238 – Pennsylvania Anthracite

Bridget Large and her seven children arrived in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 1844.

  • Question: Why Pennsylvania? Why Schuylkill County?
  • Answer: Anthracite coal and coal mining jobs

Let’s look at the history and environment that was the life stage for our Large and Gallagher grandparents for the next two decades.

Pennsylvania Anthracite Fields

Six counties in northeast Pennsylvania held 90% of the anthracite coal reserves in North America. Schuylkill County was smack in the center of those coal fields.

Schuylkill

Pronounced (SKOOL-kil, SKOO-kul).

The river was called by the Dutch name Schuylkill. As kil means “creek” (e.g. Dordtsche Kil) and schuylen (now spelled schuilen) means “to hide, skulk” or “to take refuge, shelter”

Schuylkill River – Wikipedia

Who needs coal? Burn wood

Before 1800, wood was the fuel of choice for homes and industries in America. It was plentiful and cheap, and available almost everywhere.

Wood served as a primary resource for the region. By 1810, approximately two thousand sawmills in Pennsylvania produced nearly seventy-five million feet of sawn lumber. Philadelphia exported or utilized huge quantities of this wood in shipbuilding, housing, construction, tanning, and fuel.

Trees – The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Some industries like blacksmiths used coal, mostly imported from Britain or from bituminous coal fields in Virginia.

The first American energy crisis

Clear cut hillside in Potter County, Pennsylvania

In the early 1800s, native forests were disappearing, consumed for fuel and building construction, and cleared for agriculture.

At the same time, the industrial revolution was spawning new industries that used coal.

Attack on Fort Oswego – War of 1812

During the War of 1812, the British cut off coal shipments from England and blockaded Virginia coal shipping from Chesapeake Bay, causing a fuel crisis in Philadelphia.

Leaders in Philadelphia began to search for alternate energy sources, including anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania.

Anthracite coal had been mined in small quantities in the Appalachian Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania since 1790.

Transportation was the problem

During the 1812 blockade, several anthracite mine operators tried to ship coal to Philadelphia by freight wagon. It was slow and expensive to haul a wagonload of coal through the mountains 80 miles to Philadelphia.

By water, the Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and Lehigh Rivers were shallow and difficult to navigate. Coal shippers built flat-bottomed wooden arks, hauled them overland to these rivers, and then negotiated the channels to Philadelphia and Chesapeake Bay. The first shipment arrived in 1814, though 3 of the 5 arks sunk en route.

Canals

Recognizing the growing market potential, entrepreneurs began large-scale projects to solve the transportation problem. In 1820, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company completed a crude 46 mile canal from the coal fields to the Lehigh River and shipped 365 tons to Philadelphia. By 1825, canal shipments exceeded 34,000 tons.

By 1830, there were canal/river routes to Philadelphia, New York, and the tidewater region of Chesapeake Bay.

Demand for “Lehigh Coal” increased, prompting more mine operations, which required more miners and laborers.

Railroads

In 1826, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company began building the first railroad in Pennsylvania, and second in the United States.

It was a short line railroad from the mines in Schuylkill County to the canal head in Mauch Chunk, a distance of nine miles. It was a gravity railroad, coasting downhill the nine miles to the canal. Mules were transported in additional cars as the gravity rail descended, and the mules would pull the empty cars back up to the mines.

In 1833 the first steam engines were used.

By 1842, a railroad linked Philadelphia with Schuylkill County, reducing the need for canal and river transportation.

Railroads could carry more tonnage, deliver it to market quicker, and operate throughout the winter months, when canals were frozen. Similarly, railroads were not susceptible to the occasional droughts or floods that plagued canals.

Anthracite-Related Resources of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1769-1945 – United States Department of the Interior

Growing demand

By the mid-1840s, the transportation networks of canals, railroads, and rivers allowed economical transportation of Pennsylvania anthracite coal to the major markets. This drove demand for coal, prompting more mine operations which required more miners and laborers.

Canals and railroads from Anthracite fields to New York and Philadelphia – 1856

The advent of railroads increased the demand for iron and steel. The iron and steel industries were fueled by Pennsylvania anthracite coal. By 1840 over one million tons of anthracite coal was produced.

By 1844 anthracite produced the cheapest iron ever made in America. This iron became railroad rails, stoves, household furnaces, agricultural machinery, and a host of other products whose manufacture is considered central to the industrial revolution in the United States.

Anthracite-Related Resources of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1769 – 1945 – United States Department of the Interior
Coal Consumption by Origin – 1822-1842

You can see the remarkable growth of anthracite coal consumption along the Atlantic seaboard between 1822 and 1842. From a few percent in 1822 to over 80% twenty years later. And all that anthracite coal came from the six counties around Schuylkill.

Why anthracite?

Anthracite is the final product of the geological process known as coalification. It is quite hard and heavy, a cubic yard weighing a bit more than a long ton, and one cubic foot more than ninety pounds. Anthracite is nearly, pure carbon, generally averaging 86 percent. The high carbon content makes anthracite difficult to ignite, but it burns longer and cleaner than bituminous coal. When fully ignited it burns with a short, very hot, almost colorless, smokeless flame and yields a small quantity of ash.

Anthracite-Related Resources of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1769 – 1945 – United States Department of the Interior

“Hard” anthracite coal burns hotter, longer, and cleaner than “soft” bituminous coal. Anthracite could be used to smelt iron, bituminous could not.

Irish immigrants

Initially, experienced miners immigrated from England and Wales. But unskilled laborers were needed to support mining operations – laborers and teamsters and slate pickers and etc.

The growing demand for workers coincided with the years of The Great Famine in Ireland. Irish immigrants could count on a job in the rapidly expanding coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania. And Irish immigrants were willing to take on the dangerous, filthy jobs in the mines.

For Bridget Large’s family and other immigrants from Castlecomer in Kilkenny, anthracite coal jobs were familiar. Recall that Castlecomer sat atop the only anthracite fields in Ireland.


Sources

One thought on “238 – Pennsylvania Anthracite

  1. deborahlargefox0764 September 14, 2022 / 9:45 am

    Clear and concise! I learn quite a few things with each new post. Thanks, Mark!

    Like

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