Issaquah & Superior Coal Mine -- Squak Mountain Access Trail

Issaquah-Preston Trail

Migration & Immigration Military & War Mining & Logging

Around 1913, a photographer visited the Issaquah mine and observed miners with small pickaxes sorting coal from clay and and shale.

Just 1.5 miles south of the Great American Rail-Trail™ is a trailhead for the Squak Mountain Access Trail, which begins with a stretch along Issaquah Creek. The alignment used to be a rail spur leading to the Issaquah & Superior Coal Mining Company coal mine and processing plant in Issaquah, Washington. The plant was built in 1912-13 at the site of two preexisting, but mostly defunct, mines by a group of European investors. Leading the venture was German Canadian businessman Count Alvo von Alvensleben (1879-1966), who insisted that his mine workers be paid fairly and enjoy good living conditions. According to a history of the area written in 1929, Alvensleben built homesites near the plant for his workers and a luxury hotel, and intended to build them a golf course to use in their leisure time. [1] But this generosity, while admirable, is far from the most notable part of Issaquah & Superior Coal Mining Company’s story. The business went bankrupt during World War I after the U.S. government arrested the German-born Alvensleben and held him in an internment camp in Utah for two and a half years.

The internment of German and Austrian nationals in America during the First World War set the precedent for Japanese internment 20 years later. Between 1917 and 1920, the United States held over 6,000 people in four camps around the country. Two-thirds were crew members of German ships captured in U.S. territory, but 2,300 were civilians who were considered national security threats because of their perceived or stated German sympathies. In the 1910s, there were 4.5 million German- or Austrian-born residents in the United States who, because they were not naturalized citizens, were considered by the government and society at large to be “enemy aliens” and were required to observe 20 regulations issued by President Woodrow Wilson when the United States declared war in 1917. These ranged from carrying registration cards to a ban on living in or visiting the nation’s capital. [2]

Alvensleben was considered under this status because he was born in Westphalia, Germany, to an aristocratic family. In his early 20s he emigrated to Canada; he got his start by working as a fisherman, boat puller, watchman and produce peddler, accumulating enough capital to start investing in real estate and businesses. By the time he began developing the Issaquah & Superior Coal Mining Company in 1912, he had been living in Vancouver, British Columbia, for eight years. His European connections were beneficial to his investments—he identified lucrative opportunities and convinced German aristocrats to invest alongside him, and together they all got wealthier if the risks paid off. [3]

Why did Alvensleben look across the border to the United States for this venture? He was already managing millions of dollars of investments in Canadian timber and coal. [4] It is likely that the booming industrial economy in Germany created a demand for natural resources like coal and surplus capital for German firms to invest—and Eastern Washington State had existing mines whose potential had not yet been fully tapped. [5] Alvensleben and his associates purchased the adjacent Issaquah and Superior mines and proceeded to spend over a million dollars to build new tunnels, tracks and gangways and install digging equipment. [6] By 1914, the mine was churning out coal, and Alvensleben sailed to Germany on a visit.

Unfortunately for Alvensleben, World War I broke out while he was abroad. As a British dominion, Canada entered the war early and began interning Austro-Hungarian and German Canadians suspected of espionage—including the representative managing Alvensleben’s businesses in Vancouver while he traveled abroad. Denied a visa to reenter Canada, Alvensleben landed in Seattle and tried to manage his ventures from across the border; he succeeded in reuniting with his Canadian wife and children, who joined him in the United States, but watched his fortunes slip away. [7]

While he escaped internment in Canada, he did not escape suspicion. Canadian newspapers speculated about why Alvensleben would return to Canada right after the outbreak of war instead of enlisting in Germany as an officer. He had served in the German army as a young adult, but because he had emigrated, he had been excused from the military reserves and thus was not required to enlist when the war began. Unaware of this fact, first Canadian and then U.S. newspapers published rumors that Alvensleben was spying for Germany. [8]

