During the late 1800's and early 1900's, the combination of coal, capital, and railways brought a gigantic new industry to Jefferson and Indiana counties. Due to their favorable Northeast location, the product of the area's first coal mines soon poured in a stead stream into markets as far away as New England, the Great Lakes and Canada. In the mining areas, peaceful farms and sawmills were suddenly displaced by tipples, mule barns, and block of identical miners' houses. In some locations, another unfamiliar sight appeared - long rows of meticulously-constructed beehive coke ovens.
The conversion of coal into coke for the smelting of iron was first attempted in England in the 18th century. Before this time, iron-making utilized large quantities of charcoal, produced by burning wood. As forests dwindled dangerously, the substitution of coke for charcoal became common in Great Britain, and later in the United States. Before the advent of large-scale mining in Jefferson and Indiana counties, coke was manufactured by burning coal in heaps on the ground in such a way that only the outer layer burned, leaving the interior of the pile in a carbonized state. In the late 19th century, brick beehive ovens were developed, which allowed more control over the burning process.
As early as Jefferson and Indiana county coal company investors realized the suitability of their product for conversion into coke, a second industry quickly developed. In time, coke production became the principal consumer of coal from several large mines, and beehive coke plants created jobs for hundreds of men. The coking facility in Walston, near Punxsutawney, stood unrivaled as the "king" of Jefferson Country coke producers. The town and plant of Walston, founded in 1883, was named in honor of Walston H. Brown, who was a New York financier of and first president of the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company. The ovens at Walston were built by August Bauldauf, who emigrated from Austria in 1884. When he arrived in America, Bauldauf brought with him the skills of bricklaying and atone work learned through an apprenticeship in his native land. Soon after landing in New York, Bauldauf make his way to the offices of the R&P C&I and was hired to construct the battery of coke ovens at Walston.
John Delaney of Indiana got his start in Reynoldsville area as secretary to Ira Smith, who was associated with the Reynoldsville and Falls Creek railroad and later with R&PC&I. As the Delaney and Bauldauf families were close friends, John knew the contractor quite well. "At first" he says, "people, especially young people, make fun of Augie because he didn't speak English very will. But by the time he retired, he owned several mines in the area, and his home was a showplace. And he wasn't one of those supervisors who sat behind a desk and gave orders. When they say that August Bauldauf built the coke ovens, they mean he actually built them. The ovens were make of brick faced with stone, and Bauldauf worked right beside that men when they laid the brick and cut the stone."
Commercial sales of coke, at $2.00 per wagonload, began at Walston late in 1884. By 1885, the R&PC&I operated 356 ovens at the site and produced a highly saleable grade of coke form coal mined at Walston and at nearby Beechtree. The coking coal was taken from what geologists call the lower Freeport coal bed, which averaged five feet in thickness. The coal contained few impurities or slate partings and required little washing before being loaded into ovens. Walston also had its own deep well for drenching the coke before it was taken out of the ovens. This combination of good coal and pure water make a high grade of coke, which competed successfully for a decade with the coke of the famous Connellsville region.
By July, 1885, 500 men worked at Walston. As the compound expanded, residents of Punxsutawney, while pleased by the presence of a major industry so close to home, also encountered a few problems of adjustment in regards to their new landmark. An 1887 issue of the Balley News reported, "Punxsutawney experienced her first visit from the Walston coke oven smoke last Monday. It hung around the town all day and had a very disagreeable taste." Local pride in the Walston coke plant was justifiable, as by 1867 part of the operation was billed as "the longest string of coke ovens in the world." That year, the Punxsutawney News noted "About one of the grandest sights in this end of Pennsylvania at night is the burning of the dock ovens at Walston. Since the completion and "firing" of the last batch of ovens, the line on the west side is over one mile long - making the longest block of coke ovens in the world! And driving along the road at night, in full view of this serpentine- like line, the spectacle is simply grand. There are other coking districts that have longer l ones of coke ovens that are broken by roads, etc., but Walston leads the world with one solid block and one -quarter miles long."
Walston, make a sharp contrast to the turreted mansion of the same name that overlooked the Hudson River in upper state New York. The housed in the mining community cost $200 each to build and rented for $48 per year. By 1887, Walston housed 1,800 people. Since major portion of that number were newly -arrived immigrants, a great variety of people lived and worked side by side. In the words of a reporter for the New York Coal Trade Journal, "Walston at this time includes all known nationalities except Turks and Indians, and the paymaster and his assistants find use for nine languages. The coke ovens are burning there daily, and their sulphurous smoke blights everything on the mountains or a mile back."
