Buried in the depths of an 1833 compilation of “Pennsylvania Sketches” remains a fine record of early industrial development in Northern Dauphin County. “Lykens Valley and the Coal Region” was written by an editor with the Harrisburg Daily Intelligencer after a visit to the newly opened mining district in what would later become Wiconisco Township.
The following narrative details the journey the editor and his friends made to the coal mines at Bear Gap and the scenery they viewed in the Lykens Valley along the way.
The senior editor of the Intelligencer, in company with other gentlemen of Harrisburg, visited, during the past week, the coal region in Lykens Valley. This delightful valley, situated in the northern part of this county, is bounded on the west by the Susquehanna river, on the north by the Mahantango mountain which separates it from Northumberland county, on the east by the mountains which separate it from Schuylkill county, and on the south by Berry’s mountain which separates it from Armstrong’s valley in this county. It is about 23 miles long, and from 8 to 10 in width. On the east, a branch of the Schuylkill mountains, called in the valley, the Short Mountain, runs over the Schuylkill line about 9 or 10 miles, and ends near the middle of the valley within about 12 miles of the Susquehanna.
This mountain from appearances contains inexhaustible quantities of anthracite coal of the best quality. Between two or three miles from the end of the coal mountain, is Bear Gap, a singular entrance into a narrow valley in the middle of the mountain, some miles in length. Out of this entrance issues a stream of water, called Bear creek, and large enough to drive a saw mill, and on which, one is now placed and in operation. The stream is formed of two branches, one running through the east and the other through the west part of Bear Valley and uniting just before the stream breaks through the entrance. Bear creek runs about half a mile south after leaving the entrance, when it unites with the Wiconisco which runs the whole length of Lykens valley from the east to the west, and enters the Susquehanna at Millersburg. At this entrance into the mountain at the gap, on both sides of Bear creek, mines of coal have been opened, and about SIX THOUSAND TONS of the best coal we have ever seen has been mined, and is now waiting for the completion of the rail road to be taken to Millersburg on the Susquehanna. The strata of rock on the south side of Bear valley pitches to the north, and on the north side to the south, both having an inclination of about 45 or 46 degrees and having the appearance of meeting under Bear valley. It is probable, that the part of the mountain which is not divided by this singular narrow valley, is also full of coal, it having been found in various places. The strata of rock here incline to the centre of the mountain, and probably meet in the middle. At the entrance, where a company is now mining, we entered one of the mines running horizontally into the mountain about 80 yards. The vein of coal was six feet thick, having no termination but the mountain itself. About 20 yards from this, was another vein 11 feet in thickness—every 20 yards there being a vein.
Between these veins of coal are alternate layers of pudding stone, slate, and sometimes sand. The slate or shale generally lies next to the coal, but not always — sometimes the pudding stone lies next to the coal, and in one vein we saw a layer of sand lying next to the coal. From this gap a company is now constructing a rail road, about 17 miles long, to the Susquehanna at Millersburg. From the mines at the gap it runs south or south-west about a mile until it reaches the side of Berry’s mountain which bounds the valley on the south- and then it takes nearly a direct west course to the Susquehanna. This rail road is already graded, and the. The most humble rails are laid on about one-half of the road. One of the company told us that if no accident happened, all the rails would be laid down in about 60 days, so that in about 90 days, coal would be carried to the river. When this is done, none can tell what a busy scene will be presented near these mines. The coal is one hundred miles nearer the market, than any on the Susquehanna now worked. It is of the best quality, and although anthracite, it is light and burns with a blaze, and may be kindled without charcoal. It is inexhaustible, and must be a source of great wealth.
Messrs. Elder, and Haldeman have had the foresight to possess themselves of some of the most valuable property in this valley. Their coal land on the mountain extends from a few rods from the gap to the Schuylkill line. They own likewise a tract on the west side of the gap, and also a tract on the west side of Bear valley. The company of Gratz, Shaeffer, and others, own the land immediately at the gap and the coal that is now being mined; but Elder and Haldeman own the land immediately below for a considerable distance. Thomas P. Cope, of Philadelphia, owns the end of the mountain nearly to the gap, about three miles in length; but the lands of Elder and Haldeman enclose it on three sides. On the north side of the mountain next to Gratztown, there are several tracts of coal land, one of which is owned by David Krause, Esq. of this place.
We are particularly pleased with the appearance of a great number of farms in Lykens valley. Near the end of the mountain is one of about 400 acres owned by Elder and Haldeman, which for location, the beauty of its situation, its handsomely laid out and well fenced fields, the buildings and the excellence of the crops, is almost unrivalled. The estate of James Buchanan, a little south of Elder & Haldeman, through which flows the Wiconisco is another delightful place. This farm, containing more than 400 acres, was the place where Lykens the first settler of the valley lived. From this place to the Susquehanna, on every little eminence the eye will be delighted by the sight, from mountain to mountain, of wheatfields and cornfields, of stone houses and barns, and orchards and groves.
Let those who wish to visit one of the most delightful spots in Pennsylvania, visit Lykens valley in Dauphin county. Excellent accommodations will be found at the coal mines, near the gap, at a public house kept by Mr. Michael Schaeffer.
This story was published in July 1833. A few months later, another reporter detailed his journey on the Lykens Valley Railroad, which had been opened to occasional passenger traffic in the late summer of 1833.
This story is vital to our understanding of the development of the coal business in the Lykens Valley region. The importance of the area’s coal reserves derived from the region’s proximity to the major consumer market at Harrisburg. Interest from businesses and consumers along the Chesapeake Bay and in the Baltimore area later developed as well.
However, it would take another decade and a half for the region’s full economic potential to be realized. In 1848-49, the railroad was re-graded and new iron track put down, allowing heavy steam locomotives to carry thousands of tons of coal to the Susquehanna River for transport south to Harrisburg, and then to wider markets.
The Intelligencer editor was wrong in one major regard in his story – the mines were not “inexhaustible.” Little more than 100 years later, the coal mines of the Lykens Valley Region were shuttered, the deeply buried supply of coal had become too expensive to extract.
Featured Image: A scene in the Lykens Valley (Lykens-Williams Valley History)