The following story is courtesy of Bob Imhof. This narrative is part of a dramatically larger compilation published in 1961 with the title: “Boston interests in coal land in Elk County, Pennsylvania 1859 – 1884”. Enjoy!
A story that reads more like a romance than reality, and which is as true as an historian is able to make things with the data at his disposal, is that of Shawmut, a coal settlement in Elk County. Shawmut has seen almost as many ups and downs as some pump handles.
The site of Shawmut is a broad valley on the headwaters of the Clarion river. Mead Run flows through the valley, as pretty a stream as the eye of a lover of nature would care to see. Thirty years ago this history begins. At a time when abolition talk filled the air the great northwest of Pennsylvania was penetrated by a railroad – the Sunbury and Erie. It ran from Williamsport out into the wilderness until it reached the narrow strip of civilization skirting the south side of Lake Erie. A small town was at Lock Haven. The railroad subsequently platted Renovo as a major repair shop area, St. Marys was a modest village peopled by German Catholics. Ridgway contained a handful of lumbermen. From there the road ran through the pines and the hemlocks to Warren.
The track wound around sharp curves and boldly climbed mountains or buried itself in deep forests. The whole route gave promise of boundless natural wealth. The promises were not ungrounded, for in the third of the century that has elapsed since the locomotive came up into these mountains millions of dollars have been added to the possessions of the human race by the country along the Sunbury & Erie (Philadelphia & Erie or Pennsylvania Railroad).
Coal, oil and lumber and their products have supplied hundreds of thousands of tons of traffic to the pioneer line and the Philadelphia & Erie, which is the new name for the old road, is now one of the through trunk lines of the State’s railroad system.
When this road came into Elk County Joseph Veazic of Boston, who will have a monument while an abandoned old grade in Elk County retains its shape, became filled with the notion that the natural wealth of the new territory should be made available. He set about to enlist some Eastern capital in a measure that would have made all of the backers rich. He presented the fact that Elk County was a bed of excellent soft coal. The new railroad passed within 12 miles of the deposit. Eastern men, with a knowledge of Eastern markets, should be able, by buying the lands cheap and putting the coal in the markets of the East and elsewhere, to make a mint of money. Freights on the Sunbury & Erie he had figured out to a certainty. The scheme had no flaws in it.
To the City of Boston Joseph Veazic’s project was taken to the wealthy and influential families of that East Coast city. The Endicotts, the Saltonstalls, Adamses, Reevese and Cuttings among others. It held out such flattering inducements that they went in deep. Nearly 10 square miles of coal lands were bought from Daniel Kingsbury, a holder of the original tracts, and explorations commenced. Coal was found in all quarters of the purchase. High hills rose above the seams, affording good cover, and hollows opened out in all directions, permitting drifts to be opened to mine coal at the best advantage. Everything was so encouraging that the town of Shawmut was platted in 1861, Work was begun at the mines.
Drifts were opened, chutes and loading tipples built, and everything planned for operations was of a magnificent scale. The magnitude of the scheme was so large that the limit for corporations provided by law at that time was exceeded, and the Shawmut was capitalized under three different names.
About the coal works a town was built, streets were laid out, houses and stores erected, schools established, churches provided, and an air of thrift and permanence settled upon the little city in the forest. It was an ideal country for workingmen. The woods swarmed with game with deer and bear plentiful. The streams abounded with fish.
Ridgway, the capital of the county, was 12 miles away. Brockwayville, the nearest place, had a couple of hundred inhabitants, and they were eight miles distant. But Shawmut care nothing for these places. It sustained itself in the hope of future greatness.
Had the plant been worked rightly there is no reason why Shawmut today should not be the metropolis of all this soft coal region, and a town of 20,000 souls. But two stupendous blunders conspired to ruin the place. The first of these was the impractical Shawmut and Ridgway railroad built to connect the coal works with the Sunbury & Brie railroad.
Shawmut is on one side of a high mountain. The Sunbury & Erie was being built on the other along Elk Creek from St. Marys to Ridgway. A railroad a few miles long was laid down from Shawmut over this mountain to get the coal to market. The mountain was found to be so high that the steep grade made necessary a series of switchbacks. The coal trains were pulled up the mountain side as far as they could go then were switched back the other direction but still zigzagging up the mountain till the top was reached. Only small trains could be handled wherefore the transportation was expensive. It proved so costly that it exceeded the value of the coal when the market was reached.
