Maybe I should lose my reporter card for this, but when I was researching and writing my cover story about Pacific Northwest coal exports earlier this year, I remained oblivious to the fact that King County once did decent business in shipping out coal.
It was 1875, but still.
"There were coal mines all over," Sarah Samson, collection manager at the Renton History Museum told me as I scrambled to shore up my knowledge. "Black Diamond was named for coal. Issaquah had coal. We had coal."
The museum, in fact, just spruced up the section discussing Renton's coal history, which Samson says comes to many as a surprise (so I'm not alone.)
"A strong market for coal existed because it was used to power machinery, heat homes and businesses, and fuel the steamers that plied the waters of Puget Sound and elsewhere. The galloping growth of San Francisco after the 1849 California Gold Rush led to high demand and high prices for coal to fuel the steam engines of trains, ships, and machinery."
It was never very profitable, which rich investors taking turn sinking their money into losing mines, Samson said. Renton was home to an inventive co-operative business model, in which the coal miners owned the mine. But by the 1930s or there about, the coal industry faded from Seattle's attention. Until now.
As we consider much larger coal shipments plying the Puget Sound en route to Asia 80 years later, we have the burden of understanding what burning carbon does to our atmosphere, plus a far more sophisticated transportation system to work the shipments into. But this history can remind us of the basic the mechanisms at play: a proven energy source, booming industrial demand*, and our picturesque sea ports between the two.