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

Indiana Glass Works and Its Ware

For forty years the Indiana Glass Works was the community’s leading industry, supplying work for 200 employees, and producing distinctive glassware to a large clientele throughout the world.  Though never highly profitable the company might still be in operation today had it not suffered a costly fire at the height of the depression.

As colonial expansion spread westward, the need for glass factories near the new settlements increased since the primitive transportation methods then available rendered it difficult to ship glassware safely.  Consequently, many glassworks sprang up in Western Pennsylvania, a development abetted by the availability of raw materials, fuel, and skilled labor.  Although Pennsylvania has led the nation in glass produced since 1860, the period of greatest growth began about the turn of the century.  About this time, Indiana entered the picture by establishing a glass factory which eventually made “Indiana Glass” famous throughout the world.

It all began on New Year’s Day, 1892 when a group of Indiana’s town fathers assembled in the office of Hon. George W. Hood to discuss an exciting new business venture with Mr. Nevill, a visiting glass expert.  Mr. Nevill had patented a series of glass molds which he claimed would increase production by one-third to one-half.  He proposed to form a company which would utilize his technique to manufacture glass in Indiana.  He hoped to establish a factory in Indiana where he would not encounter the antagonism of labor unions which had opposed his labor-saving methods.

Nevill claimed that a $40,000 stock issue would furnish sufficient capital to build and equip a glass factory that eventually would hire 200 employees with a monthly payroll of about $7,000.  The local magnates were so favorably impressed by Nevill’s glowing prospectus that they immediately subscribed $12,000 to the venture, and after the Indiana Board of Trade visited a glassworks in Blairsville, the remainder of the required funds was forthcoming.  The January 20, 1892 issue of the Indiana County Gazette announced in its headline that “Both Indiana and Blairsville will have Glass Works.”  By now the optimistic entrepreneurs were negotiating for a tract of land on the old Experimental Farm in West Indiana (now the site of the University parking area adjacent to Miller Stadium).

For several months there was no news about the glassworks and rumors began circulating that the project had died aborning.  Then on May 18, the Indiana County Gazette carried a page one article stating that company officials had opened bids for the new factory.  C.E. McSparran, a West Indiana builder, submitted the lowest bid, $4,600, and was awarded the contract.

In the ensuing months, things began to hum.  Mr. Vandersaal assumed his duties as superintendent of the building; a railroad siding was completed; Mr. Nevill’s glass molds arrived; a 130-foot well was sunk to supply water; and the 80’ x 220’ building took shape.

Early in November construction was finished, and the building was thoroughly dried out by heaters for two weeks.  Then on Monday, November 14, 1892, the Indiana Glass Works staged elaborate ceremonies to inaugurate the startup of glass production.

glass factory
Indiana Glass Works Plant in Indiana

At 2:00 p.m. Judge Harry White delivered a speech to the employees and invited townspeople extolling the benefits which the new company would bring to Indiana.  Afterward the visitors entered the works to witness the fascinating operation of glass making.  The process began in the ten huge iron pots into which the workmen poured sand, lime, soda, and special coloring ingredients.  Each pot was heated in a gas fired brick kiln.  When the solid ingredients fused into a molten mass, the clear viscous glass was removed and pressed into molds or blown into the desired shapes.  The plant produced both crystal and colored glass.

The shaped glass articles were annealed in four 65-foot long heated lehrs in which the temperature gradient gradually decreased as the glass traveled from one end to the other.  After being thoroughly tempered, the glass articles were sorted, decorated, and packed for shipment.  Decorators were highly skilled artisans who received five to six dollars per day, wages which attracted many skilled and meticulous craftsmen from Bohemia.  Before long the plant employed almost 200 workers with a monthly payroll of $10,000.  A staff of eight highly paid salesmen carried samples and portfolios containing lithographs of the complete line of glassware which they displayed to prospective customers in all parts of the country.

The company’s announced policy was to produce handsome specialties that would be both ornamental and serviceable.  Designs were changed annually to meet the popular demand for new styles.  The manufactured items which in time became collectors items included:

Lampshades                                        tumblers

Sewing lamps                                      goblets

Lantern globes                                    wine glasses

Cream pitchers                                    salt and pepper bottles

Soda glasses                                        molasses jugs

Although the Indiana Glass Works constituted a definite economic asset to the community and established a reputation as a producer of quality glassware, the company’s profits proved disappointing.  Consequently, the management underwent successive changes.  The company had not been in operation long before the Northwood family, father and son, assumed control of the firm and renamed it the Northwood Company.  The Northwoods in turn were succeeded by the Dugans, father and two sons, from England who changed the name to the Dugan Glass Company.  The Dugans brought with them a number of English workers who settled in Indiana.  In 1913, the company changed names for the last time when it became the Diamond Glassware Company.

When World War I shut off imported glassware from Austria and Bohemia, the demand for American glass zoomed.  The Diamond Glassware Company shared in this prosperity running at full capacity to fill orders booked months in advance.  During this prosperous period the local firm enjoyed peaceful labor relations.  The work week was five days, most of the workmen now belonged to the union.  The plant was shut down during the month of July each year during which period the employees enjoyed a month’s vacation without pay.

After the War, the plant resumed normal operations under General Manager H. Wallace Thomas and Superintendent John Richards, Jr.  Then on Saturday afternoon, June 27, 1931, tragedy struck the company.  Early that afternoon residents in the vicinity observed smoke curling over the roof of the plant followed shortly by raging flames which burst through the roof above the decorating room.  Firemen rushed to the scene and were able to confine the damage to the frame section of the plant which housed the stock room, decorating room, and office.  Although the origin of the fire was never satisfactorily determined, several theories were advanced.  One attributed the fire to sparks from a passing train, a second ascribed it to the spontaneous combustion of oily rags while still another postulated that a smoldering spark from a freak lighting storm the previous day was the culprit.

In an interview on the day following the fire, Manager Thomas and Superintendent Richards indicated that the company’s plans for the future were indefinite, but they believed that the plant would be rebuilt.  However, the sections destroyed by fire were not reconstructed nor did the plant ever resume production.  The decision to discontinue operation doubtless was dictated by a combination of factors including a lackluster profit record, the loss in the fire of $30,000 worth of stock, increasingly sharp competition from West Virginia and Ohio firms, and the generally dismal economic outlook at the height of the Great Depression.

After standing idle for years, the main glassworks building was razed thereby drawing down the curtain on the company which had been Indiana’s leading industry for 40 years.  But though the manufacturing facilities are gone, the objects of quality craftsmanship survive.  Such are the rewards of personalized labor which unfortunately seem doomed in our increasingly computerized society.

Rise and Fall of Timber in the Indiana County Area

With the rapid rise in popularity of clipper ships during the early decades of the 19th century, shipbuilders along the eastern seaboard clamored for unprecedented quantities of high-grade timber. Responding to this lucrative demand, lumbering firms along the eastern seaboard dispatch experts far and wide to locate new timberlands.

One of the most astute – if not the most ethical – of these timber scouts was 46-year-old John Patchin of Sabbath Point on Lake George, New York.  A Maine firm commissioned Patchin to investigate the woodlands on the watershed of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and concurrently determine the feasibility of transporting Western Pennsylvania timbers via Pennsylvania waterways to the Chesapeake Bay.

After examining and admiring the size and texture of the dense stands of white pines on rolling lands that now encompasses Indiana, Cambria, and Clearfield Counties, Patchin, who lumbering historian Dudley Tonkin clamed “had the ability to even smell good pine,” promptly severed connections with his employer by “neglecting to file a report” on his mission.  Realizing the enormous profit potential in these untapped woodlands, he sent his two elder sons to bring the rest of the family to his new home in the wilderness (now Patchinville, a few miles north of Cherry Tree) where in 1835 he began acquiring some 10,000 acres of prime timberland, probably unaware that the low purchase price he paid was the result of Ben Franklin’s efforts some years before to prevail upon the state legislature to reduce the price per acre from 30 cents to a “half-bit” (6 ½ cents).

Others soon recognized the greenback potential of these evergreens and purchased large tracts in Banks, Canoe, Green, and Montgomery Townships.  White pines in this area were among the best in the country measuring from 2 to 5 feet in diameter and rising like a plumb line about 100 feet to the branches.  In 1882, a pine 8 feet in diameter and 120 feet tall – reputedly the largest in the state – was felled on the Graham tract in Banks County.

