“Among the Coal Mines” – A trip into the Coal Region in 1877

The year 1877 was an eventful one in the history of the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. 

We’ve written about the destructive mine fire that struck the mines of Williams Valley on New Year’s Day 1877. We’ve chronicled the dramatic events surrounding the Great Railroad Strike and its consequences in the Northumberland County mining city of Shamokin. And we’ve documented the consequences of the execution of the “Molly Maguires” in June 1877. 

Molly Maguires
A contemporary depiction of the “Molly Maguires” walking to the gallows at Pottsville – June 1877

These are just a few of the momentous events that shook the Coal Region that fateful year. These events and others drew much public interest to the restive mining towns and villages in the mountainous region just west of the major East Coast cities. 

A correspondent for one of the most powerful illustrated magazines in the United States was drawn into the Coal Region to document life in the area. 

The following article appeared in a June 1877 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Popular Monthly. It provides a detailed examination of Mauch Chunk, Carbon County, documents a ride of the famous “Gravity Railroad” on the eastern end of the Southern Coal Field, and explores the depths of a coal mine before diving in to a supremely flawed view of the “Molly Maguire” situation colored by the mine operators view of labor relations in the Coal Region. 

Despite its flaws, the article is a brilliant piece of primary documentation for the Coal Region during a crucial moment in its history. It also comes with remarkable sketches of the coal fields that we’ve used on this blog before and some new ones you’ll see here for the first time. We will use some of them here and others will be shown in a subsequent post. There are also photographs (not included in original article) that help to bring the story to life. 

Among the Coal Mines

There are few, if any, portions of the earth more picturesque or more interesting than the region of country in the United States in which are found the anthracite coal-beds of Pennsylvania. The finest parts of Tyrol, the most romantic nooks of the Adirondacks, or the wildest portions of the White Mountains, can scarcely be said to vie with it.

What adds to the interest of travel in this section is the consciousness of the immense wealth stored underneath the surface of the earth and descent which the traveler can take into the mines from which so much treasure has been brought out during the last fifty years.

Mines at Heckschersville 1877

This combination of grand natural scenery with the practical affairs of life gives a new nest to the visitor, and produces an effect altogether startling in the experience of an intelligent traveler. The necessity of having a cheap and convenient way for removing the coal from this mountainous country has led to the introduction of numerous railroads, which intersect the valleys and climb the hills in every direction; thus making the region easily accessible to the pleasure-seeker as well as to the capitalist.

Upon entering this section from New York by way of the New Jersey Central Railroad, the first remarkable point reached is the town of Mauch Chunk, said to the Indian name applied to a lofty peak ascending from the valley, meaning “Bear Mountain.” The town lies in a narrow gorge between and among high hills or mountains. As this gorge is quite narrow, and the sides of the mountain often very precipitous, the scenery is wild and grand in the extreme.

Mauch Chunk NYPL 1 (1)
A photograph of Mauch Chunk in the mid-19th century (NYPL)

If it were not for the whistle of the locomotive, the din of the passing cars, and the clouds of coal-dust, this would be just such a retreat as the weary traveler would gladly seek, and in which he could soon forget the cares of the turbulent world. The little Lehigh River, arrested in its course by dams, canal locks, and overhanging rocks, foams and frets on its way through the defile, and is made to work while it babbles.

The scream of steam whistles, the rumbling of innumerable trains of cars, and the shouts of boatmen and the pass-words of miner make up a chorus of noises, day and night, altogether foreign to the usual experience of the traveler.

Mauch Chunk Photograph
Mauch Chunk and its many industries – coal, canal, and railroad – all along the Lehigh River (NYPL)

The town is so wedged in by the hills that only the narrow street is practicable, and the whole space is taken up by the walled river, the canal, railroad, street, and line of houses. Every inch of ground is utilized as much as is the case among the vineyards on the Rhine or in the kitchen gardens of parts of Switzerland. This is the central point of the coal interest, and from the balcony of the hotel a profound impression can be formed of the enormous wealth, the invincible energy and the engineering skill of the pioneers who have developed an industry which has proved of such great importance to the progress of our country.

Mauch Chunk from the foot of Mt. Pisgah
Mauch Chunk from the foot of Mount Pisgah (NYPL)

Standing in the streets of the town and looking up to the mountains, they seem to be alive with long trains of coal-cars. The trains are not confined to the valley, but are seen far up the sides of the mountains, and upon their very tops, at an altitude of 1,200 and 1,500 feet. They glide along like huge serpents, winding around among the rocks and trees, through deep chasms, over trestlework bridges, until they disgorge their heavy loads to the waiting cars and boats below.

