Friday, September 5, 2014

Wow! The Lonaconing Journal! Who knew?

Mom and I had talked about the "Lonaconing Journals" a couple of times and we even thumbed through her copy on one trip back east from here in San Diego where I live to the little mountain town of Frostburg in Western Maryland where our ancestor lived and Mom still lives. One of the great sagas of our family that carried through the generation of the 1800s and into the 1900s is that of the coal miner. Mining was the occupation put on many a census for the men of the family from that first wonderfully descriptive census in 1850 down to about 1940. That's over 100 years of the hard, crippling and low paid work of mining.

"The Lonaconing Journals" is by a woman who really knows her way around the coal mines of Allegany County Maryland, and that's Katherine A. Harvey. The proper and full title of this work is "The Lonaconing Journals: The funding of a coal and iron community, 1837 - 1840". Published in 1977 by The American Philosophical Society, it was I've been told, a master's degree thesis. This work along with Ms. Harvey's PhD dissertation, "Best-dressed Miners: Life and labour in the Maryland coal region, 1835 - 1920", Cornell University Press, 1970, is all you'd ever need when trying to imagine your coal miner ancestors, especially if the come from Western Maryland. Of all that I've ever read about coal mining and coal miner's families in the area, these two are the very best!

Here's how Harvey describes the facts of the Lonaconing Journals:
The Lonaconing journals, kept by the super-intendents of the George's Creek Coal and Iron Company, cover the period 1837-1840. Their setting is the recent Appalachian frontier, and their subject is the building of an experimental iron furnace and the development of its adjacent company town in western Maryland. The principal figure in these activities was John Henry Alexander (1812-1867), topographical engineer for the state of Maryland, professor of mining and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the founders of the National Academy of Science, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and author and editor of works on many topics.
Harvey states on this same page, page one, that the Journal chronicling the earliest days of the company miraculously survived all moves and destructions of other company documents, files, and papers! It is a window into a point in local history not otherwise available.

It paints the picture of an area in the first days of a boom time. The lives of the miners here - mostly immigrants from Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland with a few from Germany - were better than miners elsewhere and they were more prosperous too. When they moved into the area back then, miners brought the entire family and the area had as a result a much more stable population, unlike other mining town where the miners were almost always single men. This was a relatively peaceful and prosperous mining community.

Don't want to paint too idyllic a picture of it all. There were wage disputes, attempts at unionizing that met with management's resistance and dirty dealing, and awful strikes. The ill or injured miners and their families were sometimes summarily evicted from their cottages because they could no longer work. It was a hard life by today's standards but a pretty good deal for the miners of the day and much better than they were going to get in Pennsylvania to the north and West Virginia to the south.

Mom's ancestors along her father's line, the Williams family,  were almost exclusively coal miners in the George's Creek Mine Field in Allegany County, Maryland until the 1920s. The Williams family's patriarch, Daniel, came from Wales from a line of coal miners, and all worked in the Western Maryland mines from about 1841 to the time of the Roaring Twenties. Mom's father, Camey or more formally Cambria and given the very traditional name for Wales, was brought to the mines to work at a young age. His father, Daniel Williams, immigrated to work there and became a supervisor. He eventually got the fever of owning a mine during the boom times of WWI and purchased one in Mt. Savage near his home place in Ocean, Maryland where he worked for the Consolidation Coal Company. He then bought another mine over in West Virginia. The West Virginia mine, as best Mom and Aunt Betty can figure out, was rich in tin. After he passed it was eventually lost for unpaid taxes. The Mt. Savage mine property is still in the hands of one of Daniel's descendants.

Daniel and his progeny weren't the only miners who came from Wales on Mom's side. The most famous is Benjamin Thomas and his family. Below is the ships' passenger list for the Barque Tiberius where his family is listed. You can see that Benjamin and four of his sons are listed as "colliers" or coal miners.  My great great grandmother, Diana, is just 6 years old!


 Benjamin Thomas and family were recruited in Wales by the Consolidation Coal Company and as such their passage was paid for by the Company and they arrived at the Port of Baltimore in July of 1837. The Company had been busy with their engineers and workers building out the mine and iron works. All was ready for the miners to get to work making a profit, and they did in the fall of that year. And their plans were BIG! Once the whole operation got going, there were was a superintendent, four managers, numerous clerks, and 400 mine workers working under them. Periodically the Journals noted that a couple more families from the Tiberius had arrived, found lodging and were ready to work.

The passages included in Harvey's book are excerpts from the complete set of Journals. She admits to leaving out much of the technical details. Included are some passages from the actual journals kept by John H. Alexander from 1837 to 1840 with a lot of technical description about how the furnace was built as well as some of the more innovational aspects of the entire projects. But the day-to-day stuff about the miners is the real fascinating material.

A post office is established. Local clay gets turned into bricks and those bricks get put to work on many projects and were even used as floors in the dirt floor "shantees" or very modest cottages purchased from farmers nearby. Blacksmiths were hired. Blacksmiths up and quit, likely hired away by mines in neighboring states. Boarding houses popped up for the few single men but mostly housed families until they could find a proper house or cottage. Roads got built, men were injured.

The activity continued at a fast pace until the usual harsh Western Maryland winters gave the whole project a reason to slow down.
February 21.-Mercury stands at -1 at 7 A.M. The mornings have been so cold for several days past that the stonecutters at the hearth could only work in the afternoons.
February 22.-Thermometer at 7 A.M. stands at --9.
It is so cold that a number of hands could not work out of doors. Carpenters again stopped working at the molding house in consequence of the severe cold.

Some newly hired workers just don't work out.
February 23.-John Thomas, who has been here since October last and was intended for a furnace keeper, will persist in getting drunk and has been discharged.
I have no idea if this John Thomas was the son of our Benjamin Thomas, listed on the Tiberius manifest above.

And more accidents happen. Snow comes in March and again in April finally making a last appearance in May. Talk about harsh weather!

In Volume 2 of the Journals, the details of the lives of the miners working for The Consolidation Coal Company were recorded. This is the very best description of the terms of employment and daily life under the Company I've ever had the great pleasure to read!  Rules like no dogs being kept in the heart of the winter without the specific approval of the superintendent are noted and a directive that  houses must be kept clean and tidy, making a pleasant appearance. It was set out in writing that the miners must work from sunrise to sunset all days of the year except Christmas and Sundays. And most importantly, no distilled spirits and no drunkenness. Ever. At all. And if the rule was violated, people were fired.

On page 46 I read this.
February 19.-The night passes off quietly. The revelers at Buskirk's pass the sentinels by keeping high up the hill. Benjamin Thomas, miner, and wife stopped by sentinels in a state of intoxication.
WOW! That's our Benjamin Thomas! He and Hanna (Evans) his wife were drunk. Now that's well worth knowing! So the story is that they and others would scamper up the hillside and move as quietly as possible through the woods to get to the home of the Buskirk's where liquor was served. Everyone knew about it and most found their way, often on a Saturday night. And of course the mining company knew. It was no problem at all for them to wait in hiding for intoxicated miners and their wives as they loudly stumbled home.

It always amazes me how such juicy details are hidden and waiting for us to find them, deep in an obscure record. If Mom hadn't been so curious about the life and times of her ancestors she might have skipped the "Lonaconing Journals" in search of some index or listing with less of a beating heart. But she didn't. She found it in a local library and copied out the pages. Her notes from this time when she first read the Journals are a treasure to me. It's like she's right here with me, and we're finding it all over again!

Daniel Williams (1852-1920).


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