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!

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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!

The Village of Smicksburg

Many natives of Indiana County know of the quaint little village of Smicksburg, many people know Smicksburg for the little shops and the Amish community. But this little village has quite a history behind it. Smicksburg was founded in May 1827 by Reverend J. George Schmick, a Lutheran minister from Huntingdon County, who purchased the land from Charles Coleman. Yes, there is a reason why the town is referred to as “Schmicksburg.” The town was a thriving community and business center in the northwestern part of Indiana county.

The federal government purchased the property which resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the town, for the construction of the Mahoning Dam. There were twenty-two buildings removed including several homes, the Lutheran Church, three cemeteries, a grist mill, creamery, telephone exchange, gas station and a school house. During the towns peak there were 225 people living in the borough; today Smicksburg is one of Pennsylvania’s smallest boroughs.

The Mahoning Dam, known as the Mahoning Creek Lake, and the acquisition of flood control property had a devasting impact of the community, as can be seen from the information listed above about the destruction of the twenty-two buildings. The Lake was authorized by Congress through the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938. This dam is one of sixteen flood control projects in the Pittsburgh District, which were created in response to the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936. Mahoning Creek Lake provides flood protection for the lower Allegheny River Valley and upper Ohio River.

Smicksburg is home to the 12th largest Amish settlement in the United States and the fourth largest in Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1960s, Old Order Amish families began to move to the area from Ohio. These families were attracted to the area because of inexpensive farmland and the rural location.

The Amish shun modern conveniences and travel locally via horse and buggies. The area is dotted with one-room schoolhouses which are close enough, so students can walk to school.

A prominent person from the Smicksburg area, was John Buchanan McCormick, world class inventor and more. For more information about Mr. McCormick see a previous blog post.

The Smicksburg Lime Kiln

In order to make limestone a marketable material it needs to be heated, this involves a process of burning or roasting natural limestone cobbles or blocks. In order for lime production to be feasible there needs to be several natural features; a natural limestone ridge or vein of the appropriate stone near the surface needed to be located, as well as a large quantity of wood for fuel. In later years, coal was introduced to the lime firing process, so that added easy access to coal sources. However, it is not clear whether coal was used in the Smicksburg lime kiln. Although there is coal in the area, but it was not mined to the extent that it was in other area of Indiana County. The Kiln is located on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mahoning Lake property.

Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime, which was used to make plaster for mortar for building construction. There were other products produced as well, which included whitewash (quicklime saturated with water and then mixed with glue). It was also used as a bleaching powder in the paper industry, hair removal in the tanning industry, an ingredient for soap making, and a fluxing agent in the glass and iron making industry.

The most common use was a neutralizing agent or fertilizer for agriculture. This is the most likely use of the Smicksburg lime kiln, because of the large agricultural area nearby. Some tanning and iron making occurred in the nearby area, but by time the kiln’s construction (c. 1933), these industries were no longer operating in the area.

Processed lime was perishable and necessitated a quick, reliable, and protected means of transport. The lime had a volatile nature when it came out of the kiln, therefore it was not uncommon for wagons to catch on fire if the lime had not been sufficiently watered down or cooled.

Kills were made by laying fieldstonle into a bank of a hill with a wagon path to the top. The chimney would be filled from above with alternating lays of wood or coal and layered with limestone chunks and then set on fire. The temperatures reached two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and would break up the stone into hot lime, oftentimes with an explosive bank. The fire temperature was controlled by adjusting the air flow in the draft hole.

These kilns would burn anywhere from one to four weeks. Because the kilns were brilliantly lighted, a new word was termed: ‘limelight.’ The lime would filter onto the grate to the hearth below. The lime was then set in mounds and wetted down with water. The bushels of cooled, slaked lime were then loaded onto farm wagons and spread onto the fields.

The Smicksburg lime kiln was a unique industry, but it was short lived. The only remaining evidence of the Smicksburg kiln is the hearth and chimney along the banks of the Little Mahoning Creek.

Buena Vista Furnace

Background

Buena Vista Furnace was used in iron making, which was an important industry in Pennsylvania. However, before the making of iron could commence, land needed to prospected for ore, limestone, and timber. Also needed was a stream located nearby for power. Once all the necessary elements were located the “iron master” began to construct the furnace and put it into operation.

These furnaces were located near hillsides, so the ore, charcoal, and limestone could be dumped into the top of the furnace by workers called “fillers.” A bellows provided air to raise the temperature to the point when smelting occurred.

When enough iron was melted, the furnace was tapped and iron ran into channels located in the sand floor of the casting house located in front of the furnace. The main stream of molten iron was called “sow,” and the side channels called “pigs,” henceforth the product which was produced was known as “pig iron.”

Before the pig iron could be used it had to be further refined before it could be used. The iron bars from the furnaces were hauled by wagon to the Pennsylvania Canal and further transported to a forge in Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where the iron was turned into products such as utensils, stoves and other items.

