That Gallant Company

Many histories have chronicled the events of the Civil War, but all too often the individual fighting man has been submerged beneath a deluge of grand strategies, potbellied generals, tactical evolutions, and glorious sacrifices.  “Billy Yank” of 1861-1865 counted his Civil War service as the greatest and most memorable event of his life.  Among his myriad experiences, the most frightening and influential was the initial exposure to enemy fire.  This first blooding hardened the green, romantic recruit into a mature, professional veteran who would carry the war through to its conclusion.

Indiana County provided several companies of men for the Union war effort.  Among these was Company B of the Eleventh Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division.  Raised from throughout the County in May 1861, Company B joined the Eleventh Regiment at Camp Wright, near Pittsburgh.  Company B shared the same heritage and background of the Eleventh Regiment, which was recruited entirely from that part of Pennsylvania west of the Alleghenies.  The one hundred men and four officers of the “Indiana Guards” rapidly settled into the time-honored army routine of drilling and conditioning.  Later, at Camps Tenally and Pierpont near Washington, D.C., they spent the winter of 1861 shaking down into fighting order.

Col. Samuel M. Jackson enlisted with the Eleventh as a company commander and finally became its commanding officer.

The soldiers’ dispatches home displayed the cocky confidence of untried warriors.  In August, one wrote, “Let them come, we’ll give them a warm reception.” Lieutenant Hannibal K. Sloan reported in January, “Never been in better health or better condition. Eager to meet enemy on the open ground. All seem to enjoy camp life.”

Their letters were concerned with camp life, rather than the military regimen.  Mitch, an anonymous correspondent of the Company whose letters frequently appeared in the home town newspapers, reported on August 27 from Camp Tenally, “The health of the Indiana National Guard is good.  Our rations are generally very good.  Our rations are generally very good.  The Guards have the best cook in the Regiment.” One member, however, found the army fare too coarse for his delicate palate, and complained, “Every day it is the same.  Bread, meat, coffee, and bean soup.  If you can send us some elderberries, corn, tomatoes, or anything of that sort…a little butter when the weather gets colder, would be very pleasant.”

Col. Thomas Gallagher of the Eleventh was captured at Gaine’s Mill.

Toward the end of their stay, Mitch summed up what he called the “Monastery of Camp Life;” “we have had a very pleasant time in Camp Pierpont, having enjoyed ourselves as well as could be expected of men in our condition.  Of late we have originated debating clubs, which, by the way, is a variety.”

With warm weather came the opening of a new campaign season, and Union Commander George B. McClellan opened his Peninsula Campaign aimed at Richmond and the vitals of the Confederacy.  Company B waited impatiently, fuming at having “To remain behind while other corps are welding their power to the destruction of the rebellion…the men are eager to participate in coming struggle.  They are indignant at even a hint of being held in reserve.”

On June 12, the Eleventh Regiment joined the Army of the Potomac at White House, Virginia.  Assigned to the Fifth Corps, the reserves proceeded to Beaver’s Dam Creek near Mechanicsville, where they assumed their position on the extreme right of the Union Army.  Lt. Col. Samuel Jackson wrote on June 18, “Expect a general engagement this night. Our boys anxious for the fight.”  On June 26, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, initiated a flanking movement designed to crush the Union right.  In fighting that lasted until dark, the Confederates repeatedly tried the Federal entrenchments.  The Eleventh Reserves guarded the Corp’s left flank.  “From our position on picket, firing soon became heavy, and the musket balls, shells, and solid shot, were flying over our heads in greater profusion than was pleasant.”  They remained without sleep for two straight nights, and that evening they covered the withdrawal to Gaines Mill.  After a seventeen-mile night march, and a brief covering skirmish that cost Company H one man, the Eleventh passed through Union lines for what proved to be a brief respite.

Fighting continued on and off June 27, and by 3:00 p.m. the action became general as Lee again resolved to crush the Federal right.  The Eleventh had just been ordered into the fighting when Company B was detached to put handles into five hundred axes urgently needed to build fortifications.  Working near a field hospital, they were subjected to the worst possible scenes that war could muster.  Sgt. John Sutor wrote, “I will not cause you to shudder by telling you of the many horrible sights we were beheld.”  Meanwhile, Lee’s men slammed brutally against the Federal lines.  With units beginning to fragment under the incredible onslaught and unable to rejoin their regiment, Company B was formed in an attempt to stem the retreat.  Suddenly engaged in “a fight that almost beggars description,” their ranks were raked by shot and shell.  With two men killed, Company B joined the Fifth Corp’s frenzied retreat to reunite with McClellan’s Army.

Shaken by these twin defeats, McClellan withdrew to a new supply base on the James River.  He did this without the Eleventh Reserves, which had been captured at Gaines Mill.  One hundred and six survivors, primarily from Company B, were organized into two companies attached to the Seventh Reserves for the remainder of the Seven Days Campaign.

Lee continued his attempts to roll up the Army of the Potomac.  At Glendale, on June 30, the Seventh Reserves, with Indiana’s Company B, were on the right rear of the Reserve’s Division battle line.  Lee’s determined men attacked about 4:00 p.m., and the gray regiments tackled the Seventh as the sun was beginning to set, providing eerie illumination for what was one of the few true bayonet fights of the war.  The Seventh Regiment began to crumble, and in the confusion and twilight, nobody really determined what happened after that.  What is known is that the men from Indiana charged without hesitation into the fray.  Cpl. Henderson C. Howard, a six-foot giant of a man, captured a Confederate battle flag.  Pvt. James J. Oatman was knocked down by the windage of a shell and taken prisoner.  Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan wrote that “this battle, I do not think, can be exceeded for fierceness.  The butternuts were piled up in perfect heaps.”  The fight ended at nightfall in mutual exhaustion and disorganization.

Monument to the Eleventh on the Wheatfield, Gettysburg National Military Park.

Of the one hundred six men that Capt. Daniel S. Porter and Lt. Sloan had taken into action that day, nine were dead, fifteen wounded, and ten missing.  That night the battered survivors retired to Malvern Hill, where they were placed in reserve.  From here, they marched to Harrison’s Landing for a period of needed rest and recuperation.

The much desired and long awaited event had finally come.  In the vernacular of the period, they had “seen the elephant.”  Pvt. Leo Faller of the companion Seventh Reserves wrote his parents, “If any one tells you that the Rebels will not fight just tell them to come down to this neck of the country and try them on…This is the last of the fighting for that time and I hope the last altogether but if the Rebels are not satisfied I am willing to pitch in again.  Tell some of those patriotic young men…that now is the Appointed time and they should come accordingly.”

Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan proudly told Indiana, “Gen. McClellan says we have done as well as men could do, so that he will put us to the rear of his army and let us rest…probably we have seen our last battle.  I am in first rate health and spirits at present.”  Sgt. John Sutor reported on July 15, “Good deal of sickness among soldiers (but) boys are again beginning to assume their formal jovial dispositions.”

A reunion of Company B veterans.

The Indiana Guards faced further struggle at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, but their first battle, their most arduous test, was behind them.  From this experience, they would mature into one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s “most dreaded foes…always in deadly earnest.”  On the battlefields of Gaines Mill and Glendale, their sacrifices and experiences first earned this reputation.

The Last Hurrah! Ernest Team went to the National Playoffs

On the surface the 1937 season seemed like the R&P Baseball League’s greatest glory!  The championship team, Ernest, carried the league’s banner into the National Amateur Baseball Federation finals in Dayton, Ohio.  No coal town baseball team from the County had ever reached such heights before.  In the minds of the people of the time – and often in their memories today – it was a splendid and spectacular climax.

But looking back, we can see that at the same time other forces were at work which would spell the end for the venerable coal town league.  The coming of unionization to the region in 1933 created new attitudes and new practices which weakened company support for the teams.  The companies cut funds for the teams and no longer provided “hired players” – those exceptionally talented men who were given easy jobs in the mines in exchange for their diamond exploits.  Some of these older stars – “Cofy” Davis, “Stusch” Salva, Arley Shaffer, and Mel “Powerhouse” King – continued to play for enjoyment.  But the team rosters carried youngsters like John Toten, Edward “Huskie” Hess, and Kennard “Ken” Bishop, who were true amateurs.  As the Ernest manager Mel King recalled about 1937, “I played the younger players of Ernest itself.  There were no longer any ‘hired players.’ You could not have asked any more of them.  They played better than most people expected.”

The new labor situation meant other changes, too.  There was no longer time off from work for play.  The McIntyre team suffered an embarrassing forfeit during the 1937 season because they were still working the mine and missed the start of the first game of a double-header.  And, perhaps reflecting the more democratic spirit which accompanied unionization, in 1937 the Ernest team officials even allowed players to elect their own manager.

All these changes helped to make the 1937 season an unusual one.  Organizational problems troubled the league.  Ten teams started the season, but only seven were sound enough to finish.  An unusually large number of lop-sided contests – such as Lucerne’s 25 to 1 trouncing of McIntyre, a league record for scoring – testify to the wide talent gap among the teams. The fortunes of the McIntyre team suggest the turbulent state of the league and the lack of balance.  Barely respectable in the first half of the season, McIntyre reversed itself in the second half to finish comfortably on top, eclipsing more touted teams like Yatesboro, Lucerne, and Ernest.  Amid such chaos, it is not surprising that frustrations mounted.  Controversy clouded the County playoff series between Ernest and Plumville.  Ernest’s “square-shooting” manager Mel King was even rumored to be involved in an alleged bribery attempt of an opposing pitcher.

What unionization began; international affairs finished.  Within four years, America entered World War II.  The war effort drained time and talent from the fields and the league’s decline became irreversible.  Paradoxically, the R&P League, which was an important and vital part of life in Western Pennsylvania for over a decade, did not enjoy national recognition until its declining years.  But, for the moment, the glory of Ernest’s 1937 trip to Dayton hid the weaknesses.

The road to Dayton was anything but smooth for Ernest.  They started slowly – in fact, they did not formally enter the league until close to opening day in mid-May.  Then, only a late winning surge by Ernest and a stunning upset of Lucerne by Coal Run enabled Ernest to gain a one-game advantage over Lucerne and clinch the first-half pennant.  In the second-half race, Ernest stretched its winning streak to eighteen games, but still finished three games behind the McIntyre club.  Thus, despite playing .771 baseball for the year, they were forced into a championship series with McIntyre who had played only .708 baseball.  Still, Ernest fared better than their arch-rivals Lucerne, the defending league champions.  They placed second in both halves of the season and thus were relegated to the sidelines despite playing .750 baseball overall.

Ernest won the championship series over McIntyre, three games to none, but it was not easy.  In the first game, Ernest rallied for a run in the top of the tenth to win 4 to 3.  They scored a run in the top of the ninth to win the second game 2 to 1.  The third game ended in darkness at the end of the fourteenth inning with the score tied 4 to 4.  When the game was replayed in its entirety, Ernest broke open a close 2 to 0 game with three runs in the seventh and two insurance tallies in the eighth for a deceptively easy 7 to 1 victory.  The Indiana Evening Gazette reported that “except for the last few innings of the final contest, the series was the closest and most interesting ever seen since the league was organized in 1928 and re-organized in 1934….District fans will never again witness a deluxe series as presented by McIntyre and Ernest last week.”

Ernest moved another step forward on the road to Dayton in the County championship with Plumville, but while that series was less difficult on the field, it was more fraught with controversy.  The problems began on Sunday, August 14, two weeks before Ernest was to meet Indiana County League champion Plumville.  Ernest manager Mel King hired Lud “Lefty” Smith, an old friend and former teammate from King’s Yatesboro career, to pitch against Revloc in a non-league, Sunday encounter.  This was not an unusual strategy.  King wanted his regular pitching staff well rested and primed for more meaningful league games because they were locked in a tight league race.  By the 19th of August Manager Don Bowser of Plumville was “worried and concerned” over Smith’s stint at Revloc.  Merle Agnello, sports writer for the Gazette, underscored the problem when he wrote, “It must be remembered that Smith is a regular with Plumville…who will meet the R&P League titlist (either Ernest or McIntyre) in a 5-game series soon.”  When Ernest pounded Smith to a 7 to 2 victory in the first game of the series, the ugliness began, with rumors circulating that Ernest had paid Smith to allow the R&P champs to win.  Agnello responded to the rumors with a reasoned article in the Gazette showing that Ernest had acted in good faith, but nonetheless during the rest of the series, Mel King and his team heard the taunts from the Plumville fans about “buying Smith.”

