In composing this thesis, I have been both aided and challenged by my own experiences at Holden Village, where I lived from March 2011 to June 2012 after several stints on short-term staff between 2007 and 2010. I gained a deeper appreciation for the impact life in the village has on its residents, but it became difficult to see past the significance Holden had for me personally to whatever importance it may have at other levels. I suspect that other current and former residents who read this will understand what I mean. What, then, is Holden’s significance at a scholarly level? Some may feel that my attempt at defining Holden Village as a company town is a distortion of its true nature, or that it overlooks the fact that many residents who have lived there longer than I have trouble describing it in any categorical way. What, then, is at the heart of Holden’s identity, and what does its future hold?
In answer to the first question: as far as the mining community is concerned, Holden’s historical significance may not be any less or more than that of other company towns of the same era. It may have been unique in some ways, but there were other company towns in the Northwest that had many features in common, including the isolated setting that has left such a strong impression on generations of residents and guests. This was especially true of Seattle City Light’s Newhalem and Diablo in the Skagit River valley, which still exist as company towns today. Newhalem was founded in 1921. A list of the buildings that composed the original townsite makes it sound quite similar to Holden: 75 three-bedroom cottages, six bunkhouses, a cookhouse, and a warehouse. In its first year, it had 1,000 residents. A company railway provided Newhalem’s residents with access to the outside world prior to the building of the North Cascades Highway in the 1950s, but that connection could be tenuous: in January 1925, an avalanche blocked the tracks and isolated the community for three weeks. This happened again a number of times before the highway was built. Newhalem shared Holden’s vulnerability to fire, as well. In 1924, the Forest Service deputized the town’s entire adult male population to fight a nearby forest fire.1 While such an extreme situation never occurred at Holden, Howe Sound did loan miners to the Forest Service to fight blazes in the area on at least a couple of occasions.
One thing that made Holden unusual was its legacy. Many other company towns were built in spectacular locations, and some were turned to recreational uses after they ceased to be company towns. For example, Ryderwood, Washington, became something of a resort community for senior citizens.2 Most, though, including those that have followed this course, have since become incorporated or independent communities. Holden never achieved this status. Its significance lies in the fact that it was a company town that was succeeded by another company town, or, at least, a community with many characteristics of a company town that occupies the same buildings and general environment as its predecessor, and which has not expanded in area or population. It is a case study that illustrates how many features of life in a Western company town are primarily the cause of setting. These features include most of the parallels listed in the last chapter, especially the link between employment and residency and the community’s relative self-reliance with regard to public utilities and services.
In answer to the second question: Holden Village’s identity is far from fixed or definite, and would not be characterized in exactly the same terms by any two residents. To simply call it a retreat center, or a company town, would be insufficient to those who have spent long periods there. Volunteer Hortie Christman was famous for saying: “If we understood this place, we’d have spoiled it.” Reflecting on his time as director, John Schramm simply said: “Holden is what Holden is today.” Paul Hinderlie describes Holden as a “risky place,” an “unintentional” community that cannot be conformed to any one person’s vision of how it should be.3 Because anyone can make a guest reservation through the website, and the guests form a major part of the community, and also because through-hikers and Forest Service workers frequently have interactions with the residents, Holden Village defies characterization as a “closed” community, a place to which admittance is strictly controlled and granted on a case-by-case basis.
To many of its residents, Holden is, quite simply, home. This fact is clearly illustrated by the way residents of both eras have felt about the place after leaving. The deep homesickness experienced by Pat Schonders when her family left Holden in 1957 is often mirrored by the feelings of departing long-term staff members, as well as some shorter-term residents. The village tends to draw certain staff members back again and again; it has an addictive quality. Volunteer Bob Hewitt recalls seeing Terry Sateren leave the village after multiple years on staff, having been told by Carroll Hinderlie that he had become too dependent on Holden, an assessment Sateren apparently agreed with.4 It is likely that some residents would stay indefinitely if they could.
