A Short History of Roslyn

Pennsylvania Avenue in Roslyn, WA
Pennsylvania Avenue
Photo courtesy Erin Krake

Nestled in the heart of the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, 2,222 feet above sea level, lies the town of Roslyn. It has been said that the name Roslyn was chosen because of the love a Mr. Bullitt had for his sweetheart in a faraway town of Roslyn in Delaware.

The Roslyn Sentinal of March 1, 1895, carried the following story about Roslyn's name:

"On the far away shores of Delaware, midst the sand hills, peach orchards, and blue blooded 'skeeters', nestles the little hamlet, named Roslyn over a century ago. The high bred people were of primitive stock. The daughters of these householders were the special objects of the devotion of many enterprising young men in the neighborhood. Now, in this hamlet there lived a handsome, vivacious maiden, who was particularly dear to the heart of a brave and sturdy young man who was penetrating the wild northwest in 1886, in search of fame and fortune. This gentleman was one of our early pioneers, and it became his lot to name this new mining camp. After mature deliberation, he christened the town Roslyn on August 10, 1886, after the town in which his loved one lived. The event was duly celebrated and the name was placed on a board an inscribed with a pine cone. It was nailed to a large pine tree which stood near Patrick's business property. Whether Mr. Bullitt later realized his hopes in love, we do not know, but if his affairs of heart were as fickle as Roslyn's fortunes, he had an interesting time.

Where Coal Was King

The Brick Tavern, 1900
The Brick Tavern, 1900
Photo courtesy of the Ellensburg Public Library Local History Collection

Roslyn was founded with the discovery of coal and the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1886. The town's population swelled dramatically in those first decades, from a few hundred in 1886 to about 4000 people in the 1920's.

The Roslyn coal field attracted men from coal mining regions in other parts of the United States and from nations with well developed coal industries. Forty percent of the population in 1900 was foreign born, mostly Slavic, Italian and English immigrants. In fact, 24 nationalities have been recorded living in Roslyn at one time. Sprawling across wooded hills on the outskirts of town lie the 25 cemeteries, still segregated as to ethnic origin or lodge affiliation.

Roslyn Schoolchildren

Roslyn Schoolchildren
Photo courtesy of the Ellensburg Public Library Local History Collection

The same census year of 1900 shows 22% of Roslyn's population was black at that time. The Knights of Labor had instituted a strike in 1888 which shut down the mines. The principal issue was the miners' demand for an eight hour day. The company recruited black miners from Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky to take the place of the striking miners. Special trains brought in over 300 black miners and their families during 1888 and 1889. This migration represented the greatest increase in the black population of Washington Territory at that date. Once tension abated, white and black miners worked together peaceably amid the constant danger of the job.

Black pioneers of Roslyn Washington, circa 1890
Black pioneers of Roslyn Washington, circa 1890
Photo courtesy of the Ellensburg Public Library Local History Collection

In 1963, the last of the working mines closed, and a way of life was gone. But it is not forgotten. A miner's memorial was erected in front of the old Company Store on September 2nd, 1996. The annual Coal Miners festival celebrates our town's history on Labor Day Weekend. Old shafts, slag piles, coal sheds and mining roads are everyday reminders. The Roslyn Historical Museum on Pennsylvania Avenue harbors mining memorabilia and historical photos along its cramped and narrow walls. Along with the "old-timers'" memories and stories passed on through the generations, these artifacts and landmarks give us all a sense of living history in Roslyn.

After the Coal Rush

Set of the television series, Northern Exposure, 1990's
Film crew working on the set of the television series, Northern Exposure, 1990's
Photo courtesy of the Roslyn Public Library

It's been said that Roslyn became a ghost town soon after. Certainly, it was a town diminished and changed. Many families moved away to the West side of the state, to California, to Alaska or further inland. Jobs went from mining to logging to government work, when they could be found at all.

A decade after the last of the mines closed, in the 1970's, Roslyn experienced a new immigration. Drawn by the quiet, inexpensive, small town lifestyle and compelled to stay here by the unique Roslyn charm, the town became a haven for young people, known by many of the locals as "hippies." Some were looking for a good place to raise children. Others were artists and musicians and entrepeneurs who found inspiration and freedom here. For a time, these newcomers and retired coal miners scraped together a living side by side, often with several vacant houses between them.

In 1990, a television production company came to town and shook everything up once again. Roslyn became the location site for the award winning television series Northern Exposure. Film crews filled the streets, along with the tourists who came to see it all happening. For five years, Roslyn was known by millions of TV viewers as Cicely, Alaska. New businesses sprouted, tourists poured in, and the town was booming all over again.

The series ended in 1995, and Roslyn quieted down once again. Today, there are still Northern Exposuregift shops, but the stream of tourists buying moose key chains and mugs has become a trickle. Locally driven small businesses have taken hold. Cottage industries are being cultivated. Art still flourishes. People flock here not so much to see Cicely, but to go mountain biking, fishing, backpacking and snowmobiling in the thousands of acres of wilderness and national forest surrounding the town.

The reasons why haven't changed. Roslyn and her surroundings are unique, special, beloved by many. One visit and it is easy to see why. An early description of Lake Cle Elum, located several miles northwest of Roslyn, appeared in the Kittitas Standardof September 1, 1883:

"Sighting the magnificent waters of Lake Cle Elum, bounded upon one side by high, craggy, treeless peaks and upon the other by gently sloping, forest-covered hills, free from underbrush, one can readily understand what a magnificent sight must have been presented when in days agone, the lake was dotted with gaudily decked Indian canoes, or its ice-environed surface was illuminated by hundreds of torches of the piscatorially inclined children of the forest. Nor is any great stretch of the imagination required to enable one to see that at no distant day the waters of this beautiful lake must attract to its shores many persons upon health or pleasure bent."

*Historical information provided by the following sources:

"Through Open Eyes: Ninety Five Years of Black History in Roslyn, Washington" - an Ellensburg Public Library exhibit pamphlet
"Coal Towns in the Cascades" by John C. Shideler
"Spawn of Coal Dust" - published locally in 1955
Hake, Shirley Dean. University of Washington. Master's Thesis, 1953
"A History of Kittitas County Washington 1989, Volume I" compiled and published by the Kittitas County Centennial Committee.

Permission to reproduce photos is required.

Made possible with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Washington State Library, Office of the Secretary of State.