Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
Concrete Conclusion: The forces of millennia converged to create a town, then forsake it
Amas Everett was having a string of bad luck.
In 1874, he went looking for coal in the North Cascades. He found some near Hamilton, but broke his leg in a fall. Before he could get to a doctor in Seattle, infection set in and the leg had to be amputated. Then the company he formed to mine the coal failed.
He went searching again, this time for gold and on a peg leg. He met expenses, mostly.
But in the process he staked and settled a claim on the east bank of the Baker River near its confluence with the Skagit River. Years later, he realized he was surrounded by high-quality deposits of clay and limestone. Pale substitutes for coal and gold, but a cosmic, outrageous change of luck nonetheless.
The limestone owed its existence to the improbable 330 million-year journey of a bunch of odd ocean animals that lived halfway around the world. The animals died by the millions, their calcium-carbonate carcasses piling up and drifting on a lithospheric raft of ocean crust to the Northwest, where they ultimately formed the core of a small mountain of limestone. Clay arrived more recently, flushed from the ice of a massive melting glacier. Nature's luck became Amasa Everett's luck became a town's luck as the limestone and clay spawned a small, brief civilization, with schools and jobs and noise and danger and "professional girls" and barbers and bars and lots of dust.
For this dirt and rock was the raw material for ton after ton of the stuff on which so much of civilization is built, the same stuff that has given the town its name: Concrete.
It made some of the best concrete in the world. It went into some of the region's most glorious public works projects, including the Grand Coulee Dam. But it was not enough to sustain Concrete, which almost literally choked itself to death on its own dust. These days, Concrete is on the downside of its luck and nearly a ghost town entombed in its namesake.
EMILY MULLEN comes late to this story, born almost a dozen years after the last sack of cement came out of Concrete. She is barely 20, with straight red hair and an innocent face that flushes easily. But as she clunks some rocks on a black laboratory bench, she describes all but the last geologic nanoseconds of Concrete's history with an ease that would make a parent proud.
One fist-size rock is a grainy black and gray with a box shape outlined on one side. Mullen found it not far from where she grew up, taking a sledgehammer to a hillside outside Concrete for her University of Washington class in geobiology, the study of how life affects the composition of the earth.
The box shape is the cross-section of a crinoid, the fundamental actor in this tale.
Crinoids (pronounced CRY-noids) are echinoderms, mostly bottom-dwelling animals related to sea stars and urchins. They look like wind-wracked umbrellas stuck in the sand, protecting their soft parts in boxes of calcium carbonate. In their day, which was called the Paleozoic era, they were so common that they came in about 6,000 different versions.
But around 250 million years ago, volcanic activity or perhaps a giant asteroid or both so upset the chemistry of the planet's surface that 90 percent of all marine life died. The crinoids were hammered. Then the number of predators in the oceans soared, making the remaining crinoids prey to crabs and skates and gastropods that made easy work of their protective shells. With their bases moored to the ocean bottom, said Mullen, "they were sitting ducks. They couldn't hide anywhere. So they were basically wiped out."
But somewhere in the Pacific, possibly in a quiet volcanic arc or a deep ravine, was a vast trove of dead crinoids. Embedded in sediment, they rode the crust of the ocean floor north as it floated on the liquid mantle below. At last our crinoids bumped into the northwest corner of the North American continent.
About 130 million years ago, give or take 10 million, they were subducted beneath the continental crust with intense pressure and just a bit of heat, partly recrystalizing the crinoids and the sediments that had carried them. About 100 million years ago, this new rock was thrust and folded so much in the North Cascades that some material from 15 miles down ended up at ground level. The Concrete limestone, which remained miles below the surface, was finally exposed by tens of millions of years of erosion.
The result is a wild hodgepodge that geologists like Joe Dragovich of the state Department of Natural Resources struggle to figure out, particularly as so much is now covered with trees and blackberry bushes.
"That's the most amazing thing about these rocks: the deformation, the very tortured history these rocks have suffered or enjoyed, depending on your viewpoint," said Dragovich as he clambered around the old Concrete quarry. "I think they enjoyed it myself."
Then came the last wave of glaciers, which butted into the Skagit River valley from the west, blocking the river and getting plumes of sediment to settle out in layered beds of silt and clay, cement's other key ingredient. It was the final act of luck in Concrete's prehistory.
"You've got Paleozoic against the last Ice Age," said Dragovich. "To have clay right next to limestone, God, it might be the only place in the state."
IN 1824, AN ENGLISH bricklayer named Joseph Aspdin cooked ground limestone and clay to make a cement that hardened with the addition of water. It looked like stone quarried on the Isle of Portland; hence the name, portland cement (which is not capitalized now that the patent has expired).
