“A Town That Wouldn’t Say Die!” – Lykens, Pennsylvania in 1937

“Where 1,200 men labored not many years ago the total number of employees today is … yes, THREE.

The Harrisburg Telegraph ran this story on Page One on October 21, 1937.

lykens-mines

Amid the greatest financial crisis America had ever known, this profile of Lykens, Pennsylvania detailed the economic disaster spreading like a virus through the anthracite mining communities of Williams Valley in northern Dauphin County.

The writer points out the desperation sparked by the closing of the Short Mountain mines in 1933. Anxiety also appeared in Williamstown, as miners there began “robbing pillars,” work that demonstrated the beginning of the end of work at the Williamstown mines.

lykens-miner-1936
A Lykens coal miner in 1936. (Pennsylvania State Archives)

Arguably, this was the most desperate moment in the history of Williams Valley’s towns and villages. No employer could produce the number of jobs for all of the working age men and women in the region. Jobs lost in the mines could not be replaced. The decline had begun in earnest and would accelerate at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

By “The Town Visitor”

Lykens, October 21, 1937 – A town that wouldn’t say die!

Not that anyone could have blamed the community if, lacking that spirit, it had unresistingly passed into oblivion.

For the rich anthracite mines which brought the town into being, which developed it into an exceedingly busy and prosperous borough now are quiet and deserted.

Where 1,200 men labored not many years ago the total number of employees today is … yes, THREE.

Snatch an industry of such proportions from a community and what is left? That is what the residents of Lykens asked themselves on those drab days four years ago when the Lykens mines, by then operating on only half of their previous scale, finally shut down altogether.

The Short Mountain colliers of the Susquehanna Collieries Company, here – actually in Wiconisco Township across Wiconisco Creek from the Borough – drew their 1,200 employees not only from Lykens, but from Wiconisco, Loyalton, Berrysburg, Gratz, and surrounding areas.

The Short Mountain Collieries were one of three in the Williams Valley in Upper Dauphin County – Farther east are the Williamstown collieries of the Susquehanna Collieries Company, and still farther east, geographically in Schuylkill County, are the Tower City collieries of the Reading Coal and Iron Company, both of which are still in operation.

Why were the Short Mountain collieries closed? No one seems to have a satisfactory answer, although the most common explanation, accepted half-heartedly, is that as the mines reached deeper and deeper into the earth, the removal of coal was becoming too expensive.

All that the average resident of the community knows or cares about is that here, literally staring him in the face, is a vast store of rich coal that is not being touched.

For there is no doubt that Short Mountain still harbors immense quantities of the best coal to be found anywhere. It is said that enough is left for 75 years of continuous operations.

Be that as it may, the mines are closed. And the picture is not made any more pleasant by indications that the Williamstown collieries before long will follow suit.

Work at Williamstown consists of what workers term “robbing the mine.” That means that development work – the work of preparing for further advances into the coal – has been abandoned.

And it seems to fit neatly into rumors that the Susquehanna Company is planning complete withdrawal from the valley as soon as the present workings at the Williamstown collieries are exhausted.

Meanwhile those THREE MEN go on working in the Short Mountain mines, here. Their duties are simple. They must keep pumps going so that collecting water cannot flow into the Williamstown mines. They must see that the company’s huge power plant – large enough to furnish the whole valley with electricity – keeps supplying the driblet of power needed at the Williamstown mines.

And what of the other 1,197 men?

Of the hundreds who live in Lykens the vast majority have turned to one of two things – relief work and coal bootlegging.

Federal projects – WPA and PWA – have been the greatest boon. But for the many others, bootlegging has been the only possible means of earning a livelihood.

Hundreds of men are engaged in bootlegging coal. Their crude workings with home-made separators and breakers literally dot the mountain side.

lykens-bootleg
A bootleg mine near Lykens, Pennsylvania in the 1930s (Coal, Corn, and Country)

But the work is hard and not infrequently dangerous. And the return is so small that nine out of ten of these coal bootleggers would gladly exchange their task for any steady job.

A few of the bootleggers are making “big money” – as much as $25 a day. But they are the exception, the reckless few who are defying legal consequences by attacking the forbidden “barrier walls.”

The others are eking out a meager living working with crude implements and equipment, working harder and under more dangerous conditions than they would in any legitimate mine.

And what chances are there for the reopening of the Lykens mines?