Among the prominent timbering pioneers were John Tonkin, Cornellius McKeage, John Chase, Nathan Croasman, Porter Kinport, Reeder King, Richard Smith and J.M. Gutherie.  But by far the most legendary figure of this era was John Patchin who acquired the envious title of “The Spar King” together with a considerable fortune by the time he died in 1863.

Patchin shrewdly conserved his own timber preferring instead to cut and market the finest trees of impoverished neighbors and absentee owners many of whom were glad to have their land cleared of timber.

Patchin’s operations are illustrated by his dealings with his impecunious neighbor, John Tonkin, to whom he paid one dollar per tree which he then felled and cut lengthwise into rectangular timbers known as spars.  Shipbuilders fastened three of these 92 feet long spars end-to-end to form a single mast which they secured to the keels of sailing vessels.  In addition to holding the sails aloft, the mast also was attached to the rigging in such a manner as to give dimensional strength to the ship thereby preventing it from breaking in two during fierce storms.  While pine spars from Western Pennsylvania were ideally suited for masts because of their ability to withstand the rigors of all extremes of weather without warping or loss of strength.

logs yellow creek
Logs ready for cutting at sawmill in vicinity of Yellow Creek.

The transporting of enormous timbers to the shipyards required considerable ingenuity and skill.  The felled trees were dragged to the riverbank by as many as eight teams of horses.  In the winter, the logs were loaded on a timber sled, designed by Patchin, and hauled to the river.  Here the poles were assembled to construct a raft.  Ten or twelve timbers were fastened together with a “lash pole” and held firmly in place with U-shaped bows to form a platform.  Three of these platforms were then coupled together to make a “half-raft” or “pup.”  When the “pups” reached the mountains below Clearfield where the river widened, two were joined in tandem to reduce the crew required to maneuver them.  Rafts varied in size, the standard ones measuring about 27 feet wide and 250-300 feet long.  Reputedly the longest raft to navigate the Susquehanna contained 142 logs and measured 2,000 feet in length.

After the completion of the “rafting in” as the construction of the raft was called, the raft was tethered to the bank with a hickory with or heavy rope.  The crew then waited for a freshet or spring flood that would enable them to launch the craft.  At the propitious time, a raftsman would “tie the raft loose” and into the current it sailed.  Occasionally, the passengers included a cow to furnish liquid nourishment and a horse on which the “captain” returned after selling his timbers.  Navigating the tortuous, and in stretches hazardous, West Branch of the Susquehanna 200 miles to Williamsport and thence south on the Susquehanna through Harrisburg to the Chesapeake Bay required a high degree of rafting skill.  A pilot, experienced and proficient in the art of handling a raft was undisputed master of the craft.  He and his helper manned the front oar which they manipulated to guide the front end of the raft while the rafters on the rear oar, known as “sternsmen,” swung the aft end in accord with orders from the pilot.  A raft frequently changed pilots below Harrisburg.

One of the most notorious danger zones on the West Branch was located at Rocky Bend and Crest Falls just below the present town of Mahaffey.  Here the river bend, studded with giant boulders, hairpins into the head of the falls where the water slopes sharply.  Successful navigation of this sector necessitated circumventing the rocks and delicately maneuvering to scrape the inside shore of a sharp curve in order to gain the proper position for a descent through the rapid falls.

This same section of the river also was the locale for the activities of legendary Joe McCreery, a powerful young giant who settled in the vicinity of Cherry Tree.  Universally acclaimed as “the best man on the river,” McCreery was commissioned to dynamite the nearby hazardous rocks out of the river.  However, this project was never completed because of insufficient funds.

During the Civil War, rafting flourished as demand zoomed for white oak which was used to replace decayed and damaged timbers in docks and wharves.  Wartime prosperity inflated the price of wood per cubic foot from 5 cents to 21 cents – a profitable development which finally tempted “Spar King” Patchin to cut down some of his own trees.

lumber stockpile
Lumber stockpile ready for shipment.

In the latter half of the 1800s the practice of “logging” came into vogue as a means of transporting timber to market.  As the name implies, this procedure consisted simply in floating free logs on waterways to a “boom,” a riverside facility for halting, storing and floating the logs to the ponds of adjoining sawmills which purchased and processed them into lumber.  The Williamsport boom which handled as many as 300 million board feet of lumber per year began operations in 1850 and soon became the lumber capital of the world.

Timbermen contracted with loggers to drive their logs to the boom.  The most successful log drivers on the West Branch were Anthony and Patrick Flynn whose partnership, formed in 1868, was awarded the logging contract with all major producers for 22 years.

A logger’s work began at the “skidway,” a sloping riverbank area, on which logs were aligned in ranks parallel to the river.  When the melted snow and spring rains swelled the streams to a level favorable for floating the logs, a team or horses at the top of the embankment was urged forward so as to strike the back log and start it rolling.  The transmitted impact quickly rolled all the logs into the water.  The loggers, armed with long pikes and waring heavy shoes with long calks on their soles to reduce slippage, then walked out on the carpet of logs to shepherd them on their journey.  The loggers were followed by two large arks or houseboats, one of which served as a cook shack and sleeping quarters while the other sheltered the horses used to haul stray logs back into the current.  “Dan,” one of Pat Flynn’s horses, made 19 trips down the Susquehanna.

As log drives were often 30 feet wide, the driver had to be constantly vigilant to avoid jams.  He would move about by jumping from log to log always being careful to avoid slipping into the water as the logs were packed so densely that he ran the danger of not getting out or being crushed to death as sometimes happened.  And when one or more logs got caught in such a way as to cause the whole drive to jam and thereby halt the flow, the logger would endeavor feverishly to break the impasse with his pike, saw, or in stubborn cases, dynamite.

Although the West Branch of the Susquehanna handled the largest volume of logging business in this part of the state, Big and Little Yellow Creeks also carried their share of logs especially during the period from 1880 to 1902.

The leading local logger for this operation was J.M. Gutherie who owned substantial coal and timber tracts adjoining the waters of Yellow Creek from “Possum Glory” (now Heilwood) to Homer City and on Two Lick below Indiana.  In 1879 his company, the Charles Improvement and Mining Company, constructed mills on the banks of Yellow at Homer City.  Gutherie also operated two mills above Homer City on Two Lick Creek and the lumber yard located on the present site of Indiana University’s Leininger dormitory at Oakland Avenue.

Gutherie’s employees, like all lumbermen of that era, worked hard from sunup to sundown for which they were paid $1 per day plus board.  Skilled laborers received $1.50 a day, while the bossman picked up the handsome sum of $3.75 to $4 per diem.   Workers who lost two hours on their job because of rain were cut half a day’s wages.

Woodsmen were quartered or “shantied” in camps or boarded with local families.  Some stayed at the West Indiana House (later the Houk Hotel) where a dollar paid for a night’s lodging together with supper and breakfast.  Single beds were available for 25 cents.  Satisfying the appetite of these active outdoorsmen posed a real challenge to the cooks including the renowned camp cook, “Russ” Ray, as revealed by the following menus:

Breakfast:

Hot rare Beef Steak

Pork Sausage-Fried potatoes

Biscuit with Apple Butter (from farmer)

Stewed Prunes-cookies

Molasses-Tea with sugar

Noon Meal-dinner:

Pork and Sauer Kraut

Fried Pork-boiled potatoes

Boiled Codfish

Peas in Beef broth

Biscuits-cookies

Raisins and rice

Apple Pie

Tea with sugar

Supper:

Boiled Salt Cod Fish – freshened in a trough below the spring

Fried Pork, potatoes boiled in their jackets

Pea Soup

Biscuit-Corn Bread

Cookies and Stewed Raisins-Mince Meat Pie

Tea with sugar

west indiana hotel
Group of loggers with their pikes pose outside the West Indiana House (later the Houck Hotel) prior to going to work at Yellow Creek.  During the latter part of the 19th century this hotel was a favorite lodging for loggers who paid a quarter a night for a single bed.

The coming of loggers to the West Branch of the Susquehanna aroused the hostility of raftsmen who claimed that the free logs and booms impeded and endangered the fleet of rafts.  However, the deeper reason lay in the resentment of native residents to “furriners” in the form of businessmen from New England and veteran French-Canadian loggers.

