George H. (George Henry) Thurston.

Allegheny county's hundred years online

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delphia for 37^ cents ^er busliel, or $10.50 a ton. The price "Pilot Tom Jones,"
as he was called, obtained for his coal at Maysville, Kentucky, the point to
which he first boated coal, is not of record.

About the same time Louis Sweeny engaged in floating coal down river. The
whole transaction, from the mining to the transportation to its down river market,,
was a very crude process in comparison with the methods by which now the great
bulks of coal are handled. The pit from which Jones obtained his coal was near
what was known as " O'llara burning pit," which was on the hill opposite the
mouth of Penn avenue, about two-thirds the height of the hill.

Mr. Jones mined his coal in winter, bringing it down the hill on sleds and
piling it on the river bank, until the early spring, wlien it was loaded on what
were called " French Creeks," being flat bottoms of heavy timber, about twenty
feet wide and eighty long, sided up to the height of six or seven feet. These,
when loaded, were moved by the current of the river at its flood period, and
guided by long sweeps or oars by a crew of five to eight men.

This primitive method of transportation gradually grew in scope as the num-
ber of persons engaging in the business increased. In many respects it was specu-
lative in its character, as the profitable result depended largely upon the success
that attended the boatmen in bringing their cumbersome "coal boats" safely to
their destination. The hazards were great and the losses frequent, from the sink-
ing, from various causes, of the frail crafts burdened with such heavy cargoes.
The business of "mining coal," as it was at that time called, continued to increase,
and from a few individuals pursuing it, a number of firms with ami)le capital made
it their sole business, and the spring and fall rise of the Ohio became important
events in the commerce of Allegheny County. These periods were the principal
times in which coal was run, although small "runs" were made when some sudden
freshet in the summer gave sufficient water.

The departure of these coal (loats were the occasions of great activity and
interest, as they fre(iuently required from their size, from three to four hundred


Tuen to manage them, the boats being lashed in pairs, and as many as thirty to
iifty pairs leaving the wharves of Pittsburgh on a fall or spring rise. Each pair
Tequiring from eight to ten men to handle the sweeps. The "coal boat men"
were recognized as a special class of population, a sort of Mike Finks, quite as
reckless, and as much disposed to joviality. The " trips," as they were called,
were looked upon by the crews as a combination of hard work, adventure and
frolic, and when returning, either afoot, as they did sometimes, or as deck passen-
gers on the steamboats, they were apt at all times to be rather riotously disposed.
The novelty and spirit of adventure to be found in a coal boat frequently induced
young men of the better classes of society to engage as one of the crew, and to-
day there are to be found among the staid, sober, elderly citizens of the county,
business men who recall with a pleasurable recollection their "coal boat trip."

The system of transporting coal to the lower markets continued until 1845,
when Daniel Bushnell, who is still living, began as an experiment the towing of coal
with a small stern wheel steamboat called the Walter Forward. This boat con-
tinued to be used for that purpose until the year before the outbreak of the civil
war, when she was sunk in the Tradewater river, Ky., having come into possession
of a firm mining coal on that stream.

The Walter Forward's first trip was to Cincinnati with three small barges
loaded with 2,000 bushels each of coal. In the same year Judge Thomas H. Baird
began towing coal to Hanging Eock, Ohio, with a side wheel boat called the Har-
lem and two "model barges," bringing back pig metal as a return cargo. In 1849
Hugh Smith began to tow coal to the lower markets with the steamboat Lake
Erie. In 1849, Daniel Bushnell, the originator of this system of coal transporta-
tion, built the Black Diamond to tow coal to Cincinnati, and extended the carry-
ing by this method to New Orleans, from which date the towing of coal superceded
entirely the old floating system. This system of coal transportation now so en-
tirely made use of on all the rivers, is so fully described and the details so fully
«et forth in a volume entitled, " Pittsburgh's Progress, Industries and Resources,"
that it is here quoted as the best exposition of this part of the coal trade of Alle-
gheny county :

" The proposition to tow the unwieldly ' French creeks ' was received by the
^ coal boatmen ' with ridicule. The term 'crank' had not then been coined, but
those who talked of towing coal as a feasible thing were at that day spoken of as
such under a more derisive name, and conversative business men shook their heads
wisely and smiled dubiously. As the coal boats had to be floated to market on
flood waters it did to those acquainted with the rapid currents of the Ohio in the
spring and fall rises and June freshets seem a dangerous business to attempt to low
those huge unwieldy bulks of coal in flat-bottomed, box-shaped boats through the
crooked channels and sharp bends of the river.

