Thursday, December 5, 2013

Return to Melmont (A Ghost Town in Pierce County)

Melmont Ghost Town, Melmont Schoolhouse The ghost town of Melmont is near the Carbon River Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park and can usually be hiked to year-round on an old railroad grade. We enjoyed the historical walk so much last spring that we returned a few days ago to see what it was like in winter. Melmont dates back to the early 1900s when a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railway (the Northwest Improvement Company) opened the Melmont coal mine. Though little remains today of Melmont the settlement bustled with activity – then the town included a saloon, train depot, post office, schoolhouse, hotel and cottages used by the miners. The coal was shipped to Carbonado for processing by rail. By 1915 the little, spunky settlement of Melmont began its slow fade into oblivion - the post office closed and a few years later the Northwest Improvement Company ceased operations. Though a few mines were opened by another mining company (the Carbon Hill Coal Company) all mines had closed by the early 1920s and most of Melmont was destroyed by a forest fire. The hike is not designated by a sign. To get to the railroad grade - from Wilkeson/Carbonado continue on route State Route 165 as if approaching the Carbon River Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park (go mid-week if possible, parking is limited). Drive across the Fairfax Bridge that spans the Carbon River and note a small parking spot on the left-side of the road. Park there, walk back across the bridge and look for a short, steep path on the north side of the bridge that descends to the railroad grade – the path is rocky and steep (a hand-line was in place on our recent visit though you might not need it). Turn left (south) onto the railroad grade and enjoy! Spring or winter are the best seasons to explore Melmont before the vegetation leafs out and obscures what artifacts remain. In early December the vegetation was not dense and we were able to get better views along the way, including the visibility to follow a steep path that led to a wrecked car between the rail-grade and the Carbon River that looked it had come to rest some time ago in a tangle of small trees, blackberries and other assorted foliage (not a hiker-friendly setting!). Explore such paths at your own risk – though the railroad grade is safe (other than being unpleasantly muddy at times) if you go off-trail it is all too easy to get lost or injured due to dense vegetation and cliffs. Also, since parking is limited so keep your party-size small. The first feature you’ll notice along the grade is a wall embroidered with moss and licorice ferns (right) that was part of a retaining wall utilized by the Northern Pacific’s railroad grade. A bit past the retaining wall you’ll come to another stone structure (left). Though it might look like something you might see in an Amazon jungle it is an old shed (powder shack) used by the railroad to store dynamite. The roof is gone as is the dynamite and though the walls are standing it looks like moss and ferns are holding the structure together. A little further along you’ll come to a split in the trail. The path (left) climbs to the site of the Melmont schoolhouse; an ideal setting for lunch on a sunny day. We stopped there first - enough of the structure remains that with a little imagination you can visualize what the schoolhouse might have looked like once upon a time (see additional information). After a break we hiked back to the railroad grade and continued toward the site of Melmont. The town site is not much beyond the spur to the schoolhouse and at first glance looks like a grassy, plateau about the size of four football fields. A couple of short paths drop down to the site and on this cold, sunny day wisps of ground fog rose from the ground where the grasses and shrubs still glittered with frost. Thin ice had formed over pockets of moisture in the grasses creating beautiful effects that we attempted to photograph with some success. As for structures, none remain though there are a couple of old wrecked cars, riddled with bullet holes – apparently abandoned cars make good targets for target practice. You can understand why the town took root here on this plateau between the railroad grade and the Carbon River. It becomes a lush meadow in summer and is in the sun on a clear day. We found a grassy hummock in the sun, ideal for lunch though we had to keep moving as the shade seemed intent on following us. Other reports from those who have explored these sites indicate some foundations of the Melmont Bridge remain though we did not come across them on our visit last year. We found them on another visit but getting to them involves a steep descent on an exposed, steep slope above the Carbon River (it is not for the faint-hearted, a stumble would be a disaster). In winter the Melmont town site is a good turnaround. Come back in the spring and continue on the railroad grade to Manley-Moore Road about a 7-mile hike one-way (a car shuttle can be made for a one-way hike by leaving a car below the bridge at Manley-Moore Road (further along the Carbon River Road). This is probably best done in the spring when days are longer and we can guarantee you will want to dawdle and/or explore. While the walk to the Melmont schoolhouse and the town site is easy, the trails can be muddy as the railroad grade is also used by ATVs. Sturdy boots and gaiters are recommended, especially during the rainy seasons. Statistics: It is about 4 miles round-trip to the town site of Melmont/Melmont schoolhouse with about 400 feet gain. When (or if) you encounter private property signs do not trespass. Refer to the site below for a “Code of Ethics” regarding ghost towns which should apply to anyone interested in discovering ghost towns. There is much more history as well as old photographs of what Melmont was like in its heyday (other ghost towns too). Additional information/resources: . To view my recent photos of Melmont click on the link below, scroll down to third set. Karen Sykes

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