The “Smith at Revloc” controversy proved to be mild compared to the “Smith in Pittsburgh” controversy which also flared up the start of the Ernest-Plumville series.  Lud Smith, “who practically earned his summer living as a member of the Plumville staff,” signed to pitch for Wildwood of the Greater Pittsburgh League in their playoff series with Reston.  Agnello reported, “It was little wonder that Manager Bowser and his townspeople became disgusted – all because Smith decided he could make a few dollars by pitching for both teams.”  Looking backward, Mel King placed the event in better perspective by recalling, “It was still the Depression. Smith had a pretty good-sized family – perhaps four children – and he didn’t have a very high paying job.”

Smith’s double duty was not only against the local league rules, but also apparently against the national rules.  Later, the State NABF commissioner ruled that Smith had been ineligible to pitch for Plumville in the series because he had already pitched for a team engaged in the national playoffs.  Smith’s indiscretion aroused the moral indignation of Agnello who wrote, “It was a shame to see Plumville take it on the chin from such unjust play of Smith.”

“Take it on the chin” is exactly what Plumville did.  In that first game of the series, played on Monday, the 30th of August, Ernest exploded against Smith for four runs in the first inning and added one each in the second and third innings.  It turned out that Smith had pitched on the previous two days for Wildwood in their series.  His efforts for Plumville on the third day fell short.  Agnello summed it up in his “Sportseer” column, “How could he fool himself by trying that foolish ‘iron man’ stunt?”

The Plumville team lost the second game 6 to, and the following morning a demoralized Manager Bowser announced that he refused to continue the playoffs.  Bowser’s statement agreed with what Agnello wrote: “Without his ace hurler his team cannot stand up against the R&P League finalists.”  Late that day the distraught manager relented and sent his charges into the fray behind the rubbery arm of lanky “Slim” Lingenfelter.  The old-timer’s tantalizing slow curves and off-speed pitches baffled the Ernest batters.  The resulting 4 to 1 victory for Plumville kept the Indiana County League champs alive.  Ernest, however, edged Lingenfelter 2 to 1 in a twelve-inning fourth game to wrap up the playoff after “Slim” had pitched hitless ball for nine frames.  Ernest became eligible for the national championship.

By today’s standards the amount of newspaper ink devoted to this series and the controversy was enormous.  It provides one index of the continuing attraction of amateur baseball in the late 1930s.  Yet, by the standards of earlier years, amateur baseball in Indiana County had declined.  The Ernest-Plumville series showed a net profit of only $1.25, a far cry from the approximately thirteen hundred dollars once collected at a single Lucerne-Waterman game in the R&P League.

Ernest now prepared for the trip to Dayton.  Manager King reinforced his regular roster by adding Frank “Whitey” Marken, a catcher from Yatesboro, and Alfred “Zip” Zentner, a pitcher from Lucerne Mines.  Tourney officials made the arrangements for the team.  Steve Cox and Joe Getz, the owners of the Pittsburgh Sport Shop and sponsors of the Federation leagues in Pennsylvania, brought the details to Ernest prior to the team’s departure. Ernest was to be lodged in the Miami, a downtown Dayton hotel.  Their room and board were to be paid by the Federation.  Prior to leaving, Mel King and “Cofy” Davis approached Leslie W. Householder of the R&P Coal Company for a donation to meet other expenses and were given approximately fifty dollars.  The team arranged to borrow cars to make the trip.  Mel King remembers driving a new Dodge belonging to the Ernest tipple foreman Dave Watkins.  “It never ran right again,” Mell mused afterward.  A squad of fifteen players and a few club officials accompanied by sportswriter Agnello left Indiana County on Friday morning, September 11, for the 250-mile trip – a trip they remember today as being extremely long.

Their arrival in Dayton late Friday was much like the season they had just completed, a bit mixed up.  The team reached Dayton too late to participate in the opening parade sponsored by the city’s civic organizations.  Despite their team’s missing the parade, the R&P Coal Company’s sign was somehow carried in the parade.

In Dayton, the Indiana Countians made two important discoveries which made their disappointment at not making the parade seem minor. Mel King learned that the spit ball was outlawed in tourney play.  In effect that sidelined one of their ace pitchers, Arthur “Cofy” Davis, a vintage practitioner of the spitter.  Without his stuff “Cofy” would not be able to contribute much.  Manager King would be reduced to only three hurlers, Vincent “Runt” O’Hara, Alfred “Zip” Zentner, and the young “Ken” Bishop.  A fourth possible pitcher was Leo “Poley” Levitz, but he was not really to be counted on.

Without pitching depth things looked bleak for Ernest in the double elimination tournament.  Unless it rained there would be a game every day.  Mel King asked Steve Cox and Joe Getz why they had not informed him of the spitter ban when they had visited Ernest to decide.  They told him that it was simply a matter that had slipped their minds.  Later, Mel King recalled that if he had known the situation, he could have added such stellar moundsmen as “Stusch” Salva, “Bill” Ruddock, or even Lud Smith.

The second discovery came on Saturday when they arrived at the field assigned for their first game and found that their first opponent would be the Kramer team from neighboring Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.  The two teams played poorly, perhaps with good cause.  Kramer had completed its baseball playoff only the day before.  Ernest perhaps felt the fatigue of the previous day’s trip.  Agnello reported “that the game would have been shameful enough for youngsters of the grades.”  Kramer jumped off to a 6 to 3 lead after three innings.  Ernest closed to 6 to 6 after five and a half innings and took an 8 to 7 lead in the top of the seventh.  Kramer iced the game with four runs in the bottom of the seventh, winning 11 to 8.

Mel King had elected to pitch Zentner inf the first game.  “Zip,” noted for his control, surprisingly walked seven.  King remembers, “It was the only time I saw him get a beating like that.”  Zentner, making no alibis, would later say, “It was just one of those days.”  But there may have been other reasons.  The tourney used baseballs of two sizes, the official National League ball and the smaller official American League ball.  Zentner remembers he “just couldn’t get used to the change in the size.”  The Ernest mound staff was so limited that Manager King really had no choice but to allow Zentner to go the entire distance.  Later the Ernest players would recall that they felt they should not have lost that game to their next-door rivals.  Perhaps this was the biggest disappointment of the tourney for them.

Ernest bounded back in the next day against a “stellar” Akron team.  Vincent “Runt” O’Hara, Ernest’s ace southpaw, pitched “…a beautiful game,” allowing only four hits in a game played on the University of Dayton diamond.  “Huskie” Hess and Mel King each collected two hits for Ernest.  The fact that there 3 to 1 victory was recorded against a pitcher who had been brought in as a ringer – he was then toiling in the Cleveland Indians farm system – made the victory even sweeter.  The game provided one of the most memorable moments of baseball in the entire trip.  One of King’s hits became known as the famous graveyard shot.  It was a prodigious clout that left the playing field and landed among the tombstones of the neighboring cemetery.  There it ricocheted off the first one and then another of the marble markers while the poor Akron outfielder chased it.  O’Hara still recalls that King laughed so hard he could hardly circle the bases, a task made more difficult by his periodic leaping into the air and clapping his hands.  He ended up with only a triple, but Ernest was still in the running for the national crown.