"The term towing is a misnomer, as the boats and barges containing the coal
are propelled instead of towed. Although this is an old story to Pittsburghers
and many along the river, yet to others it may not be uninteresting to be told that
a tow, as it is called, is made up of one towboat and from ten to fourteen barges,
coal boats or flats, and from one to four fuel boats filled with slack coal for boiler
fuel during the trip. These boats are all placed in front of the towboat, except


one on each side of the steamer, all securely lashed together, forming a compa* t
mass about 350 feet long and 150 feet wide, and holding from 500,000 to 700,000
bushels, or about an average of 24,000 tons, being the yield of from five to seven
acres of coal land according to the size of the ' tow ' so called. Of such ' tows' from
eight to ten in a day in the coal boating stages of the Ohio leave the harbor of
Pittsburgh for all points below as far as New Orleans, and there are now from 90
to 100 towboats, varying in cost from $8,000 to |30,000, employed in thus propel-
ling coal, being the outgrowth in forty years from the little 'Walter Forward'
with her three flat boats holding 6,000 bushels or 240 tons of coal.

" As explanatory to those who are not ' to the manor born ' of the terms of
' barge,' ' coal boat ' and ' flat,' being the ' packages,' as the trade term is, in which
the coal is carried, a word or two of description of these * packages' may be of in-
terest. Coal boats are built 170 feet long by 26 feet wide, of li-inch planks with
about 18 inches rake at each end. They carry 24,000 bushels and draw seven feet
when loaded. They are only used to convey the coal to its point of destination
and go with the coal in the sale. They cost about $600 each. A barge is 130 feet
long by 25 feet wide, constructed somewhat similar to the hull of a steamboat, but
with stern and prow alike having bottom planking of 3-inch thickness and gun-
wales 6 inches. The loading capacity of barges is about 13,000 bushels and they
draw six feet water when loaded. They cost from $1,000 to $1,100, and last from
nine to ten years, being towed back from the point where the coal is sold, going by
the techanical term of 'empties' on the return trip. Fuel boats are similar to
barges, only smaller, being 95x20 feet, and draw four feet water loaded. They
cost $600 and will last ten years in service, and carry 7,000 bushels. Flats are
90x16 feet, built same as barges, carry 4,000 bushels and draw, loaded, 4^ feet
water, costing about $400.

" A tow of coal made up of these various descriptions of boats to the number as
before stated, of eighteen barges, coal boats and flats, with the tow boat, and loaded
with the average of 600,000 bushels or 24,000 tons coal, represents a value of
about $80,000 as it leaves the harbor of Pittsburgh. As before stated eight or ten
of such massive islands, as it were, of coal, equal in surface to one and a quarter
acres, and floating the coal product of from six to seven acres of coal land, depart
in the boating stages of the Ohio from Pittsburgh. The driving, for such it al-
most seems to be, in its handling by the deft pilot who with sinewy arms whirls
and rewhirls the wheels tliat guides the boat and this mass of coal, is a task to
which only those brought up to the trade are competent. Skill, judgment, nerve,,
are all called into play as this ponderous bulk, borne along on a river at flood
height, running at a current of eight to ten miles an hour, sweeps onv/ard.
Through narrow channels, round sharp bends, between the stone piers of bridges,,
where a missturn of the wheel, a failure of judgment, a miscalculation of distance
means disaster and wreck, the pilot guides the tow, now backing, now flanking,
now pushing now floating, watchful and cool the pilot does his work. There is
probably no such boatmansliip shown anywhere else in the world as is displaj'ed
by the Pittsburgh coalboat pilot. It is a wonderful exhibit of skillful navigation,,
the thus handling by the nerve grip of one man on a wheel a bulk of 30,000 tons,
moving at a speed of from twelve to fifteen miles an hour down such a tortuous-
stream as the Ohio ,and with perhaps not five feet to spare of channel width or-
two feet of water depth."

