Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Maps of Pennsylvania­ – and Clinton County, for that matter – no longer carry the name of Bitumen. In fact, Bitumen has not appeared on maps for the last half-century. It’s not because the village is insignificant or unimportant. Simply put, the village is no longer there. With the excep­tion of a small wooden church and cemetery, Bitumen has disappeared.

The history of Bitumen spans only four decades, from 1890 to 1930, but its impor­tance in the Commonwealth’s late nineteenth century coal trade also distinguished its brief, but influential, impact on the industrial and cultural heritage of northcentral Pennsylvania.

During the early 1870s, while the large lumbering operations in western Clinton County enjoyed their zenith, soft coal was discovered by mineral prospectors hired by investors and speculators. Two of these prospectors, Joseph Russell and David Bly, un­earthed bituminous coal on a mountain top overlooking Kettle Creek, about ten miles west of Renovo, which was then beginning to stir as a railroad town. Realizing that they could not commercialize on the discovery with their limited resources, Russell and Bly sought financial backing in the booming lumber capital of the world at the time, Williamsport, Lycoming County seat, only seventy miles away by the Pennsylva­nia Railroad.

They quickly enlisted eleven investors, formed a corporation and received a charter in 1874, establishing the Kettle Creek Coal Mining Company with a capital stock of fifty thousand dollars. Civil engineer George Miller was brought in from Houtzdale, Clearfield County, and ap­pointed superintendent. He took complete charge of the company and opened new mines, built sixty houses and founded a company store, which also housed the U.S. Post Office. The name came from the bituminous coal mined there and from the fact that the coal company was founded originally by two men, hence the name, Bitumen.

Miller, an efficient superin­tendent, knew how to parcel out responsibilities and dele­gate authority. He hired mine foremen for each shift and group of men. He hand picked his own weighmaster which was one of the chief com­plaints of the immigrant min­ers who understood very little English, but knew how much a ton of coal weighed and how much work was involved in digging it. They worked and received pay on a tonnage basis and insisted that they were being “short-weighted.” Miller hired his own store­keeper who was expected to make a profit; in most – if not all – company towns, employ­ees were expected to buy eve­rything at the company-owned stores. This was another of the miners’ major complaints, but they later found ways of avoid­ing it.

The market for coal boomed, so the Kettle Creek Coal Mining Company pros­pered. Coal was taken off the mountain by cable cars on an incline plane to a tipple at Cooks Run where it was weighed and loaded onto Pennsylvania Railroad cars for shipment to Williamsport and eastern markets. Early in Mill­er’s tenure at Bitumen, in November 1888, tragedy struck; an explosion killed eighteen miners and injured others. The dead and injured were some of the original miners employed there. Many of their co-workers left after the explosion and Slovaks were brought in beginning in 1890. Miller probably brought a few with him when he ar­rived from Houtzdale. He constantly urged them to write to their kin and countrymen in Europe, telling them that there was work for any who might want to emigrate. That inaugu­rated the beginning of the influx of the Slovaks into the area.

Tragedy struck one year later when the Cooks Run mine tipple and many com­pany houses in the surround­ing area were washed out by the 1889 flood, the same flood that devastated Johnstown. Under Miller’s supervision a new tipple was built, a new incline plane was installed and many more houses for the incoming immigrant miners were constructed.

With the exception of a few houses built for the company managers, store personnel and the company doctor, which appeared elaborate for the area, the miners’ houses were plain, four room, two story plank structures. The houses had no piped water. There was a reservoir up further on the mountain on the company farm from where the water was piped to the streets with spigots every fifty yards or so. The people would then carry it home in buckets. The com­pany farm was directed by Gustav Anderson who also looked after the reservoir. Coal for cooking and heat was free, but the workers had to mine it themselves on their own time and load it on the wagon themselves. Yet, the company charged the miners one dollar for hauling the coal to their homes.

George Miller completely supervised the little village. He settled all disputes with the help of his strong armed con­stable, David Eisenhower, and several big strong Slovaks. There was little trouble: per­haps an infrequent drunken brawl stemming from too much exuberance at a wedding or christening. There was some friction at times between the Swedes and the Slovaks but nothing that required outside help to settle. Consta­ble Eisenhower lived in the first house near the top of the hill entering the town on the dirt road from Kettle Creek and Westport. Anyone enter­ing Bitumen by that road would have to pass Eisenho­wer’s house and no one en­tered without being seen and questioned by him. That in­cluded union organizers and Jewish peddlers. Many Jewish peddlers were run off the hill, with their goods thrown after them.

