“This community sustains a great loss” – A fatal mine disaster in Wiconisco Township during the Civil War

In the winter of 1862, the coal mines in Wiconisco Township were bustling with war-time orders for valuable “Lykens Valley anthracite.”

Used in the production of iron, as fuel for locomotives and naval vessels, and for home heating, anthracite coal’s importance to the Union war effort led to an economic boom in the Coal Region. At Bear Gap in Wiconisco Township, money poured into the pockets of investors and the village’s newly minted industrialist Henry Thomas.

Advertisement for Lykens Valley coal in the Baltimore Sun, February 1862.

His operations at Wiconisco were so successful that he purchased a stately brick mansion in Harrisburg in January 1862. The Harrisburg Telegraph put the value of the home at more than $14,000.

But for the workers who made Thomas his fortune, the thriving war-time economy did not significantly alter their lives. The work of mining in Pennsylvania’s Coal Region was incredibly dangerous, especially in these early years before safety regulations and labor laws. A laborer in Wiconisco Township could expect long hours in the darkness for little pay in life-threatening conditions hundreds of feet underground.

And with money to be made in shipping coal to support the war, pressure to extract coal faster pushed workers to the breaking point. On February 7, 1862, these factors likely played a role in one of the deadliest accidents in Wiconisco’s collieries to date.

A sketch of Bear Gap made in 1862. The Short Mountain Coal Company is on the left side. (Pennsylvania State Archives)

In the slope beneath the Short Mountain Coal Company’s workings on the western face of Bear Gap, an improperly timbered roof gave way. For thirty yards of “gangway,” a 5-foot thick slab of rock tumbled down on helpless workers.

Moments before the accident, miner John McCas (also referenced to as McCaw) stopped to assist workers in the “fatal spot,” as the Lykens Journal put it. The top fall came down squarely on him, killing him instantly. As for the workers around McCas, others suffered injuries. Adam Robinson had one of his arms “turned to jelly” by the rock. The arm was later amputated by local doctors. The reporter noted that “Edward Myers had his boot entirely cut off.”

Several other workers were lucky to survive the fall and quickly jumped in to help rescue their stricken fellows. They successfully extracted Robinson, Myers, and others while discovering that McCas perished in the collapse.

On February 14, the Harrisburg Telegraph published a remembrance of John McCas.

This community sustains a great loss in the death of John. B. McCas. In him were blended all those ennobling qualities that adorn humanity. His sociability and good humor, the charm of his domestic circle – fascinated even the most casual acquaintance. He was an honest man, and reverenced truth and justice – was a consistent member of the M.E. Church and a firm believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As a result of the accident, the week’s production figures – tracked by the Miners’ Journal in Pottsville – showed that the accident brought production in the Short Mountain mines to a standstill. Only 843 tons of coal were shipped to market compared to 2,629 tons during the same week in 1861. The accident does not appear to have impacted operations on the eastern side of Bear Gap at the workings of the Lykens Valley Coal Company. They shipped almost 2,000 tons to market that week.

In the subsequent year, more accidents took place and working conditions only worsened. By the spring of 1863, the miners and workers in Wiconisco Township were ready to for a change. They revolted against Henry Thomas and his demands for an ever-increasing amount of coal to feed his growing bank account and investments.

You can find that story HERE. 

Featuring Image: The Short Mountain Colliery shortly after the Civil War. (Williamstown Historical Society)

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