Our Hiking Time: 1h 30m
Total Ascent: 300ft
Highest Point: 800ft
Total Distance: 2.2 miles
Location: N 47° 17.5980, W 121° 58.0860
Required Permit: None
Continuing this winter’s theme of visiting ghost towns and abandoned places, we recently explored the Franklin Townsite near Black Diamond. Like many former mining communities in Washington, much of the once-bustling town is now gone, much of it reclaimed by nature. Still, enough cement and metal remains to hint at the coal-centered community that called Franklin home for more than 30 years.
Sometime in the late 1880s, those that were mining coal in Black Diamond branched out to the Green River and began work in the hills around Franklin. Connected by railroad to the rest of the world in 1885, the post office soon followed in 1886. Labor disputes intensified in May 1891, when hundreds of African-American miners were recruited from the Midwest to replace striking white miners. Unfortunately, the new arrivals were not told about the strike, and upon arrival were issued a firearm supposedly as a defense against local Native Americans. Tensions quickly mounted and two died in the resulting riot, which was only quelled in July when Governor Elisha Ferry called in the National Guard.
In 1894, Franklin was rocked by the second worst mining disaster in Washington’s history. Thirty-seven miners suffocated when a coal fire broke in the mine. Miscommunication and poor management led first to the shutdown of the fan that supplied air to the miners, then to opening doors that changed the airflow in the mineshaft. This trapped the coal smoke 1000ft below the surface and killed the miners. Later, evidence surfaced that the fire was intentionally set, though the arsonist was among those that perished. At the turn of the century as oil continued to replace coal, demand fell and families began to leave Franklin. The post office closed in 1916 and mining largely ceased by 1919. World War II created enough demand for coal that the Palmer Coking Company sporadically mined around Franklin from the late 1940s until 1971 when the coal car bridge spanning the Green River was dynamited and removed. Today, the Black Diamond Historical Society leads tours of Franklin, and cleanup efforts by local school and scout troops keep the area accessible.
The trickiest part of a trek to Franklin is finding it. Although the Franklin Townsite is owned by King County Parks, there is no motorized access and there is not much in the way of parking. Access is located just before you cross the Green River Gorge Bridge, marked by chain-link gate covered in No Parking Signs. There is room for one vehicle on the opposite side of the road a little closer to the bridge. If that is taken, most people drive down to a little cemetery a quarter-mile or so back toward Black Diamond. Once you’re parked, head back to the chain-link fence, you can see a yellow gate in the distance, which is the beginning of King County Park Property. The property in between is private, but King County has an easement along the road, so just stick to the gravel road and head toward the gate.
Things are easy once on the trail. Head up to a signed junction complete with an ore cart donated by the Palmer Coking Company. Veer left for the mine and cemetery. While there are some foundations on the right, you need permission from Palmer before doing much in the way of exploring on their land.
Brush past sword fern and salal as you follow the road up to the mineshaft. Dropping 1300ft into the ground, the shaft was popular amongst spelunkers and other explorers, but after a couple of accidents, the state sealed the shaft in the 80s. After you’ve taken a moment to drop a few rocks down the pit, move on toward the cemetery. The trail is a little rougher here and not quite as wide, but it is still an easy stroll to the ivy-covered cemetery. Along the way, you’ll pass a section of rusting trestle that once supported the eight-inch wooden pipe that supplied water to the town. Without much warning, you will suddenly notice a few marble tombstones rising out of the brush. Take a moment to explore and reflect on the community that once thrived here.
Franklin is a fun little adventure on those days that you cannot make it out to the mountains. While it is not exactly a traditional hike, it is a walk steeped in the history of this state. Its obscurity and somewhat confusing access makes it likely that you’ll have the ghost town to yourself and lends a feeling of remoteness. There is also much more to explore in Franklin – it’s possible to head down to the site of the coal bridge or get permission from Palmer to hike to the top of Franklin Hill. A day spent tromping around Franklin is well worth the trip.
To get there, take I-5 South to 405. Take Exit 4 off 405 onto SR 169. Follow SR 169 for 18 miles into Black Diamond to Lawson St. Take a left and follow Lawson as it changes into Green River Gorge Road. About three-and-a-half miles from Black Diamond as the road bends toward the Green River Gorge Bridge, find a chain-link gate on the right. This is the access point. Find parking on the roadside or at the nearby cemetery. -Nathan
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