Schuylkill County: Built on Coal

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

The history of Schuylkill County is inextricably bound to the story – and drama – of the great anthracite industry in the United States. Despite nearly two centuries of active mining, the county’s 783 square miles still boast the largest accessible reserves of hard coal known in the world. Its lives and lifestyles have been quasi-fictionalized by two of the county’s best known and award-winning writers, John O’Hara and Conrad Richter. And scenes of what life was like in the region shortly after the turn of the century were committed to paper by recognized artist, county resident George Luks.

Schuylkill County’s huge coal reserves built immense fortunes. The rich black rock fueled the development of iron forges and steel furnaces. It propelled the construction of canals which snaked through the mountainous wilderness, and later spawned the laying of track for what would eventually evolve as one of the country’s largest railroads. Anthracite, and the riches it promised, lured hundreds of thousands of immigrants through the portals of Ellis Island. Coal promised a land of opportunity, a new beginning for speculators and investors. And it spurred the growth, at times ruefully unchecked, of the country’s most powerful labor unions.

Settlement of Schuylkill County occurred long before the discovery of anthracite. The vast wilderness was distinguished by the Schuylkill River, whose headwaters rise in the region. The Delaware Indians, who inhabited the area, called the river Gahsnohawanee, meaning “rushing and roaring waters.” Dutch explorer Hendrikson gave the river the name Schulen Kill, or “Hidden Stream,” because early explorers were unable to find the water’s source. Later hunters and trappers knew the great valleys and mountains as “St. Anthony’s Wilderness” after Moravian missionary Anthony Seifert.

Earliest settlers were primarily German immigrants migrating northward from Berks County to the foothills of the Kittatinny (“Blue”) Mountain. They arrived before the 1749 purchase of lands from the Indians and were, for generations, strictly Protestant in work-ethic and known as “Church and School People.” Other early settlers from England, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Sweden ventured into the area, persevering and patiently following access trails paralleling the river. The wilderness was stubborn; dense forests remained unbroken, except for a few rock-filled fields and meadows.

Although not permanent inhabitants, the Unami Schuylkill Indians, with a totem of the tortoise or turtle, stalked the Schuylkill River area and, in the loose autonomy of the entire Delaware nation, acted as the principal adjudicators and counselors in tribal affairs. As the French and English bitterly struggled for domination and possession of land in the New World, the Delaware Indians were drawn into the raging conflict. The French sensed the Indians’ fear that the white man was usurping their lands and persuaded tribal leaders that it was the English who desperately wanted to occupy their hunting grounds. The Delaware nation withdrew into alliance with the French during the French and Indian War that ensued.

It was not long before the Schuylkill region became known as “The Bloody Ground.” Raiding parties of Indians and French Bush Rangers mounted a series of ambushes and kidnappings. Frequently, the marauding Delawares were joined by the Shawanese and Nanticokes in their exploits. Early victims were settlers who had ignored the cautious Conrad Weiser, the famous Berks County frontiersman and interpreter for the provincial government in its dealings with the Indians. The first massacres took place at Pine Grove, Deer Lake, Landingville, Molino and Summit Station. The settlers’ first log church, forerunner of the historic “Red Church” in southern Schuylkill County, was torched by the Indians during one of the raids. Many settlers fled to safety south of the Blue Mountain, while the more courageous fortified and armed their homes, relying on the colonial militia for protection. A line of defense was established by the Provincial Assembly, encouraged by Gov. Robert Hunter Morris, from Fort Franklin in the east, to Fort Lebanon on the Schuylkill River, and to blockhouses Deitrich-Six and Deitrich-Schneider on the summit of the Blue Mountain near the Tulpehocken Trail.

Once the forts were erected, the raids ceased for several years but resumed in the early 1760s following their abandonment. Indian attacks continued following the conclusion of the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, and through the Revolutionary War, when Pottsville’s first settler family was murdered. During the American Revolution, militiamen established a frontier line to protect the southern Schuylkill Valley from attacks by the English and the Indians. Indians were eventually pushed beyond the Blue Moun­tain near the end of the war.