Wages in the 1890s were based on tonnage, for which a miner received thirty cents a ton for mining and loading. By working hard, a miner could dig and load about five tons of coal during a grueling twelve hour day. Each miner had to furnish his own tools, powder, and dynamite, as well as oil for his lantern and carbide for the lamp on his cap. Each month fifty cents was deducted from his meagre earnings for the sharpening of his tools by the company blacksmith. Houses for married men rented for three to four dollars a month. These households would also take in single men to room and board to help with the ex­penses. The company also operated a rooming house for single men. The company did everything possible to keep cash money from leaving the premises. From deductions for rent, the doctor, the hauling of coal on company wagons, the tool sharpening and, most of all, the store, where everyone was forced to buy, many min­ers were forever in debt to the company. Payday to these miners was just a day for find­ing out how indebted one was.

There was, however, one exception to this forced indebt­edness which caused the Ket­tle Creek Coal Company great anxiety and considerable ex­pense. An Englishman named Tom Guildford brought his wife and five children to Bitu­men. Guildford was con­demned to years of hard work like the rest of the miners without hope of ever getting out of debt. Further, his five children were girls so they could not help out much in a place like Bitumen.

Guildford had worked for the Kettle Creek Coal Mining Company’s operations else­where before settling in Bitu­men and, in all his years as an employee, had never drawn actual wages. He was never able to get out of debt but he shrewdly and carefully planned his revenge. Being an Englishman, he would not become a citizen. Many had tried to convince him that he should be a citizen, but he always refused without giving any reason. He did mention on several occasions that any­one born in Great Britain would be foolish to become a United States citizen. The cunning Tom Guildford knew that a treaty existed between Great Britain and the United States which declared that “the citizens of each country residing in the other, must be paid for labor performed in the coin of the realm.” It was the custom of the coal company to pay the miners once a month, and each month Guildford received a slip called a “state­ment,” revealing his indebted­ness. He carefully saved every statement and compiled a complete record of his years of toil without compensation.

One day, at last, he con­tacted the British ambassador in Washington, D.C., to whom he submitted his statements. Guildford’s statements proved the coal company to be in violation of the standing British-American treaty. The ambassador took the case to the State Department which ordered the Kettle Creek Coal Mining Company to compen­sate Guildford for fourteen years of labor. The company tried to sue Guildford for indebtedness, but he had already returned to England.

Following this expensive experience, no miner was permitted to work unless he could produce a citizenship paper. Wagonloads of miners were transported to Lock Ha­ven, Clinton County seat, where they took an oath of allegiance and received their first papers. Another outcome of the Guildford episode was that the company paid or settled their accounts every two weeks.

With low wages, long hours and dangerous working condi­tions their lot, the miners showed great interest in sev­eral union organizers of the United Mine Workers of Amer­ica who arrived early in 1897. Ordered off the property by the coal company officials, the union organizers returned, this time with some Slovak­- and Polish-speaking organiz­ers. The meeting of the miners took place off the company property with Eisenhower barred, but not before he noted the names of those attending. Information was relayed to Miller, the superin­tendent, who promptly fired the most prominent of the miners present. Nevertheless, the mines were organized, forcing the company to deal with unionization. Immediate gains, although not spectacu­lar, were apparent: wages rose to fifty cents per ton and the safety conditions in the mines were somewhat improved (but fell far below acceptable stand­ards). However, the company store policy had not changed any, and an occasional peddler appeared in town selling small items. The miners’ wives dis­covered Sears, Roebuck & Company’s catalogue with household and clothing items selling for half of what the company store charged! Or­ders could not be sent through the Bitumen Post Office for obvious reasons, but the ac­commodating postmaster at Westport helped the women and held their packages until they were able to retrieve them.

With the unionization in 1897 and improvements in wages and working condi­tions, Bitumen’s miners were beginning to look for the more aesthetic things in their other­wise dreary lives. A Slovak church was built along with a Swedish church, schools, a union hall and later a Slovak Catholic school conducted by six nuns of the Vincentian Order. By 1909, the mines were electrified, eliminating the fifty mules routinely used. The following year the popula­tion of Bitumen numbered twelve hundred, according to the census, although it was believed to be more as many of the single miners had “shacks” in remote places and did not want to be counted for fear they would be taxed. The number of men employed exceeded five hundred; not all lived at Bitumen, however. Many lived in the Cooks Run area at a place known as the “Shoots” near the bottom of the tipple. With coal being in great demand in the eastern market and most mines sup­plying this coal under the same union contracts, the price of coal was stabilized and all prospered.

Despite the introduction of new safety measures in the mines, which added to the company’s expenses, coal mining was still a dangerous occupation and accidents still occurred. On December 16, 1910, one such accident, strange as it seemed, hap­pened above ground. Most feared accidents, like the one in 1888, were below ground. This one happened on the incline plane as it was lower­ing seven fully loaded coal cars on the cable with four miners who climbed on. The miners were on their way to their homes in the Cooks Run area at the bottom of the plane when the brake shoe on the drum wheel (on which the cables revolved) snapped, making the brakes useless. Two miners were killed, and two others injured. Should the accident have happened fif­teen minutes later, as many as twenty-five miners would have lost their lives, as they were to take the last trip ending the day’s work.