One might argue that it is less the setting than the residents who shape Holden’s identity. However, the power of the setting, including those parts of it that are man-made, should not be underestimated. This includes the visible byproducts of the Howe Sound operation. The tailings, which the Forest Service capped with a layer of gravel in the 1980s, have been the site of birthday bonfires, campouts, graduation ceremonies, and a frisbee golf course. Despite being a blot on the natural landscape, they have become an accepted part of the environment around the village. This is somewhat similar to the situation in Toluca, Illinois, a former coal-mining town, where two enormous piles of mining waste, nicknamed the Jumbos, became so much a part of the town’s identity that the residents formed an organization to protect them from reclamation efforts.5 Holden Village residents sometimes play basketball on a court built on the foundation of one of the shops or offices that once stood outside the mine portal. Then, of course, there are the townsite buildings themselves, in which the residents have lived and gathered for generations. The different chalets have assumed different characters and reputations, which have both been influenced by and have influenced whom their residents tend to be. In recent years, Chalets 1 and 3, which have the greatest number of young adult residents, have tended to be “party” chalets; attracting some would-be residents and discouraging others.
Holden Village may assume the aspect of a young adult commune in the eyes of some first-time staff members; there is a full, almost utopian quality to life there that is especially appealing to young singles. (One older staff member supposedly remarked that he came to the village expecting to find a Benedictine monastery, but instead found a college fraternity.) Holden has this in common with other small, communal societies. Laura Fermi commented on how life among the community of young scientists and their wives at Los Alamos was so intense that the year and a half she spent there seemed like a significant portion of her life, even many years later.6 However, it is misleading to think of or characterize Holden Village as a utopia. It is not a place apart from the world’s problems, but merely a place where their effects are felt less sharply. And it has problems of its own, including the environmental challenges described in earlier chapters. Moreover, utopian perceptions of Holden may lead to forgetfulness of the fact that living there can be tenuous, and is made possible mainly by the guests and donations. Holden Village was reminded of the fragility of its existence and its dependence on charity after the 2007 evacuation, which caused a loss of revenue that had to be compensated for with a large-scale fundraising drive.
Naturally, the future of the village is not so easy to determine. The mine remediation project will change the face of the environment around the village in certain ways, and has prompted the management to contemplate a number of projects of its own. The former museum building, the composting bins, and the temporary waste storage units currently in use will probably be removed in the course of the remediation. Consequently, there has been discussion of building a new museum closer to the village and discussion of modernizing the village waste management facilities. As of December 2012, at least one step has been taken: two new composting units have been put into service, which should allow the village to process food waste at a much faster rate. More importantly, perhaps, the remediation is changing the face of the Holden community, at least in the short term. The workers associated with the project are being housed in the dorms and Chalet 2 during the construction season at Rio Tinto’s expense. During the summer and fall of 2011, while free to participate in Holden Village activities outside of their work hours, the workers were generally fed separate meals, and mostly did not attend worship services, fostering the existence of two separate communities within the village. The writer heard a number of staff members comment on the oddness of this state of affairs. However, there were also a fair number of friendly relations between the villagers and the workers. In the spirit of the village, some of the project managers tie-dyed their work shirts. A physician assistant among the contract workers brought her family to Holden for Thanksgiving after the work season was practically over.
However, will the remediation change the nature of Holden Village’s connection to the outside by introducing more media technology? Will it continue to influence the rise in the number of paid staff positions? Will it eventually cause the residents to lose sight of Holden’s past as a mining town? These questions are much harder to answer. In all probability, the residents will never completely lose sight of the community of people who went before them, but the removal of such relics as the remains of the mill structure may cause the mining history to become less a part of their daily awareness.
The flooded mine itself has occasionally found ways to remind the residents of its existence. In 1977, a buildup of water and debris burst through the sealed portal, leading Bob Hewitt, a Forest Service worker, and a geologist from the University of Washington to explore the upper levels. They discovered a number of relics, including abandoned equipment, clothing, lunch pails, and magazines. Though not the last to enter the mine, they were probably the last to climb the ladders to the chambers and tunnels above the level of the portal.7 Such excursions into the depths of Holden’s past now belong themselves to a former era.
Additional research into Holden’s history and background might include study of the following:
The Howe Sound Company files archived at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, which this writer did not have time to investigate. There is also a collection of Howe Sound files housed in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia.
The mining operation itself, whose technical aspects are documented to some extent in the company files archived at the University of Washington.