As the nation underwent industrialization, coal powered the steam engines that ran the locomotives, ships, and factories. And, by the 1840s, thanks to changes in furnace design, coal was also becoming the fuel of choice for new, larger urban-based iron works, dooming isolated rural furnaces fueled by charcoal. By 1859 the transformation from charcoal to coal was largely complete in the American iron industry.
In Johnstown, the Cambria Iron Company (later, called Cambria Steel Company and eventually a part of Bethlehem Steel) was one of the country's leading producers of iron rails, thanks to the connectivity afforded by the new Pennsylvania Railroad line, and the coal and iron ore in the hillsides that immediately surrounded the city. In 1869, when Cambria installed its coal-fired Bessemer converter, the firm began to make steel products as well as iron. Cambria owned the coal mines that fueled its mills. The portal of its Rolling Mill Mine (under Yoder Hill, Westmont) lay above the Stonycreek River, near where it converges with the Little Conemaugh to form the Conemaugh River. Cambria's other coal mines, in the watersheds of the Conemaugh and Little Conemaugh, were in or near the city's expanding boundaries.
Except for the coal from Rolling Mill Mine, and possibly Citizen's Coal Company's Dale Mine and Smokeless Coal Company's mines in or near Ferndale, Johnstown does not appear to have been a significant destination for coal mined in the Stonycreek watershed. But given their proximity to the Johnstown market, this conclusion raises the question, "Where did the vast coal resources of the Stonycreek watershed go, if not to Johnstown's iron and steel mills?" To date, our research indicates that coal operators in the Stonycreek sent most of their product to eastern markets.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by the marketing practices of Berwind-White Coal Company, many years the watershed's major coal producer. Even before 1897, Berwind had been sending its low volatile coal, extracted from mines in Clearfield County and the Dunlo area of Cambria County, to New York and other east coast ports. The firm maintained sales offices in New York City, Baltimore and Boston, and shipping piers all along the East Coast. It had a near monopoly in providing bunker coal to the trans-Atlantic steamship market. The coal moved by train to New Jersey and from there to port by barge, supported by a fleet of more than 3,000 coal cars and 60 barges, according to the company's published history. Berwind also supplied coal to New York's subway system and utility companies, among them New York Edison.
Other Stonycreek mine operators had similar marketing arrangements. The November, 1912 Industrial Edition of the Somerset Democrat notes that the Belmont-Quemahoning Mine was shipping all its product to eastern cities and seaports. Consolidation Coal Company was doing the same, with a large portion of its annual production being sold to the United States Navy.
Data from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Mines Annual Reports provide additional insights into Stonycreek watershed coal operators' marketing patterns. During 1915, near the height of coal production in the region, nine Consolidation Coal mines in the Twentieth Bituminous District were operating within the watershed, together yielding more than 1.5 million tons of coal. From this total, 1.9% was used to produce steam for mining operations, 0.4% was sold to "local trade" and employees, and the remaining 97.7% was "shipped to market." In the neighboring Twenty-fifth District, Berwind-White mined ten seams in 1915, which together yielded more than 2.8 million tons of coal, with 2.6% going to mine operations and steam heat for Windber, 0.8% sold to local trade and employees, and 96.6% shipped to market. The percentages are generally similar for mid-size and small operations in these two districts, a strong indicator that other operators were also marketing most of their coal outside the region.
Although metallurgical grade coal is mined in the watershed today (PBS Coals' product, for example, is shipped to overseas steel mill operations), the Department of Mines report shows that none of the mine operators in these two districts operated any coke ovens in 1915, another indicator that the coal mined at that time was used for steam generation to meet the nation's growing demand for rail and water transportation, and electricity.
