Henry Keiser’s ‘reminisicences’ of Lykens and Wiconisco before the Civil War

On the Friday before the Memorial Day 1927, the Lykens Standard published its weekly news sheet describing the life and times of this mining town in northern Dauphin County. Alongside descriptions of the upcoming Memorial Day commemorations in Lykens, Wiconisco, and nearby Williamstown, the editors published a fascinating essay by long-time resident Henry Keiser.

In his essay, “Reminiscences,” the 87-year-old Keiser detailed what the twin mining communities of Lykens and Wiconisco looked like in 1850 and in the decade that followed. Keiser and his family moved to Wiconisco Township from Centre County in 1850 and so we get a description of Keiser’s childhood haunts in a community only recently hewn from the wilderness.

The former printer, Civil War veteran, and long-time employee of local coal companies highlights not only locations, but also the events he experienced as a child and as a young man in the southern reaches of the Coal Region. The essay is a detailed, yet amusing accounting of these mining communities in their infancy and their rapid growth in the mid-19th century as the Industrial Revolution roared to life.


Interesting Dates of Lykens 77 Years Ago By Henry Keiser

Henry Keiser

In the spring of 1850, my father, Daniel Keiser, with wife and six children, (I, the eldest, in my 10th year), moved from two miles west of Pine Grove Mills, Centre County, Pa., to the “Union House” on the South East corner of Main and Market street, Lykens, Pa., in two covered wagons (Prairie Schooners). The old hotel was lately razed and Hotel Lykens erected in its stead.

At that time the only outlet west for team from Lykens was the public road leading from Millersburg to Pottsville, Pa., which led along the mountain east of what is now Coaldale, a little east of where the Short Mountain Breaker now stands, turned east, then south, and connected with the road from Lykens to Wiconisco, a little west of the present coal yard.

Bear Creek, at that time, ran a little east of the Breaker, along the public road, and east of where the Washery now stands, down on the east side of the present large culm bank, and emptied into the Wiconisco Creek, between one and two hundred yards be low the Market street bridge. Later both the creek and the road were changed to their present location by the Coal Company, to make room for their culm banks.

At that time the waters of the Wiconisco or Black Creek, were as clear as Rattling Creek, abounding in fish, such as trout, pike, suckers, sun-fish, cat-fish, white fish, chubs and eels. I should have included water snakes, too, as on any fine summer day you could stand on Market street bridge (an open wooden bridge) and count from eight to ten water snakes lying on the brushes hanging over the creek on both sides, and the boys had a fine time looping them. The grape vines, green briers, and underbrush were so dense that it was most impossible to pass up along the stream, so the fisherman and others cut a path from about a hundred yards up Market street into the creek about where the east end of the Reading Railroad Depot now stands, and cleaned a large space at the creek, also cut a path up the stream, and cleared several more places, the cleared places were used by the fishermen, in season, by the citizens in general for swimming in the summer, and skating in the winter, and it was all dead water, from four to six , feet deep, from Market street bridge  to a short distance west of the trestle or railroad bridge.

Lykens Map 1857 1
Lykens in 1857 (PHMC)

In looking south on Market street to the railroad, from the Wiconisco Creek bridge, the only houses on the west side of Market street in April 1850, were a frame house in front, and a butcher shop in the rear, occupied by a Mr. Stroub, a butcher, on a lot near where George Kissinger now lives, now numbered 320 Market street; a frame house on the northwest corner of North Second and Market streets, now known as the Alvord property, number 328 Market street, and in 1850 occupied by Mr. Charles Miller, a railroad contractor, grandfather to our townsman, Jacob M. Miller, Insurance and Real Estate Agent, and Samuel Miller, a merchant at Wiconisco, Pa.; a frame dwelling and store room on the northwest corner of Main and Market streets, number 589 Main street, now occupied by Dr. W. H. Uhler’s family, and his drug store.

