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Lester, Washington: The ghost town that no longer exists

Darko Nanevski

If we are going talk about the ghost town of Lester, Washington, we really think that it would be appropriate to begin this article with the following sentence: Once, there was a ghost town by the name of Lester. Because officially, as of 2017, this abandoned town no longer exists. Tacoma Water demolished the last of the remaining houses, thus terminating what was left of Lester once and for all.

Founded by the Northern Pacific Railway (the BNSF Railway today) in 1892, near the Stampede Pass in King County, Washington, this small town functioned as a logging camp for Dean’s Lumber Company, and in its first four years went by the name “Deans”.

Lester, WA: c. 1984. Author: Gregory A. Minaker. Public Domain

Lester, WA: c. 1984. Author: Gregory A. Minaker. Public Domain

 

But in 1896, after the Railway established a large depot, roundhouse, coal dock and other facilities to support the steam locomotives on the mountain pass railway, the town officially became “Lester” after Lester Hansacker, who was a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railway.

Guard house, gas and oil shack, and warehouse in Lester Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

Guard house, gas and oil shack, and warehouse in Lester Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

With the foundations of the town already settled, logging became a major industry in the area and the main source of income for Lester, at least till 1902. That year multiple forest fires, ironically caused by sparks from the railroad, entirely crippled the local logging industry. Over 30,000 acres of timber were destroyed in the fires, which significantly prevented logging in the area.

Lester somehow managed to survive the crisis and continued to develop. The railroading business boosted the town’s economy even more, leading to more structures and houses being built in the area. And by the 1920s the population peaked, counting approximately 1,000 residents.

Gas and oil shack located in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

Gas and oil shack located in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

It continued to function as a company town for the Northern Pacific till 1948 when the Soundview Pulp Company established new camps, and Lester, once again, transitioned toward logging. During the 1950s, Soundview merged with the Scott Paper Company.

But the 1960s and all throughout the 1970s would see big changes happening for the town of Lester. And not for the better. In 1962, the Tacoma port city started buying property in Lester. Their goal was to protect the Green River watershed by blocking all access to the town. The Green River, which stretched along Lester’s steep mountain valley, provided the citizens of Tacoma with drinking water. And they had every reason to be concerned because the quality of the water was diminishing.

Guard house in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

Guard house in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC BY-SA 3.0

This led to many bitter confrontations between Lester’s residents and the city of Tacoma, escalating in an incident known as the “Battle of the Lester Gate” where protesters destroyed the gates that were blocking the only all-weather road leading to Lester. After the event, King County filed an indictment against Takoma because of the blockade, arguing that the road was under their jurisdiction. But on July 19, 1962, the King County Superior Court denied the motion, allowing Tacoma to temporarily keep Lester gate closed.

House in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

House in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

In the years that followed, Lester’s population steadily declined until by March 1978 the town had only 22 residents left. The Scott Paper logging company also closed down, which left almost no reason for anyone to stay in Lester any longer.

Tracks of the BNSF railroad just north of the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

Tracks of the BNSF railroad just north of the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

The suspension of the Stampede Pass rail line and Tacoma restricting access to the town worsened Lester’s isolation. By 1983, the town was as good as dead. However, the last remaining residents made a final and desperate attempt to save the town’s railroad depot from demolition, by requesting it to be proclaimed a national landmark. But this never came to fruition because the depot was mysteriously destroyed in an arson fire.

Abandoned structures in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

Abandoned structures in the ghost town of Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

Two years later, in 1985, the Washington State Legislature shut down the Lester school district, determining that the education costs for such a small population were too expensive. All residents were gone by now, except Gertrude Murphy and her niece, Mary Aucourt, who decided to stay.

Because of this, Gertrude, as the last resident, became a sort of a celebrity. Many reporters interviewed her, and at one point she was even invited to appear on the Letterman Show.

Collapsed roof of the abandoned warehouse in Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

Collapsed roof of the abandoned warehouse in Lester, Washington. Author: BryonDavis. CC0

Gertrude Murphy passed away on September 29, 2002, at the age of 99, in the Bethany of the Northwest nursing home in Everett. And it could be said that on that day, the town of Lester died with her.