History of the Lackawanna Valley

The History of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley

The Lackawanna Valley embodies the American experience. The region’s anthracite coal, railroads, and iron works fueled the nation’s massive industrial expansion. Its industries staged some of the great battles between capitalism and social responsibility. Its people, the thousands of immigrants who came here to build a new life, ended up building a new nation. The Lackawanna Heritage Valley plays a vital role in promoting and preserving the region’s proud heritage and its recognizing important contributions to the history of the United States. We are here to tell the story. To experience the history of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley first hand, please visit Steamtown National Historic Site, the Electric City Trolley Museum, the Everhart Museum, the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Scranton Iron Furnaces Site, the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour, the Lackawanna Historical Society, the Lackawanna County Library System, and the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple.
The Engine of Industry
The story of the Lackawanna Valley is unique and yet distinctly American. It mirrors the rise of the United States to world industrial preeminence during the 19th and early 20th century. It is also a tale rich in humanity, one that reflects the immigrants’ saga. Sparsely settled in 1820, the Lackawanna Valley grew within several short years into one of the great industrial districts on the continent. Pastures gave way to coal mines, homesteads to sprawling mills. Almost overnight it was transformed into a major manufacturing hub.
“Stone” Coal
Millions of years ago, natural forces laid down the rich, black beds of coal and the intervening layers of rock. Over time, these beds folded, eroded and, in a rare twist of fate, thrust near the surface. The vast anthracite coal fields were close enough to the surface to tempt people’s imagination and enterprising spirit.
Native Americans used pulverized anthracite as a color pigment for centuries, and it is likely that they were aware of its flammable nature. In 1758, “stone” coal, as anthracite was known, was floated down the Susquehanna River by birch bark canoe and used at Fort Augusta (modern-day Sunbury) to warm soldiers during the French and Indian War. A hot, clean-burning fuel source, anthracite was put to good use in 1808 when Jesse Fell, a blacksmith, forged a free-standing iron grate to hold chunks of coal over a log fire. People came to see Fell’s simple invention, and from there, an industry was born.
The Anthracite Industry
William and Maurice Wurts, brothers from Philadelphia, heard about the unique properties of anthracite, and they made the difficult journey to northern Pennsylvania. In 1822, they founded a village that they named Carbondale. They sought their fortune by mining and transporting anthracite to Philadelphia and New York City. During this period, they helped form the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (D & H). In nearby Honesdale, history was made in 1829 when the D&H sent America’s first locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, on its inaugural run.
Soon the D & H linked its Lackawanna coal mines to its canal at Honesdale via a gravity railroad. Gravity railroads were designed to transport coal up and over the hills and mountains. Dozens of small interconnected coal cars (empty or full depending on the direction they were going) were linked together, and a stationary steam engine would drawn them up the rise to the engine house via a rope, chain, or cable. Once at the top, they were unhooked and allowed to coast down the slope until they encountered the next hill when the process would begin all over again. Carbondale quickly became a boom town, and it received its city charter only twenty years later.
In or around 1838, an iron-maker named William Henry explored and purchased just over 500 acres in the area along Roaring Brook known as Slocum Hollow (near what is today downtown Scranton). Inventive, but never wealthy, he needed a financial backer to build his iron furnace. Eventually, he interested his son-in-law, Selden Scranton, in the risky venture. By involving the young man, Henry was able to enlist the support of a family who had the knowledge, financial resources, and determination to make the iron furnace a reality.
They Came Here to Build a New Life…
The tale of the Scrantons’ endeavor, Lackawanna Iron & Coal, is one of the greatest success stories in all of American manufacturing. After early failures, brothers George and Selden Scranton, together with their cousin Joseph, persevered and, in a bold move, expanded their little ironworks dramatically. They began rolling railroad rails, T-rails, the first site in America to do so on a large scale.