While there was no proof that Alvensleben was engaged in espionage, the rumors pressured the U.S. Justice Department to intern him anyway. According to historian Joerg Nagler, the U.S. attorney for Washington State’s Western District recommended Alvensleben and others be interned “even if no evidence against them emerged, since ‘the local atmosphere would be improved rather than hurt by the internment of these men.’” Ultimately, the government believed it would be better for public morale if they sent Alvensleben to a military prison camp. [9]

On August 13, 1917, Alvensleben arrived at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah, along with his business partners Hans Cron, Georg Schloetelberg and Ernst Leybold. There they resided alongside other interned civilians, but were separate from military prisoners of war, whoreceived better treatment and more privileges, such as access to sports facilities. [10] While the camp was reasonably clean and sanitary, the civilians received bad treatment by the guards. “The repeated attempts made to escape by digging tunnels,” Nagler dryly observes, “were eloquent testimony that conditions in the camp did not invite people to linger.” [11] Alvensleben became an activist and leader in the camp, advocating for better treatment and justice for internees—sometimes by writing letters to diplomats and the U.S. government and other times taking more bellicose action. In one letter to the attorney general protesting the country’s mistreatment of “enemy” foreign nationals, he wrote,

It has served your purpose to use me—just as you have used thousands of my countrymen—as an apparent object-lesson of German intrigue. You arrested and gave no reasons, the press did the rest. It vilified, exaggerated, invented, insinuated, in short it did the dirty work and you remain “The Department of Justice.” Your part was to appear lenient, just, broadminded, liberal—the press was vindictive, unscrupulous, sensational, untrue … [12]

To Alvensleben, it was clear that his internment was due to wartime xenophobia, not the credible protection of national security.

Despite his mistreatment, Alvensleben remained in the United States after his release from Fort Douglas in May, 1920—eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1939. [13] He never recovered his Canadian assets nor the Issaquah & Superior Coal Mining Company. The bank holding the mortgage for the company’s property foreclosed on the mines and processing plant before it also failed. The property was sold for a pittance to the Pacific Coast Coal Company, which operated the mines for another decade before closing them. [14] Today, this old railroad grade is a reminder of Issaquah’s industrial past.


  • [1] Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago, IL and Seattle, WA: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929), 771-73; Edwards R. Fish Jr., “Issaquah Owed 2nd Bloom to German Enterprisers,” The Issaquah Press, January 25, 1962, 7.
  • [2] Joerg A. Nagler, “Enemy Aliens and Internment in World War I: Alvo von Alvensleben in Fort Douglas, Utah: A Case Study,” in Utah and the Great War: The Beehive State and the World War I Experience, ed. Allan Kent Powell (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 2016), 227-29.
  • [3] Janet Mary Nicol, “Alvo von Alvensleben: I am not ‘an enemy to the people I have lived among,’” British Columbia History 41, no. 1 (2008): 7-11.
  • [4] Nagler, “Enemy Aliens,” 230.
  • [5] Fish, “Issaquah,” 7; Ioannis-Dionysios Salavrakos, “Determinants of German Foreign Direct Investment: A Case of Failure?,” European Research Studies 12, no. 2 (2009): 6.
  • [6] Bagley, History of King County, 771-73.
  • [7] Nicol, “Alvo von Alvensleben,” 9; Nagler, “Enemy Aliens,” 231; Patricia E. Roy, “Internment in Canada,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, last updated June 11, 2020,
  • [8] Nagler, “Enemy Aliens,” 231-32; Nicol, “Alvo von Alvensleben,” 9.
  • [9] Nagler, “Enemy Aliens,” 232.
  • [10] Ibid., 234.
  • [11] Ibid., 236.
  • [12] Ibid., 241.
  • [13] Ibid., 243-44.
  • [14] Bagley, History of King County, 771-73; Edwards R. Fish Jr., “Dream of Chemical Plant Dispelled by World War I,” The Issaquah Press, February 8, 1962, 8.

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