In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia banks and entrepreneurs played a pivotal role in facilitating the emergence of coal as the nation’s principal energy source for industry, transportation, and heating, by creating and financing the firms that first brought to market anthracite coal, mined exclusively in rugged eastern Pennsylvania.

To mine anthracite, or “hard coal,” on a large scale required extensive access to capital, much of which was drawn from Philadelphia. Before the Civil War, transportation firms led the way. The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, founded in 1822 by Josiah White (1781-1850) and Erskine Hazard (1789-1865), by 1840 had constructed thirty-six miles of canal, joining ten miles of navigable river down the Lehigh River to Philadelphia. In 1825, investors led by Philadelphia bankers and merchants founded the Schuylkill Navigation Company, which by the 1840s boasted a transportation network of 108 miles of canal and passable river, along with 450 tunnels and 120 locks for a capitalization of $2.2 million, all fed by annual coal shipments of 500,000 tons. In 1828 the North Branch Canal opened, reaching all the way to Nanticoke, and in 1831 it was extended to Pittston, connecting Luzerne County to the Philadelphia market. In 1829 the northern field opened to the New York market with the completion of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which equaled the Erie Canal in capital outlay. This transportation artery included an inclined-plane railroad and a 110-lock canal system linking Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to Rondout, New York, on the Hudson.

Trains cars filled with coal.
Pennsylvanian railways played an integral role in transporting coal and other commodities like iron and steel to markets. Here, Pennsylvanian Railroad cars loaded with coal rest on tracks along the Schuylkill River in 1980. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The emergence of the railroad system connecting Philadelphia and other eastern cities to the anthracite region soon eclipsed canal building. Frederick List (1789-1846), a leading early-nineteenth-century German economist and political refugee in Philadelphia in the 1820s, purchased a mine in the Little Schuylkill Valley in Tamaqua and recruited one of the nation’s richest men, Stephen Girard (1750-1831) of Philadelphia, as an investor to develop railroad links connecting mines to market. The railroad eventually became the powerful Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which opened in 1833. Philadelphian Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879), the leading American economist of the nineteenth century and a close adviser to Abraham Lincoln, and like List an advocate of protective tariffs, also held anthracite mining interests. The Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVRR) opened in 1855 connecting Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) to Easton and then north through the Wyoming Valley into New York state and east into New Jersey and New York City. To the north, George Scranton’s Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad opened up the Northern Field to New York City and, via the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes. Everywhere railroads used their control of access to the market as leverage to dominate coal production.

Anthracite Boosts Steel Production

Railroads tied together the critical ingredients of the industrial economy of the nineteenth century: coal, iron, and steel. Once accessed, anthracite coal began to play an indispensable role in the industrial revolution. Prior to the use of anthracite in the smelting of iron, American industry lagged far behind its British counterpart, continuing to use charcoal through the 1830s that resulted in an inferior product unsuitable for rail manufacture. The intense heat unleashed in the burning of anthracite closed the gap. By the 1850s anthracite was fueling half of all iron production in the United States, much of it destined for rail building, much of the rest bound for the emerging field of metal machine making, an important industry in Greater Philadelphia. The city’s central entrepôt for the coal was the Reading Railroad’s massive Port Richmond Terminal, a sprawling complex of twenty-one wharfs on the Delaware River capable of loading scores of vessels. From here coal was shipped up and down the East Coast.

Growing demand before, during, and after the Civil War accelerated anthracite production. Regional coal production went from 910,000 tons in 1840 to 3,700,000 tons in 1850, to 9,200,000 tons in 1860, to 11,000,000 in 1865. Over the corresponding period, value of output increased from $1.3 million to $5.5 million in 1850, to $14 million in 1860, to $65 million in 1865, the final statistic suggestive of the enormous inflation and profits gained as a result of the Civil War. The anthracite region’s population—comprising Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, and what would become Carbon and Lackawanna Counties—grew rapidly, from 46,790 in 1820, to 66,256 in 1830, to 93,086 in 1840, to 155,743 in 1850, and to 248,655 in 1860. As the basis of the regional economy, mine employment went from 3,000 in 1840, to 10,000 in 1850, to 27,000 in 1860, to 39,000 in 1865. From the Civil War until 1900, anthracite production increased fivefold, from 10 million tons to 60 million tons annually. Tens of thousands of immigrants poured into the region, arriving first from Wales, England, and Scotland, then from Ireland, and finally Poland, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, and many other lands. Workers unionized in bitter struggle against the mine owners in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) by the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the late nineteenth century coke processed from bituminous coal began to displace anthracite coal for industrial use, especially in steel production. Drawn from the nation’s vast deposits stretching from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia through Illinois, bituminous, or “soft coal,” was considerably cheaper to extract than anthracite coal. The coking industry developed first in western Pennsylvania, and with it the center of the American iron industry shifted from eastern Pennsylvania to the Pittsburgh region, eventually following the development of the iron mining industry in the Lake Superior region to the major cities of the Great Lakes. By 1905, the Pittsburgh area was producing 18 million tons of coke per year. Bituminous production in Pennsylvania alone reached 80 million tons by the turn of the century.

