The Tale of Ole Bergen

By Doug Bristol, Volunteer & Mine Hike Leader

Ole Bergen (also written as Berger and Bergan) caught my attention because of his long history of coal mining in Issaquah, and the fact that he left home when he was 14, as did I.  He was a fun loving guy from all accounts, and wasn’t opposed to “bending” (not to the breaking point) the law when it suited his purposes.  He once told a judge that he wasn’t breaking the law,  he was just “liberally interpreting” it.  In Ole’s opinion, laws were more a set of “guiding principles” rather than strict dictums.

Ole was born in Norway in 1873. Leaving home at age 14, he worked in several coal mines in the Spitsbergen mountains.  Although coal mining would continue there for the next 120 years, it would do so without Ole. He didn’t like the cold arctic temperatures, the terrible working conditions, or the low pay in the mines of Norway.  He felt that he could have a better (and warmer) life in the United States. At the age of 17, travelling alone, he boarded the good ship C.V. Island in 1890, and sailed for America. 

The ship dumped Ole off in New York, and he got a job working in a railroad yard.  He had very little money, and didn’t much like working in the cold New York winter weather any more than he liked Norway.  Being a coal miner, he no doubt considered where he could work where the weather was more pleasant, and came up with the Pacific Northwest. But how to get there……

Ole couldn’t help noticing that he worked in a railroad yard. He saw all these trains leaving New York for various places, some of which were places he wanted to go. I’m sure that in Ole’s opinion, since the train was going to Seattle whether he paid to get on board or not, he might as well hop into a freight car and go for a ride courtesy of the railroad. Hiding in freight cars, eating what he could find aboard, he managed to get to Illinois. He worked in a coal pit mine there for a year, and then, we hope, bought a ticket to Seattle and arrived in style in 1893.  

Issaquah and Newcastle were where the coal mines were operating, and for reasons unknown to us Ole chose Issaquah. He began work at the Issaquah mine, located across the creek from town.  He was to work there, off and on, for the next 11 years.  

The bridge over Issaquah Creek to the park, where Ole Bergen worked as a guard.

When Ole started working at the mine, no miners were needed, but he got a job as Bridge Guard.  He was posted at the bridge across Issaquah Creek to keep unauthorized people out of the mining property.  The city had a park on the east side of the creek, and the mining company had a much nicer park on the west side of the creek.  Although there were strict rules allowing only miner’s families to use the mining company park, Ole saw those rules as guiding principles only, and had a tendency to let anyone he liked cross the bridge and use the company park. When the company discovered this, Ole lost his job as Bridge Guard. He went to work for the Cedar Mountain Mine in Maple Valley.

In 1896, there was a fire at the Cedar Mountain Mine, and Ole was credited with dragging several unconscious miners to safety, thus saving their skins.  The local Cedar Mountain paper praised Ole as a hero, and, indeed, he was a hero. We don’t know this for sure, but perhaps his new reputation for bravery in the face of danger impressed the operators of the Issaquah Mine, because a year later Ole was working at Issaquah as a coal miner.     

Ole never married, and was a boarder in many of the local hotels in Issaquah. When one mine would go on strike, he would get a job in another mine. In his career he worked in coal mines from Bellingham to Roslyn to Renton to Issaquah, wherever he could find a job. But mostly he worked in the mines around Issaquah.  

Ole must have tired of living in hotels, because eventually he bought himself an acre of land near where Issaquah’s water storage tanks were situated. At the time, this was below the ridge where Lake Tradition sits just east of town. Ole needed drinking water, and there were these two big tanks full of drinking water, and Ole sat down and pondered exactly how he could resolve this dilemma, and eventually devised a plan, which will be revealed later in our story. 

Ole loved to hunt, and what he loved to hunt most was deer.  Ole knew that there were strict rules about hunting season, but he obviously felt these were more guiding principles rather than strictly enforced laws, and hunted deer under his more liberal interpretation of these rules. To avoid trouble with the law, and since deer were always wandering around town back in those days, a mysterious “someone” would shoot the deer from a well concealed hiding place. The deer would drop in its tracks along Front St or Mill St., and pretty quickly, Ole, who lived nearby, would magically appear with a skinning knife, and make short work of the deer. This became somewhat of a running joke in Issaquah, but it was not funny to the local game warden, namely one John Reif.

Now John Reif was nobody’s fool, and hadn’t just fallen off the vegetable wagon as it hit town. He knew exactly what was going on, and exactly who was doing it. His only problem was catching Ole in the act. Ole was very cagey, and very careful, and it was surely very frustrating for Reif. So, in November 1914, he hatched a little plan.  

The plan involved corralling a deer in the woods, and waiting for Ole to take his prized bloodhounds out for their daily run. Ole always took his rifle with him, just in case something or someone wanted to attack him. The dogs’ normal practice was to run down to the shore of Lake Sammamish, and then run back to Ole waiting by Issaquah Creek. But on this day when Ole released his hounds, John released his deer, and the chase was on. It was simply too much for old Ole to resist. He undoubtedly surveyed the area, saw no one, and went after the deer. His dogs chased it into the shallows of Lake Sammamish, Ole let go with his trusty rifle, and then went into the water and dragged the hapless deer back to shore. He was greeted upon his return to land by none other than Warden Rief. John had been lurking about in the trees out of sight, waiting for Ole to wade back to shore.  Ole was caught red handed, and Reif slapped on the cuffs. (It is unclear what happened to the deer).  The headline in the Seattle Times screamed:

Ole’s argument at trial was that he had been entrapped by the law. He claimed that the town was overrun with deer, that the deer in question had charged him, and that thanks to his trusty rifle, his life was saved and the town was rid of a dangerous animal.  The Judge didn’t buy it, and fined Bergen $25.00 plus court costs.

So, Ole was finally brought to justice, of a sort.  His claim that he had been  entrapped by the law was certainly true, but it was impossible to prove.  Ole went to the court clerk and paid the fine.

Ole continued to mine coal, and from what we can find (or couldn’t find) in old records, stayed out of trouble, or at least was never caught doing anything wrong……but, oh yes, the drinking water mentioned above.  Here is the rest of that story.

Ole Bergen’s shack, circa 1941

Ole died on January 14, 1938. On July 7th, 1941, his property was sold to Mr. T.F. Keefe. When Mr. Keefe was in the process of tearing down the old cabin so he could build a new home, he found, of all things in this old shack, a water faucet. This, in Mr. Keefe’s mind, meant that there was a heretofore unknown well on the property from which Ole got his water. WRONG! When the pipe was traced, Mr. Keefe found that sometime in the distant past Ole had installed a well disguised tap in one of the city’s water tanks, and had been getting free water from the city for at least 20 years. Ole apparently saw no harm in taking a little water from the city. They had so much and he had so little, and he was probably still bitter about the whole deer entrapment incident. Ole is buried in an unmarked grave in Hillside Cemetery in Issaquah Washington.