“The Pioneer” – Ashland’s Pioneer Colliery in 1864

As the Civil War raged, the growing village of Ashland, Pennsylvania roared with life and industry. Looming over the community in northern Schuylkill County was the Pioneer Colliery, a mining operation that filled the narrow valley in which Ashland was situated with clanging noise and black dust.

An artist captured the towering colliery on Ashland’s southeastern border for an 1864 map of Schuylkill County published by James Scott based on surveys by W.J. Cox and Walter Scott.

pioneer colliery
Pioneer Colliery at Ashland. The current “lokey” railroad tour from Pioneer Tunnel takes visitors near the top of the colliery, where the plane stretching into the Pioneer breaker. (Library of Congress)

Construction of the colliery began in 1853 by Bancroft, Lewis and Company. Around the colliery, the village of Ashland rapidly expanded and other collieries opened nearby to tap into the thick veins of anthracite coal running beneath the hills upon which the village was built.

The Pioneer Colliery earned its name in September 1854 when it shipped its first load of anthracite coal to market by rail.

By the time of the Civil War, the operation employed 400-500 men, a significant amount of the population of Ashland which stood at almost 4,000 people. The Pioneer Colliery gained a national reputation in 1863, when a correspondent for Scientific American visited and wrote about an ambitious engineering project at the site. The Pioneer Colliery had been connected to a neighboring mining operation, the Tunnel Colliery, more than 600 feet below the surface. A powerful pump was constructed at the Pioneer side of the Mahanoy Creek that drained water from both collieries.

bancroft ad
Advertisement for coal from the Pioneer Colliery from the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, June 1864. The coal was being sold from Pier No. 9 of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company’s shipping facilities on the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

In 1867, the Pioneer Colliery experienced its deadliest disaster when an explosion occurred deep within the mine. Eleven men were killed when a “firedamp” reached an open flame near the face of the coal within the Pioneer Tunnel. Firedamp is methane gas found within coal mines.

The colliery’s workings later came under the control of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. Pioneer Tunnel, now operated as a mine tour in Ashland, was named for the original colliery that sat just east of the tunnel’s opening.

pioneer colliery
A Google Maps view looking the site of the Pioneer Colliery on the southwest edge of Ashland. The railroad tracks stretching into the distance once traveled beneath the colliery. Towering coal banks stood on the site of the Pioneer Colliery until the 1940s when they removed for the valuable anthracite hidden within. 

The Pioneer Colliery was one of the multitude of collieries that dotted the landscape around Ashland in the 19th century that did not survive the 20th century.

Over the next few weeks, we will be using the 1864 map of Schuylkill County to reexamine a few of the forgotten places that were once vital to the history of the southern Coal Region.

Featured Image: Pioneer Colliery as it looked in 1864, Library of Congress

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