Ernest’s quest for glory ended the next day on Dayton’s Kuhn’s Field.  It was their third game in three days, and the lack of pitching depth took its toll.  The young and relatively inexperienced “Ken” Bishop started.  The even more inexperienced Leo “Poley” Levitz followed him.  “Cofy” Davis, limited to a slow roundhouse curve because of the spitter ban, came next.  A tired “Zip” Zentner finished up.

For eleven innings the pride of Indiana County and a team of “hospitable” southerners from Birmingham, Alabama, traded leads.  Then Birmingham, the home team, pulled off a successful squeeze play to plate the winning tally.  Ernest had lost 11 to 10 and was out of the tournament.  Third baseman “Huskie” Hess still remembers that frustrating bunt.  He was playing too deep because of problems with the grass infield and was unable to make the play from his position at third.  It was an uncommon game with an unusual score to end an unconventional season.

The season did not, however, necessarily have to end for Mel King at that point.  The Birmingham team was so impressed with him that they offered to pay his expenses to stay on and play for them under an assumed name.  King declined, but it might have proved to be an interesting event if he had loaned himself to the Alabama team.  The next day Birmingham played Ernest’s neighbors from Jefferson County.  It would have, without doubt, been difficult for King to disguise himself from the Kramer team.

Interestingly, none of the Ernest players remembers the controversy over the umpiring in the third game.  Agnello reported in the Gazette at that time that “the melee was one of those unsatisfying contests to both due to the rather awkward umpiring.  Time and time again decisions were disputed and reversed; …the work of Umpires Schwartz and Minzler was far from satisfactory.  In fact, umpiring of the Dayton official’s association was criticized throughout the first 3 days of play – a “black eye” to tourney heads.  A couple of decisions caused the downfall of the Ernest team.”  In interviews with the players they never mention it.  If asked about the umpiring, they say that it was fine.  Perhaps it is that the warm memories of the Dayton tourney have over the years cooled this brief moment of dispute.

For the Indiana Countians, however, there was more to the tourney than the games themselves. “Huskie” Hess, the young Ernest infielder recalls that it was his first venture outside Pennsylvania and his first real trip away from home.  His memories are of the stay in Dayton’s Miami Hotel where he and Mike “Suey” Swanlek attempted to crash a dance on Saturday night.  He was also impressed with the large number of baseball fields in the city of Dayton and experienced the strangeness of playing on a field with a grass infield.  He had grown up playing on nothing but the totally dirt diamonds of the Indiana County coal towns.

Mel King remembers that he and some of the team wandered into a large Jewish wedding reception at the hotel and helped themselves to the goodies on the buffet table before being “run out.”  He also recalls the fans asking where Ernest, Pennsylvania was, the good size of the crowds in attendance at the Dayton games, and a couple of carloads of Ernest fans arriving for the Sunday game.  There were also several major league scouts in the stands who might give a young player his big break.  King recalls telling his young shortstop John Toten, whom he remembers as one of the best infielders he played with in the R&P League, to play his ordinary game and not to be nervous because of the scouts.

“Zip” Zentner recalls that the players did not venture much out of the downtown hotel where they roomed two men to a room, but that a few did visit a couple of night spots.  Most of the memories, however, are of baseball.  Overall there is the impression that there was a real feeling on behalf of the team that they went to Dayton to play baseball, that they felt serious about their chances in the tourney, and that they gave it most of their attention.

Merle Agnello’s “Sportseer” column of September 14, 1937, gives some indication of the players’ seriousness and their superstitious nature. “Unfortunately,” Agnello wrote, “I missed the bus transporting the players from the hotel to the playing field Sunday afternoon, and had to hire a taxi to reach the University of Dayton diamond.  Because Ernest won on Sunday, they were determined from having me board the bus today for Kuhn’s field and went as far as to pay my taxi fare to the park! Can anyone imagine such superstition – as much as I wanted Ernest to win, they insisted that my presence was a ‘jinx’.”

Following the defeat, the players and club officials began their trek back to Indiana County.  They arrived the next day following an all-night trip.  While it was a quest for glory ended, a dream not come true, it is still a part of the Indiana County heritage – that trip to the national finals in Dayton.

Political Parties of Indiana County

Indiana County has traditionally been a Republican stronghold, even voting against the state’s Democratic native son, James Buchanan, in the 1856 election. However, there has been a wide assortment of parties have challenged its dominance. These contenders have included groups such as the Greenbacks, Fair Play, and Militant Workers in addition to the loyal opposition Democratic Party.

The Contrary Countians

An Act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth crated Indiana County from parts of Westmoreland and Lycoming Counties in 1803. The Assembly directed the Governor to appoint a committee of three commissioners to supervise the infant county until a census could be taken and a new county government could be formed. It was further directed that Westmoreland County be granted temporary jurisdiction over the inhabitants until their new government would achieve separate representation at Lancaster, the capital of Pennsylvania.

Early in Indiana County’s history, their politics tended to oppose the trends of the times. From 1804 to 1816, when the Democratic party was solidly in power, Indiana County consistently voted for the Federalists in state and national elections.

In 1817, under the leadership of Joseph Heister, the Federalists in Pennsylvania almost succeeded in capturing the governorship, but in that year the voters of Indiana County had completely reversed their politics and gave the Democrat Findlay a 718 to 274 vote margin. In 1820, when Heister succeeded in his second bid for election, Indiana County was again in the Democratic camp, where it stayed all during the Federalist’s remaining years as a powerful party. For the ten years from 1817 to 1827, the Democratic party was dominant in Indiana County, but not without opposition.

The Wayward Whig

In 1821, John McCrea began a newspaper in Indiana called the Indiana and Jefferson Whig, and began to be the exponent of the Whig party. This is notable, because the influence of the Whig party was negligible in Pennsylvania politics until fourteen years later.

The Whigs stood for a tariff, a well-regulated currency, a single-term Presidency as a check on executive power, and the protection of domestic labor. The party was not very successful in its early years, and in 1826 McCrea joined the new Anti-Mason movement.