Despite its sparsely in­habited, vast wilderness and frequent Indian uprisings, Schuylkill County made con­tributions to the American forces during the Revolutionary War. Supplies and militia were dispatched to Cambridge and Trenton and were employed during the great Battle of Long Island. The county’s tall timbers became the masts of the French Navy and Com­modore John Barry’s new Continental Navy. Hardy tim­bermen cut and floated rafts down the Schuylkill River under the protection of continental soldiers. At least one hundred men from Pine Grove and the surrounding area fought at Brandywine with Gen. Anthony Wayne and later at the Battle of Germantown.

A decade before the war ended, coal was suspected to exist in large quantities. A map published in 1770 indi­cated coal deposits at the headwaters of both the Schuylkill River and the Swatara Creek. General Arthur St. Clair owned extensive land holdings near Pottsville, the county seat, and historians surmise that he knew about the coal outcroppings.

Coal was “officially” dis­covered in 1790 at the foot of the Broad Mountain by Necho Allen, a timberman purported to have come from Vermont. Legend holds that Necho Allen camped beneath a ledge of the moun­tain’s foothills and built a fire at night. After several hours he awoke – startled and bewil­dered – to find what he thought was the entire moun­tain ablaze. His panic subsided and he discovered that his campfire had ignited an out­cropping of anthracite. Despite the fortunes and empire coal built, Necho Allen never profited from his find. He spent much time touting its utility, but left the area in disgust. Stories contend that he died by drowning not long after leaving the area.

Anthracite was not readily accepted by the skeptical consuming public. Pottsville resident William Morris sent a wagonload of coal in 1800 to Philadelphia, but was not able to sell it. Dis­heartened, he sold his lands and abandoned mining. The first successful attempt to intro­duce coal in the Philadelphia market took place in 1812 when Col. George Shoemaker, proprietor of the Pennsyl­vania Hotel in Pottsville, hauled nine wagons of anthracite from his mines at Centreville. Immediately he was vehe­mently denounced as a swindler for trying to sell “black rocks” as fuel. He sold two loads to cover the expense of the 110-mile trip, but was forced to give the rest away. Before he departed Philadel­phia, however, he persuaded the owners of a rolling mill in Delaware County to try coal in one of their furnaces. The mill owners and Shoemaker stoked the furnace and found, several hours later, the perfect glow of white heat roaring behind the furnace doors. It was not long afterward that the coal boom began.

Iron ore was mined in Pottsville and surrounding Schuylkill County for local forges and smelting operations. Use of anthracite gained tremendous significance when Bostonian William Lyman successfully burned coal in 1839 at his Pioneer Furnace in Pottsville. He was the first ironmaker to claim a $5,000 prize offered by Philadelphia financier Nicholas Biddle for his successful experiment. In 1833, F.W. Geisenheimer smelted iron by using coal at the Valley Furnace near Cumbola, but his results were not practical.

The coal trade’s early years were hectic and chaotic. Although the industry got off on a sputtering start in Schuyl­kill County, it grew unchecked and uncharted. The industry was unorganized, jealously competitive and unable to meet growing demands. Serious capitalists and investors, adventurers and fortune-seekers rushed to the region. Make­shift equipment and housing served the early miners and prospectors. In the early days, a few small fortunes were amassed, scattered operations existed, but often money was made in land speculation­ – not the mining of coal. More than $5 million was invested in Schuylkill County just six months after the boom began in 1828.

The financiers and builders of the Philadelphia and Read­ing Railroad recognized the potential of the new industry. By outlaying great capital, the railroad acquired individual operations and immense tracts of land through a related venture, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Com­pany. Until then, coal was shipped sporadically, if not haphazardly, via the Schuylkill Canal.

