Editor’s note – This early history of Williams Valley was first published in the Upper Dauphin Register starting in late 1865. It was republished by the Lykens Standard in 1913, with the following note: 

“As it is the intention to offer a prize for the best history of Lykens by a scholar of our public schools to be submitted during the celebration of the diamond jubilee of the discovery of coal at this place, which will be held in July, we re-publish by request the following recollections of Mr. Nolen, in order to give the contestants all data possible. At the conclusion of these recollections other articles on the history of Lykens will follow. – Editors [Lykens Standard]

This piece provides a remarkable record of early life in northern Dauphin County, written by a stone mason who helped build the communities of Lykens and Wiconisco. This work is published here in its entirety. – Jake Wynn, July 2018


Recollections of Forty Years

Regarding the Lykens Valley Coal Mines and Vicinity Adjacent

By Richard Nolen, Esq.

Doubting not but that it would afford pleasure to the present residents of your borough and vicinity to peruse recollections of by-gone years, I take the liberty of jotting the down for their benefit.

In the first place allow me to give you a brief account of the earlier history of the borough of Lykens and the coal mines, going back exactly 40 years. In the year A.D. 1825, a Mr. Jacob Burd, Sr., and a Mr. Peter Kimes, living at that time near the lower end of Short Mountain, in what was then Lykens Township, Dauphin County, went out on a Sabbath day to take a walk, and reaching the top of the mountain paused; one of them having a stick or cane in his hand carelessly dug it into the ground, when it revealed black dirt. This gave rise to an opinion that there must be coal in the mountain. Not long afterwards a party commenced digging and found coal and made a road to haul it down with wagons. This was the first commencement of the coal operations which have since grown into what is now carried on by the Lykens Valley Coal Company.

The tract of land upon which the coal was found consisted of 1,500 or 1,600 acres and belonged to Thomas Cope of Philadelphia, who (it was then said) bought it some time before for the sum of $400, of which one-half was paid in store goods, and the other half in shoe buckles.

The land where Lykens and part of Wiconisco now lays belonged to Mr. James Way of Chester County. After his death in 1826, his executor, George Pearce, who was married to a cousin of my mother, came up and procured the services of Isaac Feree and his son Joel to survey the different tracts of land. After they were surveyed he put them up for sale at public outcry down at the brick mill and sold them. The conditions were that persons purchasing any tract of land were to pay immediately after the sale $25 in cash as hand money. The tract of 48 acres where the town of Wiconisco lays was struck down to John Gilbert for the sum of $12. Mr. Pearce demanded of Gilbert $25, according to the conditioner, which the latter refused to pay, and would not take the land. Then Daniel Hoffman, Sr., said he would take it, but according to the deed he only paid the $12 after all. After the latter’s death his heirs sold it for something like $30 per acre.

The tract of 67 acres where Lykens lays was struck down to Rachel and Jane Ferree for the sum of $19.90. Joel B. Ferree and his sisters Rachel and Jane, subsequently laid out a town on said land, named it Lykenstown, and disposed of the lots at $11 each. They were all numbered and drawn by lottery, and some hundred lots were thus drawn and paid for. Sometime afterwards, Simon Gratz of Philadelphia, laid a claim to all this property by virtue of a judgement or mortgage against old Mr. Isaac Ferree, which I believe the court considered valid. At all events Mr. Gratz took possession of the property. His son, Edward Gratz, Esq., relaid out the town and had it surveyed by Daniel Hoffman in 1840. The first purchasers all lost their lots with the exception of those whose deeds under the Ferree claim were recorded at a certain date.

On the 7th of April, 1830, an act of assembly was passed forming a company to lay out a railroad from Millersburg to Bear Gap. The company which organized under the act was called the Lykens Valley Railroad and Coal Company, and is yet the same. Captain Henry Sheafer of Halifax, was appointed superintendent.

In the fall of 1831, Mr. Sheafer called on me at my residence about three miles below Bear Gap, wishing me to go up to the Gap to do some mason work. I went up in October and laid the foundation and built a stone chimney for a little log house which stood at the rise of a little hill near the old blacksmith shops. This was the first work done about the old Lykens Valley coal mines. It is profitable to remember this and then return to those mines and your town today. We see now large and well developed works and mines turning out their hundreds of thousands of tons of coal per year, and a large, thriving, constantly growing town where was then but a wilderness.

