A reporter’s view of situation in Heckscherville and Schuylkill County in 1863

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Few places in Pennsylvania inspired as much interest and frustration during the Civil War as the mining village of Heckscherville. The tiny community in Schuylkill County’s rural Cass Township raised fears of strikes, riots, and rebellion throughout the Civil War.

MapCass-NewCastle
Cass Township in 1863 (Pennsylvania State Archives)

The events in Cass Township have inspired numerous scholarly books – Another Civil War by Grace Palladino and Sons of Molly Maguire by Mark Bulik come to mind – as historians attempt to understand the nexus of ethnicity, politics, and class in the heart of the Coal Region.

This same topic intrigued journalists during the Civil War. The editors of the New York Times sent a reporter into the Coal Region to figure out what was happening there as the price of anthracite coal shot upwards to previously unheard of prices. The reporter arrived in the Coal Region in April 1863 and reported back about conditions. They focused in on events in Heckscherville (they refer to it as “Hoecksherville”) as part of their reporting for the Times. 

Heckscherville was a company owned town in Cass Township, situated on the property of the Forest Improvement Company. It was owned by investors associated with Charles Heckscher and Company of New York. It was an Irish enclave it what was known as Schuylkill County’s “West End,” an isolated spot northwest of Pottsville and Minersville.

We’ve written about this spot before – it was considered ground zero for an uprising against state and Federal authorities in the autumn of 1862.

This is how the Times reporter documented the situation in Cass Township in the spring of 1863. As with the previous post we wrote on this Times account, it’s important to recognize the biases of the reporter. It is written from the perspective of a New York reporter who was mostly getting the perspective of mine owners and operators. From the reporting, it also becomes clear that the reporter did not venture into Cass Township themselves. So this report must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, as much of their reporting was shaped by those in Schuylkill County who feared and hated the mostly-Irish working class of Cass Township.

From the New York Times, April 26, 1918:

New York Times 1863

Hoecksherville 

Hoecksherville is located in Cass Township, Schuylkill County, about nine miles from Pottsville. The mines at that place are owned by the “Forest Improvement Company,” represented mainly by Chas. A. Hoecksher & Co., of New York, who have six collieries, employing 2,000 men, and are the largest operators in Schuylkill County.

The miners of that place are a lawless set of ruffians, and have long been the terror of their immediate neighbors, and the pest of the whole mining region. It would require too much space to go into a detail of their bad acts, as related to our reporter, or to give the pros and cons of their case as set forth by their apologists, for they do have an occasional apologist, although they have no defenders.

Suffice it to say that since the 1st of March last they have had full control of Mr. Hoecksher’s mines, which they refuse to work themselves or to allow anyone else to work. A year ago this Spring, they resorted to the same high-handed proceedings, and the Sheriff of the county being unable (or unwilling) to enforce the law, the Governor of the State was called upon and two companies of militia with a battery from Philadelphia, were sent up to restore order. At that time Mr. R. Borda, of Philadelphia, partner of Mr. Hoecksher, was superintending the mines, and when the military arrived upon the ground, instead of allowing them to disperse the rioters, and maintain the majesty of the law, which would have put a quietus on all subsequent proceeding of the kind, he very unwisely compromised with the rioters, submitted to their demands, and sent the military back the laughing stock of the miners.

This is the version of the affair generally given in that vicinity. It is said, however, that Mr. Borda claims that the compromise was made by the military with a Committee representing the miners, and that he merely assented to it on their advice. Be that as it may, the same lawless acts have been repeated again this Spring by the miners, and as yet no steps have been taken to repress them.

The strike this Spring is for the right of the miners to choose their own “bosses,” i.e., the men who superintend the operations at the different collieries, and make returns of the amount of labor done. To yield this right to the miners would be to give up the only safeguard against fraud possessed by the operator. The miners work out the coal at so much per car-load, and a boss of their own choosing would be compelled to make such returns as they might demand, on pain of personal violence.

Mr. Borda became disgusted with his men early this Spring and sold out his interest to a Mr. Verner. For some reason or other, or more likely for no reason whatever, Mr. Verne was not satisfactory to the miners, and although he has made two heroic attempts to take possession of his property he has been driven off each time with imminent risk of his life. Meantime the rioters hold possession of the mines, occupy Mr. Hoecksher’s houses, and commit depredations ad libitum upon anyone whom personal spite or freak of fancy may conjure up as hostile to their claims. They have lately taken upon themselves the task of pumping the water out of the collieries to prevent them from becoming useless during the entire Summer, but beyond this they have shown no consideration for the property of the owners, and even for this work they had the impudence to send Mr. Hoecksher a bill.

The Sheriff of the County, Mr. John Rausch, has been appealed to sustain the law, and has made one or two feeble attempts to bring the miners to terms, but being driven off by the women on his last attempt he hastily beat tracks for Pottsville, where he has since remained quiet. He owes his election to the miners and being naturally of a timid disposition he prefers that the majesty of the law shall be sustained by the highest authority in the State. He recommends calling on the Governor. Meantime the respectable citizens of the county are lamenting the scandal that is brought upon their good name by the inefficiency and pusillanimity of their authorities, and Hoecksher & Co., are suffering to the tune of several thousand dollars per week.

c22e7-ag2bcurtin
Governor Andrew Curtin

Some of the citizens of Pottsville are in favor of the General Government taking hold of the matter, which they say she has a right to do in view of the interest she has in supplying the market with coal; but it is not likely, as it certainly is not necessary that Uncle Sam should take any action in the matter.

Mr. Hoecksher was out among the miners last week and made a speech to them, in which he assured them that he should never concede one iota to their wishes until he got possession of his property. What action he intends to take is not known, but he certainly out to take some action, and that promptly, and whatever it may be he will be sustained by every law-abiding citizen in the county.

There are those in Pottsville and other parts of the county who believe that the miners have been instigated to this violence by the Copperheads, with a view to assist in creating that general popular commotion and lawlessness which they so much desire but our reporter could discover no indications of such influence being at work. Indeed he is compelled, in truth, to state for the credit of the loyal State of Pennsylvania, that he did not hear during his peregrinations of the first hiss from a Copperhead while within her borders, although he heard a great many persons threaten to hang the animal whenever he showed himself.

Pottsville View - Lawton's Hill
Pottsville, the Schuylkill County seat, sat about 10 miles from Heckscherville. (NYPL)

There may be Copperheads in the mining regions, but if so, they are remarkably quiet. They do not, as in New York, blab their treason in the public streets, while they complain that there is no longer liberty of speech. Such ridiculous absurdity as that is too much even for a Pennsylvania Dutchman.

The difficulty with the Hoecksherville mines is, that, unlike all the other mines, they are occupied almost exclusively by Irishmen, and the worst class of Irishmen at that. The “Molly Maguires,” as the Hoecksherville miners are called, are a lawless, whisky-drinking set of outlaws, whom even the priest has lost all control over, and who, like the rebels of the South, can only be brought to their senses by brute force.

In all the other mines, it is made a point to employ men of different nationalities, which prevents clannishness and conduces to order, but for two or three years past the Welsh, English, German, Scotch, etc. have gradually abandoned the Hoecksherville mines, and left the mercurial Irishmen master of the field.

More to come on this report from the Times in 1863.


Featured Image: A view of the village of Heckscherville in the 19th century.

Read Part 1 here


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