Schuylkill County's history is closely tied to the story of Anthracite coal mining, and that history mirrored the growth of America for more than two centuries. In the 1800's, many of our communities helped fuel the nation's Industrial Revolution through our Anthracite coal mining industry. But, Schuylkill County's heritage is not solely rooted in the coal mining story.
The Delaware Indians were the original settlers in the area of the river they call the Ganshohawanee, meaning "rushing and roaring waters." Dutch explorers later called this river "Schulen-kill" (meaning "hidden river") or, as it is pronounced today, Schuylkill ("school kill").
The first European settlers came here from south of the Blue Mountains before 1750, bringing the population to nearly 500. The population slowly grew to about 6,000, consisting mostly of German-speaking people, when the county was officially formed on March 1st, 1811 out of parts of Northampton and Berks counties. Parts of Columbia and Luzerne counties were added in 1818.
Much of Schuylkill County's heritage is rooted from in the Anthracite mining industry. The early mapmaker William Scull and explorer Necho Allen discovered Anthracite here in 1770 and 1790 respectively. However, the potential benefits of Anthracite Coal weren't recognized until 1824 when Colonel George Shoemaker succeeded in selling a few loads of coal to the owners of a rolling mill in Delaware County.
The Schuylkill Canal helped expand commerce between the region and Philadelphia when the 108-mile waterway, which featured a series of locks and dams, was completed in 1828. The river became the cheapest and most efficient transportation for commerce. In the Pine Grove area, the Union Canal helped facilitate commerce between the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers. These transportation improvements aided in the growth of coal mining and other industries between Schuylkill County and major markets such as Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore.
The sounds of steel wheels on railroad tracks came to Schuylkill County in 1833 as the first locomotive ran a load of Anthracite from Tamaqua to the canal at Port Clinton. By 1842, railroad tracks were crossing the region. Coal shipments from the region soared and by 1844, the railroads eclipsed the canal in terms of coal tonnage shipped from the region. Passenger service followed soon thereafter, with trains running daily from Pottsville to Tamaqua to Philadelphia.
By the mid-1880s, railroads had replaced canals as the chief form of transportation in the county. The increased demand for labor in the coal mines, iron foundries, canal barges and railroads brought a flow of immigrants from Wales, England, Ireland, and Germany in the first half of the 19th Century.
As we approached the dawn of the 20th Century, the scope of European immigration shifted to Eastern and Southern Europe as thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Serbs, and Italians came to Schuylkill County. By 1900, this new immigration swelled the population to over 200,000. The Anthracite industry fueled the county's own industrial revolution. As the demand for mining equipment and machinery grew, the county's economy evolved into a diversified base that included powder mills, mining equipment, iron manufacturing, and boat building. Tanneries, sawmills, slaughter houses, distilleries and breweries dotted the landscape as Schuylkill County's economy grew more diversified. Textile manufacturing evolved as a major industry in the county near the beginning of the 20th Century. As the century wore on, this industry, which employed significant numbers of women, rivaled the coal mining industry in importance, especially after the end of World War ll.
Poor working conditions in the mines and labor unrest led workers' associations that attempted to improve conditions by bargaining with coal barons for fair wages and benefits. Much of the American labor movement can trace its roots to the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, a forerunner of the United Mine Workers of America under the leadership of John L. Mitchell.
In Schuylkill and surrounding counties, the demands of labor combined with rising tensions between the Irish-American coal mining community and the coal mine owners and operators resulted in almost two decades of terror. The secret society known as the Molly Maguires was blamed for much of the crime in the region. After a Pinkerton Detective Agency operative infiltrated this group, a series of trials led to the hanging of 20 men in four counties. In the Pottsville prison yard, nine men were hanged by the neck until dead, six of them on one day, June 21, 1887. While the Molly Maguire era briefly quieted the demands for labor reform, the United Mine Workers of America rose to prominence by 1902 and wages and working conditions improved.
After World War l, the demand for Anthracite declined. The Great Depression and World War ll helped the local coal mining business, but a major recession in the industry followed as the country moved towards the consumption of fuel and natural gas.
The Anthracite landscape still dominates the scenery in many parts of Schuylkill County. Four billion tons of Anthracite coal reserves remain, but more importantly - a hearty stock of people who take pride in Schuylkill County's role in the industrial revolution and are committed to a region an a work ethic that are unmatched anywhere in America.
Schuylkill County's history is not solely a story about coal mining and Molly Maguires. In the fertile agricultural valleys between the Blue Mountain range in the south and the Susquehanna River to the north, generations of farming families have helped feed their neighbors in the mines, on the rails, on the canals, and in the towns between Port Clinton and Zion Grove.
For over two centuries, men and women from across the county served their country in a time of war. Schuylkill County has sent soldiers to fight in all of the major conflicts since the Mexican War. During the Civil War, two companies of Schuylkill County men arrived in Washington DC to help defend the nation's capital. History books now call these men the "First Defenders." Today, the county boasts of a strong patriotic heritage evident at Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day observances.
The history of the region is also recorded through the talents of those who made their mark - not only locally- but nationally as well. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey of Shenandoah and Les Brown of Reinerton became internationally renowned Big Band leaders. Pine Grove's Pulitzer Prize Winning Conrad Richter and Pottsville's John O'Hara made their mark on the literary scene. The Pottsville Maroons, a professional football team, earned the title of NFL World Champions only to have the title taken away after playing a team of college all stars in Philadelphia. Since 1950, Schuylkill County has been dedicated to a total redevelopment of its economic base. Once dominated by Anthracite coal, the county now features a diversified economy that balances heavy manufacturing and service-related businesses. The spirit of the county's populace, coupled with the shared experiences of a rich heritage, marks Schuylkill County as a truly unique community.