Friday, December 14, 2012

Traces of Clay City today are scarce


These are the tracks Nonno would have taken to Clay City. 

What would one find at Clay City now? I recently wrote about the overall history of this brick factory and how it intertwined with the lives of my family 100 years ago. However, my initial efforts at exploring this lost city involved a more direct approach. In May of 2011, knowing almost nothing about Clay City except that Nonno once worked there and my dad was born there, I searched for Clay City on Google maps.

I found a Clay City Road East that cut through a large forested area about five miles north of Eatonville. When I went to the satellite view, I saw a clearing in the trees about a mile from Orville Road, and I felt sure that must have been the site of the old brick factory. About a half mile further along Clay City Road, I could see another cleared area that reminded me of a gravel pit. When I zoomed in closer, I could see three distinct colors of dirt—yellow, red and buff—colors commonly used for bricks.

Lucy and I headed out on a sunny day and took the hour-long drive from Gig Harbor to find the spot I had marked on the map. About 1,000 feet in on Clay City Road, we crossed the Tacoma Eastern Railroad line and stopped for a minute to snap some photos. At one time, the train stopped here, and a spur track led directly to Clay City to haul materials to and from the brickyard. I tried to picture the first time Nonno rode the steam train to this isolated place in the wilderness. At the time, the factory was in the beginning stages of boom times, so he would not have had trouble finding his way. Likely he was not the only one looking for a job at Clay City, so he walked expectantly with other men to the brick yard, which was only about 500 feet from the train track, if one took a route directly through the woods.

Beyond the gate, the pavement continues, but it's covered with leaves and moss.
For us, though, we had to take a more circuitous route, as there is no longer a path directly from the train track. About a thousand feet up the road from the rails, we were met with a locked gate. Here the road turned mossy and leaf-covered, showing its disuse. We scaled the gate and continued on foot. At various places, we found spent shotgun shells on the ground, and when we crossed a bridge over Twentyfive Mile Creek, we saw that the guardrail had been used for target practice, and a few people had tagged it in spray paint. The only other signs of life were droppings left by coyotes.

The road beyond the gate.
The easy half mile walk took us through a forest of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees that looked to be about 30 years old. The property looked like it has been logged more than once. When we came to the clearing I had seen on the map, we found it to be about 400 by 700 feet—around six acres. Most of it was flat and covered with 20- to 30-foot tall alder trees, although a few patches were still bare. One area still had some undisturbed asphalt pavement.

A once-bustling factory and community is now a field that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. This photo (and all the others on this entry) was taken in the fall of 2012 because my camera malfunctioned on my first visit in the summer of 2011 and I had to go back to re-shoot the photos.
The surface had plenty of clay mixed with the dirt, and it was not difficult to find bricks and tile fragments of various colors and shapes. Beside the road was a shallow pond teeming with tadpoles. We walked through the alder trees hoping to find some other signs of the old factory, but we were disappointed. Everything has been razed; the scattered bricks are the only clues of what used to be here. Where Nonno and Nonna lived, Dad was born, my aunts Nelda and Clara played—it’s all left to my imagination.

Bricks of various colors and shapes can still be found.
Having lived in Gig Harbor for most of my life, which has experienced at least a 10-fold increase in population in the past 100 years, it is strange to find a community that has gone from more than 150 people to wilderness in the same span of time.
Why did civilization disappear in Clay City? Gary Houlihan, president of Mutual Materials, has the answer. “We essentially ran out of high quality clay, and we shut the plant down in January of 1994.”  With the plant closed and the road barricaded, it seemed the story had ended, but in reality, action at Clay City was far from finished. In my next entry, I will describe some of the interesting events that took place in the 19 years that have passed since the making of the last brick.

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