A 1919 history of the Short Mountain Coal Company – Wiconisco Township

The Short Mountain Coal Company was incorporated in 1851 to mine coal from the west side of Bear Gap in Wiconisco Township. According to the company’s secretary, the organization grew rapidly during the Civil War with the help of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

Edward Stabler, Jr. was 84-years-old when he addressed the York County Historical Society in 1919 about the company he once helped manage. In his talk, preserved in the newspaper record, the Maryland native detailed the complex dealings of the Short Mountain Coal Company’s financial dealings during the Civil War era.

This history, written by one of the key players in a company that helped establish the mining business in northern Dauphin County, is a vital resource in understanding how Williams Valley was developed in the mid-19th century.

The following essay was published in the Harrisburg Telegraph in August 1919.

Development of Coal Mines Is Traced

Edward Stabler, Jr., of Baltimore, the secretary of the Short Mountain Colliery Company, which was incorporated in 1851, to mine in the Lykens Valley, Dauphin county, these mines now being operated by the Susquehanna Collieries Company, recently gave a history of the Short Mountain corporation before a meeting of the Historical Society of York county.

Mr. Stabler is 84 years of age, and is still engaged in the coal business in his native city. His paper contains much interesting and valuable information about coal mining as it was done more than half a century ago. The facts which – he used were secured from the original books of the Short Mountain Coal Company. To add to the interest in this history of coal mining in the fifties in Dauphin county, Mr. Stabler has furnished the names of the dealers in Harrisburg who purchased Short Mountain coal in 1858 and later. These dealers were Eby Kunkel, Harrisburg Car Company, Gross and Kunkel, Harrisburg Cotton Company, John Wallower and Son, Henry Frick, John Eichinger, Thomas II, Wilson and Company.

Mr. Stabler’s paper which he read to the Historical Society of York county follows:

Incorporated in 1851  

The Short Mountain Coal Company was incorporated in 1851 by the State of Pennsylvania. The land originally belonged to the well – known Cope family of Philadelphia, three brothers of whom were largely engaged a century ago in the shipping business. Job R. Tyson, – a prominent lawyer of Philadelphia, and at one time a member of Congress, representing one of the Philadelphia districts, married a sister of the Cope brothers, and became possessed of the coal property, called “Bear Mountain,” including “Bear Gap,” upon which coal was found. It is not known whether the Cope family was aware of the existence of coal in that locality when they acquired the property.

It has been asserted that Stephen Girard had no knowledge of the existence of coal when he became possessed of the immensely valuable coal lands that now belong to the Girard Estate.

 When it was found that a very high grade of pure red ash anthracite coal existed in this mountain, Mr. Tyson and some members of his family and a few friends proceeded to develop the property. It is located at Wiconisco, Dauphin county, about sixteen miles from Millersburg, the shipping point on the Susquehanna river, at which point they reached the Pennsylvania canal and Northern Central railroad. The company was capitalized at $300,000, 12,000 shares at $25 per share, of which 11,766  shares were issued.

Early Shipments

The coal reached Millersburg via Lykens Valley Railroad for shipment by canal, while the Northern Central Railway cars were loaded at the mines and were transported over the Lykens Valley and Northern Central Railway to York, Baltimore and intermediate points. The company paid the freight at the rate of forty cents per ton (2,240) pounds from the mines to Millersburg, for shipment by either rail or canal. The freight to Baltimore from Millersburg was, at that time, 1853, when the mines were opened, $2.50 per ton in winter and $2.10 in summer.

Canal Basin - Millersburg
Wiconisco Canal basin at Millersburg in the 1860s

The canal basin had a capacity of six boats at one time. Some years later a large tonnage was carried by the canal from Millersburg to Havre de Grace the eastern terminus of the canal, and thence by steam tow boats to Delaware City, per the Chesapeake and Delaware canal, at which point it was transferred by horse or steam power to vessels for New England ports. A large number of boats were also taken to Baltimore daily, being towed by steamboats across the Chesapeake bay from the “outlet” of the canal at Havre de Grace.

The output the first year of mining coal was, in 1853, 4,000 tons. In 1854, 46,170 tons were mined with a fair profit “on paper.” The system of bookkeeping was so peculiar it is very difficult to figure out the profits if any were made by the company at that time.