A Coal Propoganda Poster that reads
A propaganda poster produced by the United States Fuel Administration in 1917, in the midst of World War I, encourages American citizens to order coal. A worker can be seen unloading coal from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Oil Displaces Anthracite

Another development from western Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century ultimately contributed to the displacement of anthracite for home heating use, a long decline that accelerated after World War II. This was the discovery of consumer and industrial uses for oil and then natural gas. An industry dominated by John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), oil was first shipped to Philadelphia via the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad, connecting with the Reading in Harrisburg. Beginning in the late nineteenth century oil and natural gas were shipped to refineries via pipelines from northwestern Pennsylvania. With the development of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century, petroleum began to displace both coke and anthracite in industrial production.

The Susquehanna River, whose canals provided the original mode of transportation of anthracite to Philadelphia, contributed to the ultimate decline of the anthracite coal industry. The completion of the Holtwood Dam on the lower Susquehanna in 1910 greatly increased the market for electricity consumption in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The introduction of electricity in industrial production allowed for the rapid development of light industry dependent upon small machines, as well as the development of continuous production methods like the assembly line. By 1930 electricity had become the leading energy source in American industry, and most Philadelphia homes had abandoned carbon-burning appliances. In the years after World War II, the burning of coal as a home heating source declined.

Coal nonetheless continued to play an important role in the production of electricity in the region for many decades. Coal-powered plants generated substantial environmental pollution, and according to 2010 research carried out by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force investigating the remaining Pennsylvania and New Jersey power plants using coal for generation, fine particle air contamination consisting of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides was associated with dozens of deaths. Most of these plants were slated to close by the end of 2015.

A former Mayor of Centralia, Pennsylvania walks nears an underground mine fire.
John Wondolski, a former miner and the mayor of Centralia, a town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, stands amid smoke venting from the Centralia mine fire in May 1981. Since 1962, the fire has continued to burn underground, fueled by coal. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

From the beginning, coal contributed to workplace and environmental problems. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania workers died in the state’s mines, and tens of thousands more suffered and died from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung. The rivers and soils near mines and beehive coke ovens were damaged. Air pollution, coal ash deposits, and one ongoing underground coal fire, at Centralia, Pennsylvania, continued to present environmental problems to the state into the twenty-first century. One of the prices of coal, despite its central role in boosting area industry, has been these long-term effects.

Thomas Mackaman is Assistant Professor of History, at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre. He is author of the forthcoming book, New Immigrants and American Industry, 1914-1924. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Shoveling Coal

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Coal was the dominant fuel for home heating in the 1900s, up until the outbreak of World War II. Prior to being displaced by natural gas and oil during the Second World War, it was mainly coal that generated heat in homes through stoves and fireplaces. Coal stoves were commonplace in U.S. homes during the early twentieth century, and households in colder parts of the country ordered large quantities.

In this photograph, supervisor John McCabe (left) and an employee of the Bureau of Weights and Measures weigh coal at the residence of a Philadelphia native named Mrs. Worth, who alleged that she had ordered six tons of coal but had received less than the amount that she had paid for, leading her to file a complaint.

The outcome of the bureau’s investigation was not revealed in information with this photograph from August 1934.

Centralia Mine Fire

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Although coal mining can be a profitable business, it can also be costly and dangerous. Miners are often subjected to injury, “black lung” and other harmful effects caused by breathing coal dust, mine collapses, and the possibility of death. Coal mining can also having a drastic impact on communities with mines.

In one dramatic example, a mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, has burned underground since 1962, with no certainty of when the fire might end. The fire and the gases emitted by the fire have ruined the town. Most all the homes and buildings of Centralia have been deserted, and the population of the town has significantly decreased. After condemnation in 1992 by Columbia County, Centralia in the second decade of the twenty-first century was almost completely abandoned. Coal mining can also have negative effects on the environment, causing air pollution, altering local habitats, and doing permanent soil damage.

In this photograph from May 1981, former miner John Wondolski, then the mayor of Centralia, a stands near smoke being vented from the underground fire.

