|Conyngham Township and Borough of Centralia
This portion of
The History of Columbia and Montour Counties, Pennsylvania
by J. H. Battle, 1887
is made possible through the efforts of
TRANSCRIBER: Joan Wetzel
Until the year 1830 Conyngham township, and indeed the western middle coal field, was known only as a wild, mountainous country, whose fastnesses were the haunts of the deer, the fox and the catamount. The region was not, however, entirely unknown. The Sunbury and Reading state road passed through Ashland, just at the foot of Locust mountain, and from that point a rough wagon track led over the mountains northward. About the year 1804 the Red tavern was built on the top of Locust mountain by John Rhodeburger. Subsequently, when in 1816 or 1817 the bridle path was so improved as to be really a good road, there was an almost ceaseless stream of travel past the Red house. Stage-coaches dashed down the level grade above, while the echoing horn intensifies the hurry and confusion of the always noisy tavern yard. Four hostlers emerged from the stable door, ready to grasp the bits and undo the fastenings of the coach horses the moment they were stopped; others brought out the relay that had been resting, and the coach was ready to renew the journey before the jaded passengers had scarcely become aware of the stop. A new driver mounted the box, deftly grasped the reins, uttered a quiet signal to start or noisily cracked his whip, and the coach disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Nearly the whole of Conyngham township was surveyed about the year seventeen hundred and ninety-three. No one, at that time, would have supposed that beneath it's rugged surface were the store houses of a vast mineral wealth. But during the succeeding thirty years rumors of discoveries of coal and iron began to be circulated and credited. The confirmation of these reports caused
311a fever of excitement among the capitalists of the period. On various pretexts, the land commissioners were induced to issue warrants for the resurvey of some of the most valuable portions of the anthracite coal region during 1830 and the following years. There are tracts of land in this township which are covered by two an even three titles from the commonwealth.
Among the first to foresee the possibilities of wealth to accrue from the mining of a commodity, then hardly known, was that sagacious financier, Stephen Girard. April 30, 1830, he purchased from Horace Binney, James C. Fisher, Joseph Sims, Archibald McCall, Samuel Coates, Henry Pratt, John Steele, Paschal Hollingsworth, George Harrison, Abijah Hammond and Alison Walcott, trustees of the bank of the United States at Philadelphia, an extensive tract of land on the waters of Catawissa and Mahanoy creeks and the Little Schuylkill river. It extended into the southeastern part of Columbia county.
Stephen Girard at once pushed the construction of roads and bridges through his new domain. Though left in an incomplete condition these substantial archways have defied the storms and floods of fifty years. He expected to find iron ore, and amass wealth from its manufacture; the discovery of coal has given the college which bears his name apparently inexhaustible resources, surpassing even his most sanguine hopes.
It was nearly a quarter of a century after the Girard purchase was made before any considerable quantity of coal was mined in Columbia county. The Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, the corporation which took the initiatory step in developing the region, and controls the most valuable coal land in the county at the present day, was not formed until 1842. Two years later Mine-Run colliery shipped the first coal over this road from Columbia county. In the same year Locust-Run and Coal-Ridge collieries were opened the former being operated by Repellier and Company, the latter by Longstreet and Company. The Hazel Dell colliery was completed in September, 1860; the Centrailia colliery in 1862. They were leased respectively by Robert Gorrell and J. M. Freck and Company. The Centralia breaker was burned Sunday, October 21, 1866, an twice subsequently.
In 1863, on the Girard estate, the Continental colliery was opened by Robert Carter and Company. It was leased successively by Goodrich and Company and Gorrell and Audenried; it is operated by the Lehigh Valley Coal Company. Union colliery, on the same estate, was opened the same year by John Anderson and Company. It is known as North Ashland, and is leased by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. In 1865 the Lehigh and Mahanoy rail-road was opened from Mt. Carmel to Mahanoy City, through the property of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. In the following year the Mahanoy and Broad Mountain rail-road was made available for coal shipments from the company's works. In 1867 the Locust Run colliery produced one-hundred and forty-seven thousand tons of coal up to that date, the largest annual yield of any colliery in the anthracite region.