This was no mere mud pie. As cement is mixed with sand, gravel and water, two principal polysyllabic compounds react with the water to form a gel that coats particles and forms spiny tendrils that fill in the spaces between them. The tendrils also create an interwoven network binding the mix together. Gypsum, a soft mineral, keeps the whole slurry from hardening in the truck.
More energy is used to make cement than any other material. It accounts for 7 percent of the United States emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
The concrete it makes is homely. It can break the skin at the slightest provocation. But concrete still borders on being the ultimate in hardware.
"I think very highly of concrete as a material," said Jack Christiansen, structural design engineer for the former 130,000-ton Kingdome and among the most bereft over its demise last year.
"Why is that?" he said. "It's very economical. You can buy tons of it for a few dollars. It's very durable. It's just like you're constructing artificial stone. It has a long life - it's fireproof and rot proof, and other common structural materials are not. It's a plastic material, in its liquid form, so you can shape it into anything you can possibly build a form for."
Each year, nearly two tons of concrete are poured for each person on Earth. It is the most commonly used building material in the world. It is the world's second-most heavily consumed substance, after water.
It is in buildings, basements, lamp posts, sidewalks, birdbaths, missile silos, sewer pipes, Jersey barriers, about 30,000 miles of interstate highway and more than half a million highway bridges in America alone. Thomas Edison built houses of concrete, complete with concrete stairway balusters, plumbing and bathtubs. College engineering students make concrete canoes and race them. And as Amasa Everett learned after chancing onto the largest reserve of limestone in western Washington, it was good for making a town.
EVERETT'S DISCOVERY led to the creation of the Washington Portland Cement Co. in 1905 on the east side of the Baker River, in what was then called "Cement City." Three years later, the Superior Portland Cement Co. completed a second plant across the river in what was called Baker. The two towns merged under the name Concrete in 1909, and Superior bought out Washington in 1918.
It made for one loud cement mixer of a company town.
At least once a day, whistles would blow, followed a minute or so later by a town-shaking blast in the quarry. A single blast could involve as much as 28 tons of dynamite and up to 200,000 tons of rock.
Quarry-side crushers broke the rock, which often teemed with crinoids, into small chunks that were loaded into an overhead tram that clunked more than a mile across the Baker River and into town.
"When they started those buckets at 7:30 in the morning, that was our call to get up for school," said Mary Johnson, a resident of 73 years whose father ran a shovel at the quarry. "You had to be careful walking under them in case rocks fell out. If they oiled the lines, you better not have your laundry out."
Inside the plant, a stew of limestone and clay was baked in six kilns up to 192 feet long, removing water and carbon dioxide and forming the calcium silicates that give concrete its strength. These came out in marble-sized chunks called clinker, which was cooled and ground and piled outside.
"When we were kids we used to climb up and lay on it because it was warm," said Don Ross Sr., president of the State Bank of Concrete. "Even on a cold winter day, it was warm."
Meanwhile, logging trucks, their jake brakes screaming, brought timber down Burpee Hill. Between the trees and cement rumbling out of town in Great Northern railcars, the Concrete depot became one of the busiest in the state.
"Everything was humming here in Concrete," said Albert Frank, a grocer born and raised 60 feet from the cement plant.
Concrete was everywhere.
Workers cleaned out returning rail cars and used the sweepings to make concrete blocks for their homes. The streets and sidewalks were concrete, much of it donated by the company. All three schools were concrete, as were the fake boulders lining the entrance to the high school. Most of the buildings on Main Street were rebuilt in concrete after they burned down over the years.
The Henry Thompson Bridge, built between 1916 and 1918, was in its day the longest single-span cement bridge in the world. The lower Baker River Dam, built in the '20s, was the tallest dam in the world.
Superior cement also went into the Ballard Locks, the Grand Coulee Dam, Rock Island Dam, World War II airstrips in the Pacific and Seattle City Light dam projects up the Skagit.
At one point the town had 1,700 residents, with hundreds employed in cement production. With timber workers, they made brisk business for a theater, several hotels and a dozen or so saloons.
"And houses of ill-repute," said Mary Johnson. "They had one of those for every saloon. My girlfriend used to go chase her dad and found his dog was at the bottom of the steps of one, so she knew he was in there."
It was not a paradise. As a child, Johnson helped unveil a safety trophy near the Superior office building. The trophy showcased years of perfect records - "1934, 1939, 1944, 1955, 1957, 1958," and so on, but the gaps tell of less-than-perfect years. Albert Frank recalls a blast that killed two men and splattered his father with rock, putting him in the hospital for three days.
Then there was the dust.
"If you had a cyclone fence," said Don Ross, the bank president, "it would eventually become solid."
Residents first asked that something be done about the dust in 1915, but they tolerated it for decades after.
