Would-be filmmaker seeks 'The Ghost of Hangman's Bridge'

  • By Aaron VanTuyl

  • Jan 19, 2006

The first time Ursula Richards-Coppola started asking questions about the Centralia Massacre, she wasn't exactly met with open arms. Five years later and in town for her cousin's funeral, the self-described researcher is having more luck.

"Now, people want to talk about it," said Coppola, a mother of three nearly grown children who normally reside in Burbank, Calif.

Her eventual plan is to write a screenplay, which would then be made into a movie depicting the events surrounding and following Centralia's Armistice Day tragedy of 1919.

"Several people are gone, now, that wanted to keep it hush-hush," she said. "Now, the town would like to be reminded of what happened."

The event took place during an Armistice Day parade when members of the Centralia American Legion post stopped the parade in front of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) hall on North Tower Avenue. Shots were fired, and four of the veterans were killed in the ensuing melee. Two of them died after Wesley Everest, one of the Wobblies, was chased from the scene on foot to the Skookumchuck River, where he killed two of his pursuers before being captured.

Later that day Everest was removed from his jail cell by a lynch mob and dragged to the bridge across the Chehalis River at Mellen Street, where he was hanged and then shot, according to the original coroner's report.

The Wobblies' trial was held in Montesano, where two of the accused were acquitted, one declared insane, and the eight other men sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison.

Storytime

"It's about the stories people have been telling me," said Richards-Coppola, describing the vision of her project. "I'm going to do my best to be fair to both sides."

She said that the film would focus as much on the trial following the massacre as on the actual Armistice Day events.

"I'm still working on a lot of this, because of the amount of information I have," she said.

Her research, with hours of sound and footage, kept on a digital voice recorder and a hand-held video camera, includes interviews with several people with relatives involved in the event, along with hours of reading at local libraries. She has visited landmark Centralia buildings and has taken a guided tour of the path Everest followed during his wild run to the Skookumchuck and plans to visit the Montesano courthouse where the sentences were handed down.

She has also contacted people at the Industrial Workers of the World headquarters and said they have been very accommodating.

Local support

John Baker, the sexton at Greenwood Memorial Park in Centralia, guided Richards-Coppola on her tour of Everest's run. The two worked their way from the corner of Second Street and Tower Avenue up to the banks of the Skookumchuck, and then to the Mellen Street bridge over the Chehalis River, from which the original abutments of Hangman's Bridge can still be seen just to the north.

"I've taken people on this tour hundreds of times," said Baker, a Centralia resident for the past 27 years. "They come from all over and ask what happened here."

Greenwood Memorial Park is the home of Everest's grave, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Baker wishes that the community would embrace the notorious bit of history, rather than turn a blind eye to the situation.

"No one in Centralia is being blamed for these events," said Baker. "When we deny or are secretive about them, it's foolish.

"It's as if a meteor had hit here in 1919 and people come looking for the crater, and they're saying, 'What crater?' "

Baker was excited, however, at the prospect of Richards-Coppola bringing more attention to Centralia, and to the memory of Everest and fallen Legionnaires.

"She's got that story, and she's going to do something about it," he said.

Putting it on paper

"It's a tall order to fill," she said, of her project. A typical screenplay is 124 pages long, but Coppola said hers, titled "The Ghost of Hangman's Bridge," will most likely be longer. She scrapped her original working screenplay after coming to town for the funeral and said she'll be back at the keyboard when her research is complete.

Richards-Coppola, though no direct relation to filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, is no stranger to the movie business. Her husband, Gary J. Coppola, has a post-production sound studio in Burbank and has been nominated for two Emmy Awards for sound mixing.

The project is still in very early stages, but Richards-Coppola said she is hoping to bring a production crew to Centralia in about two years, and, if all goes according to plan, the film could be completed by 2009.

"I picked a great project," she said. "I'm a people person. I like meeting them and hearing the stories. It's like being there."

Aaron VanTuyl covers education and religion for The Chronicle. He may be reached at 807-8237 or by e-mail at avantuyl@chronline.com.

TO HELP OUT

Any assistance or contribution to the research of Ursula Richards-Coppola would be appreciated. She may be reached in the following ways:

Telephone: (760) 475-2531

Mailing address: 17100 Bear Valley Road, Victorville, Calif 92395

Web site: www.ghostofhangmansbridge.com

© 2000 - 2020 Ursula Richards-Coppola All rights researved.