Quotable Pennsylvania: Coal and Oil

When you visit the capitol building in Harrisburg, PA its hard to miss the massive murals under under its dome. Two of them, painted by Edward Austin Abbey, depict the coal and oil industries and show just how important these resources have been in the state’s history. 

For centuries, Pennsylvanians have been extracting coal and oil from its earth, fueling the growth of industry, powering huge transportation systems, and generating massive wealth (though it was never distributed very fairly…) both in the state and around the world. 

Pennsylvania coal was recorded as early as the 17th century in reports to William Penn about the land’s resources. Pennsylvanians began mining the state’s bituminous coal near Mount Washington in the 1760s, and just a few decades later mining began in the anthracite fields around the Little Schuylkill River. As mining expanded and intensified across the state, thousands of Pennsylvanians produced millions of tons of coal were mined annually. Mining was incredibly dangerous- over 18,000 miners died in accidents between 1877 and 1940 alone. Pennsylvania coal miners also were at the forefront of union activity at this time and fought relentlessly to organize their workforce.

The oil industry began in Pennsylvania later, when Edwin Drake and his men built the first oil well near Titusville in 1859. Northwest Pennsylvania soon became a site of feverish speculation and activity- wildcat wells and boom towns sprang up and dissipated just as quickly. Pennsylvania’s oil boom lasted until the late 19th century, though the techniques and corporations learned in its oilfields persist in other parts of the United States still. 

The best way to learn about Pennsylvania’s coal and oil history is to see it for yourself! The Pennsylvania State Archives has a massive collection of coal industry records available for study. The commission also operates the Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville and Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton where you can see the places and artifacts central to these industries up close!

Recommended listening: “Coal City Blues” by The Menzingers, and “Oil on the Brain” by The Venango Brigade (original sheet music and lyrics here).

Rouseville Burning Well
“Burning Oil Well at Night, Near Rouseville Pennsylvania,” James Hamilton, c. 1861, Smithsonian.

“In Endlington, Pennsylvania, where I was born, we didn’t know there was anything but oil- oil and gas. We smelled it all the time, had rigs all around our house, used crude for syrup on our pancakes, and had so darned much in us we had a good grade of wax-free oil for blood. There wasn’t anything but oil to think about or work in. Maybe that’s why I been following it all my life.”

-Jack Hartley (fictitious name), c. 1940
“First Person America,” by Ann Banks, page 85

Coalminers at Rest
“Coalminers at Rest,” Unidentified Artist, undated, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

“I believe that the Government of the United States should at once possess itself of the entire anthracite field of Pennsylvania and retain it for purposes of national defense.”

-Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans, Commander in Chief of the North Atlantic Fleet, 1907
“Reserve our Anthracite for our Navy” in the North American Review, 1907, page 246

Dox Thrash oil barrel
“Figure With Oil Barrels,” Dox Thrash, undated, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

“These flats for miles are covered with black derricks, some silent, and some bearing the unceasing pump, which, which a stead “clip, clip” raises the odorous oily wealth from the secreta caverns below. The whole aspect is as unattractive as any one with a prejudice for cleanliness, a nose for sweet smells, and a taste for the green of country landscapes can well imagine. Every thing you see is black. The soil is black, being saturated with waste petroleum. The engine-houses, pumps, and tanks are black, with the smoke and soot of the coal-fires which raise the steam to drive the wells. The shanties- for there is scarcely a house in the whole seven miles of oil territory along the creek- are black. The men that work along the barrels, machinery, tanks, and teams are white men blackened…Through all this dismal scenery horsemen were riding hither and thither, generally alone, though occasionally in small groups…Even the trees, which timidly clung to the sides of the bluffs, wore the universal sooty covering. Their very leaves were black. Only up toward the sky under the clods, away along the tops of rocks, could the verdure of nature be seen. All below was in somber clothing, except the sparkling creek, which rattled along its shallow bed.

-B. Franklin, 1864
Harper’s Monthly, volume 30, page 59

PA Breaker House
“Breaker House, Pennsylvania,” Anderson Scott, 1990, Smithsonian

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