The First McCarthyites

James Moorehead, whose Indiana American newspaper later merged into the “Whig” was an early innovator, along with McCrea, of the Anti-Masonic party. The Anti-Masonic political movement began in western New York in 1826 and rapidly spread to Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Anti-Masonic politics first began in Lancaster County in 1828 with the publication of the Antimasonic Herald. However, it seems that James Moorehead’s American began speaking of the Anti-Masonic movement a year earlier, in 1827, and that the Anti-Masonic party was formed here in the same year. There were many power names listed among the Anti-Masons such as: John Quincy Adams, Horace Greeley, Francis Granger, and Thaddeus Stevens, with Stevens providing the voice of the party and the power behind the throne. Membership was chiefly derived from the Germans and the Quakers who were opposed to oath-taking rituals, the Scotch-Irish who disliked the masonic titles and rituals because it sounded too much like English aristocracy, the foreigners, the Democratic radicals, and the Whigs. Growth of the Anti-Masons in Indiana County was so rapid that by 1829 the Anti-Masonic candidate for governor, Joseph Ritner, though he was defeated statewide, was able to carry the county by an overwhelming majority (1,044 to 456) in the campaign of 1829.

In 1832, when all neighboring counties voted Democratic, Indiana County again threw its support to Ritner. In 1835 the county helped carry Ritner to the Governor’s mansion, and the Anti-Masonic party remained dominant in Indiana County until after Ritner’s defeat for re-election by David Rittenhouse Porter in 1838 when the party began to be taken over by the Whigs. But not every Indiana County Anti-Mason was destined to be made a Whig so rapidly.

Carry Me Over Jordan

In 1840, James Moorehead, the old Anti-Masonic leader, began to publish another newspaper called the Clarion of Freedom, which agitated against slavery and started the Indiana County movement of the Abolitionist party.

The Abolitionist movement began in Boston in 1831 with the founding of the Liberator, a newspaper edited by William Lloyd Garrison. Two years later, Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia which became the most radical faction of the Abolitionist movement, and included such notables as John Brown, Lucretia Mott, and Wendell Phillips.

Indiana County was a late-comer to the Abolitionist movement, but played an active part in it. The leadership here tended to lean toward the radical side, and the movement remained quite strong in the county for a number of years, but began to diminish with the decline of the national movement following the Christiana riots of 1851. A slave owner and a United States marshal had arrived in Christiana, Lancaster County, and demanded the return of three fugitive slaves who were hidden on a nearby farm. Instead of turning over the slaves, a mob of whites and Negro freeman attacked the authorities, killed the slave owner, and chased off the marshal. By 1854 most of the Abolitionists had become Whigs. Although they had exercised a strong voice in the county’s politics, the Abolitionists were never in control, and Indiana County remained a Whig stronghold, voting consistently for Whig Presidential candidates from 1840 to the founding of the Republican party in 1856.

The First Ku Kluxers

The real power of the Whigs ended in 1854 with the coming of the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings were an anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, secret political group which began in New York and Pennsylvania and spread throughout the nation. Their tenure was brief, but their influence was great. The party appealed to the popular fear of the increasing number of immigrants into the country (in the thirty years prior to 1855 over five million foreigners, mostly Roman Catholic Irish and Germans, came to the United States).

The Know-Nothing party had only been in existence since 1852, and by 1854, had swallowed up the Whigs of Indiana County as well as the rest of the state. The election of the Whig and American candidate, Pollock, to the governorship in 1854 was only technically a Whig victory. In reality it was a victory for the Know-Nothings who formed the larger part of the Whig and American alliance.

Strange Bedfellows

A strange coalition that formed the Indiana County Whig party in 1856; comprising a union of the Anti-Masons, who violently opposed secret societies, and of the Know-Nothings who were themselves members of a secret society. It was a union of the Abolitionists who demanded the immediate emancipation of the slaves and the Whigs who declined and eventually died out in large part because they were reluctant to take a stand against slavery. In 1856 that union was destined to melt into the newly-formed Republican party.

The New Order

The part of the Republican party that took control in Indiana County was the same radical faction that had seized control of the national movement and nominated John C. Fremont for President of the United State. Its platform had committed the party to the abolition of slavery, and it found support among the Whigs, Free Soilers, and some Northern businessmen and industrial interests who sought to establish economic advantages over the South. In the Presidential elections of 1856, Pennsylvania again went Democratic, but Indiana Countians voted for the Republican Fremont by more than a 2 to 1 margin over fellow-Pennsylvanian, James Buchanan. It was to be fifty-four years before the newly-formed Republican party would taste defeat in Indiana County.

A Matter of Taste

The Prohibitionist Party was formed in Indiana County in 1869, which corresponded with the formation of a national Prohibition Party in Chicago during the same year. The goal was to make it illegal to manufacture and to consume alcoholic beverages. The party never achieved widespread membership in the County. The movement reached its peak in the County during the Presidential elections of 1920 when it polled 974 votes.

Let’s Play Monopoly

In 1874, the Greenback party was established in Indiana County when Frank Smith, publisher of the Indiana National newspaper began to press for monetary reforms. The national party was started during the depression of the 1870s and consisted primarily of Midwestern and Southern farmers who wanted an inflationary money system based on silver as well as gold.

The Greenbacks consolidated with the various labor movements in 1878 to for the Greenback-Labor party. The party asked the Federal government for the same things that the Greenback party had been asking for, but also asked for labor reforms, such as the reduction of working hours and the curtailment of Chinese immigrant labor. Although the party began to die out in 1879-80 with improved economic conditions following the depression, it accounted for eighteen per cent of Indiana County’s popular vote in 1882, and in 1886 it was still the County’s fourth largest vote-getter.

Try and Try Again

The People’s, or Populist, party that was formed in 1891 was a rejuvenation of the old Greenback-Labor party of the two previous decades. The party represented disgruntled farmers and unionists who blamed the government’s tight money policies for their poor living conditions. Their platform called for the free coinage of silver and the wide issuance of paper money. Because of the high transportation costs of farm goods, the platform called also for the nationalization of the railroads, telegraph lines, and other transportation and communication facilities as well as a graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators. Many of the things for which the Populists fought are part of our American life today. The party didn’t take hold very well in Indiana County and during its peak in 1894 it was able to produce only 609 votes out of more than 8,000 votes cast Countywide.

“. . . From the Cradle . . .”