Coal Cars

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Many investors based in Philadelphia sought to construct and use the railways of Pennsylvania in order to profit from the lucrative anthracite mining business. Railroads like the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which opened in 1833, helped connect Philadelphia to parts of the state where anthracite was abundant and mines were in place. Other railroads, like the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which opened in 1855 and was based in the steel town of Bethlehem Pennsylvania, helped connect Pennsylvania to markets in New York and New Jersey. Although canals and waterways had were at first used to ship coal, the railways built during the early to mid-nineteenth century became the more efficient way to transport coal and connect eastern cities to the mines of the anthracite region.

Coke Fuel

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Coke is a type of fuel that is made up of mostly bituminous “soft coal.” Coke appears as a gray substance that is often used as fuel for the blast furnaces that help produce metals like steel and iron. Coke was important to metalmaking industries because it helped generate the extremely high temperatures necessary for the manufacturing of steel. The industry of producing coke developed in western Pennsylvania and became profitable in the late nineteenth century, especially in the steel-producing city of Pittsburgh. However, the use of oil would eventually substitute and lead to the decreased use of anthracite and coke in industrial production.

Order Coal Now

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Propaganda posters were used throughout World War I in America to encourage U.S. citizens to contribute to the war effort. Posters often urged citizens save food for the troops by growing food in their own garden plots, or eating less bread so that more could be allotted to the soldiers. Coal was also a valuable resource to the military during World War I because it helped power the Navy’s fleet of steamships. Coal also powered the electricity of many American homes, including most households in the country’s largest cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Similar to the propaganda imploring citizens to ration food during the World War I, many World War II posters asked homeowners with access to electricity to decrease the use of light in their homes, so that a larger share of coal could be allotted to the military. Posters from both World Wars asked miners to lend “an extra shovelful” or increase their efforts to provide the army with coal. Coal was used in many homes as a source of heat during World War I, and when the harsh temperatures of winter threatened American households, promotions such as this “Order Coal Now” poster, circulated in Philadelphia, were aimed at ensuring that homeowners ordered enough coal to stay warm throughout the winter season.

Luzerne Mining Drawing

Wikimedia Commons

Anthracite is commonly found in the Luzerne, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Lackawanna Counties of Pennsylvania. Several methods of mining have been employed in the anthracite region. “Room and pillar” mining was common in the early years of Pennsylvania mining, in which a “room” was cut into a coal deposit, with square pillars of coal left by miners to support the room and prevent a collapse. Long-wall mining has also been used in Pennsylvania, whereby machinery is used to extract an entire strip, or “wall,” of coal in one effort. Long-wall mining has become the favored method of extraction in modern mines, but “room and pillar” has not been completely done away with in the anthracite region. The different methods of mining coal and the history of anthracite region mining are on display at the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

In this postcard drawing from between 1930 and 1945, a dragging excavator fills a loading truck with coal that has been excavated in Luzerne County.

Rock vs. Pure Anthracite

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Anthracite is commonly referred to as “hard coal” because of its solid nature, which makes breaking down the substance an arduous task. Unlike other types of coal, it burns slowly and cleanly with little smoke, and its composition is nearly pure carbon. Anthracite is dark black with a submetallic sheen, which can make it appear differently from bituminous coal that appears black but also dark brown in color. Bituminous coal is also less pure than anthracite. Besides being burned for heat in U.S. homes in the nineteenth century, anthracite also helped drive the Industrial Revolution as it was used to fuel iron production. Anthracite is common in northeast Pennsylvanian, aptly named “the anthracite” or “the coal” region.

Related Topics




Related Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. “Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.” The Business History Review 46, no. 2 (July 1, 1972): 141–81.

Davies, Edward. Anthracite Aristocracy: Leadership and Social Change in the Hard Coal Regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1800-1930. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press,    1985.

Dublin, Thomas, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Eavenson, Howard N. The First Century and a Quarter of American Coal Industry. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Waverly Press, 1942.

Jones, Christopher F. Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Miller, Donald L. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985

Schaefer, Donald Fred. “A Quantitative Description and Analysis of the Growth of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry, 1820 to 1865.” Ph.D. Diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1967.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860. M E Sharpe Inc., 1977.

Yearley, Clifton K. Enterprise and Anthracite: Economics and Democracy in Schuylkill County, 1820-1875. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Ser.79. No.1. Johns Hopkins Press, 1961

Courtney Abrams, “America’s Biggest Polluters: Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Power Plants in 2007.” Environment America Research & Policy Center, November 2009.

Related Collections

Related Places



Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy