On December 9, 1873, two tunneling parties working from both the north and south sides of Big Lick Mountain in northern Dauphin County suddenly breached through a wall of thick sandstone and met each other face-to-face. It was a meeting more than three years in the making. The Williamstown Tunnel was complete.
First opened as a series of test openings in 1856, the Summit Branch Railroad Company began mining operations at became known as the Williamstown Colliery near the Schuylkill County line in the months after the Civil War. A railroad line was built from Wiconisco to the new anthracite mine. A town was laid out and built – the community of Williamstown was born.
In the years that followed, the Williamstown Colliery became one of the most productive coal mines in the United States, but even by 1870, it was becoming more difficult to access profitable veins of anthracite. In order to open up a new supply, company officials proposed and began a tunneling project to link the colliery on the south side of Big Lick Mountain with the mining operations under way on the north side, in a little populated region called Bear Valley.
On that fateful day in December 1873, the project was finally completed. The Lykens Register gave a lengthy description of the tunnel’s completion and the long, painful journey it had been to bring the project to a successful conclusion.
The tunnel of the Summit Branch Railroad Company through Big Lick Mountain from Bear Valley, was opened on the evening of the 9th inst. It was commenced in June 1870, for the purpose of an outlet to a number of veins of white ash coal previously shafted by the Company, which they [propose] developing and shipping by their Williamstown [rail]road.
The tunnel is about 4,000 feet in length, the contractors W.H. Jackson & Co. The work was undertaken after going under roof by the use of the diamond bit, but this proved a failure, owing to the hardness of the rock, and was supplanted by the Burleigh percussion drill, which was subsequently abandoned, and the work pursued to completion by hand.
Both sides were driven at a time by three shifts, working night and day. The rock was the hardest kind of conglomerate the entire distance. The only accidents that occurred were the killing of two men and the loss of an arm to a third.
Mr. E.C. Gibson was employed to superintend the work in September 1871, at the time the Burleigh drill was being experimented with, and under his management was pushed steadily forward to success. The engineer was John Hoffman of Pottsville, who is highly complimented by the officers of the Company for the skill displayed in his part of the work.
The two points of meeting, we are informed, were exact. On Wednesday morning, the 10th, Superintendent Gibson passed through the tunnel, and on Thursday the two ends were united by rail and Major Joseph Anthony, General Superintendent, Colonel Savage, Superintendent of Williamstown Colliery, Superintendent Ray, of the Railroad, and a number of other gentlemen in the employ of the Company rode through the tunnel. The workmen employed in driving the tunnel were discharged on Saturday last.
The people of Williamstown have been looking forward with bright anticipation to the time when this tunnel should be completed and have reason to congratulate themselves to its success and the prosperous future which it opens up to them.
It is probable that a new breaker will be erected in the spring near the present one for the preparation of coal from Bear Valley.
For nearly the next seventy years, the Williamstown Tunnel played a central role in the mining operations that supported Williamstown and the small communities on its fringes. The colliery closed in January 1942, its buildings pulled down and sold for scrap. The tunnel, however, driven through more than a half mile of Pottsville Conglomerate remained – an abandoned link to a valley whose rich coal reserves once employed more than 1,000 workers.
Today, the tunnel’s north and south portals remain, but they are sealed shut on either end. Around the openings, few vestiges remain of the once mighty mining operation: crumbling concrete and brick ruins built into the mountainsides, railroad spikes, broken mine-car wheels, long abandoned railroad grades, and everywhere evidence of black coal dust and culm that emerged from deep within Big Lick Mountain and from the coal veins more than 1,500 feet below the surface.
Featured image: The Williamstown Tunnel in the 1860s and 1870s, likely before its completion.