your part and do it by hand.

Remember, Wilkeson, together we can tip the scale.

This is The Weigh.