In 1869 Thomas R. Stockett was appointed chief engineer and agent of the corporation above mentioned. In 1872 he was succeeded by Lewis A. Riley. He resigned in 1880, and in 1881 Lewis A. Riley and Company leased the Centralia and Hazel Dell collieries. In the same year they erected the Logan breaker in South Conyngham. About the same time Isaac May and Company began to mine coal on Morris Ridge.
From the geological report is compiled the following statistics in regard to the mine product for the year 1882, since when there are no reliable data available:
|Name of colliery, 1882||Location.||Operator.||Tons, 1882|
|Bast....................||Big Mine Run..||Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co.||90,161|
|Potts...................||Locustdale....||Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co.||83,941|
|Hazel Dell..............||Centralia.....||L. A. Riley & Co......................||7,638|
|Continental.............||Centralia.....||Lehigh Valley Coal Co.................||16,542|
|Montana No. 1...........||Centralia.....||Daniel Beaver.........................||Abandoned.|
|Monroe..................||Montana.......||A. H. Church...........................||35,854|
|Logan...................||Centralia.....||L. A. Riley & Co.......................||231,169|
|Centralia...............||Centralia.....||L. A. Riley & Co.......................||88,283|
|Bear City...............||Centralia.....||John Q. Williams.......................||2,000|
|Morris Ridge............||Centralia.....||May & Co...............................||55,490|
|North Ashland...........||Centralia.....||Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co.||111,036|
| In the development of the natural resources of Conyngham township, the usual order was reversed; capital was invested, and the work resolutely begun without any assurance that the product of the mines would reach a market, except at such expense as to seriously diminish the profit of the enterprise. Until 1865, all coal shipments were made by the Mine-Hill rail-road, and were accompanied with great inconvenience, as it penetrated the township but a short distance. Not until the presence of an almost inexhaustible wealth was practically demonstrated and the future of the region firmly assured, did it receive really adequate facilities for its unrestricted development.
The growth of the towns of this section has been parallel with the growth of the mining industry. Centralia, Locustdale, Montana, and Germantown accommodate the population whose steady work and busy thought hew the veins of coal from the dark caverns of the earth, and separate the shining crystals from the worthless conglomerate in the whirring machinery of the breakers above.
When the Reading road was surveyed, a swamp, overgrown with brush-wood and tall pines, marked the site of the town of Centralia. The land was level, however, a desirable feature as a location for the town. By subsequent drainage, the bogs have entirely disappeared and the place is decidedly healthful.
The land was originally surveyed for George Ashton and William Lownes, and subsequently came into the possession of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. The first house was the "Bull's Head," a tavern built by Jonathan Faust in 1841, about a mile from the Red tavern, and on the same Reading road. It intersected the Reading and Sunbury state road about two miles further south. This hotel subsequently passed to Reuben Wasser, but retained its former name throughout its natural life as a stopping place for travelers, and for twelve years comprehended all of Centralia that then existed. Jonathan Faust did not own the land on which his house was built; he did not even buy the lumber, but appropriated it without compunction, and his right of possession was never disputed. In 1855 Alexander W. Rea, the first engineer and agent of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, built a cottage above the hotel, and removed thither from Danville. He made surveys for several streets parallel with the Reading road and others crossing it at right angles. On one of the latter a roe of houses was built the same year. They were immediately occupied by employes of the company, but all have since been removed. This was practically the beginning of the town.
In 1860 Jonathan Hoagland opened the first store just opposite the "Bulls Head." Two years later he was appointed first postmaster. The name Centralia was suggested by Mr. Rea. For a few years previous the place had been known as Centreville; the change was made at the instance of the postal authorities, as an office of that name already existed in the state.