Coal was first hauled by the canal in the mid-1820s but it was a long and perilous route. The waters were unpredictable and storms frequent. In 1842, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad opened a rail route from Mount Carbon to the canal and shipped a half million tons of coal to Philadelphia, Havre de Grace and New York markets. The canal did enjoy a heyday; from 1855 to 1867, about fifteen million tons were car­ried by 1,400 boats operating on the waterway. Until its abandonment in 1881, the Schuylkill Canal hauled two million tons of freight each year.

Doomed to extinction by boatmen strikes and natural disasters, most notably the great flood of 1850, the Schuyl­kill Canal never reached its potential, and its course was eventually taken over by the railroad through a 999-year lease. The canal was later turned over to the Commonwealth.

The Philadelphia and Read­ing Railroad was neither the only nor the first railroading venture established in the county to haul coal. Abraham Pott constructed a railroad east of Pottsville and proclaimed it the first in Schuylkill County. The line was a modest one-half mile long and its narrow-gauge wooden rails were covered by scrap metal. One horse was capable of pulling several small cars, each carrying one and one-half tons of coal, to the canal. Fol­lowing Pott, several other small lines were built by indi­vidual operators to points along the river and canal between Port Carbon and Potts­ville. It was the Philadelphia and Reacting Railroad which ushered in a new era of trans­portation in Schuylkill County. Competing for the rich markets of both coal and coal­-shipping, the railroad oper­ated nearly 2,500 cars over 105 miles of track by 1842.

The railroads, although they crushed the canal, spawned engineering feats in Schuylkill County – and the world! Construction of planes – the first practical method of crossing mountains with railroads­ – marked brilliant engineering on the county’s railroads. The plane engineering tapped the wealth of the western middle coal field in the county’s northern Mahanoy Valley and coal was brought over the Broad Mountain for shipment by railroad to Pottsville. The first plane was constructed by Virginia engineer Moncure Robinson, credited with the construction of one-third of the railroads in the United States during the decade following the introduction of the locomotive.

Another technological marvel associated with the coal trade was a tunnel – the first in America – driven through a hill near Landingville for the canal. Begun in 1818 and completed in 1821, the tunnel was 450 feet long until its collapse about 1856.

As the railroading industry burgeoned with the sinking of each new coal mine shaft, great rail yards were devel­oped throughout Schuylkill County, especially by the Reacting Railroad (whose pre­cursor was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad). Thou­sands of coal-laden cars lined the wide valleys, particularly near St . Clair, a small com­munity located not far from the county seat. The Philadelphia and Reacting Coal and Iron Company maintained two huge shops in Pottsville for the manufacture of machinery for coal mining operations, employing thousands of labor­ers. The shops also built a number of small steam loco­motives, known throughout the area as “lokies,” which pulled cars of culm, or refuse, from the shafts of deep mines. The culm was dumped near the operations into towering, black banks which have recently become popular and economical as a fuel source.

With its various enterprises, the Philadelphia and Read- ing Coal and Iron Company grew as one of the industrial powers in the coal fields. Even the legislature approved formation of the company’s private police force, osten­sibly to protect scattered com­pany properties and holdings. The private force provoked much antagonism among laborers; company policemen were ridiculed and often heckled as “coalies.”

The laborers and miners were also antagonized – out­raged – because wages and safety standards failed to keep pace with company earnings. The coal industry was growing ripe for unionism and union activism during the mid­-nineteenth century. At collieries devoid of leadership and management, strikes were rife; in time, not only collieries struck, but entire coal fields did as well. Schuylkill County’s first union was established in 1842 as the Bates Union; however, it was short-lived and failed, due to inept leader­ship, two years later. Several unions followed, but they, too, foundered. John Siney of St. Clair led the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Asso­ciation and achieved some worthwhile results. The asso­ciation’s targets were poor wages, long hours, lack of safety, minimal vacation periods and preferential work assign­ments. Siney’s union, the strongest of several activist efforts, was the forerunner of the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA). Labor leader and one of America’s most famous union officials, John Mitchell assumed presi­dency of the UMWA and exacted concessions from the operators and owners.

