“My brains and my wits” – A Scottish immigrant recalls his arrival in Schuylkill County in 1852

An 84-year-old sat down with a Pottsville Republican reporter in October 1914 for a discussion about what it was like to live and work in Schuylkill County in the mid-19th century. Robert Weir came to the Coal Region from Scotland in 1852 and found work in the coal mines in the vicinity of Branchdale, Forestville, and Heckscherville.

In the account given to the Republican journalist, Weir detailed his arrival in America, how we secured his first jobs in the Coal Region, and the many people he befriended in his time in the mining villages west of Pottsville.

This will be the first in a series of posts re-examining Weir’s interview from 1914.

From the Pottsville Republican, October 7, 1914: 

I came here and after being around Pottsville in 1852 for a few days I went up to Branchdale to what is now the Otto Colliery and what was then known as the Forestville Improvement Co., where they gave me work and I earned $10.00 the first week.

Pottsville in 1854. (Gleason’s Pictorial)

The first day, however, that I worked I earned $1.00, and while I was only a small little fellow who weight a little over one hundred pounds, yet they found that what I lacked in size and heft I made up in ability of using my brains and my wits, and at the end of the day I told the boss that if he was going to give me a man’s job I wanted double the wages that I was getting, and as they didn’t want to give such high wages to a young fellow they decided that they would give me double time for each day I worked that is, call it two days instead of one, for they didn’t pay more than $5.50 to $6.00 a week at that time for general laboring work, but under the new agreement I not only got my day’s pay but also received extra for those days that I did special work which pretty nearly averaged me two days for one.

The second day they took me into the blacksmith shop; I wasn’t content there, and the boss saw that he could put me at a better job, and so he took me to the top of the mines, and when I told him that I could open a new shaft there and boss the work of putting up the gearing and start the digging, he gave me the job and put the laborers under me. I was called a second hand, or handy Andy, and then later on I got a better position from the company.

At that time the Otto Colliery management, which was under the control of the oldtime Heckschers, who afterwards had big coal operations elsewhere in the region, and also up at Shenandoah, and finally got into the furnace building at Phila., and latterly became big capitalists in New York. One of them married an Atkins of Pottsville.

About the time that I got to Otto they had pretty well cleaned out the coal above water level, anyhow as far as their limited supply of mining methods would permit them and they wanted to get at the deeper veins. Then it was that I said I could open the shaft, and I not only bossed the putting up of the machinery, and put together the first engine that did the hoisting, but I also pulled up the first coal from below water level that was hoisted with an engine in the anthracite region, and it wasn’t long before that colliery was running from 100 to 150 cars of coal a day through the breaker.

A view of what Schuylkill County would have looked like in the 1850s. (NYPL)

I had come from Scotland when I was 22 years of age and came to Pottsville in the early spring of 1852 and went up Centre St. to coal mine where there was a Scotchman as outside boss. This coal mine was situated between the jail and Centre St. and the breaker was on the right hand side between Centre St. and the railroad, and the prepared coal from the breaker was hauled by mules and horses in little coal cars down Railroad St. to Norwegian, where the Reading passenger station now stands, and there was loaded on to canal boats.

I don’t remember who the operators of that colliery were, but I do know that the Scotchman, who was the boss, made fun of me as being too little to do any work, and to show him that I could do anything around the coal mines, I said that I could hoist the cars out of the slope and he told me to go ahead and I did it. This slope ran into the hill and connected with workings under [the] jail and Court House.

While I was here in Pottsville hunting a job I lived on Centre St. right below the Court House on the east side of the street. There was not much of Centre Street then. It consisted of many vacant spaces in each square and there were not quite as many cross streets then as there are now, and there were a few houses up around the Court House, but none over on what is now Lawton’s Hill and only a few out in Fishbach and Jalappa. The old gas house was situated a little above where Buechley’s lumber yard is now and the colliery was on the left hand side this way as you faced the north.