The next work down was by me for a Mr. White. I built a chimney for a small shanty which stood a little above where the Short Mountain breaker now stands. This Mr. White had commenced opening a coal vein on the side of the mountain just above what was then called Peter Romberger’s farm, for the Lykens Valley Railroad Company. I had three miles to walk every morning to get to my work, taking my dinner with me, and in the evening the same distance to walk home.

Here allow me to narrate a circumstance from which that neighborhood received the name of “Pinchgut.” One day a little after dinner hour, while I was at work on the chimney to the little log house, as before stated, Mr. Henry Sheafer, for whom I was working, came riding up and asked me if I had anything to eat. I replied that I had nothing left after eating my dinner but a piece of dry bread. He asked me then to give him the bread, which I did cheerfully, only regretting that I had nothing better to offer him, for any one who knew Captain Sheafer, knew him to be a gentleman in every sense of the word and a man of fine feelings. This occurrence of the scarcity of food is why I conferred upon that locality the euphonious title above mentioned.

The following spring, 1832, about the 1st of March, Captain Sheafer called on me again and engaged me to go up and build a cellar for a log house just opposite where the big brick house now stands. Some time in the latter part of April, Michael Sheafer, brother of Henry, moved up from Halifax into this log house and boarded two hands coming to… work in and about the mines.

The first miners that came to work at these mines were two Englishmen, one named James Todour and the other William Hall. In April of that year, Joel B. Feree built a little log house in Lykens, which was the first building erected there, I done the stone work.

The house still stands down at the lower end of your borough… In September I built the pillars under the saw-mill on Rattling Creek for Joel B. Ferree; but during the summer of 1832 there was a number of small houses built up in the Gap for the miners.

Early in the spring of 1833, after the mines had been opened on the Lykens Valley side, there came a stout young Englishman to work in the mines. One morning he went to work in a very merry mood, but in a short time he was brought out dead. As he was lying done undermining, there was a slide in the coal which caught him, striking his head and causing instant death. I was then inquired of where a preacher could be obtained to attend his funeral.

I was still living on my little farm, three miles below, whither I went and got my horse and rode to Halifax, which was 13 miles farther, and procured the Rev. Mr. Sovrain, a preacher of the M.E. church, to come up and perform the funeral services. He did so, and stood on the porch in front of Michael Sheafer’s house opposite the large brick house, where he preached the first sermon that was ever preached in that section of the country. The corpse was then taken to Gratztown and buried. The next religious service was a prayer meeting held in a little stone schoolhouse which stood near about where the coal dirt bank had been burning for years. This schoolhouse I also built. I was advised by some of my friends to go up there and open a prayer meeting which I did upon consultation with another member of the same church and with his aid. The meeting was kept up in the schoolhouse for some time – in fact until another schoolhouse was built, near where the small grave-yard now is; the preaching and other meetings and the Sunday schools were held after that in the latter mentioned house until churches were built, of which I shall speak hereafter.

It was in this year (1833) that the Company commenced, through Mr. H. Sheafer, their agent, to send coal to Millersburg. This was done in cars drawn by mules, and occupied two days to make a trip, as the road was poorly constructed, and they often got off the track. Upon arriving at Millersburg, the coal was shipped across the Susquehanna River to the canal at Mt. Patrick. The mode of transferring the coal across the river was in this wise: The cars were run on large flat-boats which had each a railroad track on them, each flat taking about four cars at a trip, and thus poled across the river.

About this time Jacob Stehley of Harrisburg, opened a small rum-hole in Lykens near the Wiconisco Creek, and close by the old railroad. His liquor was brought up to him from Millersburg and Dietrich’s still house in jugs by the drivers who took the coal down the railroad. The jugs generally came back full, but as I understood sometimes afterwards from some of the drivers, it was not always the same stuff that was put into them where they started, as the fine springs along the road enabled them to extract their percentage without detection.

Just about this time, Henry Shaefer opened the first store ever kept thereabouts in a small shanty built alongside Michael Shaefer’s.  In this year (1833) the large brick house was also built; I done the stone work and Mr. Morgan of Harrisburg, done the brick work.

Our elections were still held in Gratz, as Wiconisco Township had not yet been erected out of Lykens township. In the year 1838 we held our first election under the common school law (for its adoption or rejection.) We who were the friends of the system, carried the election by one majority; but one of our opponents went to Harrisburg and had the election set aside, on the ground that there were one or more illegal votes cast. A second election was ordered and we failed in carrying this system by forty votes.

Soon after this I went to Thomas Harper, living at the time at the Oak Dale Forge, and asked him how he thought it would do to have the township divided. He replied that he thought it would do very well. I stated to him that I would take a petition around if he would write it, which he consented to do.

