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Coal, coke histories run deep in Punxsy, surrounding areas

August 3, 2012

All that is left of the coke ovens in Walston is this fenced in area at the playground. At one time Walston had the longest unbroken string of coke ovens in the world. (Photo by Larry McGuire of The Punxsutawney Spirit)

PUNXSUTAWNEY — The coal industry has had its ups and downs over the years, but here in the Punxsutawney area, at one time coal was king.

The history of coal industry in Punxsutawney and western Pennsylvania was the subject of a video presentation followed by a discussion at the Lattimer House hosted Wednesday by the Punxsutawney Area Historical and Genealogical Society.

Shirley Sharpe, Historical Society member, said coal mines originally were like the gold mines out west, where the owner would receive a deed, and the ground and the mineral rites would belong to him.

According to "A Glow in the Sky - 1880-1920,” published by the society, Sharpe said the rise of the coal and the coking industry in the Punxsy area occurred during the 1880s and 1890s.

"The Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company opened the Walston mine in 1882 and the Adrian mine in 1884," Sharpe said, adding that the Walston mines had an average daily production of 3,000 tons of coal per day.

Sharpe said there were two lines of coke ovens — totaling 700 — which produced 50 railroad cars of coke per day.

She said it was during this time that Walston and Adrian grew from nowhere.

"There were 700 ovens in Walston, and Adrian had 440," Sharpe said, adding that changing coal into coke made it easier to ship and fill 100 railroad cars per day.

Southern Jefferson County was becoming known world wide because of its large amount of coke ovens, she said.

Sharpe said Walston had the longest unbroken string of coke ovens in the world.

"There were 432 ovens forming a line 1-1/4 miles in length," Sharpe said.

According to a map of Clayville (West End of Punxsy), there were coke ovens also snaking down Sawmill Run, which was a perfect location for what the industry would need, she said.

Sharpe said before the coke could be produced, the owners needed a way to transport it, which is how the railroad grew throughout the region.

"The Buffalo people were the the first to construct a railroad down here," she said.

Sharpe said there was rapid growth between 1880 and 1900, with Walston growing to 2,000 and Adrian nearing 500 residents.

Strikes, exhaustion of the coal seams and competition from other coke production areas led to the closing of the Walston and Adrian operations, she said.

The last coal mine to open was in 1922 in Kramer.

Sharpe said PRIDE would like to celebrate the industry in this area by moving the old Punxsutawney Furnace and Iron office building — which is currently located behind the Punxy Plaza at 404 West Mahoning St. — and create a Coal Memorial Museum.

She said the group has only one-third of the money needed to move the structure.

"We need more tiles sold to raise the funds to move the building to the location adjacent to the Lattimer House," Sharpe said, adding that no one really knows what the life of a coal miner was like years ago and the museum, once established, will detail just that.

For more information, call the society at 938-2555.

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