Takes on New Life

In 1857 the capital of $325,000 was only half paid up. They showed a book profit that year of $10,234. In the winter of 1858, at an annual meeting in Philadelphia, the Baltimore stockholders showed a spirit of aggressiveness, and had a special committee appointed to examine the books, the physical property of the company, the manner of operating the mining and transporting the coal to market, etc. Three Baltimore stockholders were appointed to serve upon this committee. They made a lengthy and exhaustive report, as a result of which, a Board of Directors, largely composed of Baltimore stockholders, was elected to manage the affairs of the company. This new board elected James L. Sutton, president, and Edward Stabler, Jr., secretary and treasurer, whose term of office commenced May 1, 1858.

The company from this time took on new life. The business of mining, selling and transporting the coal to market was energetically prosecuted. The coal was sold on board cars or boats at Millersburg at the following prices:

Lump size used for steam purposes, per ton of 2,240 lbs. – $1.90

Broken No. 1 – $2.10

Large and Small Egg Nos. 2 and 3 – $2.10

Nut – $1.25

“Pea,” “Buckwheat” or “Rice” sizes were utterly unknown in the market at that time, but everything smaller than nut was thrown upon the dirt piles or allowed to wash into “Bear Creek,” and finally into the Susquehanna River.

Freight at this time to Baltimore by rail was $1.70

 To Baltimore by canal was $1.80

Early Prices

In 1860 and 1861, Broken, Egg and Stove Coal were sold at Millersburg at $2.00

Freight to Baltimore – $1.70

 In 1862, domestic sizes of coal were $2.50; Freight $1.90; Total – $4.40

In 1863 $3.79; Freight $2.60; Total – $6.39

In 1864, Coal $7.50; Freight $4.25; Total – [$11.75]

Hard White Ash Coal from Wilkes – Barre or Shamokin by canal at this rate, cost in Baltimore $10.85

The retail price in Baltimore was from $14.00 to $16.00 per ton, at this time; the prices of coal being at high water mark for the average period.

Previous to the outbreak of the Civil War the company leased the mines to Henry Thomas and John Yarworth of Tamaqua on a royalty, per ton, for all coal mined by them. This new and intelligent system of mining, was soon shown in the increased output of coal. Mr. Thomas was an Englishman and an accomplished mining engineer. John Yarworth was a Scotchman and a practical miner.

bear-gap-map
Sketch of the mines at Bear Gap. The Short Mountain Coal Company occupied the west side of the gap, located on the left of the image.

Being somewhat Handicapped by want of cash capital James L. Sutton bought out the interest of John Yarworth as lessee, when the firm of Sutton and Thomas was formed, with ample capital to develop the business of mining and to conduct a store for the convenience of the operatives at the mines.

To fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mr. Sutton as President of the company, Edward Jessop, a well-known resident of York, Pennsylvania, was elected to the presidency. Mr. Jessup, at that time, was the senior partner of a wholesale and importing hardware house in Baltimore, but always returning to York for the weekend, as his family resided there.

On Paying Basis

Under the energetic and intelligent management of the lessees, the company was placed upon a dividend paying basis and the stock rapidly rose in value. The output of the mine was increased to 107,000 tons per annum, being the largest single colliery at that time in the whole anthracite region. As the high prices for coal could not be obtained after the close of the war, the large stockholders were importuned to sell their stock and certain interests showing an anxiety to “pick up” the stock, the directors, during the spring of 1864, through a committee, addressed a letter to every stockholder, suggesting that they pool their stock with a special committee appointed by the Board and this committee, backed by the Company organization, would sell the stock as a whole and obtain for it the best price that it would bring. This plan proved to be effective.

Mr. Jessop was chairman of the committee and they soon had control of practically all of the stock.

After negotiating with certain parties in Boston, supposedly in the interest of the Pennsylvania Railroad, an agreement was reached upon a price of $35 per share. The sale was effected by Josiah Caldwell, a bold young operator and financier of Boston, who was backed by bankers of that city. The Company then changed hands. At a day fixed Mr. Caldwell presented himself before the Committee of the Board, armed with a certified check, and the transaction was soon closed. One of two Baltimore men remained on the Board to keep the organization intact until the new stockholders could have a meeting in Boston and elect a new board. The check was for $394,000.00 and was negotiated by the Bank of Commerce, Baltimore, whose president, James W. Alnutt, was a large stockholder in the Coal Company.