So often have the community’s hopes been raised and then crashed that everyone has become half ashamed to voice any rumor or conjecture.

Nevertheless, the coal – and good coal – is there. And except for routine preparations, the only thing that would be needed to place the mines in operation would be the rebuilding of the breaker which was dismantled when work was abandoned.

Such a condition itself breeds hope. Right now hope rests in the possibility of Government intervention, or in some possible shift in ownership or control.

In the meantime, however, Lykens continues to put up its brave front.

The population of the town is roughly 3,000. It has dropped off only slightly since the mines shut down, and there are few vacant houses.

The casual visitor would hardly sense the serious aspect of the situation, for the town seems like any other busy little community. It has a bank, a modern hotel, a theater, a great many stores and business places, nearly a dozen churches, and a town newspaper.

He would see among other things, a splendid new municipal building, just ready for occupancy, a fine new swimming pool and new tennis courts in the community park and a new annex to the public school.

But he would not know that these things were accomplished as Federal-aid projects the real importance of which lay in the employment they provided.

Still other helpful projects include the walling in of Rattling Creek, a bridge over the creek, and, still in progress, the construction of a new road from Lykens in Powell’s Valley.

But in addition to relief projects and coal bootlegging, where are men working?

Some have obtained work at the Williamstown mines. The American Briquette Company, just across Wiconisco Creek in Wiconisco Township provides employment for about 100 from Lykens and Wiconisco in the manufacture of coal briquettes.

The Gring Coal Company employs about 25 at its washery nearby.

The Julius Leventhal and Brothers shirt factory employs about 200, but most of them are women, and many are not residents of Lykens. The plant was established here only last July, succeeding the Fox Garment Company which was employing about 300 when it closed down a year and a half ago.

The Reiff and Tressler Tap and Reamer Company employs between fifty and sixty as a result of recent large increases in production.

And small numbers of others ranging from a few to a dozen are employed in such businesses as the Lykens Paper Box Company, the Model Laundry, Wentzler’s Brewery.

The lack of other industries can be traced directly to the town’s earlier prosperity. While the mines were in full operation no industries were needed. There was work, more than enough, for every able-bodied man.

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5 thoughts on ““A Town That Wouldn’t Say Die!” – Lykens, Pennsylvania in 1937

  1. Great piece. Thank you. I was born and raised in Wiconisco so know exactly what and where you are writing about. I just printed it and will read it to my 88 year old father who is blind. I suspect it will bring back lots of memories and spur conversation. Thanks again and God Bless!

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  2. I grew up nearby in Wicoonisco and realized that coal mining was the backbone of the economy for this area back then. I lost my grandfather whom I never got to meet to the mines. Thanks for this article.

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  3. I was born in 1942. All of my relatives lived in the Lykens valley area. I remember growing up in Lykens diuring this time period. It was still a very prosperous, self sufficient town that also relied on coal mining for its work force. The town still retained its neat small town charm with all of the amenities that one would need. The steam railroad was still running hauling the coal from the mines to market although I do believe that there were better times prior to 1942. In my time there was a movie theater (Budd’s) a bank (Miners Bank) a fine hotel (Lykens Hotel) two fine swimming holes, one the Glen Park and the other the Park pool all built prior to my time by the WPA, etc. There were also many active bars and veteran organizations in town, after all it was a mining town. Eddie Grow’s stands out as one and I also visited Ippie’s across from the hotel. Most everybody knew everybody or were related to them in one way or another. Unfortunately the town today is slowly sinking into the sunset of better bygone days and is a mere shadow of what it was. The good people (many of them my relatives) there are tenacious and hang on hoping things will improve. I sincerely hope that this will happen before we truly loose what was once an extremely fine place to live and grow up in.
    These are some a my remembrances, there were many, many more…
    Will always remember the fine community’s of the Lykens Valley.
    John Richardson

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  4. In the United Kingdom our coal mining industry has been decimated in the same way. Entire mining communities have disappeared with nothing to replace them. Promises by government have come to almost nothing with past present and future generations left to scramble for the few jobs available in call centres and other office based jobs of which there are so very few. These proud , industrious people feel that they have been put on the scrap heap. Many are forced to accept government welfare and cannot pay their rents and mortgages. The world is changing and pollution must be controlled. However to replace their jobs with manufacturing plant for renewable energy ( wind) Would require huge investment and training but could enable the North of England to be revived and become a world leader in a vital future industry?

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