313Three years later, in 1865, the Lehigh and Mahanoy rail-road, since known as the Lehigh Valley, was built through the town on what is appropriately known as Rail-Road avenue. With its entrance into the section several new colleries were opened and the town began to grow in size, population and wealth. In this very circumstance, however, there was an element of danger. The influx of people of different nationalities and conflicting creeds threatened to involve the community in disorder and lawlessness, and demanded provision for a more stringent enforcement of the laws.
Accordingly, at the February court, 1866, the borough of Centralia was incorporated. James B. Knittle was elected president of the town council; L. S. Boner, town clerk; and James Dyke, Chief Burgess of the town, an office which he has held during the stormiest periods of its history. The persons thus elected officers of the borough, with other public spirited men, took measures to maintain and improve the state of order, and were, in the main, successful.
An undertaking in which the projectors sought to prevent reckless and improvident expenditure by many of the operatives was the Centralia Mutual Savings Fund Association. It was organized Feb. 2, 1866, with E. S. Betterly, and a board of directors consisting of A. W. Rea, James Dyke, Henry W. Sable, Reuben Wasser, M. M. L'Velle, L. S. Boner, Joseph H. Dawes, Edward Sweet, William James, William Peiffer, J. J. Hoagland, David Camp and John M. Belford. For a time its results were satisfactory and profitable; but it subsequently became involved, and is now being closed by James Dyke. Although apparently a failure, it has certainly accomplished a good work. Many of the homes in Centralia trace their first inception in the minds of the owners to the comfortable sum which had here slowly accumulated.
One of the greatest disadvantages of the location of the town is the absence of an adequate water supply. To supply this want the Centralia Water Company was charted in 1866. A reservoir was constructed on the side of Locust mountain, and wooden mains were laid to conduct the water to its consumers. In the course of a few years the pipes began to decay; the expense of removing them and securing others of a more durable character seriously involved the company. Its property was sold on execution of Mayberry Hughes, and was bought by William Brydon Oct. 26, 1876. This transfer closed the first ten years of the company's history, and the result was total failure. From William Brydon, the property passed into possession of A. B. Fortner, Daniel C. Black, Edward Williams, Jr., A. K. Mensch, A. B. Willard and John W. Fortner. In their hands the property has been much improved and pays a fair return.
The water supply of this company is obtained from springs in the vicinity of the town. The exhaustive pumping process necessary to keep the mines free from water threatened to seriously affect their permanency. To meet the increasing need for an absolutely inexhaustible supply of water the Locust Mountain Water Company was chartered October 24, 1881, with a capital stock of fifty-thousand dollars, to which the Lehigh Valley Rail-road Company largely contributed. A large dam was built across Brush valley run and a reservoir on the top of Locust mountain, while three miles of underground mains connect the two. The works were completed two years ago and remove the possibility of any "water famine" in the future.
The borough organization, beneficial as it was in every respect, failed to curb the spirit of ruffianism which asserted itself in the years which immediately followed. About the time it was effected, the Mollie Maguire troubles began in Schuylkill county. This organization, one of the most formidable that has ever existed in defiance of law, rapidly extended over a large extent of the ad-
314joining counties. On the 17th of October, 1868, Alexander W. Rea was murdered on the road leading from Centralia to a colliery of which he was superintendent. The object ostensibly was to rob him of some hundreds of do lars it was supposed he would have with him, as it was pay day. The murderers secured but ten dollars from his person and made good their escape. Ten years afterward, Hester, Tully and McHugh were tried and convicted as accessories before the fact. They were hung at Bloomsburg, March 25, 1878.
