Diamond in the Rough

Published on Monday, June 27th, 2011 in Features

Swiftwater Cellars and Rope Rider's No. 9 green, directly above the old No. 9 coal mine.

Kittitas County’s famous coal mines are getting a second life this summer in a new golf course and winery at Suncadia Resort

I’ve come to Roslyn, Wash., to visit a brand new golf course and winery opening at the nearby Suncadia Resort, but I can’t pull myself away from the city cemetery.

It’s the names that jump out at you first — Tomac, Muratti, Dragecevic, Mattila, Peccignino, Crosetti. These were immigrant families, drawn to Roslyn from the major east coast ports in the first half of the 20th century by the promise of a decent job and a good wage in the Tumble Creek coal mines. For 80 years, the mines employed thousands of workers, who rode the ropes deep into the Cascade Mountain slopes and endured cramped conditions, stifling heat and poisonous sulfuric gases to extract the “black diamonds” for transport to Puget Sound and other points west.

The city cemetery, with acres of old, weathered headstones dedicated to the Slovaks, Italians, Croatians and thousands of others who gave their lives to the mines, is at once tragic and inspirational — a hard illustration of the crushing difficulty of life in the mines, and yet a powerful reminder of the promise and opportunity that sparked the great western migration of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the sacrifices men were willing to make in pursuit of the American dream.

Today’s residents of Roslyn are largely the children and grandchildren of those first settlers, trying as best they can to hold on to their history in the face of inevitable change. The once-bustling downtown – featured in the 1990s series “Northern Exposure” –  is quiet on a Friday afternoon, “closed” signs hanging in the windows of all but a few of the cafes, handmade clothing shops and other small businesses that occupy the century-old, two-story wood buildings at the town center.

World War II took much of the town’s population; the closing of the mines in the early 1960s took almost all of the rest. The couple hundred homes on the surrounding slopes are mostly empty this time of day, their 1,017 residents drawn — like their ancestors — to other places in search of work. This is a town that deserves some good news.

Two miles up the road, at the Suncadia Resort, it’s once again the names that jump out at you. Not the names of any people, but those on the street signs — Tumble Creek Drive, Larkspur Loop, Coal Mine Way. Built directly on top of the old mines, the resort pays homage to the land’s heritage at every turn. In addition to the street names, buildings throughout the property showcase photographs and artifacts from the mining period, while much of the old infrastructure — including closed-up mine shaft entrances and foundations for many of the original buildings — has been preserved, complete with permanent markers highlighting the property’s history.

JELD-Wen Enterprises bought the land that would become Suncadia from the Plum Creek Timber Company in 1996, and in partnership with Lowe Enterprises immediately began planning a major resort, Washington’s answer to the company’s already successful Sunriver Resort in Oregon.

The next decade marked the real estate equivalent of the coal boom of the previous century — as the value of the land skyrocketed, plans for the resort expanded to include a spa, lodge, inn, self-contained village of shops and restaurants, plus three championship golf courses, a fully-stocked trout lake and miles of hiking and biking trails. It would all be paid for by the sale of over 3,000 homesites, condominiums and cabins — the values of which were undergoing the most dramatic rise in American history.

Prospector, the first of the resort’s two planned public courses, opened in 2004 with an Arnold Palmer design and the promise of attracting thousands of tourists and vacation residents per year, visitors who would no doubt pour their money into the local communities of Roslyn and Cle Elum just as the thousands of visiting miners had in the previous century. A private development with higher-end homes and its own exclusive Tom Doak golf course, Tumble Creek, opened shortly thereafter.

Still in its beginning stages of development, Suncadia was giving the local communities their largest boom in 50 years, and was already among the largest employers in Kittitas County, second only to Central Washington University. People in Roslyn and Cle Elum were working again, tourists were bringing in money, and possibilities for future development were limited only by the size of the real estate bubble.

Oh yeah, the real estate bubble.

Driving up to the all-new Swiftwater Cellars winery at Suncadia Resort, which opened last September and will house the pro shop, restaurant and clubhouse for the resort’s brand-new Rope Rider course being opened this summer, you could almost imagine that you’ve gone back in time to those halcyon days.

The golf course, begun in 2005, was largely abandoned when the real estate market crashed, leaving hundreds of Suncadia homes unoccupied and limiting the resort’s investment in a third course to the minimum needed to keep the property viable for future development. Paralleling the main road that leads from the highway to the Prospector Golf Course and lodging, Rope Rider’s 11th hole sat like a monument to the recession for more than three years, slowly being overrun by weeds and wildlife and serving as a constant reminder of the boom days of yore and the resort’s grand ambition.

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