Raftsmen reacted by attempting to sabotage logging operations by such means as driving metal spikes into the logs so as to snarl the saw during cutting.  Loggers quickly solved this problem by peeling the logs so as to readily reveal any embedded metal objects.  Thereupon, raftsmen resorted to the extreme of ambushing a crew of log drivers along Clearfield Creek on March 30, 1857.  The loggers initiated legal action with the result that the court found eight raftsmen guilty of obstructing the stream.  After ten years of feuding, the rival lumbermen agreed to an armistice which thereafter enabled them to enjoy a peaceful co-existence.

Although most of the wood in northeastern Indiana County was logged or rafted to eastern mills, some timbermen foresaw a lucrative market on their doorstep.  The fledging village of Indiana, founded in 1816, became the county seat and its anticipated growth would require a considerable volume of lumber.  One of the early lumbermen to seize this opportunity was Richard Smith who in 1822 settled along Cushion Creek in Green township.  Here he set up a sawmill which would process 1,000 feet of one-inch boards per day.

Smith loaded the pine boards on large wagons fitted with 60-inch rear and 48-inch front wheels.  To transport the wood to Indiana, one of Smith’s four sons would rise at 5 a.m. and set off on the 20-mile trip through the forest.  Consummate skill was required to maneuver the heavy load over the dirt roads treacherously decorated with rocks, roots, ruts, and mudholes.  The wagon reached the county seat in mid-afternoon, and the boards were unloaded in the lumber concentrating yard.  Then after picking up the cash payment, about $20 per load, young Smith drove the team back at a brisk pace so as to return home about daybreak.

Smith’s sons inherited his lumber business and expanded it extensively when the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a branch line from Blairsville to Indiana in 1856.  Some idea of the profitability of these lumbering operations may be gained from the fact that one of the Smith sons was robbed of $50,000, and the next day he deposited $40,000 in an Indiana bank.

But the tall pine tracts which had seemed endless to the early settlers of Indiana County eventually were exhausted.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the once green forests were denuded, leaving a desolate graveyard of stumps.  Over 43 million board feet of lumber had been stripped form the Patchin interests alone.  And as logs and rafts disappeared from the river, lumbermen dismantled their sawmills to use the wood for barns.

In 1938, a group of gray-haired loggers recreated the bygone days by constructing “The Last Raft” which set out form McGees Mills with ten aboard on a trip to Harrisburg.  En route other old timers came aboard until there were 48.  Then at Muncy the nostalgic excursion came to a tragic end when the raft struck a bridge pier hurling 47 raftsmen into the icy waters which claimed seven victims by drowning.  A happier remembrance of the rafting and logging era was celebrated on August 22, 1955 when a large crowd joined with 20 retired rivermen, ranging in age from 85 to 95 years, in unveiling a granite memorial dedicated to the “Rafters, Loggers, Their Mothers, and Wives of Penn’s Woods.”

The Ernest Mine Disaster of 1916

Located just four miles north of Indiana, PA, lies the mining town of Ernest, established in 1903 by the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company.  In its infancy Ernest was known locally as a “model mining village” of 156 houses, 2 churches, a school, and a community center. During the first several years of development at the site the R&P opened four drift type mines in the upper Freeport E coal seam and built 274 beehive coke ovens which by 1909 had an annual production of 17,946 tons.  By the close of 1906 more than one thousand men worked at the operation.

Newspaper headlines today still attest that mining is a hazardous occupation.  In the early 1900s it was even more hazardous.  Modern attitudes toward mining safety were only slowly developing, and the inadequate mining technology of those days sometimes created dangerous conditions of its own.  Moreover, the advent of huge mining operations, such as the Ernest works, increased the potential for underground accidents.  With odds like those it is not surprising that Indiana County’s first major mining disaster happened in Ernest.  Nonetheless, by the standards of the day the Ernest mines were not regarded as particularly dangerous. In 1906, the Pennsylvania state mine inspector noted in his annual report that the mines at Ernest were in good condition and well ventilated by Capell, Robinson and Clark Fans.

On February 5, 1910, the town got a preview of the dangerous possibilities when an explosion of dust and accumulated gas occurred near the face of No. 5 room off No. 11 entry, resulting in the deaths of eleven men. County Coroner James S. Hammers held an inquest in the weeks that followed, and the jurors determined that the dead miners had succumbed to the “afterdamp,” a mixture of gases remaining in a mine after a fire or explosion of firedamp (methane). Families buried their dead; the town mourned.  The miners who remained went back to their underground livelihoods, and for the next six years the mines at Ernest produced coal without a major disaster.

tipple ernest
The town of Ernest stood to the left of this “Old Tipple,” replaced in the mid 1920s

On the morning of February 11, 1916, miners’ wives in Ernest rose early as usual, put pots of oatmeal on their stoves, and packed their husbands’ dinner pails.  The women filled the “buckets,” which resembled a double boiler with two compartments, with several thick sandwiches. Hot tea or coffee went in the bottom part. Miners habitually carried large quantities of food and drink into the mines in case of a cave-in which could imprison them for hours or even days.  While women performed morning chores and sleepy children ate their breakfasts, the Ernest miners on first shift gathered their tools together in preparation for the day’s work. Each man supplied his own pick and shovel, carbide for his lamp, and powder and squibs for “shooting down” the coal.

Several improvements in the years preceding 1916 had made mining somewhat easier and safer for the men working in Ernest No. 2. That year, the R&P purchased twenty-one electric cutting machines for the plant, greatly reducing the amount of work done by hand. With the increased availability of electric cap lamps, only certain portions of the mine were worked with open carbide lights.

Many of the miners who entered the No. 2 mine on the morning of Friday, February 11, 1916, were not, however, wearing the safer, battery-operated cap lamps.  The new electric cap lamps were cumbersome to wear and the batteries often leaked acid. Besides the men who worked in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four felt safe working with the older carbide lights; gas had never before been discovered in this part of the mine. Ordinarily, forty-three men mined coal in this area, but due to the funeral of one of the crew, the working force was reduced that day. Another miner, Amos Craven missed the man trip on Friday morning because his alarm clock had failed to go off. After waiting for him for a few minutes, the rest of the men climbed into the motorized man trip, and, setting their dinner pails on the floor between their feet, left the daylight behind them.

Back at home the miners’ wives did breakfast dishes, sent children off to school and began the day’s cleaning and washing. As early afternoon approached, clerks in the company store set out fresh fruits and vegetables; miners sometimes stopped on their way home to pick up something extra for supper. At school, children watched the clock restlessly, awaiting the dismissal hour. In Ernest No. 2 the men mined and loaded coal. By that evening, twenty-seven of them were dead.

ernest building
The original mine office in Ernest. The First Aid Team met in this building.

No one on the outside heard the sound of the explosion. “Butch” Tortella, a retired miner, was a small boy at the time of the tragedy, but he remembers it was Jimmy Moody, the motorman, who brought to news to the surface.   When he took his locomotive back into the mine late that afternoon to bring out the loaded mine cars, Moody discovered the body of one of the miners only about a mile from the entrance.  Hurrying back to the surface, he quickly summoned help. No whistle or siren blew to alert the rest of the town, for large crowds could have made rescue work more difficult. The miners were changing shifts at the time of the explosion, making it impossible at first to tell how many men had been in the mine. One of the men, Ben O’Hara, was just walking out of the mine when he felt the force of the explosion on his back. While on his way to the entrance of the mine he had passed George Bunton, Jr., going to work and as soon as O’Hara realized what had happened, he started back after his friend. Before he reached Bunton, however, O’Hara encountered two other men lying on the floor of the mine. He succeeded in dragging both fallen miners to safety and went back after Bunton, but was unable to reach him. Bunton’s body was brought to the surface shortly before 9:00 p.m. that evening. The exact time of the tragedy was later determined from a watch found hanging from a pocket of one of the dead men. The watch was smashed and the hands pointed to 3:20 p.m.

Rescue teams formed rapidly at the mouth of the mine as word of the explosion spread to Indiana. Crews from nearby mining towns arrived by automobile, and Thomas Lowther of Indiana took charge of the rescue attempts. All available doctors and nurses from the Indiana Hospital rushed to Ernest, together with Dr. C. Paul Reed of Homer City and Dr. F.F. Moore of Lucerne. Officials of the R&P and of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway hurried to the scene in a special train from Punxsutawney, arriving in Ernest shortly before 8:00 p.m. F.M. Fritchman, general superintendent of the coal company, was early on the scene and assisted in the direction of the mine rescuers. A specially equipped mine rescue care came from Pittsburgh on the tracks of the B.R.&P. and by night fall every mining town in the district was represented by a rescue team.

