Student News

Historical Archaeology: After the bust, boom towns’ ghosts offer clues to living conditions, eventual collapse

June 11, 2020
Birdseye view of the Fairfax Townsite. Postcard circa 1911. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington.

Abandoned sites often require more than casual exploration to unearth historical gems only a ghost town can offer.

These sites offer snapshots of times and places not always knowable from documents and interviews. Fairfax, Washington is a prime example: it was, from the late 1890s until 1941, a thriving, company-owned mining and lumber town on the west-most leg of the Northern Pacific Railway. Economic expansion occurred rapidly, only to dissipate as the demand for coal waned. Fairfax went from boom to bust in only 40 years.

Recent HRM graduate Breanne Taylor’s thesis explores this very topic: “Material Culture and the Social Dynamics of Residential Life at a Company Town: Archaeological Investigations at the Fairfax Townsite (45PI918), Pierce County, Washington, USA.” Her research focuses on historical archaeology, gender politics and class divides in western boom-and-bust towns.

Fairfax–a coal mining town only accessible by train before the O’Farrell Bridge was built in 1921–presents a way of life in the western United States around the turn of the century. Taylor’s research explores the way people lived and occupied this industrial town, and how concepts of community and division are evident in the documentary and material records. “Fairfax is significant because it contributes to a broader understanding of the company towns of Washington State and the roles of working communities,” explains Taylor. “It possesses untapped data potential and serves as a case study for the benefits of public interpretation.”

Overview of the Fairfax swimming pool, 2018.

It’s certainly not easy to find, nestled within the Carbon River Valley, with only sparse structural remnants of the buildings that once made up this town: the post office, hotel, schoolhouse, and store are all gone. A few communal pillars remain–like the moss-covered steps of the local swimming pool–after most buildings were abandoned and their elements salvaged for use in structures elsewhere in the region. With a population of over 500 at its peak, Fairfax was a melting pot of European descendants, just one of more than 100 company towns sprinkled throughout the state. “I think telling stories about almost-forgotten places is underused as a way to engage the public,” says Taylor, “especially in the west.”

The goal for her research was to expand understanding of the influences of social hierarchy, gender and class, while also recording the serious impact of looting activities. A critically important part of this project, says Taylor, has been partnering with Pierce County to address the problem of heritage theft.

“I have always been fascinated by boom-and-bust dynamics, resource extraction, and the people who made their lives and livelihoods in these ephemeral spaces,” says Taylor, “and in particular, how minorities negotiated the power dynamics of these settlements.” An ethnically diverse, male-dominated, paternalistic and isolated settlement, Fairfax was shaped by the social dynamism of residents and their access to the material world.

Children’s toys and school supplies.

Throughout the research process, Taylor immersed herself in learning about the Marxist archaeology movement and the study of historical working communities in America. “Archaeologists like Barbara Voss, Randall McGuire, and Mark Leone inspired me to lean into the interpretation of working people as a way to combat the glorification of industrial success,” she says. “I came to see Fairfax as a microcosm of important discussions in historical archaeology. I took responsibility for telling at least some of the story of people who might otherwise be silenced by history.”

Taylor says the story left untold about the people of Fairfax hinges on exploration of what they left behind. “I was struck by the potential for archaeological and historical information at the site, and its use as a public space deserving of protection and interpretation.” Her work consisted of initial subsurface investigations, which encountered a diverse assemblage of items related to domestic life, leisure, transnationalism, and cultural identity. “The store at Fairfax was privately owned, unlike the company store model that was commonly used in these kinds of towns,” explains Taylor. “Artifacts recovered speak to this increased freedom of consumer choice.” Items consistent with Japanese manufacture and traditional use were collected from the site, she says, suggesting that first-generation Issei workers and their families spent time in the townsite, although they presumably lived over two miles away.

“One of my first experiences with archaeology was in the historic boomtown of Virginia City, Montana,” says Taylor. She learned about Fairfax from her colleague and mentor Dr. Robert Kopperl, who recorded the site over ten years ago. After completing her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Portland State University, Taylor attended field school at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington State. Currently, she is Staff Archaeologist for Willamette Cultural Resources in Portland, Oregon, where she oversees all aspects of fieldwork.

Japanese table and teaware fragments.

“SFU’s HRM program appealed to me because I have been working in the industry for a decade and wanted to continue to work full time for my current employer,” says Taylor. “I appreciated the flexibility of online learning, but also that I was attending a school well known for its stellar archaeology department,” noting it was essential to her to pursue her master’s degree at a northwest institution. “I especially liked the Ethics class,” she says. “It was helpful to have the opportunity to work in groups and get to know the people in my cohort, which can be a struggle with an online format.”

The master’s program has undoubtedly changed the way Taylor thinks about, and practices, HRM work. “I regularly reflect on the lack of inclusivity in HRM and how we approach working relationships with stakeholders,” she says. “I think that there’s more untapped potential for the discipline to contribute to social justice.”

Harmonica reed fragments.

Students in the Heritage Resource Management program have the unique advantage of simultaneously immersing themselves in a research-driven topic they’ve aspired to study, publishing a thesis that becomes part of the greater lexicon of archaeology, and graduating with a degree that advances their career.

“I think the big story is that the everyday stuff matters,” says Taylor, who successfully defended her thesis this past March. “Connecting the working past to the working present has the power to inspire great acts of archaeological interest and stewardship.”