Newly arrived Irish immi­grants, by instinct and tradition, added an unusual dimension to the coal region’s prevalent strikes. The Molly Maguires, a band of mid-nineteenth century union activists bent on ensuring fair wages for the working man, terrorized mine owners and superin­tendents. They set fires to col­lieries, assaulted mine bosses and ambushed company officials, often leaving warning notes with their victims. Powerful Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Com­pany president Franklin B. Gowen employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency which in­filtrated the society. Six alleged Molly Maguires, accused of capital offenses, died on the gallows in the Schuylkill County prison yard in one day. Others were tried in adja­cent Carbon County. The birth and development of the Molly Maguires is a phe­nomenon in Pennsylvania’s labor history and still draws interest from social and labor historians.

The era of the Molly Maguires was, perhaps, the bloodiest in the coal regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, but the famous strike of 1902 completely closed down the entire industry for five months. Confrontations and negotiations grew more bitter and the militia was called in. President Theodore Roose­velt, for the first time in history, involved the federal government in a strike by channeling and monitoring negotiations by the Anthra­cite Coal Strike Commission.

During the harsh winter of 1925-26, a 170-day strike crip­pled the industry and signaled the decline of deep-mining throughout the anthracite region. As the strike lingered on, collieries and breakers were dismantled or abandoned by disgruntled operators. Mining employment gradually decreased, especially in the county, and was replaced by a new phase popularly known as “bootleg mining.” Boot­legging in the early decades of the century was ignored, more often condoned, by giant corporations and operators. However, bootleggers began sinking shafts on company ground, using sophisticated methods and equipment. Eventually, companies pressed for wholesale arrests of the trespassers and the shafts were closed. The situation re­mained festering until World War II called for all able­-bodied men, the workers who had helped sink and mine the deep – and illegal – shafts.

Bootlegging, economics and strikes were not the only factors which diminished the deep mining tradition in Schuylkill County; not long after the turn of the century, strip mining was introduced. In 1909, a published account captured the excitement of the latest technology:

… mining plans of a most extensive character under con­sideration for a long time, are now fully matured and in a short while the Reading Company will begin operations upon the biggest engineering feat ever conceived by that corporation. It will be the first of a series of large undertakings in the anthra­cite field and will bring about a tremendous change in present methods, making possible the mining of coal now considered in­accessible or too costly to market. A Schuylkill County contracting firm has been awarded a contract for stripping the “Old Hickory” mountain, which begins near the Pennsylvania Railroad at Saint Clair and runs west into Mount Laffee. When completed, a distance of over two miles will have been covered and thousands of tons of coal will be marketed.

Strip-mining today is recovering anthracite in Schuyl­kill County. Although large corporations – such as the Park-Trent Coal Company near Mahanoy City – were active in the mid-1950s, interest in anthracite, as a fuel source diminished in the 1960s and early 1970s. Recent oil em­bargoes and wildly fluctuating and unpredictable market prices have once again favored anthracite, and huge coal reclamation projects recover thousands of tons each day. Even coal breakers remain in operation, primarily for the sizing and marketing of stripped coal.

Anthracite not only nurtured the railroading and iron furnace enterprises in Schuyl­kill County, but it attracted early settlers and waves of immi­grants as late as the turn of the twentieth century. When Schuylkill County was estab­lished in 1811, its population numbered about 8,000; by the close of the nineteenth century, the population had grown to more than 200,000 inhabitants. Spurred by the rapidly spreading word that fortunes could be acquired by mining coal, settlers came by foot, on horse-back and by wagon train, carrying a few precious possessions.