The Stockholders

Among the large stockholders were George S. Brown and Sons (established 1803); Henry James, lumber merchant; James L. Sutton, Otho W. Eichelberger, merchant; John Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company; Thomas Kenett, Baltimore., etc.

J. Edgar Thomson
J. Edgar Thomson, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad (ExplorePA History)

It would be interesting to note here, as showing the condition of banking, the currency, exchanges, etc., at that time and to show Mr. Thomson’s anxiety as to transferring his share of the sale of stock to Philadelphia during the Civil War period:


Pennsylvania Railroad Co.

President’s Office.

Philadelphia, March 30, 1864.

Dear Sir;

Inclosed I send you my certificate for stock in the Short Mountain Coal Company for 1,000 shares.

Do me the favor to send me a check on Philadelphia or New York for the proceeds at the earliest moment you can. If checks cannot be obtained at your place, sent greenbacks by Adams Express.  I assume from your letters that the terms of the sale have been complied with.

Yours truly,

J. EDGAR THOMSON.

Edward Jessop, Esq’r.,

President, – Short Mountain Coal Co.,

Baltimore, Md.


Mr. Thomson’s letter was dated March 31st, but the delivery and payment for the stock was not consummated until May. Mr. Thomson did not attend any of the annual or other meetings of the stockholders, but he invariably sent his trusted and confidential private secretary, William J. Palmer with a proxy, and we invariably complimented Mr. Thomson by appointing his secretary as secretary of the meeting. Mr. Palmer was soon after heard of as wearing the shoulder straps of a brigadier general in the Army, and later as the founder of Colorado Springs, and president of a railroad in that State.

This coal is still mined and known in the market as the “Summit Branch” or Mineral Railroad and Mining Company’s Lykens Valley. It is a very pure and high grade red ash, free burning coal. It analyzes very high in fixed carbon, shows very little ash, and brings a higher price than the best hard white ash coals.

Summit Branch RR
A coal train on the Summit Branch Railroad in Wiconisco Township in the 1860s.

The upper vein is nine feet and the lower 7 ½ feet in thickness. It has been controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad Interests for several years past.

Anthracite coal was used in Baltimore to a very limited extent in the decade of 1850. A bill for a ton of coal, sold in April, 1853, shows the price to have been $6.00 per ton. A bill in December, 1855, is for $7.00, the winter price, after the closing of the canal. No coal was brought to Baltimore originally by railroad. The writer of this has a bill for 25 bushels of bituminous coal, sold in Richmond, Va., in 1806, at 20 cents per bushel or $5.00 for the load.

Bituminous coal was mined near Richmond in about 1780 and it was transported to that city in wagons. The James River and Kanawha Canal was commenced about that time.

Just after the Civil War there was a fight for supremacy among some of the biggest mining companies in the anthracite region and consequent low prices. Coal was sold in Baltimore at retail at from $3.75 to $4.25 per ton, during that summer. On the first of September following, the mine price was advanced from the summer prices, $1.50 to $2.00 per ton. In 1896, we had another era of low prices at retail in Baltimore at from $4.85 to $6.00 per ton. The probability now is that anthracite coal will not, for many years, if it will ever, fall to such abnormally low prices again.

It will appear from this account that nut (or “chestnut” in 1858) size coal, was relatively very low in price. At that time, it was used chiefly for burning lime from oyster shells or lime stone. At some seasons during harvest time the sale of nut was very slow, and occasionally caused a stoppage of the mines. Now it will be observed, that nut is in great demand, and brings the highest price of any prepared size.

It might be stated here that the coal (anthracite) annual production, has increased from five or six million tons per annum to 77 million tons, and coal-carrying cars have grown in capacity from 4 ½ to 5 tons to 70 tons., 

Edward Stabler, Jr. passed away in 1923 at the age of 87. 


Featured Image: Short Mountain Coal Company workings in the 1860s

Read more about the history of the Short Mountain Colliery here


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3 thoughts on “A 1919 history of the Short Mountain Coal Company – Wiconisco Township

  1. In your research have you ever seen any lists of the actual miners names? I have often wanted to go to the state archives to check, but alas I never got around to it. It would be nice to see a document with the names of my GGgrandparents and sons I suppose.
    As always thanks for this blog.

    Like

  2. Jake, your work is exemplary. Your research has revealed history in our area that was unknown, or forgotten. Truly, thank you. I know your parents are very proud of you….

    Liked by 1 person

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