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Exploring History: Youghiogheny River Valley, coke industry intertwined

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

During the decades following the Civil War, a long-standing occupation within western Pennsylvania suddenly became outdated.

For centuries brawny workmen, known as puddlers, had played a vital role in iron industrial operations, by manually stirring out ore impurities, namely sulphur and phosphorous, within a large vat of boiling water.

With the use of oxidating substances, puddling was the process by which pig iron was converted into wrought iron. Not surprisingly, a puddler's work was quite labor intensive, as well as time consuming.

By 1868, though, some enterprising operators along the Youghiogheny River were implementing a new industrial process that ultimately forced many puddlers into unemployment.

The Youghiogheny River Valley lay adjacent to a deep underground trough of a rich bituminous (soft) coal deposit running throughout the region.

Consequently, numerous coal companies had established slope mining operations all along the Youghiogheny. A pair of entrepreneurs, Abraham Tinstmam and Colonel A. S. M. Morgan, had formed the firm of Morgan & Company in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.

Being coal mine owners they were eager to utilize their commodity to create a revolutionary new substance that some commentators were calling “coke.” This sobriquet was derived from the contraction of two words, coal and cake.

In essence, they had begun utilizing the “beehive process” which produced coke, a pure form of carbon possessing a smokeless, intense heat.

The process received that name because the coal was converted into coke within large brick ovens, shaped like beehives. Initially, coal was deposited into the “beehives” by lorries (cars) running along a track above a rove of them.

The coal subsequently was dropped through an opening in front of each oven. Once the coal was inside, therefore, the openings were sealed in with bricks. Accordingly, the coal was cooked into coke for about 48 hours.

During this period all of the impurities, namely sulphur and phosphorous, were burned off. Upon being pulled from the oven this pure substance was watered down, as well as broken into small gray cakes.

The coke eventually was shipped northward by either river barge or railway to those Pittsburgh industrial mills converting iron into basic steel.

By 1872, Morgan & Company had constructed 111 beehive ovens along the Youghiogheny in the vicinity of Connellsville. Because the river often experienced low water levels, incapable of floating barges, the partners preferred shipping coke by the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad.

Moreover, they constructed similar beehive works further upriver. Throughout the 1870s they operated such ovens along the Youghiogheny, including one at Douglass Station in Elizabeth Township. Their coal was obtained from the various mines operating locally.

Unfortunately, though, the “Long Depression” of the 1870s severely affected the solvency of Morgan & Company. By October 1875, a rising local entrepreneur, Henry Clay Frick, had acquired controlling interest in the company.

Frick already had opened his own coke works, consisting of 50 beehive ovens, upon 123 acres of land at Broadford, in June 1872.

He was able to expand the coke production facilities through the generous financial backing of Judge Thomas Mellon, a leading Pittsburgh banker.

He continued to operate those beehive ovens in Elizabeth Township as well. Frick purchased a local railroad spur line which soon was connected to the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad.

Frick and Mellon subsequently helped arrange for the Baltimore & Ohio Railway Company to acquire that existing line. Meanwhile, the H.C. Frick Coke Company was operating 44,000 beehive ovens, especially in Westmoreland and Fayette counties. Various commentators began referring to the entire territory as the “Connellsville Coke Region.”

Not surprisingly, Frick invariably became associated closely with Andrew Carnegie, the leading Pittsburgh steel magnate. In fact, Frick's coke enterprise became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Carnegie Steel Company.

By 1894, Frick was the sole coke supplier to Carnegie's various mills which dominated the Monongahela Valley. At that point, the two men had resolved that Frick's coke operations should be located upon the Monongahela River nearer to Pittsburgh.

While pursuing this plan, Frick became aware of a sizeable land tract within Mifflin Township, across the river from the borough of Elizabeth. Initially, Allegheny County officials had been planning to purchase 256 acres from a local real estate broker.

They were attempting to place the Allegheny Almshouse upon that landholding. But that project had been aborted by 1895. Interestingly, the almshouse originally was to have been built on the Monongahela river near the borough of Munhall.

