CONCRETE — By the time Norman Cunningham was born in 1923, men had built a rock quarry, cement plant and train tracks in what is now the town of Concrete. 

Cunningham worked alongside his father at that cement plant before going to work in the cement company's Seattle headquarters.

Last summer, Cunningham, now 94, donated several boxes of old photographs to the Concrete Heritage Museum in an effort to document the hard work of those who had a hand in the start of the town's namesake industry.

"The photos show the actual digging and the foundation work of the cement plant," Cunningham said. "They are part of the history of the town of Concrete where I was born, and I thought it would be appropriate to give them to the town."

Photos of the Concrete cement plant, quarry and related operations have found a permanent home at the museum and are now on the museum's website.

Photos Cunningham had of Seattle-area cement operations were given to the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle.

Cunningham hopes the photos help show Concrete's roots and the hard work of the people of that era.

After serving in the Air Force in the early 1940s, Cunningham returned to Concrete and worked as a clerk for the cement plant, owned at the time by Superior Portland Cement Company.

He later became head of accounting for Lone Star Industries, which purchased the cement plant from Superior. 

When Lone Star Industries closed its Seattle office — after closing the Concrete plant about 1970 and selling the Seattle plant in 1984 — Cunningham took possession of some of the company's old documents.

"When the company sold and the new people wanted to get rid of all that, photographs and whatnot ... this (group of boxes) was due to go to the dump, but I said 'No, I'll take it' and I kept it for several years," Cunningham said.

Cunningham's father, Charles Cunningham, is in at least one of the photos. He can be seen seated among a group of employees for a company portrait.

Norman Cunningham said his father was a "burner." It was a position that oversaw the cement processing and owes its name to the fact the process involved fire.

Men from other families with strong ties to Concrete also appear in the photos. 

In half a dozen photos, Gaetano Frank, grandfather of brothers Richard and Mike who co-own Albert's Red Apple, can be seen in or near the train he helped run between the Concrete quarry and cement plant.

"He was the engineer on the train that came down from the quarry above Concrete and rode it down to the cement plant," Richard Frank said.

When the train was replaced with a tram line, Gaetano Frank continued working for the cement plant, becoming the first employee to reach 50 years with Superior Portland Cement Company, Richard Frank said. 

Gaetano Frank, who came from Italy in 1907, helped build the cement plant, Richard Frank said. 

Museum volunteer Bill Pfeifer said seeing the connection to the Frank family was one of the most interesting parts of working with the photos. 

Pfeifer and active museum member John Boggs said the photos from Cunningham offer an in-depth look at the cement plant operations.

"There are a lot of pictures I hadn't seen before ... quite a few of them are pretty unique," Boggs said.

The photos show in detail what it took to run the quarry and cement plant, and of the tough bunch of workers who made it happen.

"Life was really hard then and we just, as we sit in our houses with air conditioning, don't understand the hard manual labor that went into things," Boggs said. "That was a grim reality then. Those guys worked a 12-hour shift like six days a week ... Life certainly was not easy then."

For younger generations, the photos may shed light on the labor-intensive industries that helped shape the Pacific Northwest.

"The photographs include views that may be a dusty memory from some that remember those early years, but for most of us they provide a new glimpse of life in early Concrete," Boggs said.

Cunningham's nieces Evelyn Bertilson of Ogden, Utah, and Ann Parker of Concrete took him to the museum to deliver the photos.

"As a former history teacher and language arts teacher, I know the importance of that sort of history," Bertilson said.

Bertilson, 82, said the cement industry drew her grandparents west to Washington state, and she remembers visiting them in Concrete while growing up in Sedro-Woolley.

"I remember visiting up there when the tram line was still there and it rumbled from the mountain from the quarry with its buckets of limestone straight down to the cement plant," she said. 

Subtle remnants of the cement plant and of projects built with the materials it produced remain in the area.

"We drive by the Lower Baker Dam or the Thompson Bridge and don’t fully comprehend or appreciate the massive effort that went into building them. We think even less about the effort that went into providing the equipment and materials," Boggs said.

Less subtle pieces of the town's namesake industry also remain, such as the silos looming over Highway 20.

"Right now the only thing remaining in the town of Concrete that is connected to the cement plant is they left the big cement silos up there ... That's where the cement was loaded onto the railroad and sent out," Cunningham said.

Those silos represent an industry that not only built the town of Concrete, but laid the foundation for many projects throughout the state.

"We supplied the cement to the Grand Coulee Dam, numerous sky scrapers in Seattle, and I don't know. Our cement is scattered all over the state of Washington," Cunningham said.

Bertilson said she is glad her uncle saved photos that will help keep the town's story alive for future generations.

Carolyn Marr, a historian at the Museum of History & Industries in Seattle, said it's not uncommon for employees to hold onto records and photos when companies move or close.

Cunningham's rescued photos illuminate a company the museum previously had little information about — the Pacific Coast Cement Company.

The photos reveal that the cement plant was built on the east banks of the Duwamish River, and that it used clay dug from the hillsides along the river and limestone shipped from Alaska, Marr said.

"I think that the aerial views of the plant are valuable because they give you an idea of the size, the magnitude, and the fact that there was this huge cement factory that was right in south Seattle," she said.

Similar to the photos of the plant in Concrete, they also depict the workers. That type of documentation was uncommon at the time.

"As someone who is interested in historical photos, I find them quite unusual because they show the people in their work clothes and with the equipment that they work with," Marr said. "They are showing them in the context of their job."

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.