Pennsylvania state troopers were summoned and prevented families and friends of the trapped miners from passing over the bridge leading to the mouth of the mine. An Indiana newspaper reported that there was “no great excitement” at the site; only the “silently weeping women, wringing their hands and giving vent to little cries of despair, and the hushed whispers of the crowd” could be heard.

By nightfall on Friday the rescue teams were organized and working their way into the mine. The first crew to report back told of barriers of tangled debris, but fortunately there was little fire due to the lack of oxygen at the scene of the explosion. Teams dug through the debris after clearing part of the main road and rebuilding the mine brattices as they advanced. The first of the bodies was brought to the surface about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday and the others at various intervals until daylight. A special train carried the dead to Indiana where morticians prepared the bodies for burial.

By Saturday evening, little more than twenty-four hours after the explosion, three Indiana undertakers had finished embalming of the twenty-six dead miners. Reports later estimated that nearly three thousand people, some moved by the tragedy, others merely curious, viewed the bodies as they lay in three separate Indiana store buildings. “The condition of the bodies,” noted the Indiana Evening Gazette, “was remarkable; of course a few, who had been more severely burned…presented horrible sights.” On Monday afternoon funeral services were held according to the religious affiliations of the dead. A large trench was dug at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Indiana; twelve of the miners were laid there in a single grave. Two of the men were immigrants who had arrived alone in America. As they spoke little English and had few friends, their full names were never known. Later, the body of Pompia George was recovered from the mine, bringing the total number of dead to twenty-seven. The long grave at St. Bernard’s was reopened to receive his body.

By Monday morning, February 14, coal company officials and Pennsylvania state mine inspectors started the investigation of the Ernest explosion. James E. Roderick, chief of the Department of Mines at Harrisburg, arrived that evening to take charge personally. B.M. Clark of Punxsutawney, assistant to R&P President Lucius Waterman Robinson, stated publicly that at least half a dozen theories as to the cause of the explosion had been advanced. A miner named Nord, who survived the blast, stated that he was about fourteen hundred feet inside the mine when the first detonation occurred. He was knocked about twenty feet and landed against one of the mine ribs. Before Nord could get to his feet a second explosion erupted and knocked him unconscious. His proximity to the mouth of the mine prevented him from breathing the poisonous fumes caused by the blast. Nord seemed positive that two explosions took place in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four, about a mile and a quarter from the entrance.

first aid team
Ernest First Aid Team, pre-World War I. These men administered emergency treatment outside the mine to the victims of the disaster.

Investigations carried out by a five-man team of Pennsylvania state mine inspectors from five districts concurred with the account given by Nord from his hospital bed. On February 15, three days after the disaster, the inspection team submitted its findings to Roderick. Their document is printed in full in the Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania for the year ending 1916. It states that the inspection team entered Ernest No. 2 on Monday, February 14, and made an investigation of all rooms, butts and entries. They found loaded mine cars blown off the track, a ventilation door forced through its frame and a badly wrecked mining machine. They also found evidence of intense heat and “considerable force” surrounding rooms No. 14 and No. 15 right entry, all the way to room No. 8, but not extending to any other area of the mine. After completely examining the section where the disaster happened and noting all conditions caused by the explosion, all members of the tam concluded that “a body of explosive gas, which had accumulated on a fall*…was forced down by another fall of the upper strata and was ignited by the open carbide lights of the miners working on the pillar of 14 ½ entry.” The report noted that “all persons working in the vicinity were burned and afterwards suffocated by the afterdamp.” Investigators had “no criticism to offer in regard to the work of the mine superintendent, the mine foreman and his assistants who were in charge…as no explosive gas was ever previously discovered in No. 14 ½ or No. 15 right entry…in this part of No. 2 mine.” The tam concluded by making some recommendations to aid in the prevention of similar accidents, including the use of locked safety lamps in any pillar working within a reasonable distance of places where falls could possibly occur.

Unfortunately, the Ernest disaster was only one of many tragedies of this type. Available records show that there were 170 gas and dust explosions in Pennsylvania bituminous mines from 1878 through 1932, resulting in 1984 fatalities or an average of about 12 fatalities in each explosion. Of this total, eight-five of the explosions are classified as being characterized by marked violence; of these eighty-five, forty explosions, or forty-seven percent of the total, were caused by open lights. In the thirteen years from 1920 to 1932, however, there were only seven explosions from this source. The widespread, if belated, use of electric cap lamps in Pennsylvania bituminous mines after 1920 undoubtedly contributed to the decrease of explosion of this type.

The problem of correctly designating mines are gaseous or nongaseous took longer to resolve. The first attempts at careful classification came in 1909, but over the next years, the records showed scores of cases in which so-called nongaseous mines experienced severe explosions. As a result, the United States Bureau of Mines in 1933 began to consider all coal mines, if not gaseous, at least potentially gaseous. With the continued increase of research directed toward the science of mine health and safety, especially in the last ten years, the mining industry can look forward to the day when major mining disasters will take their place with the Ernest explosion of 1916 – in the past.

*A “fall” results from a sudden dropping of rock from the roof, leaving in its place a gap or hollow which may be several feet in diameter. Any formation of gas in the area quickly rises to the roof filling the pocket left by the fall. (In the early 1900s it was a common practice for miners to burn up small gas deposits over falls by igniting them with their carbide lights).

Hello, Central

It was a time of wonders.  In the 20 years starting 1876, our world was transformed by a flood of inventions more amazing than anything since the printing press: the electric light, automobile, radio, phonograph, motion pictures. . . even the first fax or “telautograph.”  But the one that changed us most and most quickly was the telephone.

We didn’t know what to make of it at first.  “An apparatus has been invented by which tunes can be played by telegraph.  It is called the telephone,” noted the Progress.  But we caught on fast!  By 1878, phone lines had been strung between several Indiana County businesses and their owners’ homes.  Wires were so numerous in Indiana, Blairsville, Saltsburg and Blacklick that local papers predicted we’d soon create “a complete network of cord” above the county.  And we weren’t alone: from just one in 1876, the number of American telephones exploded to 156,000 by 1881.

So how did folks here get a phone in those early days?  You could rent them from a phone company, but we didn’t have one yet; you could build them yourself like J.M. McIntire of Jacksonville, but few knew how.  The rest of us had to order them by mail at up to $100 a pair – big money back then, so only the well-to-do could afford them at first.  Getting a phone was an event worthy of mention in the social columns.

The decade between our first phone and first phone company was a sort of Wild West time.  Some folks bothered to secure right-of-way where their phone lines crossed others’ property, and some didn’t; more than one farmer cut down intruders’ lines, and Blairsville even had a pole vigilante.  Few lightning arresters were installed, so there were injuries and at least one death by electrocution.  And rumor had it that typhoid and smallpox could spread via phone line.  “Communicable disease” indeed!

Being a mostly rural area, we didn’t catch the attention of the industry’s giant right away, so our first companies were local.  The Indiana Telephone Company was formed in 1887, and Greenville’s followed a year later.  In all, eight independents were formed here over the years, with the Indiana, Blairsville and Farmers’ companies providing most of the service.  Then the Central District Printing and Telegraph Company came to town. . . .

CDPT was a Bell Telephone subsidiary.  Like Standard Oil, Bell was a classic 19th century monopoly bent on being the only game in town – in every town – and its trump card was long distance.  Did you want to call Pittsburgh or Portland or Parma?  That took connection to a cross-country line, and Bell owned ‘em all.  Indiana granted CDPT a franchise in 1892 on condition that they also open an exchange that year.  Instead, a single phone with an on-site operator was opened to the public; if you wanted to make a long distance call, you had to do so there.  Why?  CDPT refused to make connections for people calling from a non-Bell phone, and we didn’t have any yet.

The tactic worked, as it had worked elsewhere.  Local demand for long distance increased until, by year-end, Indiana Telephone agreed to replace customers’ rented phones with Bell units and allow CDPT’s long distance switchboard to be installed in their office.  But ITC changed to Keystone brand phones when they built our county’s first exchange in 1895, so CDPT took its switchboard elsewhere.  Its request to build a competing exchange was denied by the borough council, which ruled that the company’s failure to build one in 1892 had voided the contract.  CDPT continued here as a long-distance-only service . . . for the moment.