In 1850 there was a covered porch running along the front of Main street, and an outside cellar door on the side facing Market street; also a warehouse, and a stable in the rear; a frame house on the southwest corner of an alley and Market street, now known as the Fear or Matter property, number 522 Market street, and the frame Hotel Glen or Railroad House on the northwest corner of South Second and Market streets, number 532 Market Street, now owned and occupied by George Troxell.

Looking south on Market street, from Wiconisco Creek Bridge, to the railroad, the only buildings on the east side of Market Street, were a frame house in front, and a small house carpenter shop in the rear, where a Mrs. Mary Romberger Evans now has a dwelling, number 313-315 Market street, and a hosiery mill; a frame dwelling on an alley opposite [housed] Collier’s marble yard, now owned and occupied by John H. Good and H. Thompson, numbers 513-515 Market Street; the Union House southwest corner of Main and Market St., now Hotel Lykens; a frame house on alley, and in 1850, owned and occupied by William Martz, a carpenter, father of R.F. Martz, a Civil War veteran, long a resident of Lykens, and a frequent visitor to our borough, now owned by Miss Gertrude Miller, numbers 523-525 Market Street.

The only house on Market Street, south of the railroad was a house with a small store room on east side of Market street, owned and occupied by a Mr. “Morty” Bloom, who had a small store. Dr. Baker has since erected a fine brick building on the premises, number 600 South Market street.

North or Water street was cleared and the heavy timber cut out, but otherwise, east and west, it was a regular wilderness, not a house on the entire street.

The Alvord property on the northwest corner of North Second and Market street was the only property on the north side of North Second street looking west from Market street. Down in the neighborhood of North Second and Pine streets a Mr. Stiely had a house in the wilderness, where it was said, he sold intoxicating drinks. All wilderness from there to the farming country.

On the south side of North Second street, looking west from Market St., was a small frame house opposite Koppenhaver’s meat store, now owned by Mrs. Longenecker, 568 North Second street. Looking east on North Second street from Market street, the only house on the north side of North Second, street was a frame house across the alley from the present M. E. Church, numbers 621-23 North Second street. On the south side of North Second street, looking east from Market St., the only building was a small one-roomed schoolhouse, on a lot east, next to the present G. A. R. hall. Harry Fox later built a fine residence on the lot, number 680 North Second street, with only a foot path east to the railroad.

From where the Grand Army Hall now stands, up to the square, was an open commons, with a few large oak and pine trees, but no underbrush. There were about twenty log and frame buildings on Main street, looking west from Market street, but I am sorry to say that I am not able to locate one half of them. They were scattered along both sides of the street, with vacant lots in between, covered with trees and underbrush, as well as all other vacant lots over the town.

Looking west on Main street from Market street, on north side of street there was a log house and a cabinet shop, occupied by a Mr. Spangler, a cabinet maker, where Coble & Sons store now stands, number 571 West Main street. A Mr. Christian Kissley owned and occupied a small log house where Reiff & Helt’s furniture and undertaking establishment now stands, number 535 West Main street. There were several more log houses on north side of street occupied by Isaac Derger, and others.

Looking west on Main street from Market street on south side of Main street, there was a small frame building on alley across from the present post office, then owned and occupied by Mr. Jacob Deitrich, associated with my father in the timber and lumber business, since then replaced by a fine brick dwelling and now known as the Fenn property, number 574 West Main street. The original building was moved back to an alley and is now used as a stable. There was a log house directly east of the McAllister property, occupied by Dick Conners and his brother George, later replaced by a brick house now occupied by Mrs. Ella Minnich, number 510 West Main street. Also a log house at the then extreme west end of Lykens. A fine brick dwelling replaced the original house and is now occupied by Mr. Charles Price, number 342 West Main street. This was, at that time, the terminus or end of Main street. All west of that point was wilderness to the farming district.

