After the First World War, miners in Williams Valley faced an uncertain future

Anthracite coal had never been so integral to the destiny of the American republic as it was in 1917-1918. The hard coal mined out of narrow valleys in among mountainous Eastern Pennsylvania fueled not only the homes of those living on the  East Coast, but also the bustling industry that supplied the Allied war effort in Europe.

As the war raced toward its conclusion in the fall of 1918, coal production in the Anthracite Region raced toward its second-most productive year, surpassed only by the production in 1917. By the end of the year, the region’s workers had turned out 98,826,684 tons of coal, about 800,000 less than the prior year.

These two years marked the peak of production in the region. Never again would these numbers be topped – not even close.

And in December 1918, as the momentous year came to an end and negotiations over a permanent peace deal for the European continent began in France, miners in Dauphin County’s coal districts wondered what their future had in store. The year had been quite eventful. Many of their fellow workers had joined the American military effort to smash the Central Powers on the Western Front. And in the fall, deadly influenza had swept the area and killed dozens up and down Williams Valley.

A view of Lykens and Wiconisco.

For those in Lykens and Wiconisco, the year had also seen gains in their rights to fair wages and regular working hours. Pay increases kept skilled labor in the mines and away from the rapidly growing armaments industry. Negotiations over the eight-hour workday during the conflict had netted workers major advantages not always seen in the collieries of the Anthracite Region.

But the end of 1918 also provided reasons to worry. It appeared that demand for anthracite coal had likely peaked with the close of the war effort. The rise of newer, cheaper sources of fuel including petroleum products posed a serious challenge to the anthracite industry. Additionally, companies were required to dig deeper and deeper to find coal seams that justified keeping large numbers of miners employed, thereby increasing the cost in pumping water from the web of tunnels deep inside the earth.

Already in December 1918, signs of future troubles for the industry were appearing. But for those living through the moment, it surely seemed that the future was to be bright. America had defended democracy abroad and taken its place among the world’s great powers. American soldiers had proved capable on the battlefield and helped turn the tide of the First World War. And behind it all, American industry and ingenuity made it victory possible.

On December 28, 1918, a staff correspondent for the Harrisburg Evening News published this story profiling the mining communities of Lykens and Wiconisco.

Need for Big Anthracite Supply Spurs the Miners of The Lykens District

(From a Staff Correspondent.) LYKENS, Dec. 28. Miners in the Lykens Valley anthracite region are answering President Wilson’s appeal for increased production in a manner which should dispel any probability of a coal famine this winter.

Aided by mild weather, which has been responsible for lowering the demand considerably, the mining squads, each greatly reduced In numbers, as compared with conditions prior to the war, have been setting a pace which has brought the stove and furnace coal supply up to within a minimum distance of the demand.

The men have not been bothered by the weather situation which confronted the workers early in the winter of last year, and for this reason have not been retarded through that cause. Last December’s snow and ice held up the mining and other work around the mines to such an extent that it cut the production nearly in half for a period of time covering more than a month.

Labor conditions in the mines at Lykens, while not up to the point they were prior to the start of the war by a considerable ways, have improved. The largest, shortage now is in the active mining list, and the operating company is making every effort to increase its number of miners.

Jobs Open for Service Men

War conditions have been largely responsible for the decrease, but the mines at Lykens were not hit so hard through their miners entering the service as they were by the influx to war industry positions. The lure of higher wages turned the trick in a large number of instances, and proved responsible for the loss of scores of experienced miners.

Letters have been sent to each of the Lykens miners who entered the Army or Navy service during the period of the war, tendering to them their previous positions. This, with the increased wage scale as an additional consideration, is expected to attract the majority back. They will be put to work immediately upon reporting. Already a number of men in the service and members of Student Army Training Corps units have returned, returned, and many of those have started work in the different branches to which they are adapted.

Flu a Big Handicap

While the war drew many of the miners away, the influenza played a big part in lowering the list of workers. Death claimed a number through this disease during the recent epidemic. For a time disease was on such a rampage through the Lykens section that it was believed the mines would have to be shut down. This, fortunately, did not materialize, and while there are still a few cases of the influenza here, the number is very small, and there are very few miners now affected.

Just now the output or freshly mined coal in the Lykens valley section is about seventeen percent lower than it was before the start of the war. The piles of stored coal have been offsetting this deficiency to some extent. In a number of instances, however, and it is understood there is yet considerable of this to draw from. These piles have not been replenished for some time.

