“As tempting…as California” – A traveler’s guide to Pottsville in 1852

In the warmth of a summer in the early 1850s a travel writer hopped aboard a train in Philadelphia on a journey to document what it was like to travel through the Coal Region by locomotive.

William Bromwell hopped aboard the train between Philadelphia and Pottsville and gave a vivid description of what the Schuylkill County seat looked like in 1852. He also noted its peculiar sounds, the development of its industries, and raved about the intelligence and thrift of its residents.

Pottsville 1852 (1)
Pottsville as seen in Off-Hand Sketches. Illustration comes from a later edition, which includes the Henry Clay monument added. 

From Off-Hand Sketches: A companion’s guide for the tourist and traveller over the Philadelphia, Pottsville, and Reading Railroad, 1852:

Pottsville…is the great theatre of the anthracite coal trade. It is situated principally on the northern slope of Sharp Mountain, which constitutes the boundary of the coal formation. The present population is about 8,000, included in which are some of the most active merchants, coal operators, and businessmen to be found anywhere in the state.

The citizens are remarkably intelligent and enterprising, and there is probably no place in the commonwealth where the people combine a greater amount of practical intelligence with the accomplishments of travel and scholastic learning. The evidences of their industrial energy are scattered broadcast throughout the Coal Region – above as well as below ground.

Schuylkill County presents a perfect network of railroads and canals, and there are probably upwards of one hundred and fifty miles of the former laid down below the surface of the earth. At nearly every turn in the road, the stranger will hear the loud puff of the colliery steam-engines, and the shrill whistle of the locomotive resounding through the narrow valleys and passes of mountains.

1852 Map of Pottsville and Railroads
A map from 1852 showing the railroad network in Pottsville (LOC)

Pottsville itself contains several large machine-shops, as well as a railroad and bar-iron rolling mill, recently erected. All the stationary steam-engines used in the Coal Region are made here or in some of the adjacent villages. The heavy machinery used in the railroad mills at Phoenixville and other places, was produced here, and it is probably a sufficient compliment to her mechanics to say, that their productions are properly appreciated where they are subject to the severest test, which is in their own immediate locality.

Pottsville, like all the other towns in the Coal Region, is of recent origin. Previous to 1824 there was scarcely a dwelling on the spot where the town now stands. The excitement which followed the discovery of coal, brought to the place a swarm of adventurous spirits, which rendered it the focus of unprecedented speculations in coal lands and town lots.

Pottsville 1833
Pottsville in 1833, just after the rush of coal speculation. (LOC)

In the midst of this excitement, the town took a run-and-jump into existence. It never went through the slow and gradual movements of a baby-existence; but with one tremendous bound, found itself nestling at the foot of a high mountain, swarming with hungry speculators and eager adventurers of every description – young, old, and ugly – green, black, and brown – all huddled together, and “eager for the fray…”

The Coal Region, twenty-five years ago, stood in a position equally as tempting to the people of the surrounding States, and especially those of our own, as California recently did, and still does. It was a new and unexplored region, and, in the midst of the scenes which characterized it, every one thought to play  apart, and receive the smiles of fortune. Many, of course, were disappointed: – but the more practical were enabled to sustain themselves, and with the aid of the improvements made in the moments of excitement and speculation, finally established themselves permanently in the successful pursuit of their business.

Pottsville is much frequented in the summer by strangers and travellers, but principally by those who, having investments in the improvements connected with the coal trade, or in the land itself, combine business with the pleasure of travel. The place, at this season, is therefore generally pretty well filled, and adds somewhat to its interest – though there is never a lack of gaiety and spirit in the society of the town. Indeed, from what we know of it, we should pronounce it inferior, in no essential, to that of any other community in the Union – characterized, as it is, by a high tone, governed by sound intelligence and fine social feelings.

The rides in the vicinity are magnificent – for while the roads are always in the midst of the wildest and most picturesque mountain scenery, they are also enlivened with the varied scenes of industry and activity peculiar to the region – little mining villages, colliery works, saw-mills, extensive forests, rocky promontories – now looking down from the tops of mountains, then from the narrow deeply-shaded valleys looking up; these, in continual and varied succession, are among the scenes to be enjoyed in a drive, in any direction, in the vicinity of Pottsville.

The roads are generally very good; indeed in many places they are unsurpassed. Nor are they, as might be supposed, very hilly; but winding around the mountains, they attain the summit without any steep ascents, and the trees and wild bushes always afford a shade, which, while it protects the road from the sun, and prevents the accumulation of dust, only renders it more inviting to the traveler.


Featured Image: Pottsville as depicted in Off-Hand Sketches in 1852.

Read another description of Pottsville in the decades before the Civil War


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