Looking east on Main street from Market street, on north side of street was a frame house on a lot east of Blanning’s Hardware store and dwelling, in 1850 occupied by a Mr. “Lige” Brua, now owned and occupied by John Leos and his candy store, number 609 East Main street; a little farther east was a frame house owned and occupied by Christ Zigner, rebuilt, and now occupied by the Bateman brothers, number 633-635 East Main street. Adjoining this property on the east were three frame dwellings, owned by Mr. John Hensel, and are known as the Hensel properties, numbers 641-643-645 East Main street. On the next lot was a small frame house then owned and occupied by Mr. Joseph Matter, now occupied by Eddie Grow’s store, number 651 East Main street. William Matter, the former ice man, the oldest living citizen of Lykens, was born in this house. These were all the buildings on the north side of Main street, east of Market street.

On the south side of Main street looking east from Market street, there was a frame house east of the Union House (now Hotel Lykens) then occupied by a Dr. Shadman, and now known as the Bowman property, number 606 East Main street; a frame dwelling now occupied by Albert Fritz, number 630 East Main street, and a frame dwelling known as the Wolcott property, now owned and occupied by Charles Matter, number 642 East Main street. These were the only buildings west of the railroad.

East of the railroad, where the Baptist or Transfiguration Church now stands, a family by the name of Patrick Martin lived, in a small frame house surrounded by trees and under- brush, number 700 East Main street. John or “Dad” Martin, still living in Lykens, was born this house. Several hundred yards farther east, in a small house, on the lot at one time owned by Superintendent E. C. Hanna, and at present owned by the St. Mary’s Catholic church, lived Thomas Martin, an uncle of our “Dad” in the wilderness, with only a foot path to the Railroad, number 746 or 748 East Main street.

Looking west from Market street on South Second Street, there was but one small house in the woods on the south side of the street, about where Claude Thompson now lives, number 540 South Second street, in 1850 occupied by a Bird family. A foot path to Market street. All wilderness west.

There was a Sheen family lived back in the woods about where Lykens Knitting & Mfg. Co. now stands. The Coal Company had a small saw mill on Rattling Creek, run by water power, a little southwest of the present Mercantile Company’s plant. Outside of Mr. Bloom’s property there were no buildings on South Second street East of Market street. There was a commons of about six acres that had been farmed for some time, beginning at or near the alley where Harry Davis now lives on South Second street, number and ran east. Coble’s block houses, Patrick Fahey’s house, Joseph O’Gorek’s house, and the home of Dr. Smith’s deceased, properties and others are on this commons. There was a row of four of five large cherry trees (black) just north of the old opera house, and near the northern boundary of the commons. The trees were considered public property at that time, and the children, as well as the older ones, had a merry time picking cherries in season.

There was a Y to turn the engines, about where the superintendent of the coal company’s house now stands. The Y was ten or twelve feet deep at the south end. Inside of two weeks after moving to Lykens, April 1850, my sister Mariah, (Mrs. Joseph Dunlap) and myself, were going to school in the one- roomed schoolhouse on East North Second street, previously mentioned, with Mr. Geo. Hiney as teacher. Sometime that summer, while we boys were playing what we called “Round Town Ball” (now called baseball, exactly the same game with different rules), a gang of laborers came along, drove us off the ground, and started digging the foundation for a M. E. Church, while Richard Nolen, a stone mason, proposed to build. This was the first church in either Lykens or Wiconisco and is now known as the G. A. R. Hall.

Gar Building
GAR building in Lykens (JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ, M.D)

Soon after coming to Lykens, we heard from older citizens that there had been a saw mill on the Wiconisco creek, directly west of what is now the Pennsylvania Railroad or trestle bridge, run by water power, the water brought from Rattling Creek in a canal or ditch. There was nothing left of the mill, however, the race or ditch was still very plainly to be seen. The intake was in an alley just west of the Wilt property on South street, and ran in a northeast direction by where the coal company’s office now stands, on South Second street; a little west or thru the coal company’s garage, thru the northwest corner of the coal company’s lots and down on the west side of the present Pennsylvania Railroad to the mill. Of course, at that time there was no railroad or street crossing. In 1850 Main street did not cross the railroad. Some years later there was a steam saw mill erected by Jacob Miller, brother of Daniel Miller, an old resident of Lykens, on the east side of Arch street, leading to Wiconisco, on properties on East Main street, now owned and occupied by James Kerwin. John Wohlslager, Floyd Schoffstall and others.

