“I propose the following improvements” – Opening the Williamstown Tunnel

In the spring of 1857, fewer than 90 residents lived in what would later become Williamstown, Pennsylvania. Most worked as a farmers, scratching out meager living from the hillsides adjacent to the road between Lykenstown and Pottsville.

Joseph Ostermann and his family were the only ones making a living from the natural resource that eventually built a community in the middle of Williams Valley: anthracite coal.

On April 20, 1857, Ostermann addressed a letter to the shareholders of the Summit Branch Railroad Company describing his work in exploring Big Lick Mountain in search of valuable coal reserves.

Williamstown Tunnel, as it would later become known, had been under exploratory construction for less than a year. William Schmoele, President of the Company, wrote “the tunnel is constructed so as to have a breadth at the base of fifteen feet, and at its roof of twelve feet, while its height is eight feet…” A smaller, exploratory tunnel reached back more than a half mile  into the mountain and crossed several veins of coal which Ostermann detailed in his analysis.

Statement of H.J. Ostermann, Bos of the Coal Operation of the Summit Branch Railroad Company.

The following table exhibits a reliable representation of the number, thickness, and relative distance, from one another, of the coal veins contained in the Big Lick or South Mountain, all of which will be opened by our present tunnel before it reaches Bear Valley. It is certain that the South or Big Lick Mountain contains nineteen veins of coal, if not more. All these veins form a basin underneath Bear Valley, and show their out crops on Bear Mountain, which runs parallel with the Big Lick Mountain.


Thus it is seen that the total thickness of all the veins to be opened by our tunnel in the South Mountain, is 144 feet, presenting an average breast above the tunnel of more than 500 feet.

I propose the following improvements in the practical working of our coal fields, by which a large capital can be saved in the mining operations, and by which we shall be enabled to get out any amount of coal that may be desired at the shortest notice.

As soon as we are in each coal vein, we drive in each vein two gangways, one to the left and one to the right, in order to work as much coal out in the usual way as possible, for which our works present better opportunities than those in any operation known to me. But while we are thus operating in the usual way, in one or two veins, we may, at the same time, and without additional expense, drive our gangways in the next veins, in each direction, by extra sets of hands to the end, or boundary lines of our coal fields, which is about two miles on each side from our tunnel. Then, after arriving at each end, we can work out the coal from the end of each gangway towards our tunnel, making a clear sweep, without leaving coal pillars standing or losing any of the coal and without requiring any wooden props. This manner of operating gives to the workmen always one clear side, plenty of fresh air, requires only half the usual amount of powder, and removes all the danger of mining, while it saves on the whole about one-third of the expenses of mining the coal. 

I said that this improvement in our operations costs nothing, because the quantity of coal worked out by the extra hands, who drive those gangways to the end, more than pays the cost of the work, and our regular operations are in nowise interfered with, but the immediate production increased. Although the great value and practicability of this improvement is self-evident, it has so far never been introduced in any operations in this country, very few, if any, other coal fields presenting equal facilities for its adoption.

H.J. Ostermann, Bos of the Summit Branch R.R. Co.

Lykenstown, Pa., April 20, 1857

The Ostermann family continued to work for the Summit Branch Railroad until about 1862. Outside of the mining operation, the Ostermann’s also ran a successful farm along the Lykens-Pottsville Road, or present-day Market Street.

After the Civil War, the Williamstown Colliery opened operations on the mountainside where Ostermann had located his exploratory tunnel. By 1870, the mine was the most productive single mining operation on the planet, shipping more than 200,000 tons of coal to market that year alone.

Photo at Top: Williamstown Tunnel in the late 1860s, courtesy of the Williamstown Historical Society

This story has been adapted and updated from a previous post written in 2014. 

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