Another party which has never been an influencing factor in Indiana County politics is the Socialist party. It was founded at Indianapolis in 1901, it was a merger of the Social Democratic and Socialist Labor parties. The goal of the party was to achieve socialism by means of the ballot. The party vigorously opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, and declared “its unalterable opposition” to the war. As a result of the party’s anti-war campaigns, its leader, Eugene Debs, was sentenced to ten years in prison for violation of the Espionage Act.

After the 1917 Russian Bolshevik revolution, the left wing of the party broke away to form the American Communist Party. As a national unit, the Socialist party reached its peak in 1920, but its life in Indiana County was much shorter, having begun to decline after the elections of 1912.

A Little Rain Must Fall

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election of 1919 was of special interest because it marked the first time in fifty-four years that the Republicans did not constitute the majority party in Indiana County. Although the Republicans won statewide, Indiana County went to the Keystone Independent candidate, William Berry, by an 18 vote margin.

The Keystone party was a marriage of Republican and Democratic party elements who rebelled against the boss-picked candidates of both sides. What is especially significant is that, although the Keystone party was organized statewide in 1910, no organized leadership existed in Indiana County until 1911 – the year after the elections in which the party was successful. Without effective leadership, the people – on their own – had turned the bosses out!

“Walk Softly”

When Theodore Roosevelt bucked the Republican organization in 1912, a ready following awaited him among the ranks of the Keystoners.  Most of the Keystoners found a home in one of the Roosevelt-led tickets in 1912, the foremost of which, in Indiana County, was the Washington party rather than the Bullmoose party.  The Washington party ticket gave Roosevelt a 2 to 1 edge over Taft, and a 3 to 1 edge over Wilson.  The combined votes of all the Roosevelt-led tickets gave him more votes than the Republicans and Democrats together.  Th Republicans, however, carried the state and county offices, and were not to lose the County in another Presidential election for another fifty-two years.

You Again!

In the midst of widespread labor unrest in 1919, many labor unions began to form political parties of their own and soon the labor leaders of several states cooperated to form the National Labor party.  It consisted almost wholly of union members, and as such, did not, at that time, have widespread voter appeal.

Recognizing the necessity of gaining allies, the party, in 1920, became the Farmer-Labor party, demanding for labor a larger voice in the management of industry and the elimination of discrimination against Negroes.  In the elections of 1920 the party’s candidate garnered only 131 votes in Indiana County, but by 1924, with “Fighting Bob” La Folette heading the ticket, the Labor party compiled 1,989 votes – only 78 less than the Democratic candidate, John Davis.  Combined with the votes of the Socialist and other tickets which La Folette headed, he was by far the second highest vote-getter in Indiana County.  In the following year the party was dissolved, and although repeated attempts were made to revive it, they met with little success.  In the elections of 1948 the party backed the Progressive candidate, giving Henry Wallace 207 votes, but from 1924 on, it ceased to be an influential factor in the politics of Pennsylvania or Indiana County.

…And Then There Were Others

Many other parties have collected votes in Indiana County, but their life spans were too short and their influence too little to warrant special research in this particular publication.  Their names and the dates of their appearance on the ballots are shown on the accompanying list.

1848 – Free Soil            
Free Democrats
1851 – Native Americans
1912 – Bull Moose            
Roosevelt Progressive            
Progressive
1856 – American1916 – Industrialist
1860 – Constitutional Union1918 – Fair Play
1882 – Independent Republican             Temperance1922 – Single Tax 1928 – Workers
1888 – Union Labor1930 – Liberal
1892 – Social Labor            
Free Silver
1932 – Communist
1934 – Industrial Labor
1896 – Jeffersonian1936 – Royal Oak
1904 – Independence1940 – Independent Government
1906 – Lincoln            
Union Labor
1942 – United Pension
1948 – Militant Workers
1910 – Workers Labor1950 – G.I.s Against Communism
INDIANA COUNTY VOTER REGISTRATIONS
(Autumn Figures) 1924 – 1968
YearRepublicanDemocraticProhibitionNon-PartisanOther
192424,7803,913321*1,535
192626,1813,580367*1,317
192827,7064,108**1,045
193229,6934,290**667
193426,5837,799*240579
193818,81713,233*128281
194021,40712,687*172242
194219,25710,872*143186
194418.6299.020*125167
194618,2148,536*121191
194818,9239,30719311911
195220,88011,940169166*
195420,04911,921159145*
195619,83615,573130178*
195819,41015,855118209*
196020,23916,720104233*
196219,85317,82084235*
196420,21215,58355254*
196820,62313,156353783
*Non-party and Prohibition party registration figures are unavailable for certain years. Since 1952, minor party registration figures have not been listed.

Canal Days

The physical evidence of the existence of a major American canal running through portions of Indiana and Westmoreland Counties is now almost entirely erased by the ravages of time, weather, and modern industrial development.  However, it is still possible to find short sections of watered canal bed, crumbling culverts which once ducted streams beneath the canal bed, and even portions of ruined locks with some of their beautifully cut stones still in place.  Other sites, which are known to have contained major canal structures, are now only remembered in the pages of old canal company records of preserved in old photographs.

In 1826, it became apparent to Pennsylvanians that a route of commerce must be opened to the west.  The successful completion of the Erie Canal in New York State had already begun to draw commerce away from Philadelphia, and with the proposed construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which it was hoped would link the rich agricultural lands of Ohio with the great port of New York City, the Pennsylvania State Legislature was forced to act.  On February 26, 1826, a bill was passed to promote a system of internal improvements establishing an “uninterrupted waterway” from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was never a truly uninterrupted waterway, but by April 15, 1834, it was possible to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on a canal system combining manmade and natural, land and water sections.  Passengers and freight moved by steam train from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River at Columbia where they were lowered to the canal basis by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  From this point to Hollidaysburg, the canal travelers rode in canal boats pulled by mules, along the Susquehanna River to the Juniata River, and then along the Juniata to Hollidaysburg.  At the Hollidaysburg canal boat basin, the canal boats were floated onto railroad flatcars, and hauled up and over the Allegheny Mountains by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  This series of ten planes was known as the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  It began at Hollidaysburg and ended in the Johnstown canal boats were floated again in the canal, and pulled in canal and slackwater pools[1] following the banks of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Allegheny Rivers to Pittsburgh.

