“And where’s Williams Valley?” – An 1877 travel guide pointed visitors to western Schuylkill County

“Today we will go to William’s Valley,” said a citizen of Williams Valley to artist Frank Taylor and two traveling companions. The account of their visit to the extreme southwestern edge of the Coal Region comes from The Valley of the Susquehanna and its Attractions published in 1877 in Philadelphia.

The travel book details the sights to be seen for tourists making scenic trips heading west on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Frank Taylor, an artist and writer from Philadelphia, provides the narrative of the trip along the rails. The group travels from their home city on the Delaware River up the Schuylkill and into the Coal Region. Along the way, Taylor provides illustrations of the sights and vistas to be seen near the tracks. His pen describes the history and importance of each region they travel through. Valley Forge, Reading, and Pottsville all get lengthy descriptions.

The cover material for The Valley of the Schuylkill

Their trip is aboard “The Ariel,” a specially designed excursion train designed for the owners of the P&R Railroad, but used for the group to travel Eastern Pennsylvania in style, and to describe the countryside for future fellow travelers.

Taylor describes the purpose of his work in the preface to the travel guide: “The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, for so many years devoted almost exclusively to the transportation of our mineral wealth, now recognizes [the demands of tourists], and offers facilities for a visit to the most beautiful, as well as least understood, regions upon the Atlantic Seaboard.” Taylor and his companions intended to enlighten visitors utilizing the P&R line to explore this area of the country.

“The Ariel”

As their work drew to a close, they decided to make one last visit. That’s when “The Native” offered to lead them on a trip to far-flung edge of the Coal Region on the border between Dauphin and Schuylkill counties – a place called Williams Valley.

Williams Valley1
Artist Frank Taylor’s depiction of the Kalmia Colliery and Williams Valley. 

Here’s the full account of their visit:

“And where’s Williams Valley?” inquired the three remaining members of the expedition.

“You’re a nice party of travelers, you are. Don’t know where – here, look at the map. We are to leave the main line at Schuylkill Haven, and go up the Mine Hill road past Cressona and Tremont, which is on the Susquehanna slope; then we must climb a mountain, car and all, doubling upon our track at Good Spring and Keffer’s, and there you will see Williams Valley, and are 1,610 feet above tide. I’m not going to tell you what it looks like, only come along.”

Williams Valley evidently needed discovering. If we three Pennsylvanians hadn’t heard of it, certainly the outside world had not.

But somebody had been there, else the tracks to the place would not exist.

We followed the native somewhat meekly to the depot.

We then went to Williams Valley, arriving there about noon. The intervening country was thinly settled with people and thickly covered by traces of former mining works, most of which have been abandoned.

Branch tracks lead away toward the north to collieries remotely located in the hills. Many streamlets, orange-tinted with mine sulphurs, run down the hills, seeking the Susquehanna. The Swatara, Rausch’s, and a score of others find their head-waters in these spring-lands.

Williams Valley presents to the eye, as we run swiftly along its northern verge, a prospect unusually extended and varied, even to the tourist familiar with all the phases of our crested hills and alluvial intervals.

Nature has torn away the thick crust of coal which once, in all geological probability, covered the scene, leaving its edge out-cropping all along the sides, well toward the summits of nether hills, and shaping with graceful slope either way to a stream, formed the valley. The sides are heavily timbered, and at the season of our visit the open spaces are brightly pink with laurel blossoms. The bottoms are given to fields well-tilled and richly harvested. Numerous saw and grist mills stand along the creek, which widens at its dams, and gives points of light like a silver chain far off toward Wiconisco, whence the name. Several hamlets, almost a continuous village, are strung along the parallel road. We can see all their houses, bu the people are too distant for the naked vision. All the stations are high above the villages, and lumbering stages climb to meet the trains.

Upon the northern side we find the East and West Brookside collieries, owned and operated by the Coal and Iron Company. The latter is the largest in the Pine Grove region.

Miles away, upon the opposite slope, a white cloud of smoke shows where Kalmia colliery operates. “Kalmia” signifies “broad-leaved,” and the term may apply to the breadth of its outlying breaker buildings, or to the spreading leaves of the laurel flower, so plentiful just here.

Kalmia is accessible by a branch road from Lorberry, which is seldom used for any purpose other than the freightage of coal. A more speedy way is by wagon from Tower City. Our pictures shows with more than verbal eloquence the grandeur of the view from its promontory of coal dirt.

Kalmia is owned and operated by Messrs. Phillips & Sheafer, the workings extending miles into the mountain in either direction from the main tunnel.

At Pine Grove we are joined by Mr. H.W. Tracy, the superintendent of this division of the road, and a gentleman thoroughly conversant with the resources and wants of the country.

From this point we return to the main line at Auburn via the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Branch Railroad, passing the towns of Stanhope, Moyers, Hammon, Auchey’s, and Jefferson.

Although Williams Valley and its vicinity have been not heretofore held up to the admiration of the traveling public, the reader may be assured that a visit will richly repay for the time consumed.

The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad controls many arteries and feeders leading to its main stem, which the limited space of these pages will not permit us to visit. They are embordered with scenes as varied, wild and picture-worthy as any we have met. They penetrate the tilled and the rocky lands. We leave the honor of their discovery to our friends, the Tourists.

This visit provides on the best accounts of the appearance of Williams Valley in the 19th century from the perspective of an outside visitor. The valley looked like one “continuous village” strung along the road. These communities were Tower City, Williamstown, and Wiconisco and their outlying patch towns. The P&R Railroad only stretched as far as West Brookside, above Tower City, in 1877, so these travels had literally reached the end of the line and were at the outer limits of the P&R’s substantial empire.

Tower City from the colliery and railroad at Brookside (Williamstown – My Hometown)

It is unclear whether this book led to an increase in tourists visiting Williams Valley and the mining works that dotted the mountains above. But the popularity of such excursions grew tremendously in the late 19th century, and Frank Taylor’s group of visitors were likely not the last tourists to be seen in the small mining communities at the southern reaches of the Coal Region.

Featured Image: Frank H. Taylor’s sketch showing the Kalmia Colliery overlooking Williams Valley. This is by far one of the best sketches I’ve seen showing Williams Valley and gets the geography almost exactly right. In the distance, you can notice the smoke rising from both the East and West Brookside collieries on Big Lick Mountain. 

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