This murder begins a period in the history of Centralia which had its parallel in every town in the anthracite region. There was a virtual reign of terror. Sentence of death seemed to be pronounced against every miner-boss who dared perform his duties and oppose the roughs. When the life of Alexander Rea, a man who had been identified with every project to benefit the miners and improve the town, could be sacrificed to the hatred and cupidity of designing villains, all security of life and property seemed to have disappeared. Many of the leading citizens fled. It was not safe to be in the streets after night-fall, and hardly safer to remain indoors. The outrages in Centralia reached a culminating point in 1874, when Michael Lanathan was shot in the streets, and Thomas Dougherty was murdered on his way to work. These tragedies occurred within a month of each other; both were shrouded in mystery, but every circumstance pointed with moral certainty to the "Maguires" as the conspirators and perpetrators. With the disclosures of McFarland, the reign of law was once more established and Centralia shared in the feeling of security which soon became general throughout the whole region.
Another phase of the lawlessness of the period was the frequent occurrence of incendiary fires. In March, 1872, a destructive fire consumed four blocks on the east side of Locust avenues. In the same year a half-square between Centre Railroad streets was reduced to ashes. January 12, 1873, a whole square on the west side of Locust was burned, leaving only three houses on that side of the street. In the four succeeding years, several business houses and private residences were burned, all of which with one exception were believed to be the work of incendiaries.
Centralia has entered upon its period of greatest prosperity within the last few years. The discovery and development of rich veins of coal in the immediate vicinity give promise of labor for hundreds of men for years to come. It comprises a population of about three-thousand; a number of well established business houses, distributing every commodity within the circle of the needs of any community; five congregations of evangelical christians, with an equal number of places of worship; a large and substantial school-building; and a number of benevolent and co-operative associations. The religious and social development of the people has made great advances in the past few years, and may be examined in detail.
Methodism was introduced into Centralia in January of 1863, and was therefore the first denomination represented in the town. Morris Lewis was ap- pointed leader of a class of eight by Reverend W. M. Showalter, who was then pastor at Ashland. Two years later Reverend N. W. Guire, from the same place, organized the Methodist Episcopal appointment of Centralia, formed class, and appointed William M. Hoagland, leader. In April of the same year the appointment was connected with the Mt. Carmel circuit of the East Baltimore Conference. Reverend J. M. Mullen was in charge the three succeeding years. During the summer of 1866 the church edifice was begun by John James and Joseph Steel. Assisted by others favorable to the cause, the excavated the foundation without the expenditure of a single dollar. The corner-stone was laid in the autumn of 1866, by Reverend W. A. Stephens. In Feb-
315ruary of the following year, the basement was completed and dedicated by Reverend J. B. Riddell. During the pastorate of Reverend J. A. Dixon, the Sunday-school was organized. In March, 1869, Centralia station was established by the annual conference and C. D. McWilliams, S. R. Nankervis and A. C. Crosthwait successively appointed pastors. In 1871 the andience room was dedicated.
Several other appointments were annexed to Centralia about this time. Reverends H. B. Fortner and Samuel Barnes served as pastors until 1873, when Centralia again became a station with Reverend A. H. Mensch as pastor. Being unable to sustain itself, the annual conference of 1874 again connected it with its former circuit. Reverends G. W. Larned, N. S. Buckingham, G. W. Marshall, T. H. Tubbs, J. P. Benford, R. L. Armstrong and J. S. Buckley have been pastors since then. In 1883 it again became a station, and since then has increased in membership sufficiently to warrant the erection of a new church- building.
The next denominations to make their appearance were the Presbyterian and Protestant Episcopal. The former was organized July 31, 1867, by Reverend S. W. Reighart. Reverend L. L. Haughawant became first pastor and ministered to a congregation of eighteen members. A church building was erected at a cost of three-thousand dollars. It is an attractive, substantial structure, and has a pleasant location. Reverend J. H. Fleming became pastor in 1871, and in 1874 Reverend J. Caldwell, who was succeeded in 1883 by Reverend J. F. Stewart, the present pastor. The Protestant Episcopal church edifice was erected in 1867 at a cost of four-thousand dollars, contributed largely by Robert Gorrell and J. M. Freck. Bishop Stephens, of the diocese of Harrisburg, consecrated it. Reverend M. Washburn was the first rector; he resigned in 1870, when Reverend Charles E. D. Griffith took charge. His successors have been Reverends Robert H. Kline and D. Howard, the present incumbent.