He wrote the petition and I took it up to Gratz and at the ensuing election, I procured some two hundred signatures, all seeming glad to get rid of making the Williams Valley road, not for a moment thinking they were cutting off the most valuable part of the then Lykens township by including all the coal lands within the proposed Wiconisco township. Mrs. Frey was keeping the tavern at Gratz, and Solomon Shindle owned the store in the same house in which the election … after I procured the most … signatures to the petitions they… its import and tried to … numbers of its signers to cross them out but as I did not want my petition soiled I started for home. In a few days, I went to Harrisburg to have it … upon by the Legislature, but found that body on the point of adjournment. One of the members advised me to present the petition to the next court and have it locate the boundaries of the new township, which advice I acted upon and went down to the next county, but being ignorant of the fact matters of this kind had to be laid before the grand jury, I found myself again too late, as the grand jury was through its business. Fortunately It happened that an extra session of the Legislature was held in June (this was 1839) and at this session a law was passed fixing the boundary lines as well as the place of holding future elections for Wiconisco township. The time fixed for holding the election on the adoption or rejection of the Common School law was the second Monday of August of said year, and the place was the house of Michael Sheafer in what is now the town of Wiconisco. The election was held accordingly, 78 votes being polled and only three of that number were against the law. Thomas Harper, Henry Shaefer, and myself were elected the first school directors.

Shortly afterwards, we started out to determine upon the locations of the new schoolhouses, as at this time there was but one school house within the entire boundaries of the new township. The first we located in the lower end of the township, at the point called Stony Hill, both of which are now in Washington township, since it has been created out of part of Wiconisco Township. The third we located in what is now Wiconisco, the fourth farther up the valley. The elections were still held in the house of Michael Sheafer, and it was not until 1851, that an act was passed by the Legislature changing the place to a house of Henry Sheafer, Michael Sheafer having died in November of the year 1849, about the time he was finishing his hotel stand, now owned by J.H. Pontius. In 1851, Captain George E. Wilt of Harrisburg, moved into the house occupied by Michael Sheafer until his death, and in the same year the Legislature passed an act changing the place of holding the elections back to its original base.

In 1852 we succeeded in having a law passed bringing the poles down to schoolhouse No. 5 in Lykens; the following year, 1858, Henry Sheafer procured the passage of an act by the Legislature to again change the polls to schoolhouse No. 8, in Wiconisco. In 1854 I got up a petition and after obtaining a few signatures took it to Harrisburg; it was near the close of the session, but the Hon. J. C. Kunkel. who was then a member of the Senate, favoring its object, had it immediately attached to another bill of the same nature and paused both houses thus bringing the election polls back to schoolhouse No. 5 in Lykens.

It can thus be readily seen that we had a considerable contest as to where the place for holding the township elections should be fixed. In 1846 the railroad was rebuilt on a greatly improved scale. The same year I constructed for Henry Sheafer, who contracted with the company for their construction, the row of stone houses located near where the Short Mountain breaker now stands. About this time Thomas Couch came to this place, and soon afterward was appointed agent for the company, as a misunderstanding had occurred between Henry Sheafer and Edward Gratz.

In 1848 Benjamin Carman opened a store in the upper end of the brick house near the present coal yard, that room having been occupied as a store by Henry Sheafer for some length of time before. Mr. Carman built the house at the northwest corner of Main and Market streets, when Chas. H. Miller now keeps store, during the same year, for Messrs. Ware & Beidleman. and after finishing it, he (Mr. Carman) moved his store from Wiconisco into the new building. In 1850 Henry  C. Harper took the store and kept it until  July, 1851, and then sold out to Win. Hetherington of Schuylkill Co., who retained it until 1852. when he disposed of it to Lewis Heilner from the same county. Allow me here to relate the circumstances connected with building the first church in Lykens: In the spring of 1848 while I was building the foundation under the building at the northeast corner of Main and Market streets, Mr. Edward Gratz and Hon. A. O. Hiester came along and entered into a conversation with me, during which the Judge remarked that we should have a church, and advised me to use my efforts in that direction.

While expressing my cordial wishes in consonance with the Judge’s, I remark ed that we lacked the ground and the means necessary to construct a church; that as much as we would like to have one, those circumstances had prevented us. Mr. Gratz spoke up, saying he would give the lot and one hundred dollars more towards building a church. He afterwards made his word good to the fullest, extent. Some time subsequently I conversed with the preacher on the subject and we held a meeting, at which meeting we resolved upon building. I opened a subscription list and procured a sufficient amount to justify us in proceeding.

