A New York Times correspondent’s 1874 visit to Wiconisco Township

The grimy, coal dust caked village of Wiconisco seemed an unlikely place to earn a moniker like “summer resort.” Yet, that’s exactly what a New York Times correspondent declared the mining community in Central Pennsylvania in the summer of 1874.

The writer’s attraction to the Dauphin County coal town came from its unique opportunities to study nature, both above ground and below. The two column article appeared on Page 3 of the renowned New York publication on August 9, 1874. Its description of life in the community is flowery and seemingly failed to disclose the stark realities of a community in Pennsylvania’s Coal Region.

Wiconisco 1874
A photograph of miners at the Lykens Valley Colliery in Wiconisco Township, ca. 1860s. (Williamstown Historical Society)

A visit underground discloses the remarkable sights and sounds of miners at work a mile below the surface. It fails to adequately convey the dangers facing miners and laborers who labored long hours with the threat of cave-in, explosion, or suffocation. While remarking on the hard work done by those toiling underground, the writer never acknowledges the low pay and difficult living conditions faced by those who worked for ruthless companies seeking to squeeze every ounce of profit from the coal operations they owned in the Keystone State.

Above ground, attention is given to the natural beauty to be found in the region’s backwoods and along clear, crisp flowing streams. The writer ignores the destruction of nature necessary to the mining of anthracite coal. Mountains without trees, lifeless streams choked by coal dust, and communities coated in a fine layer of black dirt wafting from the colliery above the town.

What’s most surprising about the correspondent’s dispatch from Wiconisco? The belief in a future for a mostly squalid industrial community. It calls to the readers of the New York Times to visit a coal town and enjoy its mixture of natural and industrial adventures. The writer concludes simply – “come and see it.”

Here is the article in full:

From Our Own Correspondent

Wiconisco, Penn., Tuesday, August 4, 1874.

This delightful little town, with the musical Indian name, affords an excellent field for the study of nature, inside and out, above ground and below, albeit the place is all unknown to fame. Lying in a nest of mountains, sixteen miles east of the Susquehanna, Wiconisco is on the extreme western end of the great Appalachian coal field, which furnishes almost the whole of the world’s supply of anthracite. That magnificent humbug, the Susquehanna River, is noted for its idiosyncrasies. Most rivers follow the “lay of the land,” and are guided in their course by the highlands they encounter; this goes straight through one mountain chain after another, cutting them down from summit to base, and making a course at right angle to the whole system. One would expect such a series of obstacles to hem the river in a deep and narrow bed; on the contrary, it spreads an immense volume of water over a channel so broad that it does not give sufficient depth to comfortably float a saw-log.

Most rivers have their valleys lying parallel with their streams; this, at least in the mountain section, has no parallel valley, but is bordered by a succession of lovely little valleys lying between the mountain ranges and running back from fifteen to thirty miles to the bounding watershed. One of the finest of these is Lykens Valley, and near its head, perched on a mountain-side, just where a break in the Kittatinny range opens up two or three wild mountain gorges and where the valley contracts to such a narrow limit that a rifle fired from the summit of the mountain might almost bring down its game on the summit opposite, stands the town from which I write. Plain and unattractive in itself, it is yet a delightful place to visit, by reason of its magnificent scenery, its bracing air, and the advantages it offers for a quiet or active enjoyment, as the visitor may prefer.

Are you wearied with city heat and dust and noise? Here you shall have quiet and peace and cleanliness, and all the social virtues.

You shall breathe pure air, cleansed by miles of forest leaves, perfumed by leagues of odorous pine and spruce, and cooled and rarified by mountain heights until it sets your nerves a-tingle with bounding life.

You shall drink pure sweet waters, coming in perpetual flow, clear and cold from secret springs deep in the mountain’s heart. You shall eat plain country fare of beef fresh from the pasture, or fish fresh from the stream, and vegetables fresh from the garden, the whole well garnished with hunger sauce, for your pure mountain air is a wonderful promoter of the appetite. You shall cross, if you will, in purple and fine linen. You shall bring your carriage and drive at pleasure over the smooth, hard, roads of the red shale; or you shall don your oldest garments and whip the streams for trout, or scour the mountains for game.

I rose this August morning with the thermometer at 52⁰ and the water in which I bathed, fresh from an ever-flowing spring, was just 1⁰ colder. Judge if this be not enough to stir the blood and make the pulses fly. Even as I write, at 10 A.M., driven to it, as the Northumberland philosophers would say, by sheer excess of oxygen, I am fain to sit in the sunniest nook, and to wish that the keen edge of the air were just a trifle blunted. By and by, however, when I start out for a tramp, or to pay another visit to the mines, (of which I purpose to write if I can ever get round to them) I shall find it quite warm enough for active exercise.