The Workers

The lives of those who worked at the iron furnaces, did not live easy lives; and their lives varied by skill, responsibility, and social status. The things which the workers needed, ranging from clothing to food to housing was provided by the furnace owner. Workers pay was “in-kind” rather than in cash. The workers included fillers, guttermen, moulders, colliers, miners, laborers, teamsters, and woodcutters. All of their work was supervised by the iron master.

The iron master was considered a capitalist, technician, market analyst, personnel director, bill collector, purchasing agent, and transportation expert.  This means that in order to be a successful iron master one needed to have a combination of numerous qualities including: wealth, respect and pride in producing a good quality product.

The Buena Vista Furnace

Buena Vista Furnace located in Brush Valley Township, located along Black Lick Creek, half a mile downstream of the Route 56 Bridge. The Furnace was erected in 1847 by Henry T. McClelland, Stephen Alexander Johnston and Elias B. McClelland, it has also been known as McClelland’s Furnace.

The story begins on April 29, 1847 when the partners obtained a deed to a tract of about 90 acres for the sum of $300. By December, the partnership acquired additional land so that they had 421 acres.  The Buena Vista Day Books contain entries of purchases of food, supplies and equipment with entries beginning May 7, 1847 and ending in 1849.

If you know about American history, Buena Vista will be familiar to you as a battle in the Mexican War. This battle occurred on February 22-23, 1847 when Santa Ana’s 14,000 Mexican troops met Zachary Taylor’s 5,000-man army near the small hacienda of Buena Vista, Mexico. Taylor’s troops were mostly inexperienced and badly outnumbers, but the two armies fought to a draw. Thanks to Taylor’s efforts at Buena Vista he won fame and later contributed to his presidential victory in the 1848 election. This battle is the namesake for the furnace.

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Buena Vista Furnace

The furnace began operating in 1848 with about 61 men and boys and 30 mules were employed at the furnace. A summary from an 1850 Sheriff’s Sale, the site contained a store, three houses, seven log cabins (called furnace houses), a blacksmith shop, two log barns, and a saw mill.

There was speculation in 1848 that the Pennsylvania Railroad would construct a line through the Blacklick Valley, which is the likely reason why the site was chosen for the furnace. However, the railroad was not constructed in this area until 1903, and by that time the Buena Vista Furnace was already out of business.

The furnace was 30-foot tall cold blast furnace, and used local iron ore, limestone and charcoal to produce about 400 tons of pig iron in 1848, but the furnace went out of blast in 1849.

In 1850, the Indiana County Sheriff seized the 822-acre property and sold at it at Sheriff’s sale. The Sheriff’s deed was made to Dr. Alexander Johnston, father of Stephen Johnston. The property consisted of 822 acres which included the furnace, a saw mill, “seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses” and various other houses, barns, etc.  It was reported that the Furnace produced 560 tons of iron out of shell and bog ore in 1854. The furnace finally closed in 1856, ending a very short business life of less than 10 years.

Another change in ownership came in 1900, when Stephen Johnston sold a 67-acre parcel which included the Buena Vista Furnace to Judge A.V. Barker for $20,000. Barker then sold it and other properties to the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company in 1902. The property passed again in 1917, this time to the Vinton Colliery Company.

There was a rumor in the 1930s that Henry Ford had an interest in purchasing the Buena Vista Furnace and planned to transport it to Greenfield Village in Michigan via rail. The proximity of the furnace to the railroad would have made dismantling and loading it relatively easy. However, there was then a movement to acquire the furnace and keep it in the local area, this movement may have been sparked by Ford’s interest.

In 1930, the Buena Vista Park Association was organized, with the purpose of preventing the furnace from being moved. There was a hope that the state would acquire the property and turn the property into a historical landmark or public park. As with most projects during the Great Depression, the establishment of the park was stalled.

The Historical Society purchased the furnace in 1957 from the Delano Coal Company. Through the efforts of Clarence Stephenson, county historian, improvements to the site began in the mid-1960s. Then in the summer of 1965 and continuing through 1966-67, a work-training project, through the Indiana County Public Assistance Office, completed site improvements.

The Failure of the charcoal iron furnaces

There are various reasons for the failure of the charcoal iron furnaces. One of those reason was the change of the anticipated railroad route thru the Conemaugh valley instead of the valley of Black Lick Creek. This change negatively affected Buena Vista Furnace. Another reason is the low grade and sometimes unreliable supply of carbonate iron ore. Third was the outmoding within a few years of the charcoal cold-blast method of iron making. Finally, were economic reasons, there was a lack of protection from cheaper foreign iron afforded by the low tariff o 1846. The average price of a ton of iron fell from $53.75 in 1815 to $24.50 in 1849.

The situation was so bad that by around 1850, most or all of the local furnaces were forced to close, some for good. There was an upsurge in the price of iron within a year or two. By 1856, two furnaces were operating in Indiana County, probably the Black Lick Furnace and the Indiana Iron Works, together producing about 2455 tons of iron.

Today the remains of the Buena Vista Furnace are what remains of this once thriving industry.