The parish of St. Ignatius' Catholic church, Centralia, is in the diocese of Harrisburg. Right Reverend J. F. Shanahan selected the Very Reverend D. J. McDermott to organize it. Before the erection of the see of Harrisburg the Catholic population of Centralia formed part of St. Joseph's congregation at Ashland. Previous to Father McDermott's advent no public service had been held in the town by a Catholic priest. He arrived in the place April 12, 1869, and the following Sabbath celebrated two masses in a school-house which has since been abandoned as unsafe because it stood on the verge of a "cave-in." The congregation was organized but there was no ecclesiastical property of any kind belonging to the Catholics of Centralia, and there was no money, for the miners had been on an eight months' strike and had not yet resumed work.
The first property was acquired by the donation of four lots from the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. The corner-stone of the church building was laid by Bishop Shanahan July 18, 1869. It was completed the following November. Father McDermott completed the pastoral residence in the next year. The church edifice, rectory and cemetery cost twenty-two thousand dollars. In 1872 the number of souls in the congregation numbered fifteen hundred. In that year Reverend Edward T. Fields became pastor; he remained in charge until his death in 1884, when he in turn was succeeded by Reverend James I. Russell, the present pastor. He is assisted in the work of the parish by Reverend J. A. O'Brien. During the twelve years of Father Field's pastorate his assistants were Fathers Davis, McShane, Kenney, McKenna and Barr.
The Baptist denomination has secured a representation. In April, 1886, Reverend B. B. Henchy, of Giardville, organized a congregation of twelve
316members. A church building will be completed in course of a short time. The new organization has shown an aggressive spirit, and will no doubt have a prosperous and useful career.
The secret societies represented in Centralia are the Odd-Fellows, Patriotic Order Sons of America, Miners' and Laborers' Amalgamated Association and Knights of Labor. Centralia lodge I. O. O. F., No. 586, was chartered September 22, 1866, but this charter was burned, and another was issued November 25, 1872. A new hall is in course of erection on Centre street, above Locust. Its estimated cost is four thousand dollars. It will have two floors, one of which will be furnished for public entertainments, thus meeting a long-felt want. The present membership is seventy-one. The officers are James Thomas, James Thompson, C. B. Spurr and Seth Thomas.
Camp No. 106, Patriotic Order Sons of America, was organized in 1866 with thirty -six members. Its first officers were J. P. Hoagland, president; C. G. Freck; secretary, and J. F. Scott, treasurer. It was reorganized in 1872, and rechartered February 17, 1883, with twenty-four members. This membership has since increased to sixty.
District 16, of the Miners' and Laborers' Amalgamated Association, was organized February 15, 1885, with one-hundred and seventy-five members. The district comprises four branches, and has a membership of about eight-hundred. Assembly 4641, Knights of Labor, was formed December 13 of the same year. April 17, 1886, Assembly 6364 was organized. These two have a combined strength of two hundred and forty members.
The central location of Centralia in the coal-field of the township has caused more than half of its population to collect within the borough limits or on the land adjoining, thus preventing the growth of other towns in the vicinity. Several small villages have, however, gathered around the collieries at a distance from Centralia. Montana, Germantown and Locustdale were built in the years immediately following the opening of the coal-mines; but, for the reason just given, never approached in point of size their older neighbor, Centralia.
The village of Locustdale is situated in the adjoining counties of Schuylkill and Northumberland, as well as Columbia. The first buildings were erected in 1856 by George C. Potts and Company, the proprietors of the colliery still known by the name of its projector. The following year this colliery was first operated, and in 1858 the shipment of coal was begun. The growth of the village was energetically forwarded by J. L. Beadle, the first manager of the colliery. A. S. Morehead, of Pottsville, in 1859 opened the first store. Mrs. Mary Young was the next merchant. The first hotel, however, was built in 1840 by Jacob Brisel before any prospect of a village was apparent.