The Scrantons also employed the new fuel found in abundance in the Lackawanna Valley – hot-burning hard coal. Though not the first to do so, they were among the most successful. So successful, in fact, that by the time of the Civil War, their little company had grown into the second largest iron manufacturing center in America. It employed thousands of people.
As the ironworks expanded, so did the coal industry. The hard coal story is intimately tied to that of the Lackawanna Valley itself. Anthracite was both a catalyst and an engine that drove the region’s economy for decades. Just after the turn of the 20th century, the forty-mile long valley had 110 collieries – large self-contained mining operations, along its length. At the time, half of all working age males in the Valley were employed directly either in mining or processing anthracite. Thousands more worked in the dozens of ancillary industries and businesses that relied on the coal trade.
And Ended up Building a New Nation
But the Lackawanna Valley was more than just coal. Railroading and railroad building, steel manufacturing, food processing, large-scale fabrication, printing, textiles, electric trolleys, and mass education all played a vital role in the region’s growth. Between 1860 and 1910, industrial activity in the Valley expanded dramatically, acting like a huge magnet that drew thousands of new immigrants. Jobs were plentiful and, though austere, life was often better than before. Waves of immigrants came to the Valley, spurred by political turmoil abroad and encouraged by America’s open immigration policy.
By 1900, the Valley was a hub of commerce, manufacturing, and transportation that had attracted a population of over 250,000. Towns sprang up throughout the Valley as immigrants flocked here to seek new jobs, new opportunities, and new lives. Distinct ethnic enclaves quickly formed. The Lackawanna Valley did not evolve into a melting pot. It became a patchwork quilt of languages, ethnic traditions, and cultures…all co-existing in one of the most densely populated places of 19th century America.
The area’s impact on American industry was profound. Scranton has been labeled the industrial center of Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, but history has accorded it the title of the “Anthracite Capital of the World.” It also rightly can be called America’s immigrant destination.
To experience the history of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley first hand, please visit Steamtown National Historic Site, the Electric City Trolley Museum, the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Scranton Iron Furnaces Site, the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour, and the Lackawanna Historical Society.
“We Changed the Course of…”
The Lackawanna Heritage Valley was recognized as a National and State Heritage area because of its significant role in American history. The region was developed by immigrants whose entrepreneurial spirit, innovative imagination, and hard work made advances that have shaped the world we live in today.
Transportation: The first locomotive run in the United States, the Stourbridge Lion, took place in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, on August 8, 1829. While the Lion was removed from service after its first and only run, the ground breaking voyage was considered a triumph in American history. It proved that steam power was a feasible means of transporting goods, and it placed the locomotive at the center of America’s Industrial Revolution. In 1847, the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company successfully developed the very first large production iron Tee-Rails. The new railroad system expanded dramatically throughout the United States because these crucial components were became available. Click here to learn more about steam railroading in America at Steamtown National Historic Site.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad was a secret network of routes used by slaves escaping from southern plantations to freedom in the north. Operating from the early 1800s to 1860, it provided a safe passage for thousands of individuals. Northeastern Pennsylvania was a significant part of the eastern route of the Underground Railroad. Many local citizens supported the Anti-Slavery Movement, and they helped escaping slaves with shelter, transportation, and food. Throughout the region, abolitionists also gave the freedom seekers money, jobs, and a welcome into the community – a place to call home. Click here to learn more at the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies.
American Life: In 1886, the City of Scranton established the first commercially viable electric trolley system in the world. This system was so successful that by 1915 it included hundreds of miles of track and carried over 34 million passengers annually! The electric trolley car had a major impact on American life. Unlike previous methods of transportation, it was convenient, affordable (even to low-paid workers), clean, and relatively fast, and it provided shelter in any kind of weather. Enormously popular, this first method of mass transit allowed area residents mobility previously unknown to most Americans. Click here to learn more at the Electric City Trolley Museum.
