Failure and bankruptcy loomed over coal operators in 19th century Schuylkill County

As I continue reading St. Clair: A Nineteenth-century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-prone Industry by Anthony F.C. Wallace, I repeatedly come across the passages that reveal much about the early stages of the anthracite coal industry.

One of the many fascinating historical figures in Wallace’s study is Enoch W. McGinness, an operator who found great success in the coal industry near St. Clair, Schuylkill County in the 1850s. Yet, McGinness also repeatedly stumbled into massive failures. In analyzing the choices that this operator faced as he worked with landowner Henry Carey on a new project in the late 1850s, Wallace writes this:

There were three ways to secure capital: by taking on monied partners, carefully chosen for compatibility; by borrowing cash from patrons, friends, and banks; and by contracting to pay for machinery and buildings only after some delay.

The need for ready cash was pressing in the period of several months between breaking ground and opening the first breast, for the contract miners hired to sink the shaft or slope, dig the sump, and drive the attendant gangways, headings, and airways had to be paid regularly or they would quit.

Some suppliers – perhaps of props, perhaps of machinery, or track, or wire rope – might require cash on delivery. Short-term notes had to be paid on time or his credit would decline. And while the coal dug out of a slope was in principle salable, it was small in quantity  and difficult to market until the breaker was complete and the railroad company extended its spur to the chutes. The projected date when the breasts had been opened and good coal was being shipped out at the rate of, say, 1,000 tons a week also the projected date when notes fell due and contractors had to be paid. If anything stalled the project and coal was not being shipped in sufficient quantity to satisfy creditors by this deadline, then a second and potentially chronic stage of financial crisis began.

Miners were not paid on time, dunning creditors were put off with promises, the landowner was persuaded to accept a delay in the quarterly rent payment, new loans were arranged to get the cash to pay off old notes. Eventually, if sufficient coal was not sold, the landowner would cancel the lease for non-payment of rent and the other creditors would force the hard-press operator to sell his machinery, supplies, and improvements…[1]

These were challenges that coal operators like Enoch McGinness faced in Schuylkill County in the 1850s and 1860s. They, along with the many mining disasters in the region, were among the reasons that between 1825 and 1875, “95% [of collieries in Schuylkill County] failed within five years; the median life expectancy of a colliery business was less than one year.”[2]

Those seemingly insurmountable challenges meant that it took a lot of good luck for a colliery in Schuylkill County to become successful and stay that way. This also set the stage for the violence of the 1860s and 1870s, as laborers realized the leverage they had over the success or failure of operators, leading to more strikes. And operators felt the pressure to use all the means available to them – the Union Army, private militias, Pinkerton detectives – to keep their men at work.

Wallace, in this passage, demonstrates the financial peril facing anyone who planned to enter the anthracite coal business in the turbulent times of the mid-19th century.

Featured Image: Shenandoah Colliery, ca. 1860s (Getty Museum)

[1] St. Clair, 220

[2] St. Clair, 258

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