J. S. Beadle and William Rearsbeck invented a device for ventilation of coal-mines, first adopted by the Potts colliery in 1860, but now extensively used.
The village of Montana was laid out in 1865 by Samuel Seidy. The Reno colliery, just opened by Morris Robison and Company, gave employment to many laborers, and the town rapidly expanded to its present proportions. The Red tavern, a great place of social concourse during the old stage days, has not outlived its usefulness, but is still fairly patronized. The United Brethren church, organized in 1871 by Reverend J. G. Fritz of Mt. Carmel, Northumberland county, meets in the school-house. The membership has increased to thirty-two. A new church-building is now in course of erection.
An enumeration of the villages of the township is manifestly incomplete without mention of "The Shanties." A straggling collection of dilapidated houses
317at the site of the old Repellier breakers appropriately bears this name; and about a dozen housed, of more substantial appearance, however, at the opening of an abandoned shaft of the same colliery have been known as Germantown, from the fact of several of the first families being Germans. The oldest of the shanties was built on a Sunday in the summer of 1856, and the village of Germantown the following year. It now comprises about a dozen houses and a school building, whose predecessor was one of the first built in Conyngham township.
The first school-house, however, was situated above Montana, where the road turns to descend into Bush valley. It was built about the year 1840, but even then there was hardly population enough to warrant its erection. The work of education was here pursued under difficulties of which only the pedagogue of that early day can form an idea. Unlike the generality of schools, then as now the attendance was discouragingly small. To the teacher this was a vital consideration, as his salary and the continuance of the school depended on the presence of a certain number of pupils. It is said that one of the first teachers was constrained under these circumstances to sometimes carry several small children to the school from their homes. It is possible, however, that even these difficulties would be an agreeable alternative if presented to the teachers of the over-crowded schools which have grown from this small beginning.
The school at Locustdale was opened in 1859, with John Wagner as first teacher. The year previous, the first school building at Centralia was erected. It was subsequently engulfed in a "cave in" of a coal mine. It was in this building that the Methodist, Catholic and Presbyterian churches were organized. For ten years it was the only place for public gatherings in the town. The commodious building which has succeeded it indicates a progressive and liberal spirit among the citizens.
Conyngham township is, in many respects, unlike any other portion of Columbia county. Geographically, it is isolated, Its people are compelled, in order to reach the county seat, to make a circuitous journey of sixty miles by rail, or resort to the less convenient modes of travel near akin to the stage- coaches of forty years ago.
Topographically, it is characterized by the Little and Locust mountains, two parallel ranges. The crest of the former is a natural boundary between it and the adjoining township of Locust; the southern slope of the latter extends into Schuylkill county. Between the two, and extending completely across the township from east to west, is the Brush valley, a deep, dark ravine, whose almost impenetrable thickets attest the propriety of the name. The Brush valley run rises from the spring on the northern slope of Locust mountain; within a mile of this, to the south, are the head waters of the Big Mine run. These streams are branches, respectively, of the Shamokin and Mahanoy creeks, two of the most important tributaries of the Susquehanna river. Their respective basins are thus determined by Locust mountain. In no other township of Columbia county is the surface so mountainous and rugged and utterly unfit for agricultural purposes. Nor has the mining of coal any where else become an exclusive industry.
For this reason more than any other there is a marked difference in the general character of the people. While Quakers and Germans were bringing the valleys of Roaring and Fishing creeks under cultivation, the new settlers hurried over the Locust and Little mountains, relieved when the bold outline of the latter was behind them against the southern horizon. And when, a half century later, the population that first developed the resources of
these mountains finally began to arrive, (it) differed in nationality from that which preceded it, and passed to the farming region beyond. The history of the people, their churches, schools and the towns they have built, is a history of rapid growth of population with the successive opening of the different collieries of the region.