“A very thrifty, interesting place” – A visit to Tamaqua during the Civil War

In the summer of 1862, a travel writer for the Harper’s New Monthly Magazine made an excursion on the Catawissa Railroad and wrote an extensive article on the scenes they witnessed.

As part of the expedition, the writer made a long stop at Tamaqua and spent some time scoping out the community and visiting the anthracite coal mines in the area. The writer provided a vivid description of the region and a mine fire that had become a regional curiosity in the 1850s.

A locomotive used for excursions on the Catawissa Railroad (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Approaching the thriving borough of Tamaqua the traveler obtains, in many instance, his first correct impressions with reference to the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. Vast piles of the refuse coal and dirt from the mines covering miles in extent, are seen upon either hand. They are a source of immense loss to the operator or miner. The valley at and in the immediate vicinity of Tamaqua being so narrow, and the surface of the level land being consequently so circumscribed, it has been necessary to follow down the stream for miles to find a place to dump the large quantities of dirt from the mines.

These piles of refuse would appear, to the casual observer, to be of great value, the presence of coal in greater or less quantities being unmistakable. And so they would be fortunes for hundreds of people if in New York or Philadelphia; but the cost of transportation thitherward would far more than absorb the value of the portion of coal which they contain.

In passing these huge dirt heaps, the question of profit and loss, to the mind accustomed to such problems, most naturally comes up; and the hardships, the toils, and the losses of the miner are most vividly portrayed, when it is considered that it ahs cost him full as much to produce each ton of this refuse which is thrown aside as utterly valueless, as it has done to produce the ton of coal ready for market, and for which he is so sparingly paid.

About a mile below the town the opening or mouth of a mine, with its out-buildings, machinery, side-tracks, horses, mules, and drivers, furnishes a fair specimen of over one hundred and fifty just such operations are as daily going on within a circuit of fifty miles from Tamaqua.

Fifteen miles to the eastward the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company have tehri extended and varied coal-fields, the thriving borough of Mauch Chunk being its mercantile and shipping point. About the same distance northwardly the Hazleton Coal Company, with other operations of newer organization, produce large quantities of coal; while to the westward, within a range of twenty-five miles, the Pottsville, Minersville, and Ashland districts are dotted with openings, giving forth annually several hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite.

The immediate surroundings of the opening of a coal mine in full operation present a busy scene. The constant puffing of the pit engine, as it toils and labors in hoisting the coal-buckets from the bottom of the mine, or as it draws up upon the inclined plane the small mine cars loaded with the miner’s products, reminds the traveler who has been on the Western waters of the lullaby those high pressure steamboats afford in their hoarse cough, which never forsakes him while on board.

The large frame building, which inclines from a considerable elevation toward the tracks, covers the system of screens and “shuts” which clean and separate the different sizes of coals for steam, heating, and household purposes, after the larger lumps have been passed through the rollers or “breakers,” as they are called, contained in the tower-like structure which surmounts all.

Coal Shutes Below Tamaqua
An illustration that accompanied the article from 1862 about Tamaqua. The illustration is titled “coal shutes near Tamaqua.”

The breakers are rapidly driven by a separate engine from the pit machinery, and the crushing of the coals with the revolving of the large iron screw below, the running of the coals from the shuts to the cars, the yelling of drivers as they urge their mules at their work, all combine to make a hideous noise entirely peculiar and never to be forgotten.

The town of Tamaqua is a very thrifty, interesting place, contains a number of churches, school-houses, banks, etc. and its interests, its hopes and fears alike, are dependent upon the coal-trade. The machine shops of the Little Schuylkill Railroad Company are here located; and in these identical shops there stands today, exempt from duty, the original engine imported by the Company nearly thirty years ago – one of the first, if not the very first, locomotive engines brought out from England to this country; and there still lives, in the borough of Tamaqua, the identical machinist who came out along with the wonderful machine to put it together and run it. The Little Schuylkill Railroad was the pioneer railroad in Pennsylvania, and the boiler of this locomotive was hauled upon a wagon drawn by horses the entire distance, eight miles, from Philadelphia to Port Clinton, by turnpike; and all this within the memory of man.

When we reflect that, today, more than 4,000 locomotives of American manufacture are in daily use in the United States alone, and over 28,000 miles of railway are constantly traversed by them, it is surely a matter in itself of great interest to behold the imported engine of thirty years ago, and the man who came along with this great reformer to put it together for use.

The various coal mines in the vicinity of Tamaqua will well repay the traveler to sojourn among and carefully visit them. The superintendents of these subterranean scenes are generally courteous, and happy to afford every opportunity to those in search of knowledge or pleasure to gratify their desires. True, it requires some never, more faith, and a total disregard to a temporary soiling of the hands, face, and clothes. Besides these prerequisites, the seeker for knowledge should have a guide in the person of the superintendent, or someone who is perfectly familiar with the special premises about to be visited.

Powder in large quantities, of course grain, is used in mining coal; and were it not for the perfect system of ventilation connected with every well-regulated mine, the air inside would be entirely insufferable from the impregnation of Sulphur fumes arising from the frequent blasts.

This ventilation also serves to carry off “the fire-damp” which collects in the mines. It also serves to free the galleries and tunnels of the carbonic acid and other deadly gases. The visitor to the inside of a coal mine will be struck with the free circulation of pure air away below the surface of the earth.

In the vicinity of Tamaqua there is a burning mine, which many years ago caught fire in one of the galleries from a fire ignited by some of the workmen to warm themselves by. Through some means or other the fire was left to burn in contact with the coal, which was of a highly combustible character, and communicating with large quantities of coal contiguous to it, the fire became of such magnitude as to be beyond the power or control of man, and no human agency has since been devised to quench it.

The exact extent of its bounds is unknown; but like a volcano, it is a dreaded locality, and conjecture alone can approach the amount of the immense loss occasioned by this singular and uncommon accident. The direction from Tamaqua of the “Burning Mine” is known to every urchin of the place, and the traveler will have the opportunity to visit – at a safe distance – the mouth of the pit.

The mine fire the writer mentions appears to have been burning since at least 1854. In 1858, fumes from the fire killed two mining officials scouting out an attempt to put out the fire. The fear that local residents had about the fire, as the writer mentions, makes sense considering the dangers miners faced as a result of a mysterious inferno below ground.

Featured Image: An illustration from the 1862 article about the Catawissa Railroad in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

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