Industrial era coal mining in the Stonycreek dates to 1897, with the opening of Berwind's Eureka Mines 30 and 31. Within three years, there were about two dozen mines operated by nearly a dozen companies, in places ranging from Richland and Paint Townships in the north, to Conemaugh, Somerset and Shade Townships in the south. Mines opened almost every year until 1920, with at least 20 new mines in 1905 and nearly four dozen in 1917. Between 1897 and 1931, more than 200 coal mines opened in the Stonycreek watershed. Some operated for decades, while others were active for only a few years.
Additional branch rail lines accommodated the new mines. Given the irregular and steep terrain, it is no surprise that their tracks closely followed the path of the Stonycreek River's major tributaries. Small settlements grew up around the mines, often consisting of company-built houses that were rented to the miners and company stores where miners exchanged their wages for food, clothing and household items. Company towns took on lives of their own, as is well documented in The Miners of Windber: The Struggles of New Immigrants for Unionization, 1890s-1930s, Mildred Biek's social history of Windber and its miners.
We don't know the collective output of the Stonycreek's 200+ mines, but Berwind-White's Eureka mines in the Windber area illustrate the area's astonishing coal riches. Berwind opened 13 local mines between 1898 and 1908, operating them for an average of 33 years each. Collectively they produced nearly 146 million tons of coal. Berwind's Windber coal venture was hugely successful, ranking it as either the fourth or fifth most productive mining company in Pennsylvania every year between 1901 and 1916, according to Frank Alcamo's The Windber Story: A 20th Century Model Pennsylvania Coal Town.
Other examples of the watershed's productive coal fields abound. Farther south, in Jenner Township, just outside Boswell, the Merchant Coal Company's Orenda (No.1) Mine, produced a high quality, semi-bituminous coal from its deep mine, which opened around 1905 and closed in 1939. Here, coal was loaded onto a tipple that spanned Quemahoning Creek into Boswell and, as reported by the web-based Virtual Museum of Coal Mining in Western Pennsylvania, was 1,080 feet long, 92 feet high, and 60 feet wide, making it the world's largest coal tipple in 1920. During its peak production years, the mine employed 900 men and produced over 3,000 tons of coal daily. And, as happened with distressing frequency in that period, there were tragedies: 19 miners died there on August 31, 1915, from a gas explosion in the mine.
During this era, coal mining regulation focused on mine safety. Mines were inspected periodically, and these reports were summarized in the Commonwealth's annual mining reports, along with statistics on mine injuries and fatalities. But there were no environmental standards regarding mine wastes or water pumped out of the mines, and no performance requirements when mines closed down. Boney piles (a mixture of waste coal and rock from the mines) were common landscape features near mine portals. Mine pools from abandoned mines and, beginning in the 1940s or 1950s, unrestored strip mines, created an environmental legacy of water and land pollution. Locally, four generations grew up with streams that were "red and dead," but generally accepted this outcome as "the price of progress."
Prior to the Surface Mining and Control Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), coal companies were not required to restore mined lands or otherwise abate or control land and water pollution associated with coal mining. Today, the environmental impact of surface and underground mining is regulated, monitored and enforced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, under Chapters 86 (Surface and Underground Coal Mining) and 87 (Surface Coal Mines: Minimum Requirements for Remining Areas with Pollution Discharges) of the Pennsylvania Code, and by the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, under authority of SMCRA. Through the efforts of grassroots conservation groups, non-profits and the coal industry itself, SMCRA was reauthorized by the U.S. Congress in 2006.
SMCRA also requires mine operators to pay a coal production fee for each ton of coal mined. (As of October 2012, the rate was $0.28 per ton for surface mined coal and $0.12 per ton for underground mined coal.) This money goes into the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, which helps pay for abandoned mine remediation efforts. States with approved reclamation programs (e.g., Pennsylvania) receive a share of the fund directly, while in states without programs, the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) manages reclamation efforts.
Despite SMCRA, abandoned mine land restoration proceeds slowly. The legacy costs of past coal mining practices and the responsibility for cleaning up these pollution sources fall on present and future generations.
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