An 1835 visit to the mines at Wiconisco Township

In 1834 and 1835, a scientist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque traveled widely through Pennsylvania in order to document the geology and biology of the Keystone State.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring of 1835, the Turkish-born polymath traveled north from Harrisburg aboard canal boats alongside the Susquehanna River to Millersburg. In his book, A Life of Travels, Rafinesque details his travels and provides a brilliant source for how the coal industry in northern Dauphin County had developed since the discovery of anthracite at Bear Gap in 1826. His account starts on the west shore of the Susquehanna River opposite Millersburg. Someone had attempted to open a mine on West Shore in hopes of find coal veins, but the mine proved a failure.

A scene in the Lykens Valley near Millersburg (Lykens-Williams Valley History)

Visited an attempted mine, where fossils were found, but only a thin layer of coal, being west of the river. Opposite in the east side is Berry mt. and Millersburg, where I crossed in the coal boats. This village has 100 houses. I tarried here two days, not feeling yet strong enough to attempt the mts. Yet I took many walks on the Wiconisco Creek, and to the foot of Berry Mt., the gap and the Island joined by a dam, studying the geology and botany. Berry mt. has vertical strata of grit and sandstone…..

A look across the Susquehanna River at Millersburg

I went to the Wiconisco mines in the return coal cars, by the rail road, and tarried there 3 days. A village has been formed of 25 houses; 15 miners and 70 cars are employed: the miners get 50 cents per ton. The village is on the south slope of Short mt. in Williams Valley, at Bear Gap, of Bear Creek.

Short mt. is 800 feet high above the valley, 10 or 12 miles long, and 2 wide. It has on the top a hollow valley with a long shallow swampy Lake in the centre, 3 miles long from E. to W. and 300 yards wide, from whence flow W. Bear Cree, and E. Routh [Rousch] creek that falls N. into Pine Creek branch of Mahantango Creek. This interesting feature is not in the maps. This was surely once a submarine mountain crater of coal or slate.

An 1850s map of the area described by Rafinesque in 1835.

I took maps and views of these places, and obtained much information too long to repeat. Mr. Sheffer [Henry Shaefer] director of the mines helped my enquiries. This is the real western end of the great coal field extending to the Lehigh easterly; but reduced in breadth to less than 2 miles. The strata of coal are from 2 to 12 feet thick, dipping inside… The Pinegrove mines 20 miles east connect this field with the Pottsville fields. The Moconoy [Mahanoy] mines 20 miles north, are the west end of the Broad mt. coal field, distinct from this. Here the coal is only accessible at the gaps, and even there covered by rubbish and debris of grit and slate from 50 to 150 feet thick. Horizontal shafts have been made on each side of the gap, with drifts from 30 to 200 yards deep. Fossil plants are found in the slaty roofs, and I collected several Calamites, Striatulites, Selagoites, etc.

An illustration of a mining operation in the 1830s

You can read the full account here – we will be posting from Life of Travels in the future! 


Featured Image: An illustration of a mining operation in the 1830s. 

Read an earlier account of a ride on the Lykens Valley Railroad in 1833. 


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