The completion of this internal improvement in a period of eight years was astounding feat.  Consider first its length: 395.19 miles.  Then ponder the problems of crossing rivers, streams, and mountains before the age of dynamite and gigantic earth movers.  Rivers and streams were crossed by means of troughs of water called aqueducts.  Mountains and steep hills were crossed by using inclined plane railroads powered by stationary steam engines which pulled the canal boats up and over these obstacles.  More gradual increases in land elevation were overcome by means of lift locks which raised or lowered canal boats from eight to twelve feet.  And finally, consider the tremendous effort required to dig a ditch over 250 miles long, five feet deep, forty feet wide at the top and twenty-seven feet wide at the bottom.  Consider also that this was done with only pick and shovel and black powder and mules, and it can be seen what a tremendous feat of engineering and pure physical effort the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal really was.  With this improvement in transportation, it was actually possible in 1841 to depart Philadelphia at 7:30 a.m. and arrive in Pittsburgh at 9:30 a.m. seven days later.

There have been a number of interesting accounts of travel on the Main Line Canal.  Outstanding among these are ones by Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Phillip H. Nicklin.  None of these give much attention specifically to Indiana County, but by drawing on old pictures and photographs, we can build on their accounts and imagine that a traveler writing in his diary in 1841, in the heyday of the canal, might have described his trip through Indiana and Westmoreland counties something like this:

June 25, 1841 After descending out of the Allegheny Mountains by the ingenious devices of the inclined planes of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, we slip into the canal basin in the village of Johnstown, and take rooms for the night at the American Hotel.  At first light we board our Marshall Company packet boat “Pennsylvania,” Captain H. H. Jeffries, at the tiller, and slip out of the basin by way of the guard lock at the west end, and we quickly move into the Conemaugh Gap slackwater.  Here we find ourselves in a deep, mountainous pass, hemmed in on the right and left by its steep walls, covered with a luxurious growth of hardwood. Not a trace of road or trail can be seen so interrupt the green of its sides.  In a short while we are told by Captain Jeffries that we will be passing out of the gap, and into Indiana County.

We leave the smooth slackwater in the gap and enter into the canal at Guard Lock 3.  The rolling hills of Indiana County spread out before us, and we are now pulling in a straight stretch of the canal at about four miles per hour, as we approach Rodger’s Mill and Lock 22 of the Ligonier Line.  Occasionally a cleared piece of farm land breaks the solid carpet of trees, and the Conemaugh flows swift and shallow on our left.  We pass by the villages of Abnerville and Centerville with Locks 20 and 18 at these places.

Just before we pass through Lock 16, our boat pauses near a number of substantial stone buildings associated with the canal company.  Here a fresh team of mules is attached to our tow line.  Without undue delay we are lowered in Lock 16, and glide smoothly over a handsome culvert of beautifully cut stone. In less than a mile’s distance we find ourselves crossing the Conemaugh on a marvelously constructed stone aqueduct supported by five elliptical stone arches.  Just over the far end of the aqueduct we are lowered in Lock 14.  Here we are in the village of Lockport in Westmoreland County.  As we pass through the town the cliffs of the Conemaugh on our right loom above the oxbow of the river and over the cornfields on the flat.  At the western edge of the town we drop in Lock 13, and we pass on through Bolivar, crossing over Tub Mill Creek on a two-arched stone aqueduct.  Ahead of us we can see a deep gap cutting through another ridge.  After going through Locks 12, 11, and 10, the gap looms even larger and more foreboding as we approach it.  Captain Jeffries explains that this is the Chestnut Ridge and that the passage through it is called Packsaddle Gap.  We quickly descend the closely spaced Locks 9, 8, 7, and 6, and find ourselves in the upper end of a slackwater.  It forms a broad expanse as smooth as glass, mirroring the steep and rocky sides of the gap.  Not a sound is heard as we pass below its towering sides, slip through Guard Lock 2 and into a short stretch of canal.  We are pulled through Lock 5 and then into another slackwater pool.  At last we burst forth from the confines of the gap into the rolling valley beyond.  With the sun low in the west, we are pulled out of the slackwater through Guard Lock 1, and again into the canal.  Next we go down Locks 4 through 1, and out through Lock 17 into the Blairsville slackwater at McGee’s Run.  We are now in the Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh section of the canal.

The thriving town of Blairsville now comes into sight through the tres surrounding the slackwater.  Opposite Blairsville we enter the canal again through Guard Lock 5, at the village of Bairdstown.  Because of commerce from the canal and from the Huntingdon-Cambria and Indiana Turnpike, Blairsville has become the largest town in Indiana County.  The warehouses by the shore of the slackwater on the Indiana County side attest to this, and the bustle of activity of men and wagons can be seen across the river in the late afternoon light.

We are now on the Westmoreland County side of the Conemaugh, slipping silently by the rolling hills.  We descend through Locks 16 through 12, and pass the villages of Social Hall and Livermore, and into the slackwater.  On our left, above the tree tops, a large mountain looms.  WE pass through Guard Lock 4, turn sharply left, and plunge directly into the mouth of a tunnel in the side of the mountain.

This tunnel, Captain Jeffries tells us, is cut through the mountain to avoid the additional four miles around it.  Although I must admit to a slight feeling of apprehension as the darkness surrounds us, he says it is a wonder of modern engineering, being 817 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 14 feet high, and cut through solid rock.  Our nighthawker lanterns show up the brickwork on the inside.  As we emerge from the confines of the tunnel, the Conemaugh River is far below us, and we cross this dizzying space by means of an aqueduct.  After crossing the aqueduct we turn sharply left and look back and find it to be much the same as the handsome aqueduct we crossed at Lockport, being supported by five elliptical arches, a magnificent and solid structure.

We are now again on the Indiana County side of the Conemaugh, passing through Locks 11 and 10 and the village of Tunnelview [now Tunnelton].  We pass the saltworks just east of the village of Saltsburg, and descend Lock 9.  As we enter the village of Saltsburg the canal channel makes a graceful curve, and we pass beneath three high bridges.  On our right is the Butler Myers boat building yard.  Captain Jeffries tells us we will make a brief stop here to change mules.  I can see a small crowd of people gathered to watch us go through the lock.

We slip into the chamber of Lock 8, and the gates are closed behind us by the lock keeper.  The tow line is detached as usual, and the tired mules are led away to the stable on our left between the river and the lock.  The fresh mules are brough up, the tow line is attached, and it seems we are ready again to proceed.  But, instead, our boat remains stationary. I wonder why we are waiting.  Maybe I will have a chance to look around a bit.

There are a number of shops and stores on our right near the lock, and I can just read their signs in the late afternoon light.  I can see Alcorn’s and Kelly’s general stores, the S.S. Jamison warehouse, fronting the boat basin below us, and Henry Blank’s bakery.

