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New hope for historic coke ovens

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Boosters want to restore a bit of town history

By Jessica Keller

The Courier-Herald

When Robert Peloli was a boy growing up in Wilkeson, he remembers flames 10 to 15 feet high shooting from the coke ovens at the Wilkeson Coal and Coke mine in the 1920s.

The mine shut down in 1935, and with it the coke ovens, which heated coal at extremely high heat to turn it to a more pure form of carbon.

Coal mining ran its course in the area, and Wilkeson is no longer the booming town with thousands of residents, as it was in its heyday. But the Wilkeson Booster Club is trying to preserve some of the last remaining examples of Wilkeson's history by renovating the coke ovens.

"They really need to be preserved because they are such a big part of Wilkeson's history," project coordinator Donna Hogerhuis of the Booster Club said.

In its prime, Wilkeson Coal and Coke ran 160 coke ovens. Prior to 1970, 130 of those were removed and salvaged for brick and sandstone. In 1974 the 30 remaining coke ovens were placed on the state's National Register.

Now, the coke ovens, located at the north end of town, near the elementary school and the current site of the Wilkeson handcar races, are in danger of being taken over by vegetation and destroyed by vandalism from people who use them to camp in or write graffiti on.

"They're really need to be protected from vandalism," Hogerhuis said.

Hogerhuis said the project began earlier this year, when the Booster Club approached the Wilkeson Town Council about sponsoring a grant application to renovate three of the remaining coke ovens.

The grant is for $140,000, half of which must be matched by the town. If the town receives the grant, which it should find out later this month, six coke ovens will be stabilized and three will be restored to their previous state.

While Hogerhuis said it would be nice to renovate all of the remaining coke ovens, that would cost too much. The club has already $10,000 the Town Council agreed to set aside for the renovation as part of the match, and Hogerhuis said she hopes much of the remaining funds can come from in-kind work.

A lot of that work would come from various people and agencies, including the booster club and the Wilkeson Eagles.

For the stabilization of the coke ovens, first the vegetation must be sprayed and cleared. A black chain-link fence with gates will be built around the site. Hogerhuis said bars may even be placed inside the mouths of the coke ovens to prevent entry.

Of the three coke ovens to be renovated, Hogerhuis said the Wilkeson Sandstone Quarry is donating sandstone to reconstruct an exterior wall of 8 feet by 45 feet on each side, which originally surrounded the coke ovens. The actual dimensions of the coke ovens are approximately 400 feet long by 30 feet wide.

Once the project is completed, visitors will be able to walk along and view the coke ovens, and interpretive signage will be stationed along the way.

That is where Peloli can be a tremendous help, Hogerhuis said. Peloli is one of the last coal miners remaining on the Plateau and has been collecting mining pictures and gathering notes on the history of mining for many years now.

Peloli will provide much of the information on mining and the Wilkeson Coal and Coke camp, which was called Uptown at the time. It was an entirely separate community from Downtown Wilkeson, complete with its own set of ballfields for the miners' children.

"It's unbelievable there were so many people living up here," Hogerhuis said.

"This place used to glow at night," Peloli added.

But before people can be reintroduced to the way Wilkeson used to be, the coke oven park must first become a reality. If everything goes well, and the booster club receives its grant, vegetation and fencing of the site should take place in spring of 2005. The project could be competed in summer or fall of 2005.

First, more money must be raised. Anyone wishing to contribute can send their donation to the Foothills Historical Society, mailing it in care of the Wilkeson Booster Club, P.O. Box 239, Wilkeson, Wash. 98376.

Jessica Keller can be reached at jkeller@courierherald.com

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