Stories from PA History
Mining Anthracite
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Mining Anthracite
Chapter Two: From Mines to Markets

In 1828, the West Chester Village Record included a piece of travel reporting from a correspondent who visited the "gravity railroad" at Mauch Chunk in the heart of Pennsylvania anthracite country. The railroad was basically a series of tracks placed along the steep slopes of Mount Pisgah, where the first coal miners worked furiously to remove anthracite. On the way down, cars loaded with tons of coal relied on the forces of gravity, and the restraints of a cable system, to arrive safely at the bottom of the valley. Mules dragged the empty cars back up. The sight of these heavy cars traveling down the mountain inspired awe in the Village Record reporter: "Did even the most vivid imagination, in its wildest flights, ever picture wagons laden with twenty-two tons running for many miles without aid?"
The mining and transportation of anthracite resulted in many technological advances such as the Switchback Railroad at Mauch Chunk in Carbon County.
The mining and transportation of anthracite resulted in many technological advances...

The gravity railroad at Mauch Chunk, also called the markerSwitchback Railroad, belonged to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, and was just one of the engineering feats that made it possible to transport anthracite from the mines to the markets. These "gravity roads" carried coal from the mines in the mountains to the inland canals that were simultaneously being constructed. Heavily capitalized with generous charters from the state of Pennsylvania, canal building companies like the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, which built the markerLehigh Canal, came to own thousands of coal acres. Furious canal building in the 1820s and 1830s created the nation's largest inland transportation network. The brute strength of thousands of workers re-routed rivers, dug waterways, blasted tunnels through mountains and laid track on steeply pitched inclines for gravity railroads. It was the beginning of a transportation revolution in the United States.

The Lehigh Canal was built to compete with the markerSchuylkill Canal for the lucrative Philadelphia coal market. Completed in 1825, the Schuylkill Canal was a gigantic undertaking and the largest state-run venture at that time. With its terminus at markerFirth Dock in Port Carbon, it unlocked Schuylkill County's Southern anthracite coal field. Three other geologically designated coal fields – the Northern, East Middle, and West Middle – were located in the nearly 500 square mile anthracite region. Along with markerSchuylkill County, three other counties lie across the richest veins and have experienced the longest history with anthracite mining: markerCarbon,  markerLackawanna, and markerLuzerne. Coal in the southern field lay in steeply pitched veins, making the mining of it even more dangerous than the thick, sloping markerPennsylvania Gravity Railroad, an operation that connected Pittston and Hawley in Lackawanna County, hundreds of feet underground, in the northern field.

Geology dictated the mining era to a certain extent, but the handful of companies who came to dominate the coal fields also played a significant role in shaping life below and above ground in the anthracite region. The story of the  markerDelaware and Hudson Canal Co., (D&H) offers a good example of anthracite's economic development. The company funded the most expensive private venture in American history to that point. The canal it built, with 2,500 workers, helped connect Lackawanna County anthracite in the northern field to the massive New York market via the Hudson River. Towns situated along the D&H canal line or its railroad feeders, such as markerHonesdale and markerCarbondale, boomed overnight into major commercial centers.

The scope of D&H's ambition was almost boundless. The company, for example, brought over from England the very first steam locomotive engine ever tested in the Western Hemisphere. Called the markerStourbridge Lion, it ran on the tracks of the company's own markergravity railroad near Honesdale in August 1829. Other companies followed suit. The Pennsylvania Coal Company built in the far northeastern corner of the state. Running on its line was marker"The Pioneer," a type of car that carried its coal to the D&H Canal in 1850.
Railroad cars unload their cargo of anthracite into canal boats at the canal basin in Honesdale.
Railroad cars unload their cargo of anthracite into canal boats at the canal...

Canals played a vital role in the emergence of the anthracite industry and stimulated the growth of additional transportation networks. With financing by the state government, Pennsylvania's canal system developed rapidly, with over 700 miles of waterways built or under construction in the 1830s. Building canals were daring, engineering marvels and very expensive, such as the markerWyoming Division Canal, that sent anthracite northwards to the Great Lakes markets via the great Erie Canal in upstate New York, southwards to Harrisburg, and eastwards to Philadelphia. Yet, steam locomotion signaled a shift in this transportation revolution.

Coal operators and merchants in the Wyoming Valley were not willing to rely only on the Wyoming Division Canal for outlets, nor would they be at the mercy of an "outsider" who built a rail line. Raising millions of dollars, they constructed the Delaware, Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad and the Lackawanna and Bloomsburg Railroad. By the end of the 1850s these lines shipped more than 70 percent of Wyoming coal. Likewise, in the middle and southern fields, the Lehigh Canal could not compete with the Lehigh Valley Railroad, nor could the Schuylkill Canal compete with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Anthracite delivered on canals had fed iron furnaces for rail production, and after a series of transportation rate wars, the railroads triumphed. By the Civil War era, canals were outmoded.
Black and white Franklin Gowen image
Franklin Gowen. president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, circa 1885.

Each advance in transportation had its own unintended consequences. The Schuylkill Canal connected the southern Schuylkill coalfield to Philadelphia, and because its chartered company, the Schuylkill Navigation Company, was prohibited from owning lands, many independent coal operators developed this field. This type of ban, however, did not apply to the private canal companies, such as the D&H, which came to dominate the anthracite counties that their canals served. Their gravity railroads brought coal from mines to canal ports or railroad depots. Flatboat operators or railroad engineers then shipped the cargo to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and other major markets. From there, resellers sold the coal to consumers and retailers. Eventually, the major railroad and coal companies owned nearly all of the components of this process, an innovation known as vertical integration.

Larger rail companies soon bought up the independent coal companies and rail lines, such as the markerDanville-Pottsville Railroad. The canals had unlocked the great potential of the anthracite fields, but by 1860 the five great railroads were holding the key: Philadelphia and Reading, Lehigh Valley, Delaware and Hudson, Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, and the Central of New Jersey.
A steam shovel loads anthracite into railroad cars; a large pile of anthracite is visible behind the shovel.
A steam shovel loads anthracite into railroad cars; a large pile of anthracite...

In the 1870s, Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R), set his sights on stabilizing the anthracite industry, especially the supply of coal from the Schuylkill field. He organized a land subsidiary company (through some finagling of Pennsylvania's General Assembly) so that the P&R came to own 100,000 acres of rich coal lands.  With the presidents of the other major coal carriers, he set first the price of coal at $5 a ton, and later the amount of coal the railroads would ship to market. This had a drastic impact on mine workers pay and terms of employment. Northeastern Pennsylvania had come to be controlled by the railroad cartel, the first American oligopoly.

In the anthracite region, towns were pushed into the industrial age by the massive undertakings involved in mining anthracite and transporting it to market. Although successful in supplying eastern cities with coal, these towns developed economies focused on the export of a single raw material, and did not experience the kind of diverse industrial development that would ensure stable, long-term prosperity. Moreover, the capital that built and acquired rail lines and anthracite companies was increasingly centered in Philadelphia and New York, far away from those who worked and lived in the coalfields.

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