The new exchange’s effect was revolutionary.  Before, you had to have a line between your phone and each phone you called; now, a single line connecting you to the exchange let you speak with any other subscriber.  Rates were cheaper as well, with the new phones renting for half what a Bell unit had cost.  Yet even thus democratized, the telephone was not yet common.  Only 19 of ITC’s 45 original subscribers were individuals; the rest were commercial, professional and government entities.  And who had phone #1?  Pharmacist J.R. Stumpf, owner of Indiana’s first automobile.

hello central
Our first exchange opened in 1895.

The telephone influenced every part of our lives.  “Hello” became a verb meaning “to call,” and directories were called “Hello Books.”  Indiana County election results were tallied by phone starting 1895, allowing certification in hours instead of days.  Pennsylvania’s Blue Law was amended to prohibit Sunday phone use except in medical emergencies, and many a life was saved when phones were installed in the mines.

The Farmers’ Telephone Company of Indiana, Armstrong and Jefferson Counties (Farmers’ for short) was the second largest of our independents.  Each of the cooperative’s members owned his own phone and provided his own poles, while wires and switchboards were purchased collectively.  Rejecting merger offers from other independents ultimately helped them stand against the Bell monopoly for 58 years after their 1902 founding.

Indiana Telephone prospered too as the new century dawned.  Like any 14-year-old, it was bursting its seams!  So in 1904, the company moved into its newly-constructed home on Carpenter Avenue at Gompers.  Operators, all women, worked the central switchboard on the first floor.  Night shift “centrals” could even relax in the adjoining room’s armchair or bed while waiting for calls.  The brick building, now student housing, continued as an exchange into the 1990s.

Alas, prosperity was no shield against a determined monopoly.  With Pennsylvania phone companies being absorbed by Bell at an alarming rate, several Indiana County independents entered into a series of defensive mergers starting 1905.  Indiana Telephone became a part of the Huntingdon & Clearfield Telephone Company, which was itself combined with American Union two years later.  When that statewide entity failed in 1913 (with a little help from Bell, rumor had it), Indiana Telephone bought back its properties and resumed the name Huntingdon & Clearfield.  Still with me?  Okay….

By this point, most of our newspapers agreed with Mark Twain’s statement that the telephone was “the most useful of inventions, rendered almost worthless by the companies of chartered robbers who conduct it for us.”  The events of the next decade only confirmed their opinion.  Under pressure, Huntingdon & Clearfield abandoned its Saltsburg franchise in 1920.  Bell took control of Blairsville Telephone in early 1927 and bought H&C (Indiana Telephone – remember?) later that year.  Tiny Elders Ridge Telephone and Dilltown & Buffington held out until after WWII.  Farmers’, the last one standing, was harvested in 1960.

In the meantime, service technology had evolved independently of who-bought-whom.  Most of us chose low-cost party lines during the Depression;  the War Production Board banned new individual lines “for the duration” after Pearl Harbor, and post-war, Pennsylvania Bell installed only party lines until facilities construction caught up with demand in 1953.  Dial-tone service began in ‘51 – no more “Number, please” – and direct dial long distance followed in ‘68.  High-tech stuff, huh?

Don’t laugh.  Generations hence, folks will wonder how we in 2020 got by with just a smartphone (whatever that was).  But a few will look back and say: “It was a time of wonders.”

The Works

“The Conemaugh Saltworks, we are happy to state, are now in the full tide of successful operation . . . rewarding the enterprising individuals who constructed them (and) conferring important advantages upon the district as well as the country.”  So said the Greensburg Register in 1816, just three years after the commercial production of salt began where Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh River join to become the Kiskiminetas.

Salt is so cheap and abundant in our time that we hardly give it a thought, but the fact is, we literally cannot live without it.  When Britain’s blockade choked off imports during the War of 1812, the United States had to rely on just four internal sources of salt: Onandaga/Cayuga Counties in New York, Gallatin County in Illinois, Kanawha in the Cumberland, and – just in time – the new Saltworks right here in Indiana County, PA.  For folks along the Kiski and Conemaugh, the Salt Boom predated the Coal Rush by a quarter century.

But how did it all begin, and who were those “enterprising individuals” responsible for it?

A saline spring rising from beneath the Kiskiminetas near what is now Saltsburg had long been tapped by local Indian tribes, for whom it was a zone of truce; that there was salt in the area was known to Europeans as early as 1755, when Lewis Evans’ General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America noted, “The Kishkeminetas . . . has Coal and Salt.”  In 1766, one Frederick Rohrer of Greensburg may have become the first settler to discover that spring and boil its waters to extract salt.  Or it could be that a certain Mrs. Deemer, who chanced to taste salt water in a Conemaugh pool near White shortly before 1800, was the first.  And Doctor Samuel Talmadge, our county’s first resident physician, is said to have noticed animals licking rocks out in the Conemaugh opposite Broad Fording (Burrell) in 1810.  There he sank a barrel lined with clay to keep salt water and fresh water from mixing, dipped out the saline and boiled it down in iron kettles.

Well, maybe.  Even if each story is true, they’re not mutually exclusive.  What is certain is that commercial production here began in 1813 when, on his second local attempt, William Johnston struck a saltwater aquifer beneath 450 feet of rock while drilling “on the bank of the Conemaugh near the mouth of the Loyalhanna.”  After buying a manual pump, building a furnace and installing evaporation pans, he lined his 2½” diameter drill-hole with copper tube and began producing 30 bushels of salt per day.  The blockade had done wonders for the price of that already-precious commodity, and at $5.00 a bushel, salt soon made Mr. Johnston a wealthy man.

Drilling, pumping and evaporating were no easy tasks in those days.  It took two men up to nine months to drill through 400 to 600 feet of rock with their swing pole drill, a weighted chisel suspended by chain, rope and pulley beneath a wooden tension pole.  A “blind horse” powered the pump that drew the saline from well to furnace.  Four men operated the furnace and deposited the boiled-down residue in twenty-foot “grainers”, or evaporation pans; four others mined coal from the nearby hillside, and one more led a horse hauling coal to feed the furnace.  Pay ranged from .75¢ to $1.00 per twelve-hour day.

[Though defined in none of the surviving records, it is almost certain that the “blind” horses were simply those fitted with blinders, also called blinkers.]

By the time of the Register article there were fourteen furnaces fed by four wells within a mile of the Conemaugh/Loyalhanna confluence, owned respectively by William Johnston, Samuel Reed, Andrew Boggs and the partnership of Boggs & Forward.  Between them they produced over 100 bushels of salt per day, selling at the post-war price of $2.00 per bushel – still a tidy sum.

But the Boom was just getting started.  High demand, the introduction of steam engines and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Canal caused the number of producers and their total output to climb steadily through the 1820s.  Records show ten wells producing 1,750 bushels per day in 1821 and 31 producing 7,600 bushels per day by 1829.  That’s an amazing four million pounds a year!  Both the settling of Saltsburg (laid out by salt magnate Andrew Boggs) and the rise of Blairsville to become the county’s chief city were direct consequences of the flourishing salt industry, and the Conemaugh Saltworks boasted the fourth largest post office in the county.

Boom was nearly followed by bust when overproduction and price wars brought salt down to just .19¢ per bushel in 1826.  As the price of salt fell below the cost of production, well owners announced that they had agreed among themselves never to sell their salt below $2.00 per bushel – legal, in the days before the Sherman Antitrust Act.  It worked, and the Boom continued through the 1830s.

Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t always take kindly to the changes Man’s endeavors impose on the land.  By 1830, proliferation of wells had caused the minimum depth at which adequate concentrations of saline could be struck to drop more than 200 feet, and many a producer went out of business when his well failed.  Exacerbated by poor engineering decisions made in construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, the river flooded disastrously in 1828 and 1832, bankrupting Andrew Boggs and several others.  The Boom continued even so, reaching its peak between 1838 and 1840.

But it was history that finally closed the book on the salt industry of Indiana County.  Westward expansion of the United States brought the discovery of mineable salt in Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana.  These sources were easier and cheaper to exploit, and were more productive than our saltwater aquifers.  Steady decline after 1840, relieved only briefly when the Civil War cut off access to southern mines, left just two producers by 1870.

