“Very Profitable and Productive”- Developing Williams Valley’s Anthracite Mines in 1863

Buried deep in the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, DE is a fantastic record of the industry that once drove the economy of the southern anthracite coal fields of Central Pennsylvania.

Among the volumes held in the Hagley’s collection is a booklet for the prospective stockholders of the Bear Valley Coal Company. The proposed company would not explore mining operations in Williams Valley, east of the workings of the Lykens Valley and Short Mountain coal companies in Bear Gap in Wiconisco Township.

bear-valley-company

Among the writers were engineers, operators of the Summit Branch Railroad Company (who would in 1865 open Williamstown Colliery and build the town), and Henry Thomas.

The latter had a brief, whirlwind history in Williams Valley’s mining operations. A Welshman who had emigrated to the United States in the 1850s, he had risen quickly from clerk to mining engineer in the collieries of eastern Schuylkill County. In 1859, he had leased the Short Mountain Coal Company along with a partner from Baltimore. Ditching the partner in 1860, he increased his holdings to also include a lease on the Lykens Valley Coal Company. In the span of one year, Thomas had grown to be sole operator in charge of the lucrative Lykens Valley coal basin.

In the course of his rise, he had befriended Pennsylvania’s notorious Republican political operative, Simon Cameron. With Cameron’s backing, Thomas quickly ascended the industrial and political ladder in Central Pennsylvania.

In late 1862, Thomas proposed selling off his lease in Williams Valley coal lands. Speculating in the anthracite coal industry became a prosperous, if dubious occupation as the American Civil War ground on. Looking back on the career of this self-made man, the Harrisburg Telegraph wrote, “He gradually rose until he was enabled to assume business as an individual operator and speculator in coal lands, at which he amassed quite a fortune.”

His rise was not without scandal. Henry Thomas became embroiled in one of Simon Cameron’s political scandals in early 1863. Removed as Secretary of War in the Lincoln administration in 1862 due to a scandal involving dubious contracts with the Union Army, Cameron sought to return to the United States Senate. In doing so, Cameron was accused of using his connections to Henry Thomas and the coal lands of Upper Dauphin County to bribe Democrats to vote for Cameron.

The case threatened to bring down Cameron’s political machine and Henry Thomas along with it. However, Thomas divested himself of his holdings in the “Upper End” in the summer of 1863 for a handsome fee. The Summit Branch Railroad Company, the group that would ultimately open the Williamstown Colliery in 1865, change ownership and landed in the hands of Boston coal speculators.

In order to grow the number of shareholders in the prospective coal operation in Williams Valley, the new owners of the company published a circular for potential investors. Henry Thomas was among the writers who described the future prospects for the Williamstown Colliery. Great riches were predicted to come from the mountains of Upper Dauphin County. Below is the letter he penned for the circular.

Harrisburg, October 7, 1863

Gentlemen – In reply to your inquiries in regard to the Bear Valley Coal Lands, I would say, that I consider that the Bear Valley coal field is, without exception, the finest in the State of Pennsylvania, and the veins from the Short Mountain and teh lykens Valley mines, at the western extremity, to the extreme eastern end of the Bear Valley Basin, are regular and undisturbed.

The Lykens Valley and Short Mountain mines are now, and have been, very profitable and productive; and when the improvements now under way are completed, they will be the finest operations in the State.

I have been, as you know, the lessee of these mines, and on account of my illness was obliged to sell; but I have studied and explored them and the adjoing lands until I am thoroughly conversant with the coal strata of the Bear Valley Basin, and I do not hesitate to say that I consider the body of lands adjoining the Lykens Valley lands and known as the Bear Valley coal lands, the very cream of the Basin, extending as they do from the line of the Lykens Valley lands, in an easterly direction, for miles along the Basin, without a single visible contusion from the eastern to the western boundaries of the same.

The veins as they go eastward grow thicker, and the coal superior.

The mountain rises to an elevation of from five hundred to a thousand feet, and all the veins in the property will have breasts above water level of from 500 to 1,000 feet in height. This fact alone makes these lands worth double the price per acre (for they contain double the amount of coal) of the lands in and about Pottsville, where they have little or no elevation, and are therefore obliged to do most of their mining below water level; but this large body of lands contain more coal above swater than ten large operators could take out in 100 years. The tunnel which was partly driven in the centre of the lands last winter should be once continued, to strike the eleven foot and the nine foot vein.

The 11 foot vein is the vein being marked by the drift at the Lykens Valley and Short Mountain mines, and from that vein all the coal they mine is taken; and wit will take them a century to excavate that one vein alone, and it has not half the run on both these lands that it has on the Bear Valley lands.

The 9 foot vein has a breast of over a thousand feet, and all the other veins have a breast of not less than 600 feet.

There are at least seven workable veins above water level in this property, all of which can worked by their tunnel.

The tunnel can be made an easy outlet, and of capacity to ship at least 250,000 tons per year from the 9 and 11 foot veins alone. The following is an estimate of the cost of driving the tunnel to these two veins, together with the cost of all the other necessary improvements.

Continuing tunnel to 9 and 11 foot veins….. $10,000

Breaker, capacity of 1,000 [tons] per day….. $20,000

125 Drift cars……………………………………………… $7,500

10 Mules…………………………………………………….. $1,500

Rail…………………………………………………………….. $2,500

50 Miners (Double)…………………………………….. $10,000

Shops…………………………………………………………… $2,000

Stable…………………………………………………………… $1,000

Extras…………………………………………………………… $5,000

[Total]………………………………………………………….. $59,500

With a further outlay of $15,000 the tunnel could be continued to strike all other veins above water level on the lands, and all additional equipments could be paid for that would be needed. The tunnel could then be made to yield 350,000 tons of caol per annum. The veins will have a run of several miles on each side of the tunnel, and there is coal enough above water level on this property to yield that amount per annum for centuries.

I will say to you, (as I believe you are now owners,) before you part with these lands make yourselves thoroughly acquainted with their value; in my opinion, there is no body of lands in the State of Pennsylvania that has so much coal per acre above water level, or that can compare with these in richness of quality of the coal, nearness to market, or freeness from fault. There are lands selling in the Coal Basin at $500 to $1,000 per acre that can’t compare with these.

Here are nearly 8,000 acres of lands, extending for miles through the coal basin, containing a quality of coal superior to any other anthracite, with a network of veins free from faults, and more coal above water level than can be taken out in a century.

The value of these lands can be placed at $5 million; and with an outlay of $200,000 expended in further openings above water level, and in driving slopes to open the veins below water level, they could be made to pay 15 percent per annum for 200 years on that valuation.

No one who knows these lands can say otherwise than “it is a princely estate;” and if there is any value in coal lands you have it in this estate.

Yours truly,

Henry Thomas

Henry Thomas continued investing and speculating in the anthracite mining industry throughout the 1860s. He became one of Central Pennsylvania’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens at the close of the American Civil War. Following the end of the conflict, Thomas moved his growing family to Philadelphia.

He passed away there in 1878 from kidney disease at the age of 48.

While little has been written about Henry Thomas, he more than anyone else is responsible for the growth and development of coal mining in the southern anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania.

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