Pottsville, in the heart of the hard coal fields, was incor­porated as a borough in 1828 and later became the county seat. Property values increased dramatically. The lack of housing became acute. Pre­fabricated houses were designed in Philadelphia and shipped up the canal and, later, by the railroad. The coal boom surged and dozens of mining towns bristled with seemingly endless activity. In remote areas of the county, mining villages called “patches” sprang up around collieries. Dwellings in the patches were owned by the mining com­panies and leased to miners and laborers. The much-needed but greatly despised company store arranged prices and a credit system which kept the miners and their families constantly indebted to the company.

Throngs of immigrants arrived each week. During the 1840s, the Irish fled the famine and arrived in North America to work in the deep mines. Not long after the Civil War, central and eastern Europeans came to join the earlier immigrants as laborers and miners. All the ethnic groups brought their cultures and traditions and kept alive many unusual customs, contri­buting to America’s fabled “Melting Pot.” At one time, as many as twenty languages and dialects were spoken in Schuylkill County alone, contrasting quite markedly with the county’s earliest settlers, one-third of whom spoke German exclusively.

Upon the decline of the anthracite industry, many of the immigrants went to work in large textile mills in Frackville, Ashland, Tamaqua, Shenan­doah and Coaldale. Sensing the precariousness of life when dominated by a large single industry such as anthra­cite mining, immigrants urged their children to remain in school and pursue educa­tion as lawyers, doctors and accountants. Children of immigrants even turned to farming, one of the county’s earliest trades established by the German settlers in the fertile valleys beneath the towering mountains of coal.

Best-selling and award­-winning writers John O’Hara, Arthur H. Lewis and Conrad Richter used the locale and its people in many of their works. Lewis’s The Mollie Maguires chronicled the labor troubles of the second half of the nineteenth century while O’Hara’s lengthy novels captured the social ambitions and aspirations of the county’s distinctive classes – from coal barons to newly arrived immi­grants. O’Hara’s most famous novels – Appointment in Samara, Ten North Frederick, and Butterfield 8 – were set in Gibbs­ville, a thinly disguised liter­ary version of Pottsville. The county’s rich meld of ethnic groups were exploited by O’Hara long after he left his native Pottsville but to which he returned in his short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, and books. O’Hara called himself not only a writer but a social his­torian. His works are, in essence, the chronicles of life and labor in the southern anthracite fields.

Schuylkill County – pri­marily through its anthracite industry – has engendered Pennsylvania with great strides in industry and technology, transportation and engineer­ing. But it has also shared the unique customs and fas­cinating traditions of the earliest settlers and later immi­grants. The county, mirroring the anthracite industry, has suffered its share of reverses and disappointments, not to mention heartbreaks, but its people – although diverse and distinct in nationalities and beliefs – persevered proudly. Today, with new industry and technological firms estab­lishing and expanding in the area, Schuylkill County shines brightly with hope and enthusiasm. Countians never forget their rich past that, in many situations, enjoyed international attention. And they always remember the epoch when King Coal reigned, offering many of their fore­fathers an opportunity to live and work in North America, unencumbered and free.


For Further Reading

Binder, Frederick Moore. Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Us Utilization to 1860. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission, 1974.

Early Transportation in Schuylkill County. Reprint. Pottsville: Historical Society of Schuylkill County, 1972.

History of Schuylkill Ca., Pa. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co., 1881.

Hobbs, Herwood E., ed. and comp. The History of Schuylkill County. Pottsville: School Dis­trict of the City of Pottsville, 1950.

Hoffman, John N. Girard Estate Coal Lands in Pennsylvania, 1801-1884. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.

Roads, Jay Oliver. N.d. The Coal Region of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pa. Photocopy.

Schalck, Adolf W. and D.C. Henning. History of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. 2 Vols. State Historical Association, 1907.


Joseph M. Hanney is a retired chief clerk of the Schuylkill County Courthouse and a lifelong resident of the county. His pub­lications include histories of Pottsville and Schuylkill County, prepared in conjunction with the nation’s Bicentennial celebra­tion. The author is a past-president of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.