Yet despite its brevity, the Salt Boom’s long-term effect on our county’s economy was broad and positive.  Our coal-mining industry owes its start to salt:  the Works were the single greatest consumer of coal in southwest Pennsylvania before the 1840s, increasing local production by more than three thousand percent between 1814 and 1838.  It drove demand for iron and wood products, attracted immigration from pre-famine Ireland and was one of the main reasons for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s road and canal systems.  You might say that salt gave Indiana County . . . well, “the Works”!

Cool!

Did your parents call the family fridge an “icebox” when you were growing up?  If you’re a Baby Boomer, they probably did, because it really was one back when they were kids.  Their generation was the last to use iceboxes, and the last to know firsthand the people and processes that supplied the ice inside.

Humans have preserved their food with ice for thousands of years, but the harvesting, storage and distribution of natural ice reached its historical peak right here in the eastern United States during the 19th century.  Democracy, geography, and industry gave birth to the new “Ice Age.”  Ice in summer had been reserved for aristocracy since ancient times, but the American Revolution democratized its use and thus increased demand.  Our north Atlantic seaboard had the right climate to produce harvestable ice in quantity, and the ports to ship it from.  As for industry; well, we were that century’s keenest entrepreneurs:  if there was a high demand for something, American traders would find a way to supply it.

cool picture 1

The ice trade actually began as an export business, since most early 19th century Americans lived in rural areas where they could harvest their own ice.  Boston’s Frederic Tudor first shipped ice to the Caribbean in 1806, and by 1840 had ice houses around the world.  But the biggest consumers of all were America’s two largest (and hottest) cities: New York, which used more ice than most countries, and Philadelphia, which had the highest per-capita consumption of ice on the planet.  Domestic ice sales overtook exports after the Civil War, and our expanding railroad network allowed long-distance transport of meat, produce and dairy products for the first time thanks to ice-cooled refrigerator cars.

By 1870, most Americans had stopped harvesting ice for themselves, happy to let commercial suppliers relieve them of the task.  But in more remote areas like Indiana County, many farmsteads, butchers and hotels had their own ice pond and ice house.  Making ice cream, brewing beer, and drinking ice water were now possible year-round.  Not everyone approved;  the Indiana Democrat equated drinking ice water with drug use and implied that those who indulged in it were bound for “a clime where ice water is not used” after death.

There was social status in ice as well.  Serving ice-cooled drinks to summer guests meant you were a “somebody,” so upper-class folk built ice houses behind their homes, and social columns noted who had filled them in the past week.  The icewater-and-chocolate tradition still observed by Indiana’s Shakespeare Club was born of that practice.

Where did the rest of us get our ice?  Depends.  Those living in rural townships or small boroughs could help fill the community ice house with each winter’s harvest and tap it in summer.  Citizens of larger boroughs bought ice from the butcher, grocer or fishmonger until ice supply houses sprang up in the 1870s.  Then in the summer of 1875 came the Indiana debut of an American classic:  the ice wagon!

cool picture 2

Ice came daily to our homes in Blairsville and Indiana.  Deliveries were not suspended on Sundays the icemen were exempt from Blue Law strictures because ice preserved food and therefore life.  It sold at 35 cents for 100 pounds in 1880.  Horses drew their brightly-colored wagons through the streets each morning from April through October, rain or shine; one or two men hefted blocks of up to five cubic feet with giant ice tongs and brought them in to our iceboxes.  And though it was illegal and the subject of many a parental lecture, hitching one’s bike or velocipede to the back of the ice wagon as it passed was a favorite childhood sport.  There’s a little Marty McFly in all of us, eh?

Demand increased here until, by 1887, there were at least five ice merchants in Indiana and three in Blairsville.  Ours was cheaper than ice sold in Philadelphia, where the Knickerbocker monopoly imported it from Maine after local harvests couldn’t keep up with demand.  (It was healthier, too – most major rivers were polluted!)  No figures exist for our county’s per-capita consumption, but it never matched the average Philadelphian’s 1400 pounds per year.

So, how was it harvested?  At first we used tools of the carpenter, stonemason and lumberjack, but purpose-designed equipment was available by mid-century.  The Wyeth horse-drawn ice cutter allowed fast, high-volume harvesting, but not all of our lakes and licks froze deep enough to support its weight, so much of the harvesting here was done manually.  A depth of 8 to 12 inches was typical, and some years brought up to 18 inches.  Harvest usually began in January and continued into March, when gorges ice jams that blocked and flooded waterways put an end to the season.  Here’s a description from the 1892 Indiana Progress:

The first process is (to use) a scraper which removes snow, rough ice and other substances. Next is to mark out blocks…. Then the ice plow is brought.  (It) resembles a saw with large teeth, is drawn by a horse and is guided by the marked lines.  The ice is plowed within four inches of its depth, (leaving) enough to bear the workmen’s weight .  Large cakes are then sawed off by hand and floated through canals kept open, guided by men with steel bars.”

Our supply was more than equal to the demand.  We harvested waterways from Mahoning Creek to the Conemaugh, but the most productive sources were excavated “ice ponds.”  The biggest of them was created by the Pennsylvania Railroad at Black Lick in 1870.  It yielded 241 boxcars of ice that first winter, most of which went to Pittsburgh (Blairsville and New Florence got the rest).  There were even three ice ponds within Indiana borough itself; of these, the hands-down favorite was Gessler’s.

Carl Gessler prided himself on being “Indiana’s Original Ice Merchant.”  His ice house, ice pond, and ice wagon were each the borough’s first.  Gessler’s Ice House on Chestnut Street, where he also sold ice cream and other confections, was served by its adjacent ice pond starting 1879.  The pond was Indiana’s favorite skating venue between winter cuttings and was stocked with fish in summer.

But history was catching up with the ice pond.  Ice famines caused by warm winters and increasing demand in the 1890s brought an alternative source to the fore.  Production of artificial ice had been possible for decades, but the technology was unreliable and cost-prohibitive.  Improved techniques made “plant ice” practical and profitable, and by century’s end it accounted for almost half of US ice production.  Carl Gessler and the PRR both abandoned their ponds in 1903 when they switched to plant ice.  Even so, natural ice wasn’t frozen out of the market just yet; the progress of each year’s ice harvest was followed by our county’s newspapers through 1936.

The fate of home-delivered ice (and the icebox) was sealed when domestic refrigerators were introduced after World War I.  Not much of a threat to Jack Frost at first, they cost more than a car and were harder to maintain.  But price and compactness had improved enough by 1930 that we bought more refrigerators than iceboxes that year.  And for those of us who still couldn’t afford one, there was even a conversion kit that turned our icebox into a Frigidaire!

Pennsylvania’s last ice wagon horse died in 1936, and “retired” wagons were used as mock tanks for training during WWII.  When the final icebox maker closed in 1953, the “Ice Age” was over.

If you’re ever out by Aging Services in Indiana, walk around the block.  There where the tracks cross Chestnut between 10th and Edgewood you’ll find it, the last trace of our “Ice Age:” some gravel-mounds and a bulldozer or two in a field that was once Gessler’s Ice Pond.

 

Coal and Iron and the Badge

There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough.  We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception.  We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.

Not many realized it was a threat at the time.  The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units.  It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.

coal and iron police act

Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.”  Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned.  A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.”  Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name.  And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer?  The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge.  No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability.  Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.

Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns.  They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers.  They were not without legitimate functions;  many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider.  Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.

Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses.  We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people.  Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found.  In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.

The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers.  Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  But in 1894 the lid came off.

It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date.  When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company.  “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt.  Why didn’t it?  Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers.  They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard.  One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.

Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it.  So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response.  That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers!  An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.

The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902.  When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers.  The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production.  As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes.  Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.

Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police.  Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident.  The writing was on the wall.

coal and iron police bage

Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked.  More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years.  Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.

During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions.  Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged.  He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . not quite.

A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg.  Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher.  He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly.  A single death the following year made it all academic.

In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him.  All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police.  Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election.  Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.

Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself.  Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.”  He did just that, to all of them.  At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.

Some C&Is found employment as “real” police.  Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s.  And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!

