Williamstown, Pennsylvania – 1916

A century ago, Williamstown, Pennsylvania buzzed with the sounds of progress. Electricity flowed to homes and businesses. Electric lights illuminated people’s homes. Telephones rang and information flowed faster than ever.

On the slopes of Big Lick Mountain, on the northern side of town, the Williamstown Colliery resembled a busy anthill. Miners flowed into and out of the mile-long tunnel carrying coal from the deep mines on the opposite side. Dust flowed from the massive coal breaker, where men young and old worked long hours separating valuable anthracite from worthless slate.

The sound was deafening. Crashing machinery mixed with screaming steam engines to create a thunderous roar that carried up and down the narrow valley.

This was a town more prosperous than ever. Markets for anthracite thrived. A devastating war in Europe required American industry to continue. The economic engine of America drove that war. And Williamstown helped fuel that engine.

The Reading Railroad station at Williamstown, PA (Williamstown – My Hometown)

The Harrisburg Telegraph featured this prominent article about this thriving town in northern Dauphin County in January 1916.

Throughout the entire upper end of Dauphin County there is not a community in a better state of industrial health than Williamstown. It is true that this borough, like its sister towns of Wiconisco and Lykens, has mining for its chief industry. The great majority of the men are employed at the colliery, but for those who are not on the mine payroll there is plenty of work in the hosiery mills and stores and offices.

Williamstown is crowded with stores and few residents leave here to make their purchases elsewhere. Several hundred persons are employed in these retail houses and with the thousand men employed in the colliery here, there are comparatively few persons who are able to go out of their homes to work in the town’s two hosiery mills.

In the mines here hundreds of thousands of tons of coal are mined annually. The men work in 8 hour shifts and are so busy now that they are finding very little time to talk of any possible trouble over a satisfactory agreement between the miners and the operators on April 1. Mine workers in this territory appear to be satisfied in many ways with the present agreement under which they are working and many of them take occasion to praise the operators for what they are doing to make their dangerous work more safe.

A gangway inside the Williamstown colliery (Williamstown – My Hometown)

“Safety first” is a slogan at the mines at the present time and many improvements over the old ways of insuring safety are in vogue.

As dangerous as a miner’s work is, its humorous side often presents itself. Cages in which the men are lowered to and raised from the workings hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, are only permitted to carry ten men. Occasionally a fellow, in a hurry to get to his home, jumps into the cage and makes the eleventh man. The engineer refuses to put the machinery in motion and then, of course, the other ten men are delayed. The engineer, as a rule, does not have to request the eleventh man to wait until the next trip. The other ten take care of that. They simply pick up “Mr. Eleven” and drop him out of the cage and he is compelled to wait until the next trip. And the cage shoots up through the earth for 1,500 feet and the men again reach the open air.

The No. 2 Shaft in Bear Valley (Williamstown – My Hometown)

Reinforced concrete is being used extensively in the colliery and structural iron is rapidly taking the place of timber in many of the tunnels underground. In years past the great mass of earth above the tunnels has crushed the timbers intended to support its weight. Structural iron is a decided improvement over wood in this respect.

Another safety measure taken daily is that of examining the heavy wire rope attached to the cages in which the men are taken to their work. Each day experts go over every inch of this rope and if a single strand has been snapped an entire new section must be used. This safety measure has protected the miners for many years and it has been a long time since casualties have been recorded through the dropping of a cage.

During the present cold snap there is a decided advantage in being a miner. There are few men employed on the surface of the earth who are able to work these days with only a pair of trousers and a thin shirt to cover their bodies. Yet this is what the miners are doing today. The interior of the mine is very warm when extremely cold weather prevails on the surface. During the summer months the workings are cool so that the mining business is probably the only one in existence where the temperature is agreeable to the workmen at all seasons of the year.

Williamstown’s two hosiery mills are among the largest in this district and daily more than 1,500 dozen pairs of men’s half hose are manufactured and prepared for shipment to every State in the United States. Some of the good reach South American countries, too.

The Durbin Hosiery Mill (Williamstown – My Hometown)

One of these mills is that of the Unrivaled Hosiery Company, of which J.B. Lesher is superintendent. Men’s half hose is manufactured at the rate of almost 1,000 dozen pairs per day. There are 175 person employed at the plant, almost all of whom are girls. This company also operates a plant at York Haven and the product of that mill is shipped here to be finished and packed so that really 1,200 dozen pairs are handled here daily. The plant was established seven years ago in a small building with 38 machines and about 40 employees. The following year an addition was erected and more people were employed. Two years ago another addition was made and the force and machinery increased. Now there are 235 persons employed in the two plants and the concern operates 246 knitting machines. There are also 44 loopers and a similar number of ribbers. The produce is made of fine grade of cotton and reaches every section of the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The town’s other industry is the Durbin-Mellon Hosiery Company where 90 girls of Williamstown are given employment. This plant, like the other, makes men’s hosiery and approximately 450 dozen pairs are turned out daily. Two years ago the owners re-equipped the plant and at the present time plans are being made to use electricity instead of steam for power. This will greatly increase the output of the plant.

At the present time, there are 72 knitting machines in use, in addition to the other necessary machinery and it is the plan of the company to add more machines in the near future. This will necessitate the employing of more help.

Williamstown is busy from one end to the other and its leading citizens predict a bright industrial future for the borough.

2 thoughts on “Williamstown, Pennsylvania – 1916

  1. Thank you for your ongoing postings and history lessons of a valley that deserves to be recognized. Many of us now enjoy a better way of life because of the work ethic our forefathers provided in the mines. We can’t possible imagine the conditions they toiled in daily to provide to for their families. I especially appreciate the rare pictures you provide in your well described articles. My grandfather was preparing to be a breaker boy two years after this 1916 article was focused on.

    While your article presents the prosperity the area was enjoying and new focus on safety, I would like to see to an article that fully exposes the true danger and awful conditions each miner faced daily. The mine operators had little empathy for the workers as well documented by the many accidents that were always blamed on the miners rather than the responsibility of the colliery. As an example, if a miner were to be killed after entering the mine for one hour, his family would receive the pay for one hour and burial expenses were on the family. I’m uncertain if anyone has ever calculated the total number of mine fatalities recorded during the twentieth century in the valley or throughout Schuylkill county but it would be a staggering number.

    I keep a miners lamp in my office that was used in the in 1930’s to remind me to always prevail over any difficult circumstance of life. Many of us from the area have a work ethic DNA in that was created by these brave men that faced dangerous conditions of the mines each day.

    Kind regards
    Dan Klinger


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