The dangers of this perilous business is yearly increasing, from the multiplica-
tion of bridges across the Ohio, and the impediments to safe running caused by
their piers, which are often placed with more regard to the interest of the bridge-
owners than the requirements in Ohio river navigation.


In the earlier days of the river coal trade in Allegheny county, while but
little capital beside the ownership of the coal tract was required to load and float
three or four pairs of boats to market, it was, as before observed, more of a specu-
lative business. While there were two or three firms who systematically pursued
it, there were others who occasionally loaded two or three pairs of boats as an
adventure, and despatched them to a market under the supercargoship of a
partner in the venture, or some trusted clerk. Many of these floats were loaded
for their owners at collieries by parties whose chief business was to load boats for
others, who simply bought the coal and sold it at the first down river market to
be found. With the increasing of the practice of towing, the business rapidly
assumed its present system, in which is embraced not only the ownership of large
bodies of coal, but the establishment of perfectly ordered collieries, with their
little villages of miners' houses, ship yards for the completion and repairing of
boats, a number of towboats, and a corps of pilots, engineers, captains and other
business employees, under yearly contracts and salaries, with depots at the larger
cities on the Ohio and Mississippi, necessitating the use of large cash capitals, and
consequently the formation of firms with large pecuniary resources. The business
of running coal by river is a hazardous trade, and to attempt to follow genealog-
ically, as in this volume is done in some of the other industries, the firms engaged
in the past in its transactions, would be too intricate and prolix, for the financial
wrecks lie thickly strewn, the liquidations, assignments so numerous, that it has
been clearly a survival of the fittest, or in other words, those whose capital could
withstand the "bad seasons."

No busincvss is without its thorns, but the coal trade is far from a bed of roses.
What, with frequent strikes of the miners, seasons of low water, unremunerative
prices in overcrowded down river markets, sinking of boats from collision with
bridge piers, and other causes, the "Coal Barons," as they have come to be termed,
often find themselves considerably barren, raising a doubt whether the title was
given in honor or sarcasm.

The " runs " made yearly of coal by river is, to some extent, governed by the
"river rises," or freshets, it requiring from eight to ten feet of water for the fleets
to float on. From two to four of such stages of water are general in a year,
although there have been exceptionable years where there have been but one or
two. The coal thus taken to market comes almost entirely out of the coal lands
bordering the four pools of the Monongahela Navigation Company slackwater.
While the detailed statistics of the "runs" made each year might be interesting
to some, yet to the general reader the comparative increase by decades are suffi-
cient to show the increase of the industry and its present magnitude. In 1845 it
was 4,605,185 bushels, or 187,207 tons; in 1855 it was 22,234,000 bushels, or
889,360 tons, or an increase of 500 per cent, in ten years. In 1865 it was
39,584,697 bushels, or 1,583,286 tons, or an increase over the shipments of 1855 of
about 90 per cent., and over that of 1845 900 per cent. In 1875 it was 62,000,000
bushels, or 2,400,000 tons, an increase on the immense shipments of 1865 of about


60 per cent., or an increase in thirty years of over 57,000,000 bushels, or 2,200,000
tons. In 1885 the shipments were about 105,000,000 bushels, or 4,200,000 tons,
being nearly double that of 1875, and an increase in forty years in the annual
shipments of 100,000,000 bushels, or over 4,000,000 tons a year. In that forty
years, as nearly as can be obtained, there has been shipped by river from Pitts-
burgh 1,035,000,000 bushels of coal, or about 67,000,000 tons, or about 17,000
acres, for the mining of which, including diggers, tools, hands and other mining
expense, over $58,000,000 of wages were paid. This does not include the wear
and tear of the ninety to one hundred towboats engaged in the transportation,
the wages and maintenance of their crews through the year. The tolls alone
paid the Monongahela Navigation Company in that time were over $2,500,000.
The aggregate yearly shipment at the present time is about 110,000,000 bushels,
or 4,400,000 tons. The wages paid the 8,700 hands they employ for mining labor
alone is about $4,000,000 a year, and the tolls to the Navigation Company $264,000

When to this is added the expenses of the towboats and their maintenance, the
losses from the sinking of the boats, and all the incidental expenses of the busi-
ness, insurance on steam towboats, their repairs, it cannot be claimed that the coal
business is one of great profit, although the sums received from sales look formid-
able in the aggregate; for it should be remembered that if the "Coal Barons"
put money in their bank account it is to some extent " robbing Peter to pay Paul,"
as every bushel of coal is so much taken from their invested capital in the coal
lands. It is, however, enriching the county of Allegheny by the distribution of
large sums for wages and other expenses, which would not be did the coal lay
undisturbed in the hills.