George Miller, the general manager and engineer of the coal company, died in 1914. He was mourned by the miners as a lost friend. He was “highly respected and much liked for settling all labor difficulties satisfactorily and according to humanitarian principles,” according to an account by Michael Antos in his original history of Bitumen. His duties as general manager were taken over by his son, W. M. Miller, with Harry From in the post of superintendent. The company store was enlarged and remod­eled and a new modern tipple was also built.

Everything remained the same with the company store, the miners with their union and their dealings with the company. The country was entering the pre-World War I tempo of prosperity and, with coal in great demand, the company and its stock holders were prospering. Periodic raise increases by the larger unions in the country were also granted at the local mines as the government inevitably footed the bill. When the war ended, coal prices dropped and the company could not pay the miners the price of mining. But being under con­tract to pay the price, their only alternative was to close the mines for the duration of the contract. The contract expired on April 1, 1922.

A contract was offered to the miners in April 1922 which amounted to half of the war price. The miners, spurred by union agitators, refused to work for the price offered. They were ordered to either work at the reduced wages or vacate company property within thirty days. Most of the miners ignored both options and were evicted by the county sheriff, deputies, con­stables, and the Pennsylvania Mounted Police armed with sawed-off shotguns. During the first week of May 1922, eighty-eight families were evicted. The Slovaks, exhibit­ing considerable restraint, did not resist the eviction. This was due to the advice of the Catholic parish priest and the miners’ wives who, through some “old country intuition,” sensed the futility of the con­frontation.

The evicted families aban­doned most of their posses­sions and moved to Pitts­burgh, Buffalo and cities in Connecticut and New Jersey. Some families remained as they had no alternatives. The company also experienced hard times and eventually phased out mining operations by selling their land and leases to the Commonwealth’s for­estry department. The Com­monwealth, in turn, sold leases to companies which stripped coal but never filled the ravaged areas, causing increasing amounts of pollu­tion in the Cooks Run and Kettle Creek area.

Most of the miners’ houses were demolished in 1930. The patch town’s Swedish Congre­gational Church, built in 1898, was torn down during the early 1930s. The Immaculate Conception Church of Bitu­men, in disrepair, was also ordered demolished by the bishop of the Altoona Diocese, of which the village was part. But this time, the few remain­ing residents of Bitumen stood fast. They hired a lawyer to oppose the bishop’s directive. His order was lifted when the residents formally agreed to keep the church in good repair.

Today, the little church with adjoining cemetery and a few houses – which somehow escaped demolition – are all that remain of the once pros­perous coal town. Gone are the houses which once lined the dusty streets. Gone are the union hall, the company store and the Swedish Congrega­tional Church. Perhaps Bitumen’s epithet was recently immortalized by an old Slovak miner, an ex-resident, when he surveyed the barren region and uttered “sszystko z wiatrm posto” or all gone with the wind.

 

For Further Reading

Bodnar, John, ed. “The Formation of Ethnic Consciousness: Slavic Immigrants in Steelton.” Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Greene, Victor R. “A Study in Slavs, Strikes, and Unions: The Anthracite Strike of 1897.” Penn­sylvania History, XXXI (1964), 199-215. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Lovejoy, Owen R. “Child Labor in the Soft Coal Mines,” American Academy of Political and Social Science. Annals, XXVII (January-June 1906), 293-99.

Molchan, Casper. “The Develop­ment of the Slovak Community in Pittsburgh, 1880-1920.” Unpub­lished M.A. Thesis, Notre Dame University, 1948.

The Pennsylvania Writers’ Pro­ject, Works Progress Administra­tion. A Picture of Clinton County. Lock Haven: The Com­missioners of Clinton County Pennsylvania, 1942.

Sayless, Mary Buell. “Housing and Social Conditions in a Slavic Neighborhood.” Charities, XIII (1904-05), 257-61.

Stolarik, Mark. “Lay Initiative in American-Slovak Parishes, 1880-1930.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, LXXXIII (1972), 152-58.

Taylor, Alfred R. Geology and Mineral Resources of the Lock Haven Quadrangle, Clinton and Lycoming Counties, Penn­sylvania. Harrisburg: Common­wealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Resources, 1977.

Warne, Frank Julian. The Slav Invasion and the Mine Work­ers. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1904.

Young, Donald. Research Mem­orandum on Minority Peoples in the Depression. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

 

Leonard F Parucha is a retired professional painter and decorator. A native of McKeesport, he moved to Lock Haven where he began examining the local and regional ethnic history. His primary stud­ies involved the history of ethnic groups active in coal mining and as members of the Great Depres­sion era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He is a member of the Clinton County Historical Society, for which he has per­formed considerable conservation and restoration work on the build­ing housing the society’s Heisey Museum. In May of this year, at the age of seventy-three, the author received his bachelor of arts degree from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. This article developed from a paper completed under the direction of Dr. Charles R. Kent, archivist for the university.