Another obstacle was discovered soon after the operations were rightly under way. The coal was of a decidedly inferior quality. It could not command the price which the original estimates had placed upon it. The company worked energetically and with a determination to overcome these obstacles but to no purpose. A mortgage of $300,000 on the property was foreclosed. The plant was knocked down and Shawmut was looked upon as a dead bird in the pit.
For a few years the Shawmut & Ridgway switch back railroad, hauled in freight for a large portion of Jefferson, Clearfield and Elk counties. In 1872, after the Low Grade through Brockport to Brockwayville was built, the Shawmut road, with its high freights, gathered up its old rails, sent its rolling stock to the junk shop, and finish was written over the lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and blighted hopes. Weeds grew in the streets of Shawmut. The collieries rotted down. Porcupines gnawed down the houses and wolves and hoot owls inhabited the forsaken city. For a few years a remarkable spectacle presented itself in the heart of the Elk County wilderness. A comfortable town, deserted except for wild animals, growing up to thickets.
Desolation and ruin reigned in the valley. Finally, prosperity came from another direction. A railroad was built from Ridgway to Brockwayville, following Toby Creek and the Clarion River, the Ridgway and Clearfield Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Northwestern Mining and Exchange Company that had bought several thousand acres of land contiguous to the Shawmut lands, proceeded to develop their property in the vicinity of Shawmut. They saw that a railroad can run around a mountain much easier than over it. So, they built a line to Brockwayville, and their coal comes around the mountain to the Philadelphia & Erie at Ridgway, a few miles from where the Shawmut coal landed on the same road. A nicer grade than the Northwestern Company has for its coal could not be had. The same route was open to the Shawmut Company by the building of a few more miles of road, but they either failed to see the opportunity or the value of it. Had they availed themselves of the river grade no doubt they would have made a fortune from their coal.
The Shawmut property was covered with a fine growth of timber. In 1885 all the standing stuff was sold to the Ridgway Lumber Company, which manufactured the lumber and sent it to market on the railroad that traversed the valley. This timber contained a snug little fortune and would have helped swell the dividend of the Shawmut Company had they proceeded about their business intelligently. With the opening of the Shawmut country to the world again by the river bottom railroads, the story of Shawmut’s coal deposits came to the ear of Captain John Brinker, an old Clarion county operator. Captain Brinker, with his partner R.W. Jones, had been in the coal business for years and knew every turn of it after the breaking out of the war they
started in business down on the Allegheny River. They prospered in a small way and the business was enlarged. Later on, when they had gathered up some money and wanted to invest it, they took the notion of the coal trade to Clarion County. They gradually grew to be extensive operators on the Low Grade Railroad, getting a hold on the Buffalo market. Through more than the average lifetime they stuck together, sharing all gains and investing in all things jointly, and making a fortune. In Buffalo they enlarged their market, and as time rolled around they needed more coal for their trade.
When the Ridgway Lumber Company opened the Shawmut country and built a branch road right past the site of the old Shawmut collieries, Captain Brinker tested the coal. A new Shawmut Coal Company was formed, which was Brinker & Jones, together with E.L. Hedstrom of Buffalo.
The firm bought the Shawmut coal property. Already the lumber company had begun to settle in the valley and the whole Mead Run, from Shawmut to the Toby valley and above Shawmut in the timber woods, began to blossom into activity. Mines were built, log cabins erected, hundreds of men employed, and little towns sprang up at Shawmut, Cartwright and Horton. Then Brinker & Jones went to work. A big locomotive could haul 30 loaded 25-ton cars from their mines to the
main line of the railroad, instead of the half dozen little cars, such as the Shawmut & Ridgway Company hauled over the mountain in its day.
Then a 15-ton car was a big one. Now a 30-ton car is common. The transportation question on which Joseph Veazic wrecked the old Shawmut Corporation was cleared out of the way by the new one. But wise men shook their heads and said the Shawmut coal would prove too inferior and the seams too thin for profitable working.
The geology of Western Pennsylvania is a plain and wonderful interesting book to the man who will read it. Captain Brinker read it as often as his primer when he was mining on the Allegheny River. He read it in the formations about Shawmut what the old company had only suspected, that better seams of coal where in Shawmut than any that were worked. He proceeded to drive shafts, drifts and headings higher on the hills. A hundred feet from the seam of coal which the old Shawmut company sent to market, and which lost them their reputation, Brinker found an excellent vein. This he proceeded to present to the trade at Buffalo in competition with the best soft coal of the state.