But Andrew Carnegie had purchased the site to erect his Homestead Steel Works. Meanwhile, Frick had begun purchasing real property without much public notice.

Two miles above this tract, Crucible Steel Company had been planning to construct a steel mill at West Elizabeth. Frick used his considerable fiscal resources, however, to incorporate that plan within his ongoing project.

Most of the bottom land along that stretch of the Monongahela belong to J. Patterson Wylie, a prominent local farmer.

His family had owned that real estate for several generations. After purchasing Patterson's extensive landholding, Frick began buying up the adjoining lands owned by the Large family.

Many residents were not happy to discover that Frick had bought various apple orchards sitting upon the hill above the Wylie farmlands.

Furthermore, he was going to build his mill directly upon a popular riverside picnic area, Union Grove. Accordingly, that portion of the Monongahela Valley would be losing its pastoral atmosphere.

The name of Frick's new industrial plant would be the St. Clair Steel Company. Apparently, this name was selected in honor of Samuel St. Clair, the original owner of the lands where the mill was to be built.

Samuel St. Clair had owned most of that area when Allegheny County had been established in 1788. Initially, the mill only was to include open-hearth steel furnaces.

By 1901, though, Frick had resolved to erect three blast furnaces as well. Moreover, the St. Clair Terminal Railroad Company constructed a track network within the mill yard which was to connect with the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad.

And a trestle was constructed across the Monongahela to make a connection with the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad running along the opposite bank. Upon building a large loading dock for incoming coal barges, Frick began implementing his plan for a coke-making plant.

As this large coke works began operations, the beehive ovens around Connellsville were abandoned.

Meanwhile, Frick also created the St. Clair Improvement Company, which was established to build a model town for the mill employees and their families. This new entity was named Clairton and stood upon the hillsides above the works.

Accordingly, Clairton is the sole town in the Monongahela Valley which does not occupy any land directly along the river. By 1905, borough incorporation was granted to Clairton as the population increased with the plant's steady expansion.

During the next two decades this growing municipality annexed the neighboring villages of Blair, Wilson, Coal Valley, and Pine Run. These villages had been in existence long before Frick had contemplated his industrial project. By 1930, Clairton was among Allegheny County's four incorporated cities.

As Frick was planning his model town, the expanding industrial plant was coming under new ownership. For approximately two years, the powerful New York banker, John Pierpont Morgan, had been negotiating with Andrew Carnegie to purchase his massive steel conglomerate.

A master of “finance capitalism,” Morgan was in the process of consolidating the steel industry throughout North America. He was seeking to end the endless, wasteful competition between the respective major steel corporations.

Upon acquiring Carnegie Steel Company and all its holdings for $480 million, in February 1901, Morgan had accomplished this goal.

Being a Carnegie subsidiary, H. C. Frick Coke Company was included within this transaction. Consequently, the new plant became a part of United States Steel Corporation, as well as gained the permanent name of Clairton Coke Works. For much of the 20th Century, 13 percent of the coke produced globally originated within this complex.

Unfortunately, though, during the last two decades of the previous century Clairton Coke Works underwent a substantial reduction in production capacity.

And the inevitable cutback in the work force certainly had a negative affect upon the local economy.

But Clairton Coke Works remains among the few U.S. Steel mills operational in the Monongahela Valley.

Anyone traveling along the river still is able routinely to observe tow boats pushing loaded coal barges into the landing beside the mill.

In any case, the multitude of abandoned beehive ovens within the “Connellsville Coke Region” fell into ruin. This writer, however, recently observed a row of these ovens, enveloped with vegetation, not far from Scottdale, Pennsylvania.

The old ovens in Elizabeth Township were demolished about six decades ago. Those structures located upon the Youghiogheny had become a hazardous playground for local children.

The myriad of cyclists and hikers passing along the adjoining Youghiogheny River Trail have no idea that a successful coke making operation even existed nearby.

At this point, the natural beauty of that trail certainly is a world away from the plumes of industrial smoke issuing forth from the Clairton Coke Works smokestacks. Yet a definite connection does exist between these two diverse locales.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The authors holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.

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