‘Setting of ‘Northern Exposure’

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on November 17, 2002

Visitors driving into town may feel they’ve been here before because it all looks familiar: Dr. Joel Fleishman’s office, The Brick restaurant, Roslyn’s Café with the camel oasis mural. About the only thing missing is the moose, always seen ambling along the street in the opening scene from Northern Exposure, in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska.

The real town was, and is, Roslyn, Wash. (pop. 1,017), where the Emmy-award winning television series was filmed for five years. Although the show was canceled in 1995, devoted fans continue to visit the town they remember so fondly.

Roslyn has changed little with the notoriety and remains a quaint community in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, rich in history and natural beauty.

Legend has it that a young man named the town, incorporated in 1889, in honor of his beloved from Roslyn, Del. The former coal-mining town snugs against the spectacular Alpine Lakes Wilderness—a wonderland of trails, sparkling mountain lakes, and forestry, where the cold mountain air often catches travelers off guard.

“From early on, we’ve tried to preserve its past,” says Roslyn city attorney David Browitt, whose family settled in the hamlet in the 1880s. “It’s a unique and special community.”

Though fiercely protective of their past, Roslyn’s townspeople aren’t afraid to poke a little fun at themselves. It is home not only to the Coal Miners Festival but also to The Manly Man Festival, an event in which guys unravel the macho mystique by competing in a tool belt contest and Spam cook-off. And of course, Moose Days roll into town every summer to celebrate the glorious heritage of Northern Exposure.

“Roslyn’s the best place in the world,” says Ellie Belew, a writer who moved to Roslyn 14 years ago from Seattle to find a quieter life. She knows she always will be considered a newcomer, and that’s fine by her. “It has its own character,” she says. “The people who live here keep it as a community.”

But the town—an 86-mile, hour-and-a-half drive east from Seattle—isn’t immune to change. A mountain resort is planned in the near future, and residents know further change is likely.

The railroad and coal originally put Roslyn on the map, with coal’s discovery in 1886. The Northern Pacific Railroad operated the mines, recruiting workers from the British Isles, Eastern Europe, Italy, and later, African-American communities from the southern United States. According to Browitt, the town’s independent nature developed early, when the railroad failed to control Roslyn the way it did other company towns.

At the height of the coal production era, the population peaked at 4,000. By 1901, Roslyn had produced more than 1 million tons of coal. The town even sent a giant lump of coal weighing 22 tons to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Through the years—and with the advent of electricity—the use of coal dwindled and the mines gradually shut down, the last one closing in 1963. A memorial to those killed in mining accidents stands on Pennsylvania Avenue, Roslyn’s main street.

A unique attraction in Roslyn is its 25 cemeteries, where generations of coal miners and their families are buried. The worn inscriptions tell more than any history book. Visitors can amble along the hillside and learn about early pioneer families in the mining community, the town’s diversity over the years, and even about tragic coal-mining accidents.

Pennsylvania Avenue’s weather-faded wooden storefronts and Roslyn’s storied past mix gently into everyday life, as The Brick tavern—one of the state’s oldest licensed taverns—illustrates. The establishment has never removed its 23-foot-long water-running spittoon from beneath its bar, even though tobacco spitting has long been frowned upon.

Roslyn is the sort of place many of us still yearn for—even if Dr. Fleishman and the cast of Northern Exposure have departed—minus, maybe, an occasional errant moose.