Williamstown Tunnel – A closer look at a Pennsylvania coal mine in the 1860s

Photographer Isaac Kunkel managed to capture an enormous amount of life in one image. The photograph he captured on a sunny day in the late 1860s captured a crucial location in the history of one Pennsylvania mining town.

He captured the miners, laborers, mules, and steam engines that helped drive the coal industry in the newly opened community called Williamstown, a boom-town on the northern tip of Dauphin County.

In the collection of the Williamstown Historical Society are a stack of stereographic images taken by photographer Isaac Kunkel in the years immediately following the Civil War. This revealing photograph can be found in that stack.

The image shows workers at the newly opened Williamstown Tunnel sometime in the late 1860s. Within a very short period of time, the operations at Williamstown became the most profitable coal mining operation in the world. In 1870 alone, 296,000 tons of anthracite coal were mined from the side of Big Lick Mountain, an astonishing amount for that early date.

In 1866, the first year the mines at Williamstown were in operation, this is how Major Joseph Anthony, superintendent, described the tunnel:

The Tunnel. – Total length, 1,040 feet. Width at bottom, 15 feet; at top, 12 feet; height, 8 feet. Double track laid with 22 lb. T-rail. A sufficient avenue for the conveyance of all coal mined from the present openings to the breaker

That year, the Summit Branch Railroad Company, which operated the colliery, reported a profit of $26,000 and reported that potential for future profits was great. This single tunnel and the outbuildings that assisted in processing and cleaning coal provided jobs for several hundred workers and single-handedly built the community of Williamstown.

Let’s take a closer look at the photograph:


This small train engine, later known as “lokies,” is named for the Summit Branch Railroad’s secretary, William B. Fowle. We can also see the unidentified engineer and “Williamstown Colliery” painted on the front of the engine.

Tunnel Opening

Here we see the opening of the tunnel and a group of four unidentified miners – two in the sunlight and two in the shadow of the opening.


Everyone is getting in the photograph, even the mules. We can see the lokie engineer again, but just over his left shoulder are an unidentified group of laborers sitting on some pipes. We also see two mule drivers about to take their team underground.

This photograph by Isaac Kunkel gives us the ability to peer for a brief moment into the difficult lives of the workers who built an industry that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1870s, Williamstown Tunnel extended all the way through Big Lick Mountain and emerged into Bear Valley on the northern side. The tunnel’s completion opened up the mineral riches of Bear Valley to the Summit Branch Railroad Company and solidified Williamstown’s industrial might into the 20th century.

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