County text and building entries by Robert Janosov, Lawrence M. Newman, and George E. Thomas
The land that is now Schuylkill County was acquired by the Penn family in a 1749 treaty with the Five Nations that expanded the area for settlement past the first tier of mountains between the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. Lancaster County governed most of the new territory until 1752 when Berks and Northumberland Counties were established. Following the onset of the French and Indian War and the massacre of settlers in the northern reaches, Benjamin Franklin, as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, established several defensive forts (all demolished) at various waterways north of the Blue Mountain, among them Forts Lebanon, Franklin, and Henry. The first passable road (roughly PA 61) through the present county was opened in 1770 to link the Berks County seat of Reading to Northumberland County's seat at Sunbury. The 1811 call for creating a new county beyond the Blue Mountain, part of the post-Revolutionary democratizing flux, was met by the formation of Schuylkill County. Named for the river that divides the county and widely perceived as its central economic asset, the county's seat for the first years was in Orwigsburg, in the broad valley just north of the Blue Mountain. German-named townships and villages attest to the county's roots in German Berks County to the south, while names in the northern half of the county reveal Scots and Irish settlers with some New Englanders added to the mix. “New England” is even the name of a village just south of Tamaqua. One oddity in the creation of the county is the northern tab of Union Township that breaks through the mountains into territory which normally would have been incorporated into the next tier of counties.
The principal narrative of the county's development centers around the discovery of anthracite and the resulting boom that lasted more than a century. In Schuylkill County lore, a New England–born hunter named Necho Allen (the namesake of a later hotel; SC5) is credited with the discovery of coal in this area. By 1795, investors had constructed anthracite-fired iron furnaces on the banks of the Schuylkill; in 1806, those furnaces were purchased by John Pott, who platted Pottsville in 1816. As anthracite mines opened throughout the region, Philadelphia's economic interests extended the Schuylkill Canal northward to Port Carbon by 1828 and fixed Schuylkill County in the center of a speculative vortex that linked water sources, canals, and coal. Eli Bowen in his Pictorial Sketchbook of Pennsylvania (1852) compared the coal boom to the gold rush of California:
The coal region, twenty-five years ago, stood in a position equally as tempting to the people of the surrounding States, and especially those of our own, as California recently did, and still does. The rides in the vicinity are magnificent—for while the roads are always in the midst of the wildest and most picturesque mountain scenery, they are also enlivened with the varied scenes of industry and activity peculiar to the region—little mining villages, collier works, saw-mills, extensive forests, rocky promontories—now looking down from the tops of mountains, then from the narrow, deeply shaded valleys looking up; these in continual and varied succession are among the scenes to be enjoyed in a drive, in any direction, in the vicinity of Pottsville.
With the focus of the economy on the transportation of coal, Pottsville, at the principal juncture of the canal and the Schuylkill River, became the county seat. Towns were given names with such suffixes as “furnace” and “port,” or references to miners, coal, or the Irish workers who flooded the region. The hemlock, yellow pine, and oak forests of Broad Mountain were cut to serve mining interests, leaving a post-apocalyptic landscape. Trees have re-covered much of the county, but culm heaps and other detritus of the coal era still speak of the capacity of humans to destructively transform a landscape in pursuit of private wealth.
In The History of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania (1881), P. W. Sheafer, who styled himself a “Geologist and Mining Engineer,” described the special character of the regional economy:
In Schuylkill county we are specialists. We are dependent upon one substance: coal is king. There is no gold, silver, lead, copper or other valuable metals. Though we have good iron ores, they are so disseminated as not to furnish us one workable bed. Yet we largely help Pennsylvania to furnish nearly half the iron manufactured in the United States. We have a large farming area well cultivated by our industrious and frugal German farmers. Our convenient location to the great markets of the Atlantic seaboard, our canals and abundant railroad facilities, our great commodity, always give a promise and an attitude among the great counties of our grand old commonwealth, which we are ever proud to realize.
Post–Civil War railroad maps testify to the dense web of tracks in the northeast corner of the county where beds of anthracite coal lay underground as deep as forty feet. Unfortunately for the region, its principal railroad was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad whose fortunes were more closely tied to the boom and bust cycle of the American economy than the more steady development of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The heady mixture of coal, railroads, and immigration fueled a boom that is easily read in the county's architecture. The industrial connections are evident in architectural patronage, drawing first on Philadelphia designers and later from such neighboring cities as Reading. Designers came from the architectural generation on either side of the Civil War, beginning with John Haviland's adventurous use of cast-iron plates in the shape of ashlar masonry for the facade of the Miners’ Bank on Pottsville's Centre Street (1830, demolished) and continuing through Frank Furness and the architects of the industrial age who came with the Reading Railroad. The region seemed poised to overcome the destructive consequences as one of the centers of the 1870s when trials and executions of the Molly Maguires took place in Pottsville, Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), and Bloomsburg, but in fact coal miners were pushed to ever more desperate situations leading to strikes in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. These events contributed to the decline of the coal industry and heralded the dispirited present.
Though coal remained king into the 1920s, the use of coke rather than anthracite for mass steel production in Pittsburgh and the substitution of fuels other than coal for heating houses in the 1930s brought to an end the great run of heavily loaded trains from Pottsville. As the twenty-first century begins, the interstate highways largely bypass the county, with the diagonal of I-81 only skirting the north edge beyond Broad Mountain and connecting the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton on the north and Harrisburg to the southwest. Schuylkill County has yet to transform its physical resources into twenty-first-century amenities, though new industries using coal debris as energy sources may help clean up the detritus of the coal industry.
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