The Northwestern Mining and Exchange Company, owning lands alongside the Shawmut company’s big tract, now began to operate its property. New collieries were built, and from Brockwayville to Shawmut was one straggling settlement of mining towns and patches. The Noble Coal Company, encouraged by these successes, was formed, and the dream of greatness indulged in by old Shawmut seemed to be once more near realization. Dubois had in this time grown to be a city of 8,000 people and become the center of the coal trade of Elk, Jefferson and Clearfield counties, the glory of which should have belonged to Shawmut if the wrong vein of coal had not been opened when the right one was but 100 feet distant and if the railroad had been projected around the mountain instead of over it. The Noble Coal Company was organized by Burr E. Cartwright, a man of wonderful energy, but not enough money to back it. Cartwright enlisted some Eastern capital and with him and the Noble Company began operations on property adjoining the Shawmut and the Northwestern company’s holdings. The same people acquired possession of the Ridgway Lumber Company’s timber rights and mills. Then they bought the big tract of timber at Glen Hazel, farther up in Elk County, and projected a railroad from there across to Shawmut, a cutoff which should handle all the immense traffic of Shawmut and Noble mines, the Ridgway company’s lumber and much of the Northwestern company’s coal.
A boom struck the country. The desolation of old Shawmut, together with its previous glory, sounded like a fairy tale in the face of its later dazzling prosperity. The most modern methods were introduced to mine coal. Mining machines were put into the drifts to cut down coal. The General Electric Company was interested in some of the patents procured and machines built by those concerned in the valley. In the Brock mines, one owned by the Cartwright interests, electricity took the place of mules, picks, shovels and lamps. The plant became the model electric colliery of the country, mining coal by electric machines, hauling it out of the pits with electric motors and all by the light of incandescent lamps. While the Brockway mine is at Brockwayville and cannot be classed in the Shawmut group, the same men and the same energy made it what it is, as they made the newer Shawmut.
The Noble Company one day played a big card. For $500,000 it bought the Shawmut property. Brinker & Jones went back to Buffalo, Coal came out in acres of cars.
The great yards and long sidings were full of loaded cars and of empty flats going to market or to the mines. Railroading employed an army of men as well as the mines. To haul the coal away the roads increased their facilities. Then came another sensation. An excellent fire clay was found in the drifts with the coal seam, and brick making was begun on a large scale. Shawmut was again predicted to be a coming place. Several new post offices were opened on the two tracts to serve the gathering population. Stores and schools, dwellings and churches arose from the forests. Hopes of an excellent paving brick were aroused. A sale to the Niagara Tunnel Company gave the hope a turn in that direction. Big kilns were built, modern machinery placed, and the factory turned out beautiful brick in large quantities. Then the idea of drilling a gas well to see if this wonderful Shawmut territory might not possess still other treasures took possession of the brains of the company. A fine pressure was found, sure enough, and Shawmut was justified in the craze that encompassed the valley. All was on the upgrade and it looked as if there was no end to the altitude ahead. But for some reason the bricks piled up in the yards.
Immense stacks gathered. The sales were not what they should be. The reason came to the surface. The bricks were too hard and not tough enough.
This was but one of the events that marked the end of the second era of glory. For Shawmut fell again. A fire swept over the big mill yard and millions of feet of good lumber was destroyed. A later fire destroyed the mill and another fortune was in the ash heap. Following the heels of this, one of the large stockholders who lived in the East was caught in some financial troubles. On top of this came the panic and in the early part of 1893, Shawmut had slumped again. The sheriff paid a visit and shut up the mines and big brick works. The operations in the woods were stopped because the mill was already gone. Shawmut was nearly deserted once more. People moved away. The gas well that promised to develop was followed by others that were failures.
In one of the settlements of the 600 houses but about 20 had tenants. After a slow and dreamy circumlocution of the sheriff’s office Shawmut was put up to be sold.
The property now fell into the hands of Hall, Kaul & Company, one of the largest firms in the state, that own thousands of acres of timberland in the vicinity and run railroads. They have abundant capital and experience.
Brick – idea of making paving bricks is given up, clay has been found useful in making dry pressed brick, making a handsome buff building brick.
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