History of Westmoreland County
Volume 1
Chapter 32
The Coke Industry

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The manufacture and sale of coke has given Westmoreland and Fayette counties a name throughout America. It is such an important product in our county that it is quite proper that we should look somewhat into its origin and into the growth of the industry.

It is probable that F. H. Oliphant was the first in this country who manufactured it, though in small quantities, and used it in smelting iron at his furnace in Fayette county. This was in 1835. In 1841 William Turner, Sr., Provance McCormick and James Campbell contracted with John Taylor, a stone mason, to put up two ovens for the purpose of manufacturing coke. These were built on his own land on the banks of the Youghiogheny river, a few miles below Connellsville. The ovens were very small, only made to hold between sixty and seventy bushels of coal. Several experiments made with them during the summer resulted unsatisfactorily. This was doubtless because they did not understand the business. The want of draft and the small amount of coal which was required to fill the ovens probably prevented favorable results. These obstacles were gradually overcome, and finally, even from these ovens, a fair quality of coke was produced. In the winter of 1842 they loaded a coal boat, ninety feet in length, and when the high waters of spring came they then floated it down the river to Cincinnati in search of a market. The foundries of the city were unwilling to invest in it, though it was carried about in sacks and offered at low prices. , Finally, a manufacturer named Greenwood purchased it at six and one-fourth cents per bushel, paying half in cash and the other half in old mill irons.

In the same year a coal producer named Mordecai Cochran and his nephews began to make coke, and succeeded in selling it, though they did not find a ready market by any means. Richard Brookins next opened a mine near by, and erected five new ovens in which he began to make coke. He had also made coke on the ground after the old style of burning limestone, covering it over with earth so as to exclude the air. In this way he found he could make coke, but with a great waste of coal. In 1844 Colonel A. M. Hill who, like Cochran, afterwards became a prominent coal and coke producer, bought a farm and erected seven ovens, these of a much larger size than the former ones, holding about one hundred sixty bushels each. The results were much better.

Coke is produced from soft coal by the simple process of roasting it for a day or two, the air being mostly excluded from it while the burning is going on.

These ovens were wide below and their sides gradually rounded towards the top. They somewhat resembled an old-fashioned bee-hive such as our ancestors made of twisted straw, and from this fact were called bee-hive ovens, a name by which they have since been designated, though they no longer have an oval shape on the outside. When the coal has been sufficiently roasted to make coke, a stream of water is applied to the burning mass within the oven, and the contents, when cooled, is drawn out and is the coke of commerce. These old ovens have long since been torn down; the mortar of their joints has crumbled and mingled again with the earth, but the fires lighted then in them with a spark from the blacksmith's forge, burns now in thousands and thousands of ovens, has multiplied millions of capital and supports one of the chief industries of the state.

The Connellsville Coke Region is the name generally given to a strip of country about forty miles long, and three miles wide, which extends northeast and southwest across Westmoreland county and part of Fayette. The real coke region is much larger than the above limits, though this is the original and evidently the best coking coal bed vet discovered anywhere. The coal of this locality is of a peculiar quality, and is entirely suited to the manufacture of coke. It is soft and porous, yielding easily to the miner's pick.

The coal in the Connellsville Coke Region, particularly the narrow belt outlined above, is remarkably free from sulphur, and is dumped into, the coke ovens as it is dug from the mines. Because of its remarkable freedom from sulphur and other impurities, and of its high percentage of carbon, its hardness and consequent ability to bear heavy burdens of iron in the furnaces, the coke from this coal has been proved by many years of experience to be the best fuel of its kind yet discovered for iron manufacture. It has driven charcoal completely out of the market in smelting iron ore, and is almost without a competitor in the iron industry in America. Coke from our county and from Fayette county is regularly shipped to California, to those who smelt gold and silver ore dug from the Pacific slope.

When taken from the oven it no longer has the form or appearance of coal. It is much harder, has a ringing sound when struck, is of a grayish color, and is full of small cells or cavities. The Connellsville coking coal lies from sixty to one hundred feet under the ground along its longitudinal axis. As it approaches the Chestnut Ridge it bends rapidly and then abruptly to the surface, and crops out along the western slope of the ridge. It is the same vein of coal which in other sections of Pennsylvania is used for fuel in houses and for steam-making machinery. Why this comparatively small basin should be purer and make better coke than other coals in the same locality, scarcely separated from it. is a problem which scientific investigation has not yet solved. Nor can this coal be used at all for smelting iron until it is coked. When put into a furnace, and the necessary limestone and iron ore is put on it, this coal is so, soft that the weight above crushes it down so that it will not burn at all. Moreover, the sulphur in it is sufficient to mix with and damage the iron produced. But, by making it into coke, the sulphur nearly all passes out and the product becomes hard enough to bear the immense weight of the ore and limestone which necessarily must rest on it in the process of smelting. The coke, being full of cavities, gives the air a chance to pass through it, and thus an intensely hot fire can be had by its use. The coke field from which a fairly good quality of coke can be made, and is being made, is much wider than it was supposed to be ten years ago, and future discoveries and experiments may still further extend its limits. At present a large field is being operated in Ligonier Valley, and the coke from it finds a ready market where Connellsville coke has been heretofore used entirely. It is of a high grade.

