“Big Lick” – Photographs from the 1860s show a Pennsylvania coal mine with an odd name

Her coal, the Lykens Valley kind,

Could anywhere a market find,

While other coal was left behind,

Not from Big Lick.

– Anonymous

In December 1866, work began on a slope 2.5 miles east of the village of Wiconisco in the heart of Dauphin County’s mining district. Initially called the Lykens Valley East Colliery, the workings later gained a new name, generated from the mountain into which the workers burrowed – Big Lick.

The angled tunnel was expected to reach down almost 900 feet beneath the earth, where “an immense quantity of coal can be mined.” The Big Lick Colliery opened for business in the summer of 1867.

It was likely shortly afterwards that these series of photographs from the collections of the Williamstown Historical Society were taken. The colliery included the slope, a breaker for processing coal, and a railroad spur that linked the coal mine to the Summit Branch Railroad that reached the Susquehanna River at Millersburg.

Big Lick 2
The breaker at Big Lick processed coal from 1867 until its demolition in 1878.
Big Lick 3 - close
The ghostly figures of laborers at Big Lick. Note their size – its likely a number of those photographed are the “breaker boys” who worked sorting coal inside the building.
Big Lick 4
Another shot of the breaker at Big Lick. Coal would be hoisted up the slope (at top) and then dumped into the breaker where machinery and breaker boys sorted coal from slate.
Big Lick 1
Another photograph from this series shows workers on the railroad level at Big Lick Colliery. The railroad connected with the Summit Branch Railroad about a mile east of the colliery.

As in other collieries in Williams Valley and throughout the Coal Region, mining anthracite coal was incredibly dangerous. A fatal accident in April 1869 demonstrates one of the many dangers facing workers in the colliery at Big Lick.

Accident in the Mines – Man Killed.

A frightful accident occurred on Wednesday morning [April 14, 1869], about 8 o’clock, in the Lykens Valley East colliery, in the following manner: Two empty wagons were being taken out of the slope, accompanied by a man for the purpose of cautioning the man at the head of the slope, whose duty it is to detach the wagons as they pass over the knuckle, not to unhook the chain until the second wagon was up ; not hearing the warning, the cable was detached as the first one came over the knuckle, and the weight of the other carried the former back over the plane, and both went to the bottom. Mr. John Shively, passing the gangway at the foot of the plane, was instantly killed, being crushed in a frightful manner. He was at once taken out and conveyed to his home at Coal Dale. Mr. Shively was forty years old, an old resident, and leaves a widow and a large family of children, by whom his loss will be keenly felt. The man who accompanied the wagons, noticing the danger in time, jumped off, escaping uninjured. The wagons were demolished.

In 1870, the name of the colliery was officially changed from the Lykens Valley East Colliery to the Big Lick Colliery. Workers gradually moved to a village, originally named Clarendon but later named Dayton, just below the colliery. The community became part of newly formed Williams Township in 1869.


Featured Image: The Big Lick Colliery in the 1860s, taken by photographer Isaac Kunkel. (Williamstown Historical Society)

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