A Scottish immigrant’s remarkable working history in 1850s Schuylkill County (Part 2)

This is a piece continued from last week. You can read Part 1 of our brief series on the remembrances of Robert Weir from 1914 HERE. 

After describing his arrival in the Coal Region in 1852, Robert Weir turned to discussing his work in Schuylkill County as a hoisting engineer in various collieries in the rural outskirts of Pottsville and Minersville.

In this 1914 interview with a Pottsville Republican reporter, Weir remembers his time working in various mining operations. He maintained and ran the engines that pumped water from the mines, lifted coal and workers from the slopes and shafts, and provided steam to run various parts of an anthracite mining operation.

Weir spent time in the 1850s working for the Forestville Improvement Company in the western part of Schuylkill County, at a colliery that worked beneath the Schuylkill River near Palo Alto, and eventually found his way to California in a brief stint while working in the gold mining camps that had attracted thousands to the western limits of the continent. He vividly recalls the people he met along the way and also discusses the coming of the Civil War and its impact on the Coal Region and on his career path.

From Otto [Colliery] I went to Forestville and worked for the Forestville Improvement Co. which controlled the workings at Branchdale and Forestville and also those at Thomaston, just near the John O’Donnell store and it was from the Heckschers that Heckscherville got its name.

A view of the patch town of Thomaston in western Schuylkill County. The village of Heckscherville can be seen in the distance. Photograph is taken in the mid-19th century. (NYPL)

The colliery at Forestville was just near the Dolbin store corner, between the road and West West Falls, and there we hoisted the coal and took it out from underneath what is now Forestville. This old working has been abandoned now for many years, and the last one to operate it was Gen. Sigfried, about 1900. Here I earned $40 to $45 a month, including overtime.

Detail of the communities west of Pottsville on PW Sheafer’s 1855 map of Schuylkill County. (LOC)

My reputation as a hoisting engineer had gone ahead of me and I wanted more money and so I was offered $65 to go to Young’s Landing on the eastern outskirts of Pottsville, where they had been having great trouble and had been working three years to get the water out and after I get on the job I pumped that water out of the mines, that was about 300 yards deep, within three months.

Among the jobs done by a hoisting engineer would be to get loaded mine cars from the slope or shaft to the top of the breaker for emptying so the coal could be sorted and cleaned. (Harper’s Weekly, 1869)

The workings of this Young’s Landing colliery ran underneath the river and the canal and under the railroad, beneath what is now known as the electric power house and we went partly into the Sharp Mountain on the Palo Alto side. This coal was shipped by canal.

Then I went back to Otto at Forestville and then to Morea where I hoisted the first Morea Colliery coal that was brought from below the water level, and the on the other side the basin was 80 feet thick and I believe that they have been working the mines ever since.

An 1854 map showing the Otto Colliery and the vicinity of Branchdale. Map by PW Sheafer. (LOC)

Then next I went to Mine Hill Gap, at which I got the biggest wages at the rate of $14 a week. I worked for a man by the name of Edwards, who later lived at St. Clair, and whose son, Joseph, was a big politician and was a boiler inspector for a while, and I believe that his daughter is married to Surveyor Pugh, who has charge of the Pottsville city highway department.

The Mine Hill Gap Colliery was on the north side of the turnpike from Minersville at the upper end of the gap and was known as the old Kear workings. It was run by Wm. Kear, grandfather of the present day Minersville generation and father of Harrison, Frank, Charles, Wm. and Ed. Kear, the first three are still living, but the latter are dead, and they were all prominent citizens of Minersville.

A colliery at Mine Hill Gap in the mid-19th century. (NYPL)

At the Mine Hill Gap colliery I did such good work that they took advantage of it and gradually reduced my force of helpers until I was compelled to not only run the engine, but also do the firing of the boiler, and then I quit and went back again to the Heckschers, and I worked with them at Forestville and Branchdale… when I heard that out in California $5.00 was paid and so I left my wife with my brother and went out to California where I dug clay, shoveled it into a wheelbarrow and wheeled it to the works where they washed out the minerals, and I was so homesick that I worked only long enough until I saved enough money to get back. I arrived at Otto at 10 o’clock one Sunday night and next morning at six I was working again at Otto.

When the war broke out in ’61 everybody got wild on big wages and big earnings and as there appeared to be immense profits in the store business I left the colliery and opened a store and sold all kinds of goods and from that time on I didn’t work any more at the mines…

We will have more of Robert Weir’s interview from 1914 in the future!

Featured Image: A worker at the top of a breaker where loaded mine cars were hoisted for emptying. Harper’s Weekly, 1869

Read the previous edition of Robert Weir’s 1914 interview HERE. 

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