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Speaker recalls history of beehive coke ovens in Fayette County

| Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Celeste Van Kirk | Trib Total Media
Mike Mance gives a lecture on the coal and coke era of Southwestern Pennsylvania during an ambassador program at the Connellsville Canteen on Monday, March 16, 2015.

“We have a lot of history back in the country,” said Robert Shandorf, 67, who lives in Connellsville but grew up in Everson. He and others believe that history is being lost.

This week, Shandorf joined a packed house at the Connellsville Canteen listening to Mike Mance, 42, of Delmont speak about the ruins of the beehive coke ovens found all around Fayette County.

“I've been interested in the (coke) ovens all of my life,” Mance said after his presentation. “I really began searching (for them) the last five years.”

Mance has been actively working on his blog on the subject for the past three years: “Old Industry of Southwestern Pennsylvania” at coalandcoke.blogspot.com.

Shandorf said he remembers playing with his friends in the abandoned ovens in the Everson area.

Others in the audience also had stories to tell.

Ginny McDowell, 68, of Connellsville said she remembers her grandfather working in the Moyer coke works along Route 119 near Sheetz in Bullskin. She said he suffered an injury in 1955 when pulling coke from an oven.

“He slipped on the ice,” McDowell said. The tool he was using struck him in the chest. “He was off work for two weeks.”

She said he died from cancer, a disease that doctors blamed on his injury.

Mance reviewed the history of coke production in Southwestern Pennsylvania, starting with the first attempts to make coke from coal in 1841 near Dawson. He showed photos of the many ruins found throughout Fayette County, including some of the earliest along the present CSX tracks between Dawson and Broadford.

According to a website called Old Industry of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Provance McCormick, James Campbell, William Turner and John Taylor built two small ovens on Taylor's land and, by the spring of 1842, had produced enough coke to load two barges, which they sailed down the Youghiogheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati. There, they tried to sell their unknown product but found few buyers.

They got out of the business.

Three brothers, Mordecai, James and Sample Cochran fired the ovens again in late 1842 and made enough for a shipment to the Cincinnati area.

“James Cochran loaded 1,300 bushels on barges and sold it to Miles Greenwood (the foundryman from Dayton) who bought the whole load,” Mance said.

Soon, the production began to grow as those operating furnaces found coke to be far superior to charcoal for iron and later steel production.

James Cochran soon became known as a coal and coke baron, making a fortune. Cochran died in 1894.

His wife, Sarah, had a home built, now called Linden Hall, located near Dawson.

Later, Mance said the coal seams that were closer to the surface in the area around Connellsville were worked out. The coal and coke production then shifted to the region known as the Klondike coal fields, which were found farther west in Greene and Washington counties.

Some of these old beehive ovens are still in fairly good shape, he said. The bricks and stones used to build the furnaces were often crafted by immigrants from Europe. They were made to last.

“Some still look as if someone just flipped off the switch and left,” Mance said.

On one, he found the lorry cars used to drop coal into the ovens still sitting in place. They are rusting away. One he found at the Shoaf Coke Works near Georges tavern, is a builder's plate indicating it was made in 1942 in Connellsville. He explained the beehive ovens were going out of use until the need for coke for steel production increased during World War II.

Mance said some of the ovens served as homes for those displaced by the depression in the 1930s. He said he still found people living in the abandoned structures as he searched the county.

“It's so interesting,” said Susan Lewis of Connellsville. “Coke actually originated here.”

The talk was the third in the Laurel Highlands Ambassador Program being offered every Monday evening in the Connellsville Canteen at 131 W. Crawford Ave. said.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kpolacek@tribweb.com or 724-626-3538.

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