Suddenly the door of Blank’s bakery swings open, and a most singular man strides energetically out toward our waiting packet.  He speaks briefly to a man in the crowd and pats the head of a little girl as he approaches.  He carries a small valise in one hand and a paper bag under his arm.  In one energetic leap, he is on board, right beside me.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he says, with a sweeping gesture of his arm that seems to encompass everyone in sight.

Then to me he says, as if he had been my friend from childhood, “And now, dear sir, you seem to look a bit weary from your long journey.  I hope you haven’t suffered unduly.”  Without a pause, but with a chuckle, he continues, “And now I am about to offer you the best ginger cookie in the world.”  Inclining his head toward mine, with an air of confidentiality, “Mr. Blank, the baker, makes them, and I just had to have some before we got underway – here, try one,” he says, extending the bag toward me.  I take one from the bag as he continues.

My same is Samuel S. Jamison,” he says, pumping my hand in greeting, “I supervise the canal form Lock 6 to Pittsburgh, and there’s been a problem with leaks in the lock at Leechburg.”

He chuckles again, but without a pause for breath, turns and looks straight at the lock keeper, and calls out in tones of mock gravity, “Mr. Hugh Kelly, you may now let the water out of the lock.”

And so Mr. Kelly does, and with a rush of water, we sink in the lock.

We wave to everyone from the bottom and everyone waves back.  Hugh Kelly opens the lower lock gates and we glide smoothly into the Saltsburg boat basin.  Our tow line slaps the water as we begin to move out into the lengthening shadows of the early evening.

What a delicious ginger cookie! What a delightful man! I turn to thank him, but he is gone into the cabin, talking with some of the other passengers who are beginning to gather around the supper table.

Here is a fine gentleman, I think, and he should go far.  But I suppose I will never know.

Leaving Saltsburg, the Loyalhanna Creek joins the Conemaugh River to become the Kiskiminetas River, and we follow its bank as the town recedes behind us.  Shortly, we cross Black Legs Creek on a wooden aqueduct and pass through Lock 7 just as the sun dips behind the trees.

The captain’s son has come into the cabin to make up the banks, as we will travel all night, arriving in Pittsburgh in the early morning.  Coalport and Locks 6 and 5 are passed in the dark; I can hear the swish of water in the lock and the ropes dragging across the deck.  Leechburg is up ahead, but I shall surely be asleep by then….

Such a trip on the canal would have been possible until about 1863 when the canal was replaced by a swifter, if less romantic, means of transportation, the railroad.  Even before the railroad posed a serious threat, the canal was in financial trouble due to inefficient operation by the state.  But by the late 1840s, so much freight and passenger business was being lost, that the Commonwealth determined to unload its financial burden.  Finally, in 1857, an agreement was reached with the Pennsylvania Railroad and the entire system was sold for $7.5 million.  The railroad, which was primarily interested in the level right-of-way across the state, began to lose the canal section by section.  The first part to cease operations was the portion from Johnstown to Blairsville.  By 1864 the remaining activity halted and the canal days, for Indiana County, were history.


[1] A smooth, calm, and quiet water created by the construction of a dam across a stream and used for navigation purposes instead of a canal channel. A guard lock is located adjacent to a dam in the stream and permits boats to pass from slack-water into the canal or from canal to slack-water.

The Ernest Mining Plant

The story of the Ernest plant began in 1902, when officials of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company started looking to Indiana County in search of new coal fields. In May 1903, the rails of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway reached the new town of Ernest, and the first coal was shipped the same month. From the early days of its existence, the Ernest plant was a marvel of engineering. In an era when most coal companies were dependent upon the lowly mule for motive power, the R&P’s new operation utilized electric motors to haul coal to the steel tipple where a system of endless chains hoisted it up a long incline into the plant for cleaning and grading.

cleaning plant
Cleaning plant, ca. 1910, featuring electric hauling system

Within three years of its opening, the plant underwent the first of several renovations as the R&P constantly searched for more efficient mining and preparation methods to produce, clean, size, and market coal. In 1906, Heyl and Patterson of Pittsburgh constructed the first washing plant. This firm had also built the original tipple and most of the buildings used for coal storage and preparation at Ernest. The Fairmont Machinery Company and McNally-Pittsburgh also did important work for the R&P as the complex at Ernest expanded.

The R&P also established a coke industry at Ernest and eventually built a battery of 278 beehive coke ovens at the plant. Coke production figures from the Ernest ovens reflect general economic trends of the first half of the twentieth century as well as the effects of the later development of more sophisticated methods of making coke. By the mid-1920s, lack of demand for coke caused the temporary shutdown of the line of coke ovens at Ernest. The plant began production again in 1929, with the addition of mechanical unloading to replace the old hand drawing method. Annual production ebbed and flowed until a World War II peak of 145,977 tons was reached.

While the manufacture of coke formed a significant part of the activities at the Ernest plant, the mining, processing, and sale of clean fuel remained the prime factor in the success of the operation. In the early days, railroads, primarily the B R & P, consumed the greatest percentage of Ernest’s coal. It was particularly desired as high grade stoker coal for passenger engines. By the mid-1920s, the original tipple had been remodeled, and a huge bin constructed for storage of clean, sized, coking coal. In the next decade, a “dry” plant for cleaning coal by air, and a “wet” plant for cleaning coal with water, were installed at Ernest to bring the operation up to date.

loaded cars
Loaded railroad cars at the coke ovens

By the beginning of World War II, the Ernest coal plant began to resemble the plant best remembered by most Indiana Countians. As the war effort increased, Ernest kept pace with a growing need for coal; and in 1945, the mining and preparation plant worked together to produce over a million tons of coal. In 1952, the McNally plant was built on the hillside behind the original site. Using a wet cleaning method to separate the coal from impurities, the McNally plant had a capacity of fifty tons per hour for coking coal. R&P later expanded this plant to clean four hundred tons per hour, and it contained all of the cleaning equipment used at Ernest.

By the early 1960s, R&P officials decided that coal could no longer be mined profitably at Ernest. In 1965, the plant was closed. Within a few years, equipment and buildings gradually disappeared from the landscape as scrap companies dismantled the mining operation that had taken over fifty years to construct. But the McNally preparation plant and the skeleton of the coking coal bin still remain on the blackened site. These, the foundations of the coke ovens, and a brick office and machine shop are all that survive of the R & P’s Ernest operations, an Indiana County landmark to remember with pride.

cleaning plant 50s
The Ernest cleaning plant operative in the 1950s