With the extension of railroads and the competition for freight arising, the
coal lands lying along the routes of the roads began to be developed, and large
colleries began to be opened in an area from ten to twenty miles east and west of
Pittsburgh The coal from these is transported to Pittsburgh and eastern and
western cities for the various purposes for which the coal of the Pittsburgh seam
is particularly adapted, especially in the making of gas, for which it stands un-
rivaled. Of these colleries there are sixty whose business offices are all at Pitts-
burgh. These works employ 9540 hands, to whom there is annually paid over
$3,800,000 of wages, and they mine an average of 178,000,000 bushels or 7,120,000
tons yearly.

A number of these colleries own their own cars, but the transportation facili-
ties, as a general thing, are furnished by the railroad corporations. Among the
many drawbacks to the profitable mining of the coal industry is the expensive one
of labor strikes. According to the report of the secretary of internal affairs of
Pennsylvania for 1887, there have been from 1881 to 1886 eighty-one distinct
strikes or on an average of thirteen a year, chiefly on a question of labor, of which
thirty-nine were for an increase of wages, twenty-seven against a decrease, and
eight for employment of check men. Of these there was one strike of two hun-
dred and twelve days, one of one hundred and forty days, one of one hundred and


fifty days, eleven from eighty to ninety-five days duration, four from seventy to
eighty, twelve from sixty to seventy, two from fifty to sixty, eleven from forty to
fifty, three from thirty to forty, fifteen from twenty to thirty. The whole aggre-
gate number of days of the strikes is 3865 days, and an aggregate of 61,304 persona
engaged in strikes, an average of forty-eight days to each strike. The strikes tak-
ing place at about thirty different points, nineteen of them being general through
out Pennsylvania. The total losses to employees were $3,487,501 ; to employer*
$853 154. The strikers receiving assistance from labor organizations of about


The immediate bituminous coal field by which Pittsburgh is surrounded, and
from whence the coal trade of Allegheny county is supplied is equal to 15,000
square miles, and at a valuation of five cents per bushel or one dollar and twenty-
five cents a ton, seventy-four millions of dollars a year could be realized from the
coal there stored for a thousand years without exhausting the treasure.

The introduction of natural gas would seem at first glance to threaten a de-
cadence in the coal trade of Pittsburgh. It is not unlikely it will increase the
consumption of coal. The use of gas as a manufacturing fuel has so many advant-
ages, that where gas, whether natural or artificial, can be obtained, the works will
not go back to coal fuel. The use of natural gas where it is found will ultimately
necessitate the use of artificial gas by manufacturers where natural gas cannot be
had, and to obtain it cheaply will be not only the endeavor, but the necessity.
For the production of artificial gas the coal of the Pittsburgh seam is recognized
as greatly superior to all others, the residuums of coal, being in themselves
not only of large value, but also in demand. The obtaining of gas from coal for
manufacturing fuel will obtain, where natural gas cannot be had, and by the returns
from coke and other products, the cost of this gas fuel equalized with the natural
gas. The extension of manufacturing in the United States will continue. While
present developments give no assurance of extensions of natural gas territory, the
eighteen thousand miles of river navigation that Allegheny county commands,
gives guarantee that the gas in her coal can be carried where it is required at the
cheapest possible transportation cost, and it is already a demonstrated fact that the
gas can be extracted from the coal, and the remainders compensate or nearly so for
the cost of coal and manufacturing. Under this view the possible future growth
of the coal trade of Allegheny county is more possible than its decline, and also
the increased values of its coal lands.