Baseball: Christy Mathewson (1880-1925), considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, was born in the small town of Factoryville, just fifteen miles north of Scranton. In an era when baseball was known for hard-living, hard-drinking ball players, Mathewson was a clean and sober role model for a generation of children. He was a national hero, the toast of New York, and an advisor to two U. S. Presidents. He was arguably the most dominating pitcher ever to have played the game. In 1936, he joined Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson as the first class of inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Click here to learn more about Christy Mathewson’s boyhood in Factoryville, Pennsylvania.
The New World: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Her inscription welcomed more than 14 million immigrants to the U.S. between 1890 and 1920. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were symbols of a new life for our courageous ancestors. The American journey for most of these men, women, and children began in the industrial Northeast. For many, their life in the New World began in the coal mines, railroad yards, silk mills, and iron furnaces of the Lackawanna Valley, the manufacturing powerhouse that helped transform the United States into the most powerful industrial nation in the world. Click here to learn more about life in the Lackawanna Valley at the Anthracite Heritage Museum.
Education: Coal mining is hard, dangerous work. In 1891, Thomas J. Foster realized that the miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania would require specialized education if they ever hoped to work their way out of the mines. However, their rigorous schedules made attending traditional classes improbable. Foster decided to bring the classroom directly to them by creating the world’s first distance learning program and establishing the International Correspondence School (ICS). Many of America’s most famous public works, including the Panama Canal, the Coulee and Hoover Dams, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and Pittsburgh’s former Forbes Field, were designed and/or built by ICS alumni.
Medicine: In 1899, after years of caring for mine workers injured on the job at the Jermyn Coal Company, Dr. Matthew J. Shields developed a simple, yet comprehensive method for miners to treat injuries at the scene of the accident until the victim could be transported to the doctor. This system could be administered even by those without any medical background. The first class of mine workers to learn this system began meeting in 1899, and it became known as the First Aid Association of Jermyn.
Dr. Shields wrote a textbook that started with the sentence, “What to do before the arrival of the doctor.” The American Red Cross hired Dr. Shields as a Staff Physician in 1910. He and other physicians toured the United States in railroad cars fitted out as classrooms, teaching first-aid to the public as well as to railroad and mining employees. First-aid contests, with medals to the winning teams, brought a lot of publicity to the program. Dr. Shields’ simple method of medical treatment made the tiny Borough of Jermyn, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Birthplace of First Aid.
Labor Relations: The anthracite industry enjoyed rapid growth in the late 19th century. Working conditions for the miners were harsh and pay was minimal. Led by union president and Scranton resident, John Mitchell, the miners’ union launched the historic Anthracite Strike of 1902 to protest low wages. Mining operations slowed, and the country faced a serious shortage of coal as the weather turned cold. The City of Scranton was under martial law as tempers flared. In the face of public pressure, President Theodore Roosevelt formed the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission to arbitrate the dispute. Federal hearings took place in 1902 at the Lackawanna County Courthouse. This was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government intervened to settle a labor-management dispute. Click here to learn more about Johnny Mitchell and the Anthracite Coal Strike at the Anthracite Heritage Museum.
American City Planning: Considered one of the most important and influential thinkers of the 20th century, Jane Jacobs changed the course of urban planning and affected the way people think about cities. She published the classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” in 1961 to oppose “slum” clearance, highway construction, and other principles of the time.  Born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Scranton Central High School graduate observed first-hand how the coal industry’s demise profoundly impacted the region’s economy, towns, and cities. This experience bred a lifelong fascination with cities and how they function.
After a sojourn in New York City, she and her family settled in Canada to protest the Vietnam War, where she remained until her death in 2006. City planning was her life’s work and passion, and “Death and Life” became a founding text for a new way of seeing cities. The book is essential reading for urban studies courses. For nearly 40 years, Jacobs helped define an increasingly influential view of cities. She challenged the assumptions she believed were damaging modern cities, and she advocated for integrated, manageable communities, for diversity of people, transportation, architecture and commerce, and for self-sustaining local economies. Click here to learn more about Jane Jacobs’ life.