Nature underground is well seen here, and is well worth a visit. Here is the primeval store of coal, black and shining, lying safely between its rocky walls, and waiting, as it has waited undisturbed through countless ages, for man’s call to minister to man’s necessities. Come into the narrow gap north of the town, where a brawling torrent has cleft the mountain from side to side and laid bare all the secrets of its structure. Loosened rocks have rolled down the sides of the fracture, storms have decomposed them and covered the exposed strata with a thin layer of earth, enough to support successive growths of forest trees, which, in turn, have added to it their decomposing leaves, until now all is again hidden, and the rocky layers, once laid bare, are again completely covered. But the cloak, though dense, is only superficial, and the miner, digging through a few feet of earth and broken rock, has found the prize he sought laying ready to his hand.

Imagine the gap, with sides washed bare and clean, as they were when the stream was young and the cleft was new. We see now that the mountain is not, as it appears on the outside, a mere pile of earth and rock thrown together, like a railway embankment, without regard to anything but building up the mass. There is order and regularity. There is no earth at all except a sprinkling on the surface. All the mountain is solid rock, but rock of several different kinds, and we can see that they lie in broad, thick sheets, the edges showing , as we stand at the end of the mountain. We see, too, that these sheets, or strata, do not lie horizontally, piled one upon another, like cakes on a platter; they are inclined at a very considerable angle, (about 45⁰ in this case, I believe), and one edge is near the top of the mountain, while the other is in unfathomable depths below. Apparently, that is. In reality, the strata, after going down with this mountain, rise with the next, and so go on in a series of waves over miles and hundreds of miles of country. Let us next notice the arrangement. The outermost stratum on the south, lying on the flank of the mountain and running down into the valley, is a reddish rock, very soft, and easily cut, which weathers rapidly where exposed to sun and shower. This is the red shale of the farmer, the new red sandstone of the geologist. But though called new to distinguish it from the old red sandstone, with which Hugh Miller’s graphic pen has made us so familiar, it is older than the coal, and is always found below it. NExt comes a hard, gray rock, composed of rounded pebbles of every size from a pea to a coconut, and of different natures – flint, pophyry, hornblende, granite, and many others – all bound together by some subtile cement into a homogeneous mass. It looks as it some ancient sea beach, composed of water-rolled pebbles, had been cemented into a solid mass by some powerful agency, and tilted up here to help form the mountain; and this is exactly what has happened. It is the mysterious beautiful conglomerate, the rock which tells such strange stories of vast periods of time in the world’s history. Itself of great  antiquity, it is made up of the fragments of still older rocks, broken down by the waves and tossed for ages on shingly beaches. It underlies the whole extent of the coal formation, but varies in thickness from a thousand feet at Pottsville to less than a hundred at Pittsburgh, and a few inches in the far West. Now comes a seam or vein, as the miners call it, of coal seven feet thick, then another stratum of conglomerate, and after that a second coal vein eleven feet thick. These two veins produce the Lykens Valley coal, and are the lowest of the anthracite series. They are the only workable veins ever yet found here, and per contra, are found nowhere else but in this western end of the territory. East of the Broad Mountain, the line between the eastern and western divisions, they have been sought long and anxiously; but if we except one or two rather doubtful claims, in vain. The coal is classed by some geologists as “semi-anthracite,” though others scoff at the distinction. It is softer than either Lehigh or Schuylkill, but not as soft as bituminous coal. It burns freely, with a clear, hot flame, and without the smoke and smell of bituminous. Lighting readily, keeping up a slow fire with little consumption of coal, but burning quickly and fiercely when desired, it is pre-eminently the coal for housekeepers’ use, though not so well adapted for furnaces and other works requiring intense heat. It has little sale in Philadelphia, and little or none in New York, but is widely known and highly prized throughout the New England States, where it is known as Franklin coal, and readily commands a dollar a ton more than any other kind, the price being kept up by the limited supply, which is always behind the demand. Happy are the men who mine this coal. Free, on the one hand, from the exactions of Mr. Siney and the W.B.A., for these clear-headed Welsh miners shun the pestalent miners’ unions as they would a snake; and free on the other hand from the extortion and tyranny of railroad companies, with inexpensive mining and a hungry market for all the coal they can produce, their lot is certainly an enviable one. All through the dull season work here has been abundant and money very plenty. Nor is there much to fear for the future. There are vast stores of coal yet untouched; the workmen are steady and industrious, far above the average of miners, and as for the railroads, while the operators are now hand and glove with the Pennsylvania Road, over which they ship, in case of a row with that corporation, they have but to snap their fingers and the Reading, only four miles away, will jump a the chance to make connections with their collieries.

So much for the geology and political economy of the mines. Turn we now to their practical working.

