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King Coal car returns to Renton History Museum

It took four people to push the refurbished coal car into Renton History Museum last week. The car spent seven months undergoing reconstruction at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. Pictured, from front left to right, Wil Samson, volunteer; Larry Sleeth, Renton Historical Society board member; Tom Monahan, Renton History Museum research specialist; and Elizabeth Stewart, Renton History Museum director.  - Emily Garland/Renton Reporter
It took four people to push the refurbished coal car into Renton History Museum last week. The car spent seven months undergoing reconstruction at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. Pictured, from front left to right, Wil Samson, volunteer; Larry Sleeth, Renton Historical Society board member; Tom Monahan, Renton History Museum research specialist; and Elizabeth Stewart, Renton History Museum director.
— image credit: Emily Garland/Renton Reporter

After seven months of reconstruction, the wood coal-mining car at Renton History Museum now actually looks like it could haul coal.

“It pretty much looks like how it was when guys started in the mine,” Elizabeth Stewart said after the coal car’s return last week. Stewart is director of Renton History Museum.

It took four people to push the car into the museum last week. The car is 7 feet long by 3 feet wide by 3 feet high.

Museum staff and volunteers brought the car back last week from Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. The car’s reconstruction at the Snoqualmie museum was paid for by a $6,500 grant from 4Culture Heritage Special Projects, funded by the King County lodging tax.

Reconstruction entailed replacing the car’s wood with local Douglas fir boards, replacing the bolts and fasteners and treating the black metal holding the boards in place to prevent rust.

The workers at the Snoqualmie museum also fixed the work done by well-meaning volunteers in the 1970s. These volunteers had attached bars upside down and in the wrong places.

“It didn’t look like how it would have been,” said Sarah Iles, museum collection manager. Iles is happy with the car’s reconstruction.

“It’s actually solid this time,” she said.

Before the reconstruction, the car was not only assembled in an historically incorrect manner, it was falling apart.

“The wood and metal of the car had seriously deteriorated. The goal was to stop that from happening,” Stewart said.

The car wasn’t used in the Renton mines that dotted Benson Road and Renton Hill. Renton’s cars were likely sealed in the city’s mines when they closed sometime after the 1930s.

The refurbished car hauled coal in Black Diamond mines from about 1915 on, Stewart said. The Black Diamond Historical Society donated the coal car to Renton History Museum in the mid-1970s. Volunteers replaced the car’s wood shortly after, and the car was placed in front of the museum.

The car will be stored inside the museum from now on, in front of two coal exhibits. One exhibit is a replica of a mine-shaft entrance, with a sign reading: “Renton Cooperative Coal Company org. Feb. 16, 1895.” Shovels, lanterns, faux boxes of explosives and hats affixed with lights are displayed under the mine-shaft sign. The other exhibit shows pictures, maps and a bucket of coal next to a fireplace.

Coal mining dominated Renton’s economy during the city’s early years, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to the museum exhibits, most Renton men worked for mining companies in the city’s first 20 years. Many of these men came from England, Ireland and Wales, countries with a long history of coal mining.

The museum exhibit says the coal collected at the Renton and Talbot mines was the first coal shipped from King County. In their first five years of operations, these mines shipped 10,000 tons of coal to San Francisco. This coal was transported to Elliot Bay and then to San Francisco, fueling the transportation and industrial revolution on the West coast.

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@rentonreporter.com or 425-255-3484, ext. 5052.

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