In the Spring of 1850, a building committee was appointed; I agreed to do the stone work and proceeded with it until the fall of that year. A misunderstanding then occurred between Henry C Harper, one of the building committee, and the railroad company in regard to iron bolts used to keep the upper floor in its place, Mr. Harper thinking the Railroad Co. charged too much for their iron work. This caused the work on the church to be laid aside until the next year, when Rev. John Commings, the minister in charge, persuaded me to go and finish the church and I done so.

In January, 1852, it was dedicated. These facts relative to the church history I have recounted for two or three reasons: To show to the “citizens of Lykens that they are greatly indebted to the liberality of Edward Gratz, Esq., and to show that the Methodist denomination commenced all the religious services and Sabbath schools in this section. I have now shown that one of that denomination preached the first sermon ever preached in all your section; opened the first prayer meeting; commenced the first Sabbath school, and built the first church. The churches of Wiconisco Township now number three – Methodist, Baptist, and Evangelical and in Lykens borough seven – Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Evangelical, Reformed, United Brethren, and Catholic…

In 1850, the main road leading from Lykens down the valley was laid out by Daniel Hoffman, and cut open by Isaac Burd, supervisor. The next year (1851) I was elected supervisor and made the road leading from Lykens to intersect with the main valley road. The same fall I cut out and made the road leading up the valley.

A short time ago I went up to visit your town and nearing Lykens my thoughts reverted forty years back when the site of your town and all around it was nothing but a howling wilderness, with here and there a hunter’s path leading to some particular spot noted for its game, where they might kill the wild bear and deer, which then roamed through the territory where Lykens now stands. Instead, now of a wilderness with it underbrush, I beheld the large and flourishing towns of Lykens and Wiconisco, with their well laid streets separated only by the Wiconisco creek. Where was but the wilds of nature, is now presented by hundreds of houses including churches, schools, stores, hotels, hotels, foundries, machine shops, a railroad and all the other accompaniment of civilization, progress and intelligence The railroad now runs through these towns, taking its large trains of coal to the extent of hundreds of tons by each train, and that accompaniment of science and enterprise, the telegraph, vibrates its thrills from your town to all parts of the country. Instead of the wild beast of the forest roaming unmolested, we now see thousands of human beings, thrifty men of all nationalities, American born, English, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, German, Poles, Swiss, Jews, etc., all following their avocations and all directly building up the interests of the country by the aggregation oi their labor and capital. Strolling up into Bear Gap, where the coal is mined, we see on her side large breakers mining out their thousands of tons of coal weekly, prepared for the market, and acres of ground covered with the wastage of coal to the depth of from 70 to over 100 feet, looking like vast mountains of themselves seeking to crowd and fill the valley beneath. This coal dirt has been burning for a number of years, but scarcely seems to be diminished by quantity.

We then go up to the front of North Mountain, where it is unbroken by a gap – you know the mountains double here, as it were – and we see a company driving a tunnel through that mountain preparatory to laying the rail upon which will be placed the iron horse, to tap the rich coal fields of the opposite side. What may we not predict for the future of Lykens? Bordered by an inexhaustible field of the best coal in the country. Lykens has become the base and outlier of a trade that in a few years at most will be unsurpassed by any coal region in the State. Williams Valley is now as famous for its… great mineral productions as it was once within my recollection for its unforgiving wilderness…

Remember when its honest and hard-working inhabitants were almost ashamed to own their residences it was then that a goodly number of them earned their living by cutting white pine  and making shingles.

Where now stands the large and prosperous town of Williamstown, with the largest coal breaker and the most, productive colliery in the country, within my recollection there was but a single little log house, with chimney outside make of wood. Now there is a population of nearly two thousand souls, with churches, schoolhouses, stores, spacious hotels, handsome brick buildings, and comfortable homes for all. We see the inhabitants of the valley now, instead of undergoing the labor of climbing the mountains cutting the white pine to make shingles, with its small remuneration, and that after much labor in transporting them to Gratz, Berrysburg or some other neighboring place – instead of that, we behold them now entering the bowels of the earth, with their lamps attached to their caps as pathfinders of the way, and there converting the treasure hidden for centuries into a much sought after fuel, with labor commanding a reward commensurate with the danger and hardships expended. The land now yields its increase, the free schools educate the children, the workers in Christ’s vineyard labor for the moral elevation of the people, enterprise and capital seeks its investment there, and the “desert is made to blossom as the rose.” How marked the contrast of 1864 and 1825! Allow me here to) narrates little in cident that occured in upper end of Williams Valley as tending to show what the common school system did for one boy; Some years before schools were established in the upper end of the valley, there was a small log church standing on the side of the road leading to Tremont, in Schuylkill County, where in one Mr. Stehly preached occasionally.