We are supposed to be dressed in clothing which a little oil and coal dust will not harm, and the Superintendent will furnish us all equipments, though little else is needed, the only requisites being a lamp and a guide. Each person is supplied with a in lamp holding about a gill of oil, with a cylindrical spout on one side for the wick, and a stout hook on the other with which to fasten it on the hat. The guide leads us to a cave running into the mountain. The sides and roof are of heavy beams, and the floor is occupied by a narrow gauge railway track, on which a long train of empty cars is standing, while three or four mules, harnessed tandem, stand ready to draw them. We clamber into the last car, where is a couple of mine-proofs, or mayhap a few powder-kegs – whether filled or empty is a matter of perfect indifference to the miners – have been placed for seats. Lean back against the side of the car. It is grimy with coal and mud, but you may as well get your coat dirty first as last, and, whatever you do, keep your head below the level of the top. You will see the value of this injunction pretty soon. At the word of the driver the mules start forward, drawing the train into the depths of the mine, and stepping confidently in the darkness.

A large oil-lamp is suspended from the leader’s collar, but the others walk in darkness, and the drivers are confident that even the leader’s lamp is a superfluity. They declare that the mule can see just as well in the dark as in the light, and really his performances would seem to justify this rather extravagant attribute. He will go serenely and undeviatingly through labyrinths where  a cat would dash her brains out, and amid darkness to which fell on Egypt were but a feeble comparison. Even now, the light on our file-leader is but a mockery of an illumination, and seems like that on the boasting Waukee’s fast express, to “keep clust on behind,” instead of showing the way in front. Perhaps it will go out entirely, but the mule will travel on just the same.

Now we leave the timbers which support the surface soil and pass under the solid rock, which forms a better ceiling than the stoutest beams. It is startling at first to see these enormous masses hanging overhead, to think that there are hundreds of feet of that dreadfully heavy stuff between you and the upper air, to notice the long cracks through which drops of water are trickling, and to reflect on the probable result to yourself if one of the said crevices should suddenly extend itself and let down a few hundred tons while you were underneath. No doubt the result would be disastrous, but the possibility of such a thing is so remote as to be quite beyond the probabilities.

Your guide knows perfectly well whether there is any danger, and will be sure to keep you out of any that may be lurking in your way. It is a noteworthy fact that visitors are never injured in coal mines. In the course of a long acquaintance with mining, I have never heard of a case.

On and on you rumble until the ride becomes tedious and the absence of life oppressive. You long to get out, to stretch your limbs, to see something: but it is an old mine, and the portion you are no passing through was worked out and abandoned, in all but this passageway, long ago. We may ride two miles or more before we come to the actual scene of operations. When we do, the most we see is a miner shoveling coal from a platform into the cars, or another filling them from a wooden shute in the side of the passage. There are walls of coal on either side, but we see no digging, and it is only when our guide, leading us up by the side of the shute, opens a little door and takes us up a dark, steep pathway into a “breast” or working that we see, at last, just where the coal comes from. Here is a space of any length and width from one to one hundred yards, according to the time it has been worked, and other circumstances, and of height equal to the thickness of the vein, and at the walls of this chamber a couple of miners are hewing and picking and blasting, loosening the coal and sending it down the shute, and constantly extending their working space until they reach the limits assigned them, when they abandon it and start a fresh “breast” farther on. Meanwhile a gang of men are constantly employed in extending the passage by which we have come, and which is their means of reaching the untouched coal within, as it is of communicating with the world without. Day by day, foot by foot, they urge it steadily forward, until the days become years and the feet are multiplied into miles, and they reach the end of the territory.

It has been found inexpedient in mining to work a breadth of more than a hundred yards at one time. Consequently this is the limit of the operations conducted from the passage or “gangway” on which we stand; but we presently come to an inclined plane which leads to a “counter gangway” rather more than a hundred yards above, the difference being allowed for a solid pillar of coal left to support the roof, as are also side pillars between all the breasts. On this counter gangway operations like those we saw below are going on, and above this is another and then another and another; while far below, down among the roots of the mountain, are still others with men working away, getting out coal and sending it to the surface on inclined railways worked by powerful engines.

It is a life of grime and toil and of some danger, though not as much as is generally supposed, and of comparative happiness.

Men who leave the farm or the workshop to spend a season in the mines rarely go back. They like the equal temperature, the steady work, the good wages, and the nameless attractions of underground life, and those who expect to work but a few weeks make it the business of their lives.  

When it reaches the surface the coal goes to the “breaker”- a huge wooden shed like nothing else on earth or under it, but admirably adapted to its purpose of preparing the coal for market. Here is freed from impurities – from slate and rock and the fine dust which accumulate in such enormous mounds around every colliery – is separated into assorted sizes, and is loaded into cars for shipment. The capacity of some of these breakers is wonderful. That of the Summit Branch Colliery, four miles from here, turns out 1,000 tons a day, and there are many others which do nearly as well.

I should like to say more about the romance and the interest attaching to this outwardly-repulsive, inwardly-fascinating underground life, but space forbids. I can only add, come and see it.

Needless to say, Wiconisco never became much of a resort town.

Featured Image: A view of Pottsville Street in Wiconisco, ca. 1890s (Lykens-Williams Valley History, 1922)

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