 

Early Days of Agriculture

Agriculture has always been an important industry in Indiana County.  There were some improvements to the industry during the early 1800s, these improvements included the cast iron mold board plow, the horse-drawn drag rake, the horse-drawn cultivator with cast iron shovels, and the use of iron teeth on the A-frame harrows. Grain was still being cut with cradles and threshed by flails and hay was cut with scythes. In the rough areas, sleds were more common than wagons in both summer and winter.

To give an idea of how agriculture had grown, the 1820 Census listed 1,950 persons with agriculture as their occupation, this figure grew to 4,507 in the 1840 Census.

Early visitors to the area got the impression that most of the farms and farm houses were rather miserable looking.  Charles Dickens, traveling by canal, reported that some of the settlers had “Cabins with simple ovens outside, made of clay; and lodgings for the pigs, nearly as good as many of the human quarters; broken windows, patched with worn-out hats, old clothes, old boards, fragments of blankets and paper; and home-made dressers standing in the open air without the door, whereon was ranged the household store, not hard to count, of earthen jars and pots.”

In the early days of farming, stray animals were an issue, as time progressed straying continued but was gradually brought under control by the use of rail fences. The 1820 Census listed 5,995 “neat cattle” and 2,715 horses in Indiana County. Some matters, like the services of stallions and bulls, were advertised rather discretely. In 1835, Joseph Loughry of Blairsville, advertised that his stallion “Sir Thomas Hickory,” a thoroughbred, was available at $6 cash the single leap, $8 the season, or $12 for insuring a foal.

The farm animals got little feed during the warm months, they lived on the grass and other naturally growing plants. During the winter cows lived on ferns, and the hogs lived on acorns and hickory nuts. Wild animals caused a problem for farmers; in some areas the sheep were herded into the old blockhouses to protect them from the wolves at night. Bears were also a problem, not just for livestock, but for the crops; it was reported that they would destroy whole fields of corn. In another instances, many hogs were killed by bears in Cherryhill Township.

Not much is known of the crops during the early years of agriculture, but production was probably poor. A major known crop was wheat, the 1820 Census reported 16 grist mills that ground 48,000 bushels of grain. Some grain was converted into 18,000 gallons of whiskey by the 27 distilleries. By 1830 there were 22 grist mills and by 1840 there were 51 and three steam-powered flour mills, but there were only seven distilleries making 5,740 gallons of whiskey. The three flour mills produced 2,750 barrels of flour. There were two major forms of power for grist mills, the first was water power, and where that was not available then horse-powered mills were used. A large water-powered grist mill on Blacklick Creek about ten miles outside of Blairsville, was described as having a heavy overshot water wheel capable of grinding 100 barrels of flour per day.

As the 1800s progressed, so did new farming implements and machinery. A July 1840 advertisement stated that the manufacture of threshing machine had begun. The machine was simple and compact, and was suitable for either barn or field. Some early threshing machines were inclined treadmills on which a horse walked, which revolved a fly wheel attached to the cylinder of the thresher. Although it was simple, it could cause accidents, this was seen in 1845 when Samuel Doty of Blacklick Township had to have his arm amputated above the wrist due to a threshing machine mishap.

On August 11, 1841, Robert Fallon of Indiana advertised an “Improved Stump Machine,” which could “with the aid of one horse, a little labor and a small moity (sic) of the farmer’s time, will soon extract all the stumps on the plantation.” The cost of the machine would not be over $75.

Enoch Farmsworth of Indiana County designed a stump pulling machine that was later manufactured at the Indiana Foundry. He was also the original inventory of the sled lock, which was used to prevent a horse-drawn sled from sliding too fast down a snow-covered steep grade.

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Another early machine was the “Coleman’s Patent Grain Refiner,” patented by John Coleman on March 20, 1844. The claim by Coleman was that the machine would remove chaff, dust, cheat, cockle, pigeonweed, sticks, nails, stones and rat direct and would save farmers anywhere from 2 ½ to 5 bushels out of 100.

The early days of agriculture were difficult, but the invention of new machinery agriculture was becoming more simplified and more efficient.

Uncle Ben

So, you think you can multitask?  Not surprising; if you’re an urban twenty-something armed with the latest cybertechnology, it’s what you do.  But what if you’re a fifty year old living on the urban fringe, and the highest tech you’ve ever seen is steam?  Well, if you’re Benjamin Franklin Williams of Cookport and it’s the 1880s, you operate a mill, foundry, hotel, newspaper, machine shop, livery stable, roller rink and community center while supporting the local Grange, G.A.R., Odd Fellows and temperance league . . . all while raising a family.  Now that’s  multitasking!

B.F. Williams was truly a man of his time and place and people. His parents came to what is now Cambria County about 1830, bringing with them the “never-say-die” adaptability common to Welsh immigrants of the day. Their firstborn was a credit to that tradition, and was well-named.  Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) was so energetic and reliable that John and Ann split the family farm, built a house on the new parcel, and sent four family members and a servant to be his household there.

Though the 1860 Census lists him as a farmer, the young man seems to have learned the blacksmith’s trade in the previous decade.  Nevertheless, his first job off the farm was as operator of his own planing mill.  The Ebensburg Alleghenian noted in 1861 that “Mr. B.F. Williams, with commendable energy, is making rapid headway toward completion of his mill.  The engine, which has been steamed up several times, is graced with a melodious whistle….”  To its planing apparatus he added a flouring mill, a corn cob crusher and a patriotic name.  That name was not incidental.  The Union Planing Mill opened just as the Civil War began, and its advertising slogan borrowed from Stephen Decatur’s famous toast: “The Union – right or wrong!”

Uncle Ben ad
Ebensburg Alleghenian ad for B.F. Williams’ first business

That same patriotism moved Benjamin to enlist during the Emergency of 1862.  With the Confederate Army at our southern border, Governor Curtin called for volunteers; ninety-two men of Ebensburg formed the “Barker Guards” (Company E of the 4th Militia) and were rushed to the front north of Antietam.  But the armies clashed further south on the line, and only the 4th’s artillery engaged.  The Emergency – and their enlistment – lasted fifteen days.

Every soldier needs someone to come home to, and for Benjamin, it was his Jennie.  Jane Tibbott probably came into his life through a fraternal order called the Sons of Temperance.  Reverend William Tibbott was already a member when Benjamin joined in 1860, and his daughter’s name appeared (controversially for the day) on the Ebensburg rolls in 1861.  The were married by Jane’s father the following February.

Benjamin’s sudden enlistment was not the first or last challenge the couple would meet.  They lost their barn and livestock to a fire three months after they wed, and the Union Planing Mill met the same fate at the hands of an “incendiary” (arsonist) a week before their first anniversary.  The mill’s remaining orders were subcontracted while Benjamin waited to rebuild; its ads continued until the insurance claim was paid in August.

Life chose that very moment to get stranger still.  Though they had already served, members of the mustered-out Barker Guards were declared eligible for the draft of 1863, and Benjamin was among those “drawn from the wheel” that August.  All but two of the drafted veterans were subsequently ruled exempt by the Board of Enrollment, for reasons ranging from disability to family status.  Benjamin Williams and Thomas Lloyd “paid commutation.”

What was commutation, and why did Benjamin pay it?  In those days, draftees were allowed by law to substitute money or manpower for their obligation – someone willing to serve in their stead, or $300 cash (about six months’ income).  As to why a man brave and patriotic enough to volunteer for combat at Antietam would buy his way out of the draft, none can say.  Perhaps he, like the veteran who writes this article, thought the draft inconsistent with American freedoms.  In any case, the announcement of his commutation was the last time Benjamin F. Williams’ name would appear in print for five years.

The couple moved north in 1865, and bankruptcy followed.  The next Census found Benjamin as a lumberman of rural Green Township, Indiana County.  In 1867, the name Williams was added to the proprietors of Indiana’s Excelsior Planing Mill; though the ad gave no first name, its wording resembled the old Union Planing Mill ad’s, so Benjamin – a timber supplier with mill experience – may have been the new partner.

That the couple maintained their Ebensburg ties was apparent.  Benjamin was listed among those paid for services to the Poor and Employment House of Cambria County, and visits by the couple’s relatives were regularly noted in county newspapers.  But Uncle Ben and Aunt Jennie, as they had come to be known, were fast becoming the leading citizens of a town very different from the one they had left behind.