Arch street was not opened up in 1850, and the only outlet to Wiconisco and the east for teams was on Market street, what is now known as Polish Row or North Lykens. A two horse stage was operated daily to Tremont. I remember shortly after we came to Lykens, a stage came in from Tremont, after dark, heavily loaded, and one large trunk strapped on a carrier back of the stage, after turning the corner for Lykens (later called Splann’s corner) a party cut the strap and carried the trunk to Bear Creek, which at that time ran down east of the present culm bank. The trunk was broken open by jumping on it, as you could easily see the prints of the heavy nails. The robbers were not caught, altho a fellow by the name of Ed. Harris, an Irishman, dead for a number of years, was blamed for one, but there was no proof. Remember it was all wilderness to Wiconisco Creek at that time.

The only opening at the colliery in 1850, from which coal was taken, was two drifts, one on the Bear Creek bank level on the Short Mountain side, and one on the same level, over what was afterwards the Lykens Valley slope. As told me by old residenters “the coal was broken and run over screens and thru chutes into small cars about the size of the present mine cars, and taken by mules to Millersburg, on what is now known as the old railroad.” The last trip taken to Millersburg on this road, late in the fall of 1849, was taken Mr. John, father of John W. John, long a resident of Lykens, and still strong and hearty.

The mines at Bear Gap in 1862 (LOC)

In April, 1850, there was no culm banks. The refuse was all used to fill up and level off, and quite a lot of good coal was mixed up with the filling between the slope house and breaker.

In 1850 the first regular shipment of coal was taken to Millersburg over the new railroad by the “Lykens Valley”, a small engine two or three sizes larger than the present “dinkeys” used at the mines, and used wood for fuel. William Mann and George W. Gladden were among the first engineers.

The coal was loaded into four or five ton cars or “hoppers”, as they were then called, and run down a plane from a little east of the present coal yard to a level of the railroad, about 100 yards north of the present railroad running to the Williamstown Breaker, and was used until the present “Back-Switch” was put down.

Plane - Wiconisco
The Lykens Valley Railroad’s “plane” (Williamstown Historical Society)

At one time, as a boy, I was watching a gang of laborers repairing one of the pits that received the safety truck at the foot of the plane. It was very wet and muddy and quite a few shere crabs were found in the mud. There was a big German or Russian by the name of John in the working gang. All at once one of the men said “John, here is another crab,” and it was a monster, too. John came running, took the crab, rinsed it off in the gutter along the road, pulled off its claws and ate it raw just as it was. It was so disgusting to my idea that I never forgot it.

The track of the new railroad was laid on what was called at that time “Mud Sills,” that is, large pine trees hewn down on both sides with wooden rails placed on the sills, and flat iron on top of that, no T rails. The sills were kept in place by a few cross-ties.

In 1850, the company had five stone houses along Bear Creek and the public road, a little east of where the Short Mountain Breaker now stands, erected by Richard Nolen, a contractor, and were known as “Stone Row.” The company also had a small sawmill, a house and stable in the woods, a short distance southeast of the present shaft, and several frame dwellings, under one roof, a little northwest of the present coal yard along the public road and known as the “Poor House;” also a large brick house opposite the “Poor House” used as an office by the company.

In 1850 you could buy lots on any of the streets outside of Main and Market for from $10 to $15. Even on Main and Market streets, you could buy lots for $50 or less.

The town of Wiconisco had, perhaps, a dozen houses. Tallman’s hotel on the south side of Pottsville street, at the extreme west end of the town. East of the hotel and on the south side of Pottsville street, was a frame dwelling and store room. A little farther east was the Shaffer property, and on the east end of town, where the state road intersects Pottsville street, Gottleib Seimons had a small frame house and several acres of clear land. George Wagner had a small house in the heart of the wilderness, a little west of the tool shanty on the present railroad to Williamstown breaker, above the big spring on Elm Street, now known as Centre street. Only had foot paths thru the woods to the towns. All south of Pottsville street was mostly dense forest.

