In 1896 a prospector by the name of James Henry Holden discovered a substantial body of ore—worth a fortune—in a little valley among the snow-capped mountains above Lake Chelan. More than a century later people are still flocking to Railroad Creek Valley, discovering treasures of a different kind in the village that bears Holden’s name.
Despite ongoing attempts to raise the capital, J.H. Holden was never able to develop the mine himself. In 1938, two decades after Holden’s death, the eventual developers, Howe Sound Mining Co., sent the first shipment of ore concentrate down Lake Chelan.
Life In A Mining Town
“RICHES POUR FROM HOLDEN MINE” shouted a banner headline in the Wenatchee Daily World on April 26, 1939, claiming Holden to be the “No. 1 Mining Operation in State.” The village itself looked more like a college campus than a mining town, the paper reported. “If you have ideas of tents, miners’ shacks, log cabins, and what-not, dismiss them. Everything is ultra modern at Holden, including four of the snappiest bowling alleys in the state. The alleys are in the basement of the remarkable recreation hall used for a gym, dance hall, movie theatre, community meeting place and stage attractions.”
At peak operation, some 600 people lived at Holden, including the mine workers’ families. Single men lived in dormitories, families of management lived in company-built chalets while other families built private homes – over 100 of them. During the mine’s 19 years of production, some $66 million worth of ore, primarily copper, had been extracted.
On June 5, 1957, the Wenatchee World headline was somber: "Death Knell of a Town: Now It's Closing Time at Holden." Howe Sound announced it was closing the mine because of the falling price of copper. The Village was abandoned. 100 private homes, were eventually burned to the ground because they had been built on US Forest Service land. However, fourteen chalets, a hotel, hospital building, and all other structures supporting community life remained.
The end of the mining era hit some families hard. Many had enjoyed their lifestyle in the beautiful and remote location, which included a school and recreation options in all seasons. Many of the Holden Mine community have stayed in touch, with reunions held several times in the decades since the mine closed.
A Surprising Gift
A newspaper report about the closing caught the attention of Wes Prieb, who was living in Anchorage, Alaska. Wes did not know quite where Holden Village was located, but that didn’t stop him from writing to the company, inquiring about the price. Howe Sound promptly replied that the asking price was $100,000. On April Fool’s Day, 1958, Wes—by now a student at the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) in Seattle—wrote a second time. Again a prompt reply: still $100,000. Two years later, again on April 1, Wes wrote suggesting that the property would be “desirable” for use by the church or Lutheran Bible Institute. He received a telegram instructing him to call the company’s office – collect. The company offered to give the village to LBI.
Wes realized that it might be time to let LBI know what he’d been up to. College officials were stunned and skeptical. With Wes, they made a trip to Holden and were awestruck by the facility, the size and potential. They also recognized restoring and maintaining the village was beyond the tiny college’s financial capacity. With start-up funding from several national Lutheran youth groups and efforts from many volunteers, the non-profit Holden Village, Inc., was formed.
A New Mission
The first executive director was Gil Berg, referred to over the years as “Mayor of Holden.” He was chairman of the LBI board and the partially retired owner of Berg Fuel in Ballard. Berg is credited with being the driving force in reclaiming the physical structure of Holden Village, which had suffered from the years of abandonment and vandalism. In 1961, some 41 volunteers with an average age of 20, paid their way to the village and worked on the clean-up. They called themselves “The Forerunners” (a Biblical reference) and wrote their own code of conduct, setting standards still in place today: daily attendance at worship, shared work and common meals.
The first long-term directors, the Rev. Carroll Hinderlie and wife Mary were described by a friend as “the prime human shapers of the soul of Holden Village.” Serving from 1963-1977, the Hinderlies had traveled worldwide and spent three-and-a-half years during World War II imprisoned by the Japanese. They were convinced Holden Village needed to reach out to more than youth and to more than Lutherans. Avoiding a Bible-camp atmosphere, they set an inviolable rule which remains today: everyone is expected to attend the evening vesper service to welcome all who have arrived in the Village that day and bid farewell to all who will leave the next day.
Werner Janssen, now of Leavenworth, holds the record for living in the village longer than anyone else. Starting at age 24, he served as first general manager and registrar from 1963-1983.
“The impractical venture of constituting an abandoned mining community in the remote North Cascades was accomplished by concentrating on the dream rather than allowing logic to destroy this possibility,” he says. The merchants in Chelan and Wenatchee were especially helpful in the early years, allowing delayed payment for food and fuel when the Village struggled with cash-flow, Janssen recalls. Power transmission lines up Lake Chelan to the mining village had been removed. A used hydroelectric generator was located and installed. After it started producing power, Janssen told a Seattle contractor about the project.
“The contractor said, ‘You couldn’t do that,’ and I said, “we didn’t know that, so we did it.”
During those intense decades of Vietnam War protests and civil rights demonstrations, Holden Village was “not an escape,” remembers Janssen. “Rather Holden often intensified the emotions both good and bad that were felt in society … providing a safe space for college-age volunteers to express themselves and challenge religion, society, and science.”
Over the years, many have described time spent at Holden as transformational.
“Holden is more an experience than a place,” wrote Scott Haasarud, director from 1989-1993. “Those who have had their lives shaped by Holden have also shaped what Holden is today.”
(Photo of miners from the Larry Penberthy collection. Used by permission.)