“The lonely valley was alive with workers” – The Mahanoy Valley in 1874

Out of wilderness came the wild towns of the Mahanoy Valley.

Ashland. Girardville. Mahanoy Plane. Gilberton. Shenandoah. Mahanoy City.

These communities and the patch towns that surrounded them suddenly appeared in the 1850s and 1860s out of pure wilderness. All built to mine black diamonds from the mountains surrounding the area in every direction.

In 1874, a New York Times correspondent eloquently detailed the circumstances leading to the development of the Mahanoy Valley.

The Mahanoy, or more properly speaking, Middle Coal-field, is one of those systems so aptly described by Macfarlane as “a mountain valley filled with hills.” It lies high above all its neighboring avenues to tide-water and the markets of the world, and is shut in on every side by mountain walls, which constitute a barrier impenetrable to all but the very best appliances of modern science; and for this reason, its immensely rich deposits of fuel lay untouched until years after all the other regions had been well developed.

True, Stephen Girard, always a half century ahead of his times, came into this wild country very early in the history of coal mining, drove a tunnel to reach the Mammoth vein, and built an elaborate system of tramways and inclined planes to carry his coal over the Broad Mountain, to reach the Schuylkill and a market. But this was one of Stephen Girard’s few unfortunate speculations; for, just as his well-planned and well-built road was about completed, the times took a stride ahead of him, and George Stephenson’s new locomotive engine literally and metaphorically ran his horse cars off the track, while as if to add insult to injury, long years after the enterprising Frenchman was laid in his grave, the mining engineers found the vein he sought in his tunnel coming to the surface just in front of the entrance, its outcrop thinly covered by a layer of earth. If he had prototyped Mark Twain and run his tunnel the other way, he would have struck the vein the first week.  

This was the first and last attempt to mine coal in this portion of the anthracite field for forty years or more, and this did not pay. Some coal was found and a few tons sent to market, but it “cost more than it came to,” and the work was soon stopped. The tunnel fell in, the road was abandoned to the storms and the County Supervisors, and the Mahanoy region was practically closed, until the late war created a demand for coal so keen and so profitable that these rich deposits could be neglected no longer. Then modern science found a way for the locomotive over a route almost identical with that of Girard’s tramway, and up a grade which, with the exception of that of Mount Washington, is the steepest continuous locomotive road in America.

Another road pierced boldly through a long half mile of mountain, one or two climbed over the rocky rim at different points, and presto! The lonely valley was alive with workers and echoing from end to end with the rattle of trains and the shriek of the steam-engine. It was then found that the coal of this section was in quality and quantity to make good the wildest stories ever told of the Lehigh. Hard, glittering masses of the purest carbon were stored up in almost unprecedented abundance…

The Mahanoy Valley became home to a series of boom-towns in the 1860s and early 1870s. And with boom-towns come the inevitable problems of a population explosion. Lawlessness reigned in these years after the Civil War. These towns had major problems with violence and liquor in their early years. And they also became the seat of unrest directed toward the large mining interests that sought to absorb the patchwork of independent operators in the 1870s. Many of those hanged as Molly Maguires came from this narrow valley.

Developing the Mahanoy Valley came as a direct result of the Civil War and the sudden emergence of life in the wilds of the “Middle Field” created a situation as close to the “Wild West” as would ever be seen in the Keystone State.

Featured Image: Girardville, Pennsylvania (Girardville, Pennsylvania)

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