The boss asked me where I learned to run an engine and I told him in the old country. He asked me how much [they] paid me for that work and I said “$1.25 a week” and he said “Well, here they pay $10.00” but he hadn’t any good job for me and as I didn’t want to be a laborer I hunted up the other Scotchmen around the town to see if I could get work.

I went to the Wren’s, in the machine business, Thomas and James, and they told me to go down to the Pott Foundry, at what is now Coal and Washington sts., but which, from the railroad seemed to be so high up on the side of the hill. I went into that place where there was a Scottish foreman and he showed me the first bull pump engine that had been built in Penna., and after I got out to Heckscherville I helped erect that pump and ran it. They didn’t call us engineers in those days, but jigmen. That was the name of the men who hoisted cars out of the mines.

The Wren family ran a machine shop in Pottsville in 1852. They later owned this iron foundry in the 1860s. (LOC)

For those first three early days I was in Pottsville I didn’t eat a bite because what little money I had I  wanted to take care of my wife whom I had brought along with me from the old country and until I could get a job I had to be very saving with what little money I had.

A greenhorn could have told you the names of everybody doing business in what was then Pottsville. I can’t remember many of them but one of them was David Beveridge, who used to sell pies and candy where old Dr. Windsor afterwards kept his restaurant in the stone building on the corner across from the Exchange Hotel. I also knew J.G. Cochran, the tailor, who had his place below Arch St., near Holohan’s restaurant.

I was very well acquainted with James Muir, the Palmers, the Morrises, and the other big merchants of Pottsville, whom I used to meet whenever I came to Pottsville in the early days after I had moved to Branchdale.

I was very well acquainted with R.C. Green the jeweler,  father of the present R.C. Green, and I used to say to Mr. Green that when he died I would be the oldest man in the world, and now that Mr. Green is dead and Andy Robertson and Charles Baber, I think now I am the oldest one living all the old boys, and as I don’t know any of them that are older, or as old, as I am, so I guess I can say that I am the oldest man in the world, for all of the old fellows who were here when I came to this section in 1852, and most of all the acquaintances that I made here, are all dead and now the only elderly people living that I know of in this section are a few, like the editor of the “Republican,” and Col. Brown, of Minersville, and men of that kind and also friends of my children. (Col. Brown died just a few days ago.)

I used to like to talk with R.F. Potter, the oldtime Minersville banker; Seth Geer, the lawyer, the two Lawrences, Frank and Jacob; old John Sinsel, D.H. Wilcox, the Cockills, the Fausts, the Heims, and I believe old Mr. Jacob Heim is now living here in Pottsville. The latter of these were old Llewellyn people.

This takes me to the fights we used to have in connection with the School Board at Branchdale and how we used to struggle to get control so that we could name the teachers and be the big political power in the community. One of my last acts in public life was when I put one over on the boys and cleaned out the whole old crowd of the school board and made a clean sweep but it did make a howl.

I also had great many friends out in that section, among them being the Connellys, of Branchdale; the Dolbins, of Forestville; and old Ned Harley, the Minersville storekeeper; while I was also very well acquainted with John Mohan, of Minersville, who afterwards moved to Phila; and Terry Mohan, now one of the veteran citizens of Minersville; also old Andrew Jackson Crawford, old Englehard Hummel, David A. Jones, the lawyer; Wm. Kramer, the carpenter; J. Kellar Burns, the druggist; Samuel Felix, the storekeeper, and Charles Zapf, the brewer; all dead but Lawyer Jones and Charley Zapf.

As I could get no work in Pottsville, I went out to Branchdale and received employment at what is known now as the old Otto Colliery, and they put me to hoisting coal and doing general extra jobs…

We will be sharing more from this fantastic interview with a long-time resident of Schuylkill County next week!


Featured Image: An 1860s sketch of the Wren family’s Washington Iron Works in Pottsville. 


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