What is now known as Germantown on East Main street, Lykens, was my best rabbit ground, and I snared quite a few. Those days there was no law against snares or traps. The woods west of the end of Main street and north of Wiconisco Creek, were also good hunting grounds, but the best all-around hunting, however, was up the swamp along Wiconisco Creek.

Boy as I was, I could start at the bridge south of Lykens, on any fine day, and fish up the Rattling Creek to the forks, as we then called it, now the reservoir, and catch from ten to fifteen trout. Of course in those days we knew nothing of fish laws or wardens and kept anything from four inches up. I caught but one trout in Rattling Creek over 12 inches long. It seems the native trout seldom grew to a large size, but since the streams have been stocked with different trout there are some large ones caught occasionally. In the earlier days we would go to Clarks or Stony Creek for large trout.

About 1852-53, my father built a powder mill, dry house, and storage house, south of Lykens, along Rattling Creek near the second bridge from Lykens, what is now known as the Glen. The mill was run by water power, the water being brought from a dam about four or five hundred yards up the creek, in an open, wooden flume or trough, on the west side of the stream, around the base of “Love Rock” and run over an “over-shot” water wheel, (part of the rail race is still to be seen where it emptied into the creek a little below the bridge). Samuel Mumma was his powder miller. He was the grandfather of Mrs. Charles N. Finton, the wife of the outside foreman of the Susquehanna Collieries Company of this place.

Father furnished powder to the mines for several years, and later, when the Northern Central Railroad was built up by Clarks Ferry, Millersburg, and up to the Susquehanna River north, in 1854-1855, he furnished powder to William McKissick, of Millersburg, Pa., who had the contract of building the road around the head of the mountain at Clarks Ferry. I as a boy of 14 or 15 years, delivered the powder in a one-horse wagon. 50 to 60 wooden kegs, 25 pounds to a keg, was considered a load. Crossed Berry’s Mountain at Elizabethville, made the trip in one day early in the morning and late at night. Also delivered several loads to a section across the canal at Harrisburg, Pa. This trip took two days, crossing Berry and Peter’s mountains.

Millersburg railroad
The powder from the Keiser mill was used to clear rocks from the narrow gorges that the railroad used to get between tall mountains and the Susquehanna River. This photograph shows the railroad’s passage just north of Millersburg, PA. (Lykens Valley Blog)

One time Henry Hoffman (a brother of James C. Hoffman at present living on South Street) and myself, while taking a load of powder to the section across the canal at Harrisburg, met with a large drove of cattle (several hundred) going in the same direction. They were going very slow and taking up the entire width of the road, with no place to pass them. As we had a certain time in which to make our trip, we could not afford to move along slowly in rear of the drove, we decided to work our way slowly thru the herd. When we were about in the middle, some distance north of Dauphin on the river road, the head of the drove came to a steam saw mill on the left of the road, in full blast. The leaders became scared and started to stampede to the rear, the rest of the drove start along back as the stampeding cattle reached them.

There we were in the middle of the wild, crazy bunch of cattle with a load of powder, liable to be upset any second, to be blown up with the powder, or trampled to death by the cattle. Our poor horse was on his haunches against the wagon and could not move either way, while the wagon rocked like a cradle by the steers passing on either side, thus keeping the wagon upright. Thru God’s mercy we escaped. Comrade Hoffman and myself went through the Civil War in 1861-1865 and I venture to say that we were never nearer death than we were on that stampede.

Corporal Henry Keiser and his wife Sallie during the Civil War. Keiser survived numerous battles and served from 1861 to 1865 with the 95th and 96th Regiments PVI. (Gratz Civil War)

People who have never seen a stampede have no idea what it is like. As far as we could see up the river we could see the dust fly. Needless to say the drovers did not attempt to check the stampede, for to do so would have meant death.

