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Robert Peloli - Wilkeson, WA
by Tim Nyhus November 2010
The year was 1943 and Robert Peloli was 20 years old when a photo was taken of him riding on a coal cart outside the entrance to the Skookum Slope Mine in Wilkeson, WA. He recalls a man with camera being there on the day the photo was taken outside the mine. In many ways this photo would come to symbolize the mining era of Wilkeson. He is affectionately and factually known as the last living coal miner living in Wilkeson.
Robert was born in Wilkeson 87 years ago. The son of an Italian immigrant, as a matter of fact, he lives next door to the house he was born in. He recalls as a young boy delivering groceries to the Fairfax Hotel and the homes in the now extinct coal town of Fairfax. "That was a beautiful place," recalling the hotel. He also remembers at night flames 10 to 15 feet high shooting from the tops of the coke ovens at the Wilkeson Coal and Coke mine in the 1920s.
I shared with Robert my amazement that all of the coal towns I had visited had baseball fields, to which he replied, "If you were a good ball player you had a job."
Robert shared some of the perils of mining while working at Skookum Mine. "One thing is for sure that place is full of gas," referring to the methane gas that was encountered by Robert and his co-workers on more than one occassion during their time at the mine. Robert recalled one event where the fireboss went into the mine one morning to conduct his inspection. The fireboss all of a sudden collapsed, another miner near by realized what was occurring, took a deep breath and ran in grabbed the fireboss and pulled him to good air. The fireboss had been overcome by gas. Once the fireboss regained conciousness he had Robert go into the other seam tunnels and tell the men to go home. When Robert asked if he could go home as well, he was told "No, you stay."
Robert and another miner began the process of pumping air into the mine to clear the gas. Robert was working an air hose in the mine when he looked up and saw this thick orange color lingering in the air. He asked the man with him what is was, who replied that it was gas. "if we would have been using carbide lamps in those days there would be nothing left to find."
He still has the first piece of coal taken from Skookum Slope.
After serving in the United States Army engineering corps during WWII in the Pacific, Robert returned home from the war in 1946. In 1947 he married Laurine whom he had met in high school, they celebrated 63 years of marriage this past year.
Robert went to work for the National Park Service where he spent 25 years.
During his time with the park service, around 1960 Robert and two partners Tony Basselli and Andrew Locke formed the Queen Coal Company. They sunk a mine slope about 300 feet into the side of a ridge near Carbonado. They operated this mine mostly on weekends until 1972 when due to mine regulators it became impossible to operate any longer.
Robert remembers pulling the timbers from the mine entrance and the entrance collapsing. Today at 87 he proudly informed me "With a backhoe I could open it up in about four hours." Given the opportunity I think he would do it.
In 2009 Robert and all the miners and quarry men were celebrated in recoginition of the towns 100th birthday. An 18-ton sand stone carved by artist Paul Keeslar, depicts a miner leaning on a coal car coming out of the Skookum Slope mine. This carving was inspired by the 1943 photo of Robert. The bottom panel shows a stonecutter sitting under a tent awning on the face of the Wilkeson quarry. This stone monument was placed in downtown Wilkeson near Town Hall.
Today Robert is active, enjoys the company of his wife, three children, nine grandchidren, six great grandchildren and one on the way. He loves talking about the old mining days and is full of wit. Laurine would say he is fond of collecting wood, firewood that is. He has an understanding and respect for coal mining second to none.
More importantly, he is truly a living link to the past and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.