“The Tire With a Mission”* 

At the corner of Ninth and Church Streets in Indiana, is the beautiful townhome of Harry McCreary, the house is currently the home of the Law Office of Myron Tomb and the Law Offices of Thomas A. Kauffman. Mr. McCreary is most notably known for his role as the Owner of McCreary Tire and Rubber Company; however, he was also a pioneer in the development of the coal and coke operations in Indiana County.

Harry McCreary was born on October 30, 1863 in Leechburg to Hiram and Ruey (Orris) McCreary. As with most children of that time, Harry was educated in the public school and then later completed the course in the Utica, New York, Business College. He was later employed as an instructor at the Business College until the spring of 1883, at which time he was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company at Huffs Scales, near Greensburg. After a few months with the Pennsylvania Railroad, McCreary entered the employment of J.W. Moore, of Greensburg, an extensive coal operator in the Connellsville coke region, who was at that time engaged in the manufacture of coke at the Redstone Coke Works, Brownfield station, near Uniontown. After the plant near Uniontown was sold, McCreary built two large coke plants for Moore, near Mount Pleasant. Again, these plants were sold, and once again two more plants were built at Graceton, it was here that McCreary developed a process for washing coal and its success was one of the chief reasons for the prompt purchasing of coal in that whole section of the country.

Mr. McCreary disposed of his various industrial interests in Indiana County and moved to California and Nevada for a period of four years from 1902 until 1906. Upon his return to Indiana County, he again became involved in the coal business until 1914.

Ground Breaking and Commencement of Production at McCreary Tire and Rubber

It was in June of 1914 that ground was broken for the McCreary Tire and Rubber Company just southwest of Indiana. Construction of the plant moved rapidly, and the plant was quickly in operation.

Those present at the ground-breaking ceremony were Mr. and Mrs. McCreary and their two sons. The ground-breaking began around 6:30 in the morning; Mrs. McCreary read the First Psalm and Mr. McCreary gave a short prayer in which he asked the blessing of God on the new enterprise. Following, Mrs. McCreary swung the first pick into the ground and then Mr. McCreary shovel the first dirt, followed by their sons doing the same.

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McCreary Tire and Rubber Co. Plant in Indiana, PA

Mr. McCreary stated three reasons why they were embarking on this new venture, and he listed them in order of importance. First, was for the glory of God and furthering His Kingdom through the profits earned by the new industry. Second, that honorable work with good wages and working conditions be provided for citizens of Indiana and the vicinity; and then he would be kept busy in a worthwhile project for the remainder of his life. Finally, that his two sons would be busily employed after he passed on and not dissipate any inheritance that he would leave.

It was in May 1915 that the first tires were produced, which were probably experimental and test operations as actual production of products for sale didn’t begin until the middle of June. At the time of the plant’s opening there were only twelve employees, including Mr. McCreary, a sales person and a secretary. The original building was 48 x 215 feet, with power provided by a huge 250-horsepower steam engine with an 18-tone flywheel.

The production at the plant tended to be seasonal, with a falling off during the fall and winter months. That seasonal production continued until McCreary’s death. Throughout the summer, the employee numbers increased to 27, but declined to only 3 by November, those three included the salesperson, secretary, and a watchman. That first year, 1915, production was 500 tires, with a guarantee for 2,000 miles and sometimes the tires did not last that long.

Mr. McCreary devoted much of his time to the development and operation of his company. His sons, Ralph W. and Harry C. McCreary were associated with their father in the operation of the business and continued in the leadership role of the company. McCreary Tire and Rubber was eventually sold, becoming Specialty Tire of America.

Apart from his business ventures, Mr. McCreary was also active in civic affairs, and was the most liberal subscriber to the erection of the YMCA building in Indiana in 1912, and he served as president of the “Y” Board of Directors. Further, he was a member or Zion Lutheran Church, and taught men’s Bible Class for many years and was secretary of the church council.

Mr. McCreary was united in marriage on May 16, 1894 to Lizetta M. Work, of East Mahoning Township. Mrs. McCreary died in March 24, 1923. Mr. McCreary continued working in his business up to his death on August 16, 1930.

The McCreary Home

At the time that Mr. McCreary had the home on the corner lot, Indiana was split between the East and the West, so the home was located on First and Church streets (today it is Ninth Street). At the time, the visitor would notice the unique front porch that, at the time, extended all along the front of the house. There was also an artistic and spacious porch along the rear of the house.

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The McCreary Home

Inside the home was as eloquent as the outside. The house contained a reception hall, with a fancy stair case finished in oiled hard wood. Located on the first floor, beside the hall, were a parlor, library, dining room and kitchen. There was a back stairway leading from the dining room to the second floor. Adjoining the kitchen was a pantry and connected to the dining room was a china closet. The second floor contained four bedrooms, a bathroom, closets and a linen room. The third floor was finished, containing one room that was used for storage.

The next time you go by this eloquent home, remember the innovator who once lived in the home. Mr. McCreary was an important member of society and the industry that he created is still a staple in the Indiana community.

*Title comes for the company slogan. 

Harry C. and Ralph W. McCreary remembers ground breaking printed in the Indiana Evening Gazette, Nov. 1952.