In 1871, at a point about midway between Larimer Station and Ardara, and about two miles from Irwin, Andrew Carnegie first experimented in making coke from fine coal, or slack, from the bituminous mines near by. At first the mound process, that is, piling the coal in a long mound through which ran a tubular ventilator for the purpose of giving sufficient draft to the fire, was used.. The experiment proved that this slack coal could be used in producing coke,. and accordingly eighty regular coke ovens were constructed, to which were added forty more the following year. With these one hundred and twenty ovens, Mr. Carnegie produced a reasonably good grade of coke, and continued. to operate them until 1900. The demand for slack coal for steam making then became so great that it was no longer profitable to use it in making coke, and these ovens were abandoned. Their crumbling ruins yet remain, and are pointed out as an evidence of \Ir. Carnegie's early business sagacity, and of his connection with the coke industry of our county when the industry was in its infancy.

In some parts of the Connellsville coal basin there are three separate strata of coke-producing coal, and the lower veins are often as much as five hundred feet or more below the surface. In some places the lower veins are over nine feet in thickness, and none of them is anywhere less than six feet.

Water is a great barrier in the mining of this coal. Without the constant use of pumps the mines would soon fill up, for natural drainage at such great depths is out of the question. Constant pumping, day and night, adds greatly to the cost of coke production. And, although water for the purpose of cooling the molten coke at the present time is necessary, and is poured into the ovens in great volumes, the water pumped from the mines cannot be used for this purpose because of the sulphur it contains, and because of its many other impurities. Impurities in the water leave a trace in the coke if poured into the molten oven,. and consequently only the purest water must be used. This is furnished by a s -stem of waterworks, the construction of which alone is often attended with great expense. It requires about twenty-four hours roasting of the coal in the ovens to produce a coke that is suitable for the purpose of smelting iron ore, and about forty-eight hours to make the coke used in foundries. A still higher grade is made which requires sixty or seventy-two hours roasting.

The real wealth of the coal in the Connellsville coke seams is almost beyond comprehension. The region seems small when compared with the acreage of other coal fields.vet the coal in this region knovn by special geological examinations, assures us beyond doubt that at the present output the field cannot be exhausted by the present generation. Producers claim that an acre of coal will produce about five thousand tons of coke. There are in the Connellsville region about one hundred and thirty square miles of coking coal, or about eighty-six thousand acres, capable of producing over four hundred millions of tons. The output for 1904 was 12,427,488 tons, and at this rate it would require over thirty years to exhaust the region. Yet this calculation includes only one stratum of coal, whereas there are, in much of this region, three separate veins, the lower ones, moreover, being much thicker than the upper one upon which this calculation is based. It will be remembered, however, the Connellsville coke field is no longer confined to the narrow region originally designated by that name. Good coking coal is now found in West Virginia.

In most of the mines the mining is done by improved electric machinery, which is also the motive power used in pumping water and air, and in drawing the coal and hoisting it to the surface. There are certain ramifications in almost every mine, however, which cannot well be reached by electric appliances, and in these the hauling is done by mules and donkeys, after the manner of the old-time mining.

The development of the coke industry was very meager at first, and has acquired nearly all of its commercial importance since 1870. Comparatively few ovens had been built before that time, but in that and the year following they multiplied rapidly. The financial difficulties of 18i3 had a very depressing effect on the iron industry, and but little was done in the coke business for several years. When the more prosperous years of 1878 and 18i9 came, new evens sprung up all over the region, and coke for a short time sold at as much as five dollars per ton, and some sales were made at a still higher figure. It may be safely said, however, that the coke industry was permanently established by i88o, at which time our state produced 84 2-10 per centum of all the coke produced in the United States. Over fifty per centum of this coke was produced in the counties of Westmoreland and Fayette. The United States census of 1900 gives the total valuation of all coke produced in the United States as $35,885.000, of which the Connellsville district is credited with $17,128.112. It also shows that in that year Pennsylvania had eighty-nine coke establishments, employing 9.283 men, and that the value of the product was $22,282.558. The census of 1890 showed that our state had 5.855 wage earners employed in the coke industry, and that the value of the product was $x0,415.628, which shows an increase of 113 9-10 per centum in ten years. In 1899 the average number of carloads of coke shipped from the Connellsville district was 1.676 per day, and it must have been greater each year since, as the subjoined table will show.

The price of coke per ton has fluctuated greatly in the last twenty years. In 1901it was sold as high as $6.00 per ton, and as low as $1.50 per ton. The average price and gross revenue of the Coke Region, from 1880 to 1905 inclusive, is shown in the following tabulated statement taken from the Connellsville Courier, the highest recognized authority on the Coke Industry in the United States. It shows the total number of ovens at the close of each year and the annual output.


Source: Page(s) 468-470, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)

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