"Dust we had," said Merrilyn Williams, owner of the TP Inn Restaurant. "One nice thing: everybody drove the same color car."
"When you lived in a family where all the livelihood came from there, it wasn't that dusty," said Dave Wright, who used to oversee crews loading cement into 94-pound sacks. "But it was dusty, I will admit. You don't have to put that down that I admitted that."
To its credit, the company handed out acid that residents used to wash the dust off their cars, lest they become Flintmobiles. But emissions from the plant in the mid-1960s averaged more than 500 tons per square mile each month.
"Wonder if a thousand years from now somebody will dig our city out of the cement dust and wonder about what kind of people lived here?" wrote Chuck Dwelley, who crusaded against the dust for more than 40 years as editor and publisher of the Concrete Herald.
At last, pollution laws and aging equipment caught up with Concrete. The Lone Star Cement Corp., which had bought the plant from Superior in 1957, stopped operations in 1969.
Two years later, a bridge was built across the Baker River as part of the new North Cascades Highway. Where travelers on Route 20 once had to drive through downtown, they could now bypass Concrete entirely.
THE FRONT OF the Concrete police station sports a mural of the town that says, "Welcome to Concrete - Center of the Known Universe."
It is an epic piece of bluster, even by Chamber of Commerce standards.
It's more like Concrete has found a way to stop time, pausing at the 1950s to weigh the future against the Paleozoic oblivion from which it came.
The town is dead in the winter, opening slowly when the dandelions carpet the city's vacant lots. Half the buildings are shuttered with tulips gamely painted on their windows.
On a quiet afternoon, which is just about any afternoon in Concrete, the slightest activity on Main Street is amplified by the concrete surroundings: beer cases getting unloaded from a truck, a starling's whistle, random conversations at the bank's drive-up window.
"There you go. Have a nice day."
"I've got to go to Colorado tomorrow. My mom's in the hospital with cancer."
The Henry Thompson Bridge is worn and chipped around the corners. The Superior office building is a mausoleum of falling ceiling tiles, rusting overhead lamps and leaking ceilings. Renovating it would cost $250,000, said Cheri Cook-Blodgett, coordinator of Skagit County's local satellite office.
After the plant closed, Mary Johnson kept planting flowers around the safety monument until a few years ago. Then kids started pulling the flowers up and spray-painting both the monument and the nearby office building, she said, "and I just gave up."
The town's biggest claim to fame may now be that Tobias Wolff once lived there. His memoir of living in the town in the '50s, "This Boy's Life," was later made into an unflinchingly grim movie starring Robert DeNiro, Ellen Barkin and a fledgling Leonardo DiCaprio.
In a recent survey of residents, one-third said the town has become a less desirable place to live.
"Concrete is a depressed town," said one respondent. "There is no employment for the young; you have to drive 30 miles for employment." Others complained of junk cars, rundown houses and a fear that, if something isn't done, the town "will probably become a ghost town."
About half the town's 790 residents work at the schools or in a few local stores and restaurants. But with cement jobs gone and timber work dwindling, many residents work at the dams or commute to Sedro-Woolley, Anacortes, Burlington, Everett and even Seattle.
There's little future here for young people, no matter if they want to stay. "Unless you want to work in a restaurant for the rest of your life," said Jacoba Coggins, a Concrete High School senior.
The town a few years ago drew up plans for a park on the old plant site but hasn't the money in its $1 million budget to get it going.
"The only revenue-generating thing they've got up here is a cop," said Mike Patricelli of Glacier Northwest, referring to the police radar on the highway's 35 mph zone. Glacier Northwest, which now owns the Lone Star property, figures half a billion tons of limestone are in the old quarry, but it can more easily barge cement from Canada to Seattle. It has sold off all but two of the 61 homes it once owned in town.
In the early '90s, a letter in the Skagit Valley Herald complained about dead flies in Concrete restaurant windows. It spawned a Dead Fly Festival, complete with a parade and a funeral.
The town has reinvented itself in more wholesome terms with an annual Bald Eagle Festival, held each February as the birds gather by the hundreds along the Skagit. Anne Bussiere, a festival founder, said it brings 3,000 to 4,000 people through town.
Then there's the water. About once a day, a CC Beverage Corporation tanker truck drives up from Burlington, taps into a fire hydrant by the town office building, and draws water from a city spring set deep within Burpee Hill. Back in Burlington, it is bottled as Cascade Clear.
The water is so pure a local lab uses it as a standard by which it can test its equipment for contaminants.
"It's just terrific water," said Mike Finn, CC Beverage's quality assurance manager. "Really a fluke of nature."
In the bargain, Concrete receives a penny a gallon.
Eric Sorensen is The Seattle Times' science reporter.