Nestled in a scenic and beautiful setting on the eastern flank of the Cascade Mountains, the former company town of Roslyn today features a largely intact downtown core that belies its turbulent nineteenth-century history of coal, railroads, strikes, militias, and even a famous bank robbery. Tourism and recreation are now mainstays of the Roslyn economy, and one would be hard-pressed to recognize that this picturesque, eclectic city developed initially because of its proximity to coal deposits vital to power the construction of a nearly 10,000-foot tunnel for the Northern Pacific Railroad under nearby Stampede Pass.
Roslyn was tied to coal and railroads from its beginnings. The town, incorporated in 1889, was platted in 1886 by a survey party of the Northern Pacific, and at one point the railroad ran straight through town. The northwest-southeast orientation of the town follows the contours of Smith Creek Canyon and, originally, the surrounding rocky hills compressed the town’s population and growth along the canyon. The original plat of the town corresponds to the historic district: Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest street and the main commercial thoroughfare, while Utah and Montana avenues form the northern and southern borders. The coal mines were the dominant employer in the area for over sixty years, and most of the town was built by the Northern Pacific Coal Company and its later incarnation as the Northwestern Improvement Company—both arms of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The early Roslyn economy, and thus its built environment, was inseparable from the work of coal extraction performed by its residents. Because of the demand from the railroad, Roslyn quickly became the most productive coal town in the Pacific Northwest and, by 1900, Roslyn-area mines produced over half of Washington’s coal output. Indeed, Roslyn was owned entirely by the Northern Pacific Railroad until many of the residential and commercial structures were privatized in the mid-1910s, although coal needed to power steam trains through Stampede Pass kept the mines active through the 1920s. It was only after this time that diesel-powered trains began to reduce the need for coal, and Roslyn’s fortunes—tied to the health of the coal industry—declined, and many residents left to seek economic vitality elsewhere. In 1963, the Northwestern Improvement Company ceased mining operations altogether and Roslyn struggled to retain residents or attract new industries until artists, musicians, and others seeking inexpensive housing and a new lifestyle began to “rediscover” the town in the 1970s. The renewed attention to the town led eventually to its 1978 designation as a National Historic Landmark.
One of the first settlers in the Roslyn area was the prospector Nez “Cayuse” Jensen, whose home is one of the oldest continuously occupied structures in the state. Jensen himself mined the area’s abundant coal, and his settlement became the nucleus for early Roslyn. As the town developed under the auspices of the Northern Pacific, however, the design and form of its built environment was dictated largely by a limited number of builders and the availability of local materials: timber logged from the surrounding hills; sandstone quarried from an outcropping above the northeast portion of town; and brick fired in the Gunther Brick Mill in neighboring Cle Elum.
Many of the buildings and structures directly associated with coal mining and owned by the Northern Pacific have been demolished, but several buildings significant to Roslyn’s history remain. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, for example, has served the spiritual needs of a large segment of the community since 1888. The Northwest Improvement Company Store is the only surviving example of several company-owned general stores and is currently the headquarters of the Roslyn Downtown Association. The Brick Tavern, meanwhile, claims to be Washington’s oldest continuously operated bar. The Roslyn City Hall and Library was built in 1902 as a social club for Northwestern Improvement Company officials, but later opened to town residents as a YMCA. It has housed various city offices since 1918.
Roslyn is perhaps best known today because of its portrayal in popular culture. The town’s built environment provided the backdrop for the 1978 movie The Runner Stumbles and the 1990s television show Northern Exposure—developments that provided a small economic multiplier effect as some residents were employed as show extras and many town businesses capitalized on the attention to attract tourists.
Since the 1990s, the rising popularity of the town and proximity to recreational opportunities in the Cascade Mountains has created development pressures that threaten Roslyn’s historic character, as the surrounding area has been marketed for vacation or seasonal rentals. This includes, most notably, the $1 billion Suncadia development with its 2,000 residences, golf courses, mountain lodge, village center, and spa. However, such developments may be accelerating preservation efforts in downtown Roslyn. Since 2000, for example, the Northwest Improvement Company Store and the Roslyn City Hall and Library have undergone extensive renovations.
Gallagher, Michael. “Roslyn’s Oldest Cabin Will Receive a Facelift, Work Means Dismantling Log Cabin.” The Daily Record(Ellensburg, WA), July 8, 2001.
Gallagher, Michael. “Renovation of Historic Cabin Under Way.” The Daily Record(Ellensburg, WA), March 12, 2002.
Kershner, Jim. “Roslyn—Thumbnail History.” Essay 9239. HistoryLink.org: The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, December 12, 2009. Accessed November 17, 2014. www.historylink.org.
Lentz, Florence K., “Roslyn Historic District.” Kittitas County, Washington. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1977. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Owens, Barb. “Roslyn City Hall Almost Ready After Renovations.” The Daily Record(Ellensburg, WA), May 11, 2012.
“Northwest Improvement Company Building.” SHKS Architects. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://www.shksarchitects.com.