The loaded trains are given the right of way over the more horizontal and easy grades, but the empty cars are drawn by stationary engines up  the mountains on inclines which appear from below as if they were perpendicular. There is thus no interruption in the passage of loaded cars in one direction, and of the empty cars in another. The endless round never ceases, and the simile of the serpent indicative of eternity would again apply if we were not conscious that at some time the supply must be exhausted and the rumbling of the trains brought to a close.

The starting point of what is known as the “Switch Back,” or “gravity Road,” is at Mauch Chunk. This is a most unique and wonderful road, and was not designed for passenger travel, but solely for the conveyance of coal from the mountain mines, about nine miles from the town. The urgent demand of visitors to be permitted to travel on this road, even in the dirty coal cars, finally led to an arrangement by which excursion trains for passengers were run twice a day. Parties are now taken over the route in comfortable little cars, without locomotives or driving power of any kind. To reach the road proper, it is necessary to ascend to the top of Mount Pisgah, a precipitous dome in front of the hotel situated on the opposite side of the river, which is about 1,300 feet high.

Mount Pisgah Plane
A passenger train at the foot of the Mount Pisgah Plane (NYPL)

The first part of the ascent of 400 feet is made in an omnibus, until a niche in the mountains is reached, through which one of the inclined planes passes. Stepping into a car at this point, the traveler is drawn up an ascent at an angle of 45 deg., to the top of Pisgah, 900 feet higher. The stationary engine with its two huge, smoking chimneys, is situated on its highest point and gives to the mountain the appearance of a volcano.

The view may not be as fine as from the top of Mountain Washington or of the Righi, but it has its own peculiar characteristics, and the railroad is altogether unique. Starting from Pisgah, the circuit of the “Gravity Road” carries the traveler over 25 miles of a most tortuous course, on the tops and along the sides of mountains.

Switchback Railroad View Mauch Chunk
View of Mauch Chunk from the Switchback Railroad (NYPL)

The first stage is down a gentle decline of 9 miles, to the foot of Mount Jefferson, up which the train is drawn by another stationary engine; the track then runs downward by a gentle grade to Summit Hill, from whence it descends rapidly into the valley, where are situated some of the most profitable coal mines of the country. This is a sequestered, romantic place, apparently as far out of the world as any one would ever desire to be.

Loading the Cars - Breaker 1877

Great coal breakers are upon the right hand and the left, and dark, yawning pits, the entrance to the subterranean passages traversed by the coal diggers, are seen in every direction. Mountains of coal dust, the refuse of the breakers, project into the valley and give a somber hue to everything. Even the leaves upon the trees become darkened by the coal dust, and black, turbid streams wind around among the rocks from out dingy caverns in which they originate.

Air Funnel 1877

From the slopes or entrances to the ravines, mule teams, attached to trains of cars, loaded with coal, are constantly emerging, and the drivers in charge, with oil-lamps affixed to their caps, and begrimed with sooty powder, seem like mountain imps who have business with daylight or the outside world. Leaving this valley, another mountain crowned with its tall, smoking chimneys, has to be ascended by means of a stationary engine, and here the furthest point of the route is reached. From this high elevation the return route commences, and the train runs on the downward track at fearful speed, until it reaches the town of Summit, the home of the miners, where there is a church, school-house, and, oddly enough, a barracks for troops, as it has been found necessary in turbulent times to quarter a regiment of soldiers at this point to preserve order.

The track the whole way is a down grade, and an hour’s ride brings the traveler back to the base of Pisgah, the starting point.

During the ride of 25 miles the traveler is seated in an open car, from which the view is unobstructed by engine or tender; there is no smoke, no gas, no noisy steam whistle, and the train rushes along, propelled by an unseen power which Sir Isaac Newton first explained to the world, the force of gravity.

Gravity Road 1877

Although he excursion over this road appears to be hazardous, yet few accidents have occurred, and the journey through the clouds is as safely accomplished as in the valleys below. Having made the trial of the “Gravity Road,” the traveler, if he has time and is of an inquiring state of mind, will wish to descend into the bowels of the earth to learn how the black diamonds are detached from their veins, and what the subterraneous life of a miner is lie. Very few persons, however, go down into the depths in comparison with those who enjoy the luxury of the ride over the mountains.

Over the entrance of the shaft of the mines there is usually erected an immense wooden structure, called the breaker, although in reality it is the building which contains the breaker, which is a toothed cylinder, into which the coal passes after being drawn up from the mine, and where it is crushed or broken into all sizes and the building generally comprises the head-house or lower over the shaft, and a room where the coal is screened; and all this, besides the engine room, is called the breaker of the mine.

Sizing Coal - Breaker 1877

Sometimes the breaker proper is placed in a separate building, at a distance from the engine house, and the coal in  being drawn up is run to it on a railway.

