“Where was but the wilds of nature,” wrote Richard Nolen in the autumn of 1865, “is now presented by hundreds of houses including churches, schools, stores, hotels, hotels, foundries, machine shops, a railroad and all the other accompaniment of civilization, progress and intelligence.”
The scene he described was the utterly changed landscape in northern Dauphin County, where the Civil War gave rise to rapid industrialization and urbanization to the twin communities of Lykens and Wiconisco. Nolen, a 66-year-old stone mason, helped build and engineer the the towns in the 1840s and 1850s. He described the scenes he witnessed in a lengthy series of articles for the Upper Dauphin Register starting in 1865.
“A short time ago I went up to visit your town,” he wrote, “and nearing Lykens my thoughts reverted forty years back when the site of your town and all around it was nothing but a howling wilderness…”
By 1865, Nolen lived in Harrisburg with his wife, but his children still lived in the northern part of Dauphin County where they had grown up. His recollections provide an excellent insight into local history, painting a picture of communities that grew alongside the anthracite industry. He notes not only the addition of the railroad and the telegraph, but the rapid population growth. And he acknowledges the growth in the mining industry, noting the addition of a new tunnel just north of Wiconisco Township.
A short time ago I went up to visit your town and nearing Lykens my thoughts reverted forty years back when the site of your town and all around it was nothing but a howling wilderness, with here and there a hunter’s path leading to some particular spot noted for its game, where they might kill the wild bear and deer, which then roamed through the territory where Lykens now stands. Instead, now of a wilderness with it underbrush, I beheld the large and flourishing towns of Lykens and Wiconisco, with their well laid streets separated only by the Wiconisco creek.
Where was but the wilds of nature, is now presented by hundreds of houses including churches, schools, stores, hotels, hotels, foundries, machine shops, a railroad and all the other accompaniment of civilization, progress and intelligence. The railroad now runs through these towns, taking its large trains of coal to the extent of hundreds of tons by each train, and that accompaniment of science and enterprise, the telegraph, vibrates its thrills from your town to all parts of the country.
Instead of the wild beast of the forest roaming unmolested, we now see thousands of human beings, thrifty men of all nationalities, American born, English, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, German, Poles, Swiss, Jews, etc., all following their avocations and all directly building up the interests of the country by the aggregation oi their labor and capital.
Strolling up into Bear Gap, where the coal is mined, we see on her side large breakers mining out their thousands of tons of coal weekly, prepared for the market, and acres of ground covered with the wastage of coal to the depth of from 70 to over 100 feet, looking like vast mountains of themselves seeking to crowd and fill the valley beneath. This coal dirt has been burning for a number of years, but scarcely seems to be diminished by quantity.
We then go up to the front of North Mountain, where it is unbroken by a gap – you know the mountains double here, as it were – and we see a company driving a tunnel through that mountain preparatory to laying the rail upon which will be placed the iron horse, to tap the rich coal fields of the opposite side. What may we not predict for the future of Lykens? Bordered by an inexhaustible field of the best coal in the country. Lykens has become the base and outlier of a trade that in a few years at most will be unsurpassed by any coal region in the State. Williams Valley is now as famous for its… great mineral productions as it was once within my recollection for its unforgiving wilderness…
This section of Nolen’s history was republished by the Lykens Standard in April 1913. His entire essay can be read HERE.
Featured Image: Lykens and Wiconisco in the 19th century.