This ghost town used to be home to 1,000. Now it's just ruins | KUOW News and Information

This ghost town used to be home to 1,000. Now it's just ruins

Mar 24, 2017

If this ghost town had a mayor, it would be Don Mason.

Back in the 1970s, Mason was hiking when he stumbled on evidence of a town called Franklin. He’d never heard of it. Since then, Mason has been collecting proof that a town once sat on this hillside, high above the Green River Gorge. 

Each spring, on the Franklin Ghost tour, he makes it come alive. 

This time it’s raining. Mason gathers a small group in a muddy field at the base of the hill. He pops an umbrella and turns on his megaphone. The population here was about 1,000, max, he says. He points uphill. And there were the houses and the big mines, he says. 

We walk up the side of the gorge, just like Franklin's residents did in the 19th century. After a 10-minute hike, we arrive in Franklin. But there's nothing there. Just mist, moss, and trees. 

Seeing the town is an exercise in imagination, so Mason has visual props. He pulls out a picture of 19th century Franklin, blown to poster size and wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain. 

Mason points to the photograph, then to the corresponding place in the forest, showing where the houses and the trains and the company store used to be. 

Credit Black Diamond Historical Society

Soon, we are able to see the forest with different eyes. The town slowly comes into focus. This flat clearing was a railroad yard. That mossy stone was the hoist of a mine shaft. That tree root is actually a buried cable. 

Bill Kombol has a good eye for these ruins. His family owns a coal company in Black Diamond, a neighboring town. Kombol wanders from the tour and kicks a sheet of rusted metal lying on the ground. 

"I think it's the bottom of a coal car," he says. "They probably left the coal car here, and the wood rotted, and this is what we have left." 

Bill Kombol poses with the remains of Franklin's mining operations.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

Kombol’s family has been mining in this area for generations. In fact, his great-grandfather once mined in this very spot. Kombol's great-grandparents settled in Franklin in 1887, made a home and had two baby girls.  

"It was legend,” he says. “Your grandmother was born in Franklin. When you're a teenager, it's like, 'Oh, yeah, whatever, what's Franklin?'" 

The family didn't stay long. They left Franklin after a few years, when labor strikes began. Soon after, a series of calamities struck the town.

The path to Franklin, a town from the 19th century that has been taken back by the forest.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

First a mine disaster killed 36 men and one boy. Then there was a fire that leveled the town. Finally, the death blow: The coal itself died. 

After World War I, Washington's coal started running out. With falling coal prices, striking miners and less coal in the ground, it was just too difficult to make a profit.

"They just decided to pull the plug and shut down Franklin," Kombol says. 

The company left first. Then the miners, the shopkeepers and the schoolteachers. The pastor left. And the doctor. In the end, only one family of farmers held out. Finally, they left too. 

And the town was taken back by the forest. 

But the cemetery remains. It's down a muddy path, and it's wild. Alder trees have grown up between the graves. Ivy curls around moss-covered tombstones. More than a dozen young men are buried here. Here and there, the name of a woman or a child.  

Small headstones in the ghost town of Franklin can get lost in the underbrush. In summer, this one will disappear.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

Kombol leans in close, to read one headstone. 

"Romulus Monroe Gibson. Died Oct. 5, 1895, aged 35 years. Behold, I shew you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. Corinthians, 15." 

These are the final, forever residents of Franklin, still here on this hillside, long after the world they knew is gone.