When the evening train arrived in Lykens, Pennsylvania at 6 p.m. on April 29, 1863, a young Union soldier emerged and considered that he had “arrived among my friends once more.”
The corporal traveled the short distance to his family’s home in neighboring Wiconisco and began his short furlough from service in the Union Army. Yet, he found things to be quiet and slow. “I went around visiting my friends today but it is very dull around home at present,” Henry Keiser wrote.
Little did he or anyone else in the Lykens Valley Coal Region know, but things were about to become all too interesting in their small communities.
The spring and summer of 1863 brought chaos to life in the “Upper End.” Throughout March and April, events in Harrisburg had a negative impact on the coal business in Williams Valley. A special investigative committee in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives brought charges against local coal magnate Henry Thomas and politician Simon Cameron for bribery in connection with a January 1863 election. Testimony from numerous Democratic representatives revealed that Thomas and Cameron utilized investments in the Summit Branch Railroad Company in Williams Valley as an inducement for these representatives to vote in the latter as the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Both men were saved by Governor Andrew Curtin, who did not allow charges to move forward.
In addition to this legal crisis, miners in the Lykens Valley and Short Mountain mines went out on strike for higher wages at least twice during the spring – events which required the calling out of the county sheriff to keep the peace.
Trouble Brewing –
There seems to be serious trouble brewing at the Lykens Valley coal mines, leased by our townsman, Henry Thomas. The miners, it appears, are on a strike for higher wages, and it is feared that, unless the strike can be checked, the destruction of property must be large.
Mr. Thomas telegraphed for Sheriff Boas, who left for the scene of the disturbance yesterday noon, since which time we have not heard from the rioters. We will endeavor to give the facts as early as possible.
Following the scandal and labor strife, mine operator Henry Thomas unloaded his lease of the Lykens Valley Coal Company to new investors from Massachusetts. It was in the transition between these lessees that chaos ensued in south-central Pennsylvania.
The Army of Northern Virginia began passing into the Cumberland Valley south and west of Harrisburg in mid-June, creating a refugee crisis throughout the region. While the mines in Wiconisco Township were relatively safe in the mountainous terrain of northern Dauphin County, precautions were still taken. The mines were shuttered as dozens of men volunteered for service in militia units mustered to defend the state capital.
This closure was discussed in the Lykens Valley Coal Company’s report for 1863:
When the present lessees took the mines, all work had been for some weeks suspended on account of a strike among the miners; from this cause, and other almost unavoidable delays, it was late in June before they commenced operations. In a short time after they had started Pennsylvania was invaded, Harrisburg threatened, and even the works of the Company not free from danger. Many of the men gathered at the call of the Governor, near the field of the expected battle, and all work was suspended until the victory at Gettysburg relieved the State from peril.
In the aftermath of Gettysburg, the militia men returned home and the mines again began to produce valuable anthracite to fuel the Union war effort.
A few months later, in late-September 1863, a former minister from Wiconisco arrived in town and spoke of “hard war” against the Confederacy. Many of those who supported him had gone out to defend their homes and the vitally important collieries of the Coal Region in July 1863.
Featured image: The Short Mountain and Lykens Valley collieries in Wiconisco Township, PA (Williamstown Historical Society)