Just as soon as the demand diminishes, however, work will be started in storing a supply. Considerable of the coal mined during the Summer months is placed in this manner, putting the mines in position to supply the early Fall and Winter demand without overworking any of the departments.

Outside Laborers
“Group of Outside Laborers” – Evening News
“Miners at top of mine breast, drilling and digging” – Evening News
Workers Outside
“Carloads of miners ready for start into the mine” – Evening News 

Eight-hour Work Day

The miners work but eight hours daily, and there is only one day shift employed. A few score of repairmen and others are engaged in and about the mines during the period the miners are not at work. The miners themselves are engaged in active work about six and a half or seven hours daily. It is impossible for them to work longer owing to general underground mining conditions.

While the output of the larger coal is a trifle behind the normal supply, the supply of steam sizes is a glut on the market. There is practically no demand for the steam sizes, Nos. 2 and 3 buckwheat and several score of carloads are lying idle on the tracks outside the Lykens mine.

Early appeals for this kind of coal were made and filled, and nearly every user In the district supplied through the mines of this section has stored enough for use throughout the Winter months. Ten days ago the work was halted in this department at Lykens. Some of the men engaged in this department have been at work in other sections, while others have been left off for a few weeks.

Washeries Closed Down

Creek washeries in the section have nearly all been closed down. Each provides steam sizes and the lack of demand has caused this action by those in charge. There are three or four of these located in the valley between Lykens and Williamstown.

Prior to the war there were about 1300 men employed at the Lykens mine. Now there are about 800. Of this number, there are about 500 miners. The fact that the latter have been producing within seventeen percent of the pre-war output is a respectable and pleasing showing on the part of the men now engaged in the mining. All of the miners have been working with a will and their efforts have proved highly satisfactory to the mine leaders.

During the main spell of influenza, when many of the miners, were confined to bed with the disease, David Randall, superintendent of the Lykens and Wiconisco mines, was a principal factor in providing arrangements for the care of the victims. A school building was turned into a hospital for the sufferers, and every effort was made to restore the men to health. There were a number of deaths, but the majority of those affected recovered.

Utilizing Culm Bank

In taking care of the fuel situation, situation, a briquette plant has been established at the Lykens mine, and the large culm pile Is to be used in the manufacture. The pile is an unusually large one, containing the dust of coal taken from the mines during the past twenty-seven years. The pile is more than a hundred feet in height and extends for nearly a half mile.

Work in making the briquettes was opened early this week, and will be continued indefinitely. A fair-sized number of men have been put to work, and the output will soon be of considerable size. The coal dust is that screened after having been taken from the mines, and is of good condition. Demand for the supply are expected to be filled.

The miners now at work are well pleased with the conditions that prevail. Mine officials have placed a hospital within the mines, and have it well stocked with supplies so that treatment can be accorded an injured man at once. Assistants are on hand to treat the patient, as well. Injuries in the mines have been reduced to a minimum because of other effective arrangements made for the safety of the men. Shower baths are being Installed In the mines at present.

Improvement Contemplated

While only a few improvements have been made in the Lykens and Wiconisco mines during the war period, it is the plan of the officials to start on present plans within the next year. Numerous changes are to be made, it is understood, and in each case it will be beneficial to the workmen and miners. In some instances outside laborers not engaged in their regular work at the present time have been engaged in assisting with the improvements that have now been started.

The miners themselves are almost generally pleased with their present conditions. Starting to work at an early hour in the morning, many have completed their day’s work by two or three o’clock in the afternoon.

The breaker recently erected at Lykens is in excellent condition, and is caring for the mine supply.

By the 1920s, the mining industry in Williams Valley faced significant difficulties. As demand for anthracite fell, the prices plummetted. At the same time, the cost of production increased exponentially as miners drove deeper and deeper into the earth in search of profitable seams. By the time the global economy collapsed in 1929, the anthracite business in Williams Valley was already in its final death rattle. The Great Depression provided the coups de grace. 

Featured Image: An original photograph from the Evening News story, December 1918.

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One thought on “After the First World War, miners in Williams Valley faced an uncertain future

  1. My grandfather Hiram Messner was foreman at the Lykens birquette plant into the 1950’s. The processing building was located near the present Reiff and Nestor building in Coaldale. The club bank was directly behind this building.


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