There was a thrifty family residing near where the Williamstown breaker now stands, that attended these services now and then. On a beautiful Summer Sabbath morn the father, accompanied by his son, some nine or ten years of age, walked up to this church and reaching it after some ten or fifteen persons had assembled, took seats near the door; the boy never having been from home and being entirely unused to seeing so many persons as had already assembled, was considerably astonished on looking out of the door to see another company of about equal proportions coming around from the head of Clark’s Valley to enter the church, and he exclaimed at the top of his voice, “Dunner un blitzen daudy, tot comet noch ein troop.”

Rendered in English, it would read: – “thunder and lightning daddy, there comes another drove.”

This boy attended school after the introduction of the free school system, and when he got to be a young man went to Halifax, Dauphin County, and apprenticed himself to Mr. Loomis, who was then publishing a small paper at that place, and became what you term a printer’s “devil.” The last I heard of this young man he was working “at case” in the office of the Harrisburg Telegraph for Theophilus Fenn, Esq., who was its proprietor at that time.

In recounting the many improvements of Lykens and vicinity, since my acquaintance with it, let me not forget what all intelligent men must pronounce the greatest, to wit: the establishment of a printing office and the issue of a paper from that lever so potent in framing  the morals, religion and politics of the country the printing press. The first paper was entitled The Farmers’ and Miners’ Journal,” its first number appearing on the 17th of August, 1856. The office was owned by an association and employed Dr. J. Hower as editor, with S. B. Coles as publisher, but in some three months the association discovered the inability of the veracious doctor, and dispensed with his services. Upon Mr. Coles developed the management of the office some two weeks, when E. J. Pinkerton of Lancaster took charge of the office and remained nearly a year, when his merits were discovered and he vamoosed.

Mr. Daniel Hoffman then took the paper as a publisher and proprietor, with George Wolfe Buehler, Esq., as editor. This continued thirteen months, when Mr. Buehler became proprietor and publisher, and so continued until October 1861, when the office turned all of its four employees into the army as its quota to aid in the suppression of the rebellion, causing the suspension of the paper.

Let me digress a moment to write the fate of that contribution of the printing office at Lykens to the army; Henry Keiser enlisted as a private in Co. G, 96th P. V., served enlistment for over four years, and after passing through more than a dozen hard fought fields returned safe and sound as first sergeant of his company.

John C. Gratz enlisted in the some company and in the winter of 1862 was stricken down with typhoid fever and surrendered his life for his country.

John E. Roberts, although but 15 years of age, enlisted in Company D, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves, after proving his bravery on three fields, fell at New Market Cross Roads, June 26th, 1862, during McClellan’s disastrous Peninsula campaign, and though supposed to be but wounded at the time, has never been heard from to the present writing. His Colonel, the brave Simmons, fell the same day.

Christopher C. Hynicka enlisted in the 76th Penn. Vols, in September, 1861, and in one of its many engagements with the enemy, was captured and after confinement over a year experiencing all the brutalities and starvation of Rebel prisons, was unable to reach the boat to be transported home, and surrendered his life on the altar of his country.

Thus it will be seen that three of the four printers who went forth from that office, died for their country with honorable careers, and the fourth, after experiencing the brunt of many battles, was spared to return. Where can be shown a better record? To resume: The office then passed into the hands of S. B. Coles, who published an advertising medium called “The Business Man’s Journal.” This continued until the first of August, 1865, when Geo. W. Fenn was induced to purchase one-half of the establishment. The 17th of August, 1865 witnessed the first issue of “The Upper-Dauphin Register and Lykens Valley Miner” as a Republican paper. This firm continued but a few months, when Mr. Coles again became owner of the concern and published the paper until November, 1868, when he sold the office to S, M. Fenn.

Hoping that these few crude and imperfect recollections of a man’s ordinary life time, spent in your section, may not prove unprofitable or uninteresting to those who have perused them, I beg leave to subscribe myself.

Respectfully yours,

Richard Nolen.

(The end.)

Featured Image: Workmen at Bear Gap in Wiconisco Township.

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