Before descending into a mine it is customary to disrobe and put on  a mining suit appropriate to the noisome character of the place to be visited. After being clad in suitable raiment, the visitor passes into the shaft-room of the head house; here the rope form the cylinder passes up and down over a large wheel at the top of the head house, and is attached to a platform the size of the shaft. At a little distance above the platform or carriage, and attached to the rope, is alight cover, which as the carriage descends, remains over the hole, completely covering it, and preventing any one from falling down the shaft.

The descent into the mine is made very rapidly, by means of the lift, and as there are often drippings, the value of waterproof overalls is fully appreciated.

To dislodge and break the coal from its bed requires considerable skill. A sharp drill is used by means of which openings are made in the seam, and when these are filled with gunpowder, tamped, and exploded, large fragments are dislodged, which are placed in the cars by the laborers and drawn through the dark galleries to the shaft down which the visitors has just made his descent.

Miners Preparing a Blast 1877
Miners Preparing a Blast

The regular miner does not handle the coal. Such work is beneath his dignity – he leaves it to an inferior workman, who is called a laborer. As soon as the miner has dislodged as much coal as the laborers can clear away, he is at liberty to stop work for the day.

Coal Miners at Mauch Chunk Getty
Mineworkers at Mauch Chunk, circa 1870 (Getty Museum)

The atmosphere of the mines is very disagreeable to any one unaccustomed to it, and sometimes in coal mines of bituminous character an explosive gas, called fire-damp, issues out of fissures, and renders working in the galleries very dangerous. When such gas contaminates the air, the workmen are obliged to use Sir Humphry Davy’s safety-lamp for illumination. It is said that George Stephenson invented a safety-lamp before the time of Davy, but he never got credit for it, and Davy’s pattern is the one still in use.

A Blast in a Coal Mine 1877

The work of mining, viewed from the standpoint of dwellers on the surface, is not an agreeable occupation, but it is less exacting and laborious than many other kinds of labor. It is also less hazardous than many other pursuits, although a contrary notion prevails. There have been few serious casualties in the United States, those Avondale and Pittston being the most fatal.

There are employed in the anthracite region about 30,000 miners, and the loss of life from accidents incident to the business shows but a very small percentage. It is the terrible nature of the casualties, when they do occur, that awakens such widespread sympathy, and causes the occupation to be looked upon with dread.

Miners at Work 1877

The danger in the occupation is not so much from accident in the mines as from the wicked combinations of men in the secret order of “Molly Maguires.”

According to Detective McParlan, a man of the most wonderful nerve and courage, there has, for long years, existed among the workmen at the mines a regularly organized society or order, numbering, it is said, fully 800 members, in which murder and arson were deliberately planned and carried into execution by oath-bound members, chosen by lot for the special service.

The evidence taken in the trial of “Molly Maguire” murderers at Pottsville, Pa., in May 1876, exhibited a most alarming state of affairs in the coal regions, and it is believed that the disclosures there made will serve to break up the desperate gangs, and enable the steady and honest miners to pursue their callings without fear of an enemy more dangerous than dire-damp or explosions in the subterranean shafts and galleries. The sober second thought of a majority of the miners must condemn such murderous combinations as have been formed by “Molly Maguires,” and they ought to be the first to put down the secret order.

A comparatively few very wealthy men in our large cities are owners of the mountains and valleys where lie hidden the precious deposits of coal. They have been able to combine to keep up the price, but, fortunately for the good of the industries of the country, internal dissensions recently broke up the “ring,” and the price of coal has sunk to figures much below the quotations of many years.

The history of the discovery of anthracite coal, and the first attempt to burn it, is full of interest as well as of romance.

A hunter named Ginter is said to have made the first discovery of coal about 85 years ago; but he did not understand its nature, and supposed that it was an incombustible as graphite or granite. Some years later, specimens of the black stuff were sent to the seaboard towns for examination. An experimenter in Philadelphia, after most persistent efforts to ignite the black stones, gave up in despair, and left his furnace filled with a mixture of wood and coal, and went home to dinner.

Fortunately, the wood was partially ignited, and, equally fortunate, the furnace door was closed and the draft open. When the experiment returned to rake out and throw away the worthless stones, he found them, to his surprise, all aglow, causing such intense heat that his furnace was well-nigh destroyed.

This result of course dispelled the idea that anthracite would not burn, and companies were soon organized to work it. Coal was, however, brought from the Pennsylvania mines by slow and wearisome conveyances, such as wagons and mule backs, until 1827, when an imperfect track was laid to run cars down the mountains by gravity, and this originated the present very remarkable “Gravity Road.” The area of coal within the United States has been estimated by Dr. Newbery at 150,000 square miles, while that of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is reckoned at 10,000 square miles, or scarcely equal to Ohio alone. The supply of coal in the United States is practically inexhaustible…

Coal Statistics 1877 Frank Leslie
Statistics included in the 1877 Frank Leslie’s story

Featured Image: Miners preparing a blast – Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly


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