Before the 1880s, Cookport had a reputation as a frontier-style town, a logging community where urban social codes had yet to penetrate.  Something of its nature comes through in the 1871 Atlas of Indiana County: a saloon, a hotel and three planing mills stand opposite one school and a church.  Yet about that time, articles crediting Cookport’s steadily-improving character to people like Benjamin and Jane began appearing in the Indiana Progress:

Several newcomers have made their homes among us, whose deportment is calculated to work quite a change in the morals of this place. A few more … and Cookport may become as noted for the honor and sobriety of its citizens as it has been for their rowdiness and intemperance.  God speed the day!

The name Williams disappeared from Excelsior Planing Mill ads after 1871, but Benjamin was not resting on his laurels.  He built a blacksmithy and wagon-making shop in Cookport that autumn and was elected a township Overseer the following spring.  His neighbor, postmaster William Kinter, was chosen Auditor in that same election.  Their association would extend to at least four businesses and one U.S. patent over the next eight years.

Their first project together was not one you would expect from a lumberman and a postmaster, but it worked.  The Cookport Academy, a private secondary school competing with those in Pine Top and Cherrytree, had succeeded in every sense but financially since its founding; Kinter & Williams “took the school in hand” in 1873, increasing paid enrollment from fifteen to forty-two before returning the Academy to its stockholders.  There followed a sawmill, machine shop and iron foundry before Kinter left the partnership and moved north in 1880.

Not all of Benjamin’s early multitasking was done with a partner.  The business for which he would be best known was launched in 1874 when he renovated the former Fleming House at what is now 3379 Cookport Road and opened a hotel there.  The Williams Hotel would be Cookport’s social hub for the rest of Benjamin’s life, and even the Census would list him as a “Hotel Operator” despite his many other roles.

They say that most men peak in their thirties.  Not so for B.F. Williams, whom the 1880s found at the top of his game.  Assuming the earliest of birth-dates listed for him is correct (they kept creeping up with each Census!), he began that decade at age 47.  In 1880-81 alone, he:

  • Designed and manufactured an improved shingle-making machine that sold for less than existing ones.
  • Erected a sawmill in Blacklick Township with his brother David
  • Supervised a logdrive of “over one million feet” of timber on the Upper Twolick to supply their mill
  • Operated his hotel, livery stable, iron foundry and machine shop
  • Sponsored longtime boarder Napoleon Blatchford’s ventures as restauranteur, confectioner and inventor
  • Served as an officer of three fraternal orders.

Each business Benjamin opened seemed to prosper and attract the notice of journalists.  The Weekly Messenger declared his machine shop to be “the most complete in the county . . . a hive of industry (with) enough work to keep them going for four months,” and that his energy was part of the reason for Cookport’s boom.  “There is more business done here than in many towns twice its magnitude.”

The next year started hopefully, seeming to offer even greater promise.  It delivered, and so did Jane, who at age 47 presented Benjamin with a son the week of their 20th anniversary.  But like the first year of their marriage, 1882 brought a great burden as well.  Little Samuel is mentioned in two articles about his father that March, but never again – not even in the couple’s obituaries.  The void left by his passing was probably why they adopted a daughter two years later.

Benjamin’s resilience in the meantime would have made his parents proud.  He purchased and renovated two failing machine shops in Cherrytree, adapting them to run on the gas that had been bubbling up from a nearby well.  He constructed Williams Hall and opened that 2400 square foot structure (complete with “an elegant organ from S.S. Wilson of Indiana”) for community use in September.  It would be Green Township’s polling place for decades to come.

Though he may have seemed a superman, Benjamin was not invulnerable.  The first episode of “a serious illness” struck him in April 1883; he recovered quickly, but thereafter left operation of the Williams Hotel to Jane.  That autumn he was commissioned to inspect the newly-completed bridge over the Susquehanna, and as the year closed, Uncle Ben donated enough Christmas trees to make that yule the biggest one Cookport had ever seen.

That gracious nature showed itself year-round.  Words like affable, lively and funny accompanied most mentions of Benjamin in county newspapers, even during his times of trial.  Perhaps the greatest tribute was an offhand comment in the Progress: “(T)here is no more genial, whole-souled man in the county than B.F. Williams.”  He would need that whole-souled strength again all too soon.

Fire swept through the heart of Cookport in the early hours of June 12, 1884.  Had it not begun to rain, “the best part of the town would have been consumed.”  As it was, Williams Hall and Benjamin’s grist mill were among the structures lost.  He rebuilt, though insurance covered just a third of the cost.  And as if to punctuate the year, his entire flock of turkeys was stolen a few days before Thanksgiving.

It was probably around that time that Benjamin and Jane, by then in their fifties, adopted the infant daughter of Merle Simpson.  Nellie Williams would attend Indiana Normal School, graduating at age 15.  Since she inherited half of her grandfather’s estate later in life, it is likely that she was raised with knowledge of her birth family.

In the course of his remarkable life, the year 1885 may have been Benjamin’s finest – and busiest.  He founded the Cookport Monitor in January, serving as its editor and wily PR man on top of all the other hats he wore.  Jane was its Society Editor, and reporter Elmer Conrath would go on to edit Johnstown’s Leader and Tribune.

Readers may recall that a roller skating craze swept Indiana County just then.  Uncle Ben opened the last and longest-lived rink of the era in March.  It outlasted those in Indiana by five years; even its end was spectacular, shattered by a tornado eight years after its 1890 closing.

Autumn brought the topper for that best of years.  The G.A.R.’s James O’Neill Post #537 was organized in nearby Mitchell’s Mills that November, and Benjamin was among its founders.  Members often met in Williams Hall, and the “old soldiers” made Green Township’s annual Decoration Day memorable with his help.  He would be the Post Adjutant in his final years.

[Editor’s Note: Post 537’s Descriptive Book – its journal – remains unlocated, so the Records Officer for Sons of Union Veterans asks that anyone who knows of it contact him through the website GARrecords.org]

And through it all, Benjamin ran as many as nine businesses and kept up membership in four fraternal orders at a time.  To these he added political activism for the Greenback and Republican parties.  It seemed that there was always a new profession to be taken up; just when the Monitor’s press was converted to less hectic job printing, he launched Cookport’s new telephone exchange “in his spare time!”  He was appointed postmaster (in those days, a political patronage) as the decade closed.  And even then he could not resist the urge to adapt, designing and installing public lockboxes before those were standard post office features.

But after a long chase, Father Time was catching up to the jack-of-all-trades.

Uncle Ben wore just five hats by 1892.  Perhaps the recurring bouts of illness slowed him down, or he simply discovered that at 59, one’s energy is no longer unlimited.  When Democrat William Lutman replaced him as postmaster in 1893, Benjamin seemed glad to be free of the job.  Another political post followed when he was elected Justice of the Peace in 1894, and he remained a “squire” the rest of his life.  No doubt the happiest act he performed in that office was the marriage of his stepdaughter Nellie in 1902.

As the twentieth century approached, each new venture was progressively more sedate.  But even these showed Benjamin’s versatility: the Program of Institute in Cambria County (a continuing education course for teachers) featured his class on Teaching Geography, and he was appointed Green Township’s “Vice President to the County Fair.”  He was twice elected Township Clerk.

The Census of 1900 was the last of Benjamin’s life.  It found the 67-year-old living with his family and three boarders in the Williams Hotel.  That he still held a Retail Dealer’s License implies that his mill and/or foundry was still in operation, and though the Monitor had long since closed, the Indiana Gazettte referred to ‘Squire Williams as “the news center of Cookport.”

Thinking his appearance a sign of good health (in keeping with beliefs of the time), the Weekly Messenger reported that “Cookport’s jovial landlord and magistrate . . . is growing red and rotund as befits one who lives on the luxuries of the earth.”  But Benjamin and Jane were frequently ill by that point, each from what was probably congestive heart failure.  Both were abed when Benjamin died on February 24th, 1906.

Uncle Ben’s passing was noted by six newspapers in Cambria and Indiana Counties.  It was given precedence in the Gazette’s unusual three-event banner headline that day, above an assault on millionaire W.K. Vanderbilt and a fire in Homer City.  Benjamin Franklin Williams was escorted by a G.A.R. honor guard to Lloyd Cemetery in Ebensburg, where he was buried on his 44th wedding anniversary.  His Jennie would join him there three years later.

A life well lived, and a credit to his community.  Diolch, Ewythr Ben!