Later, say 1855 or 1856, after the railroad was completed, and the trains were running, I was taking powder to Wallower’s Hardware Store at Harrisburg, Pa. Somewhere north of Harrisburg, can’t say exactly where, the railroad is, or was at that time, much higher than, and quite near the team road (I think it was just below Clarks Ferry) as I came to this point a train came up the road from Harrisburg, puffing, and throwing sparks (regular fire brands) in every direction, as they used wood instead of coal, at least in part, those days, and had no spark catcher on this engine. The sparks flew all over my wagon, and as I had no cover on it I felt the chills go up my back for a moment.

Mr. Jacob Deitrich and my father, Daniel Keiser, practically owned the mountain on the south side of the railroad running from Lykens to Millersburg, from “Love Rock” to Canoe Gap, covered with pine, oak, chestnut, and other timber. They furnished prop timber, mine ties, etc., to the Coal Company, for a time, and cord wood, “Mud Sills” and cross-ties to the railroad company.

They also owned a large track of timber land covered with white oak, pine, chestnut, hickory, and other timber, bounded on the north by the Short Mountain and Lykens Valley Coal Company lands; on the east by the farm known as Englebert or Erdman’s farm; on the west by a farm that time occupied by a Mr. Bechtel, and on the south, by Wiconisco Creek. Elmtown, (now part of Wiconisco) two or three large culm banks, the Washery, the Briquet Plant, Coaldale, West End Hotel, and John Shaffner’s small farm are all on this tract.

They also erected a large saw mill west of Lykens nearly due south of the White Bridge, where they did an extensive business in lumber. Later the Douden brothers, Al and Edward, added a sash and door factory to the mill. After the death of Mr. Deitrich, John L. Foster and Edward G. Savage bought the undivided half from his estate, and later Foster and Savage and father divided the lands between them.

In 1850 there was a tall, straight pine tree on Main street, standing in front of what is now Dr. W.H. Uhler’s drug store. This tree was closely trimmed of all limbs, only leaving a bushy top. A young man occasionally employed around the Union House by my father, Daniel Keiser, would climb that tree, feet first, 20 or 30 feet up, for a drink of whisky.

Shortly after the close of the Civil War my father hired a young colored man from the South, 18 or 20 years of age, a former slave, who used to brag about his horse-riding. Some party in Lykens had a mule that no one could ride. The sportsmen of the town offered him five dollars if he would ride the mule from the square on Main Street to Pine Street. He accepted the offer and tied both the mules’ ears tight. He got on his back and the mule walked off like an old sheep. When he got to the Pine Street he leaned over and loosened the strings on the mules’ ears, and before you could say “Jack Ribinson” the dark was sprawling in the street, but he got the five dollars all right.

The “Lykens Valley” engine, previously mentioned, was housed in the present stone building during the winter, and when it was first brought out in the spring of 1850, there were quite a few people in Lykens who had never seen an engine, myself among the number, so there were a hundred or more persons lined along the railroad on the bank where the depot now stands. The engineer ran out slowly from the house, and when opposite the crowd two sharp blasts of the whistle, and at the same time opened valves on each side of the engine permitting the steam to escape. The crowd fairly rolled and tumbled over each other, and some started to run away. Well, I might have been scared A LITTLE BIT. An old lady yelled out in Pennsylvania Dutch “Harry Yesses’ Es is Fer Sprunga.” Of course, it created some laughter after it was over.

This is my recollection, in part, of Lykens and vicinity in those earlier days.

A view of Lykens and Wiconisco, ca. 1922

Featured Image: Henry Keiser and Lykens, PA 


Like what you see here? Follow Wynning History on Facebook!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

5 thoughts on “Henry Keiser’s ‘reminisicences’ of Lykens and Wiconisco before the Civil War

  1. Just in case anyone else is trying to find the GAR monument, here is the address that will take you there on google or by car. 626 N. 2nd street. It is not easy to find where it is located.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s