This condense review of the coal trade of the county cannot more fittingly

concluded than with the iollowing extract from Pittsburgh's Progress, Industries and

Resources :

"As is stated in the opening paragraph of fhis chapter, the bituminous coal
field, by which Pittsburgh is surrounded, is estimated at 15,000 square miles, of
which two-thirds are literally under the feet of Pittsburgh, or at least at her very
door ; and upon which she has her miners working, her capital employed, over a
scope of from 60 to 60 miles east, west and south of her streets. Coal trains run-
ning, coal barges fioating, steam tugs towing. The approximate value of the mineral


they are thus depleting is stated in the beginning of the chapter ; and it forces an
exclamation of wonder on the mention of the fact that, a little over a hundred
years ago, the Penns paid but ten thousand dollars for the whole tract. To the
young boy one hundred years seem comparative eternity, to the septennarian as
nothing, and there are men now active in the coal trade of Pittsburgh who have
participated as man and boy in its activities for quite two-thirds of the years in
which the coal field has increased from its ten thousand dollar cost to its present
hardly comprehensible value. Pittsburgh has reason to be proud of her coal trade,
hopeful of its future, and proud of the race of coal kings that its activities have
developed. Hard-working, self-reliant men, the architects of their own fortunes,
self-made men to whose energy and industry the coal trade of Pittsburgh owes its
development, and they in their turn, to its growth, their fortunes. It is an ac-
cepted saying that he who makes two blades of grass grow where there was but
one is a benefactor to mankind ; and it may well be accepted that the men who
furnishes labor for two men where there was but subsistence for one is equally a
benefactor; and those who have built up by their perseverance the great industry
of the coal trade of Pittsburgh, with its employment for thousands of men, de-
serves to be so honored."


As a manufactured form of coal, is properly embraced in the sketch of the coal
trade of Allegheny county. Although like coal the substance is obtained to a
great extent outside the bounds of the county, yet as the capital, management,
and building up of the business is at Pittsburgh, it is intrinsically a division of the
industries of the county, and a sub-division of its coal trade.

The production of coke is mainly centered in the so called "Connellsville
region." The peculiar character of the coal deposit there causing this. This coal
bed is about fifty miles long and three miles wide, and a recent survey gives as the
area of this coal yet unmined in this region at 70,000 acres. It is estimated that
each acre will furnish about 5,000 tons of coke. On this basis the deposit will
furnish 350,000,000 tons, which at the present rate of output will last two hundred
years. The coke made from this deposit of coal is the recognized standard of the
Untied States. This coal from which it is made is soft and porous and carries a
very small per cent, of sulphur. It has a high percentage of carbon, great free-
dom from impurities. The hardness of the coke made from it, by which it has
large ability to bear heavy burdens in the furnace has, as being the best furnace
fuel yet discovered, driven charcoal out of use in the furnaces. Although coke
was made and used in the Allegheny furnace in Blair county in 1811, also by Coi,
Isaac Meason in his Plumsock refinery in Fayette county, in 1817, and P. Hj
Oliphant made, 1836, a fair amount of coke iron at his Fairchance furnace its use
did not begin to assume a national importance until 1859, when the Clinton fur-
nace, at Pittsburgh, of Graff, Bennett & Co. was run on coke fuel. The manufac-
ture of coke under the oven system now in use did not begin until 1841. Previous
to this the coke made by Meason and Oliphant was in open ricks on the ground.
In the summer of 1841, William Turner, Jr., Provance McCormick, and John
Campbell, employed James Taylor to erect two bee hive ovens on his farm on the
Youghiogheny a few miles below Connellsville. After several failures a fair


quality of coke was produced in the winter of 1841-42, and by the spring of
1842 enough had been made to load two boats with 800 bushels each.

These boats were ninety feet long and built by McCormick and Campbell, both
carpenters, and William Turner for pilot, were floated down the Youghiogheny,
Monongahela and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati, where it was disposed of after some

About the same time several small plants were established by Mordecai Coch-
ran, Eichard Brookins, and Col. A. M. Hill, who, in 1844, introduced an improved
eoke oven. The progress of coke manufacture was slow, and up to 1876 the number
of coke ovens was only about 3,500, and there was not over 3,000 employees of all
descriptions employed in the Connellsville region in the manufacture of coke.

The panic of 1872, which so greatly affected the iron business, necessarily
reduced the consumption of coke to a minimum. With the revival of the iron
trade in 1879 the demand for coke became enormous, and its price rapidly ad-

Online LibraryGeorge H. (George Henry) ThurstonAllegheny county's hundred years → online text (page 17 of 43)