History enthusiasts celebrate coal in Alburtis
Recently, two important historical events were celebrated by the Alburtis Historical Society and the Lower Macungie Historical Society at Alburtis Lock Ridge Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Members of the societies observed the 150th anniversary of the first blowing of Lock Ridge Furnace #7 March 18, 1868, and the 250th anniversary of anthracite in Pennsylvania March 18, 1768. Approximately 35 people attended, including Sarajane Williams, president of the Lower Macungie Historical Society who said Scott Herring, known as “the last anthracite photographer,” was instrumental in helping to pull the event together.
During the birth of the American industrial revolution in northeast Pennsylvania, making pig iron greatly contributed to Lehigh County’s prominence. The first blowing of Lock Ridge Furnace No. 7 led to the birth of Alburtis as a thriving community. This would not have been possible without the use of anthracite.
At the celebration, Kevin Shoemaker, president of Alburtis Lock Ridge Historical Society, offered an extensive PowerPoint presentation of the history of Lock Ridge Furnace including when and where the first anthracite coal burning furnace making iron in the nation began operating in Pennsylvania.
Shoemaker’s presentation took attendees back to 1821 when Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, founders of Lehigh Navigation Co. and Lehigh Coal Co., merged their companies becoming the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co., or the L.C. & N. They also came up with the idea of making a canal on the Lehigh River so they could transport anthracite to the Lehigh Valley.
To attract businesses, water power was offered to anyone who would spend $30,000 to build an iron furnace powered by anthracite. No one accepted their offer because the iron furnaces operating then used only charcoal. Charcoal furnaces needed an acre of clear cut woodland to produce three tons of pig iron. Not easily discouraged, White and Hazard tried something else, Shoemaker said.
In 1838, Hazard went to Wales to meet with George Crane who had patented the process of using a hot blast of air from burning anthracite coal to smelt iron ore and this was exactly how White and Hazard wanted to make pig iron. Following their meeting Crane agreed to Hazard’s requests and Crane even recommended his superintendent David Thomas, return to the states with Hazard to replicate his patented process. Thomas agreed to work with Hazard to duplicate Crane’s smelting process and he and his family moved to the United States.
In 1840, according to Shoemaker, the Lehigh Crane Iron Co., the first anthracite iron furnace in the nation, started operating in Catasauqua. By 1854 David Thomas had resigned and struck out on his own, building a furnace in Hokendauqua, the Thomas Iron Co. and his son Samuel joined the business.
By this time, the Lehigh Valley Railroad opened and was more efficient in transporting the coal so Thomas Iron Co. and Crane Iron Co. built the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad to transport ore to western Lehigh County and their furnaces in Catasauqua and Hokendauqua. The line connected with the East Pennsylvania Railroad and extended business operations south to Alburtis by 1860.
A group of investors, thinking Alburtis was a good place for a new furnace, bought 88 acres and 101 perches southeast of the railroad intersection for $10,635.75, Shoemaker said. They sold the land for $11,700 March 4, 1867 to Lock Ridge Iron Company. The company built the first of two furnaces.
Furnace number one started operating on March 18, 1868 when the first hot blast from burning anthracite coal was blown. Number two furnace was blown July 9, 1868. In 1869, it was sold to the Thomas Iron Co. and the furnace numbers were changed to furnace number seven and number eight. It took 85 to 90 men to keep both furnaces running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year working 12-hour shifts.
Alburtis Borough grew and thrived, Shoemaker said. By 1913, in addition to the iron furnace operation, there were hotels, a post office, two churches, a railway depot, schools, several general and specialty stores, several craftsmen’s shops, two silk mills and shirt factories. The residents of Alburtis were employed and supporting themselves and the local businesses.
Many immigrants were drawn to the area and in 1870 immigrants from Germany and the British Isle of Ireland made up 50 percent of the population in Alburtis. However, they all didn’t settle in Alburtis permanently and most of them moved on to larger industrial communities, Shoemaker said.
There also were anthracite burning furnaces in Macungie, Topton, Emmaus and other locations throughout Pennsylvania making this region the largest pig iron producer until the end of the 1800s.
Herring, of Hellertown, also known as “chairman of the anthracite 250th anniversary” spoke about the history of anthracite, not only in Pennsylvania but all over the United States. He spoke about the railroads and how everything is connected to anthracite.
A history of anthracite, explained in a handout, said it began in 1768 with Connecticut settlers returning to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. With them was a blacksmith, Obadiah Gore Jr. who was aware of coal outcroppings from his stay six years before. Gore proved by forced draft that anthracite attained very high, even heat and is ideal for industrial and household use.
Herring has been speaking at many historical societies about the anniversary of anthracite. Born into a coal mining family, Herring worked in the mines as soon as he was allowed to as a young man and later took a camera down with him photographing everything he could. His only wish was he would have had a better camera back then. Herring also spoke of mountaintop mining, called strip mining and how trees are planted when the mining is finished to restore the land back to nature.
According to Glen Alden Corp in Wilkes-Barre, “Blue Coal” is an anthracite, a particularly high-grade anthracite which has been trademarked with harmless blue color to distinguish it from ordinary coal. Anthracite, can also be green, gold and purple.