Andrew Mizerack, Ernest, was born on Walston and has many memories of life around the beehive ovens. "My dad came to Walston from Czechoslovakia because he had friends here," Andrew explains. "They wrote to him and told him it was good here, so when he was 25 years old, he dicided to come too. He spent most of his life around ovens. "It was hard work, and especially in the summer, very hot work. Sometimes during July and August my dad would go to the ovens at two in the morning to escape the heat." Andrew, who often helped his father at work, describes the coke process: "A high grade of washed, crushed coal was loaded in special cars, called "larries," which are pulled by small engines called "dinkies". A track ran across the top of the ovens. The larries dropped their load of coal into the ovens through a hole at the top. A worker known as "scraper" leveled off at the top. A worker known as a "scraper" leveled off the coal by reaching in through the door in the front of the oven. He did that so the coke would burn evenly.
"The coal was loaded, or "charged", into an oven that was between two hot ovens, so that the newly-charged oven could light itself by spontaneous combustion. When the coal, still wet from cleaning, was first charged into the oven, it would begin to steam. Next, the coke worker would put the damper on at the top, and seal the oven almost all the way up with bricks and mud. Gradually, the escaping smoke would turn blue, then to a thick yellow. About an hour later, the man knew the coal was ready to catch fire. Then it would explode, and you could see the fire spread all over the inside of the oven. When it had settled down, the man would take a tool called a hook, and pull the damper back. "The art of making good coke," Andrew continues, "was a in controlling the damper and the height of the oven door to regulate the burning of the coal inside the oven. Usually in 72 hours, all the impurities were baked out of the coal, and good coke remained. On weekends, though, because we didn't work on Sunday, the coke was left burning 96 hours. To do that, less air was allowed into the oven, so the burning was slower. "To unload, or "pull" the ovens, the brick door was taken down with the hook, and the coke was sprayed with water to stop the baking process. Last, the coke was lifted out with a fork, loaded into wheelbarrows, and dumped into the flatcars."
Andrew Mizerack learned about coke ovens at a very early age. "As a boy, I used to go and help my dad," he recalls. "In those days, coke-pullers were paid by piecework, not by the hour, so that the sooner they could get to go home. The men got around $2.00 an oven, and usually pulled two and one-half ovens per day. That meant that two buddied would pull two ovens each and then together would pull a third oven and get a dollar more each. Often I helped by mixing up the mud they used to brick up the oven doors. "The men enjoyed the piece work because they could do their work early and be finished for the day. My dad thought he had a good job at the coke ovens. He always said that a minor had to worry about natural conditions - weak roof, water, or a bad place - but for he coke workers, it was always the same."
To be closer to his work, Andrew Mizerack Sr. moved his family to the "shanties" near the coke ovens. "There were six families under one roof. They were like chicken cooped," Andrew laughs as he tells the story more than 50 years later. "There were two of those buildings, sort of like apartment house. But, there was no plaster on the walls and you could hear the other people talking all around you. Later, when my dad could get a house, were moved to the main town of Walston." From his countless hours at the coke ovens, Andrew Sr. used to create stories to entertain his children. One of his favorites was the gale of the coke oven boss who was tragically killed by a dinkey on the top of the ovens. "Part of the job of the boss was to be the man up in time for work, which wasn't easy after occasional drinking bouts on weekends or holidays. So after the boss died, my dad always said, when it was raining that he could see his fellow with an umbrella, coming 'round, waking up the men to go to work."
As coal and coke production grew steadily at Walston, the officers of the R&PC&I formulated plans for the opening of another mew mining and coking plant in Young Township, two miles from Punxsutawney. The mines at the site appropriately named, "Adrian" in honor of chief investor Adrian Iselin, made its first shipment in January, 1887. At the time a local newspaper reported that "the coke works at Adrian, on the Elk Run will be 500 ovens strong. The building of the ovens will commence at once. This will make around 1,000 coke ovens in the vicinity of Punxsutawney." And, by June 15, 1887, another paper announced, "under the direction of J.M. Murphy, 125 more ovens have been completed at Adrian, and more are being constructed every day. The building of beehive coke ovens continued at Adrian until a total of 550 was reached. Shortly thereafter, a coke crusher was erected near the lower end of the western row of ovens. The addition of the crushing facility produced a higher price on the market. A visitor to the area during that a time, although impressed with the area 180-ton-s-per-day capacity of the crusher, noted, presumably with enthusiasm, "this will soon be a very smoke city." The town of Adrian, built "upon a gentle hill," quickly assumed a completed appearance as churches, a school and a company store were added to the blocks of red-painted houses.
In December 1889, yet, another string of coke ovens appeared on the landscape of Jefferson County, this time at Eleanora, named in honor of the wife of Adrian Iselin, Sr. Construction of the 80 houses for the new community began in February 1888, and by the end of the next year, they were fully occupied. Within months, the ovens at the Eleanora were producing 100,000 tons of coke annually. This tonnage, combined with that of Walston and Adrian, found a ready market in the developing iron and steel industry along he Great Lakes. Coke from Jefferson Country was particularly suited to foundry use, and markets for it extended as far west as the Mississippi River. Still more shipments traveled, by rails, as far as Chicago.
In addition to operations of the R&PC&I, two other strings of coke ovens burned in Jefferson County: Big Soldier, on the west branch of Soldier Run, and those of the Cascade Coal and Coke Co. at Sykesville. Big Soldier Mine, owned until 1896 by the Bell, Lewis and Yates Mining Co., was opened in 1890. Within a few years, Big Soldier was known as the largest soft coal mine in the world, and photographs of the plant were featured in many turn-of-the-century schoolbooks. In 1896, the huge mine was sold to the R&P C&I as part of the assets of the Bell, Lewis and Yates Mining Co. The coking plant at Soldier consisted of 100 ovens, some dating to 1880 and at that time supplied with coking coal by Old Soldier mine, which was abandoned before 1900. During 1895, 19,677 tons of coke were make at Soldier and shipped on the Reynoldsville and Falls Creek Railroad.
Mrs. Lucia Christy, who spent most of her life in Rossiter and now lives in Punxsutawney, remembers the town and plant at Soldier as it appeared before World War I. "My dad came from central Italy," Christy says. "He arrived in 1896 and three years later sent for my mother and my sister and me. I was six years old when I came. It took three years for my father to save the $40 for my mother's passage; he borrowed and additional $40 for me and my sister. "I remember the leaving from Italy. We were 15 family units that left at the same time. We left at the beginning of November and were 18 days on the sea. "In New York, we were all brought into a big room and called forward one by one. The men read my mother's letters to determine where my father was. Then they gave us a package of food and put us on a train. At one point, they moved us into a boxcar where there was no water or any seats. We finally arrived at Reynoldsville on Nov. 20, 1899. That will be 80 years ago this month."
Christy remembers the first time she saw the coke ovens at Big Soldier. "The coke ovens were belching smoke and fire and my father pointed them out to me and my sister and teased us by saying, "That's hell over there, and if you don't behave, that's where you'll go, because that's where the devils live," she recalls. Christy also recalls an incident involving the coke workers at Big Soldier "When the United Mine Workers was first being organized, the coke workers didn't join at first. So one time a group of miners with pots and pans hid on the hill behind the ovens. When the coke workers started to pull the coke, the men in the woods started shouting and banging on the pots and pans. The coke pullers were so terrified that they ran away and left the coke in the ovens."
The company town at Big Soldier, called simply Soldier, was notable for the large number of privately owned stores located off company property. Among them were Joseph Patrella's grocery store, Joe Marinaro's grocery store, Nick Marinaro's butcher shop, Julia Abelman's clothing store, Carl Mascaro's shoe repair and barbershop, the Katzen shoe store, and Sam Katzan's watch repair shop. Carmen Marinaro, brother of the two storekeepers, was a notary public, and acted as banker a postmaster for the Italian families nearby.
Andrew Goulish, who still lives in Soldier, remembers the coke ovens there quite well, "I was thirteen years old when I went to work at the coke plant," he says. "I drove the mule and wagon that carried the mud that men used for bricking up for he oven doors. We called it 'lume.' I took the lume and dumped it into big holes in three different sections and the men came and got it themselves, as they needed it. That was around World War I and I made pretty good money at that job, about $4.50 per day." Andrew Goulish, usually called "Cot" by his friends, recalls that during periods of nationwide unemployment, hoboes often hopped off passing freights and took up residence in unused coke ovens. "We'd go down and visit them," he says, "just to hear the stores about all the exciting places they'd been. They would even climb up on top of the ovens to heat their soup, but, more often, people from Soldier would feel sorry for them and send down what food could be spared."
By the end of the 19th century, although the ovens of Jefferson County had a large capacity and high-grade product, investors began to envision eventual marketing problems from their coke production. Connellsville, the counties chief competitor, enjoyed the advantage of closer proximity to Pittsburgh, and still other coke companies began experimentations with machine- drawn ovens and with byproduct ovens in which coke oven gases are recovered and converted to usable substances. Therefore, in anticipation of the loss of markets for its coke output, officers of the R&PC&I obtained a controlling interest in two corporations formed for the construction of blast furnaces at Dubois and Punxsutawney. As Jefferson Country coke was suitable for blast furnace use, these two facilities created outlets for a high percentage of locally-produced coke.
The first blast, or pig iron furnace opened in 1896 and operated under the name Punxsutaweny Furnace. This furnace had a daily capacity of 200 tons of pig iron and had in its stockpile 150,000 tons of iron ore brought from the Lake Superior region. The plant sold most of its pig iron locally; the DuBois Iron Works, the Mahoning Foundry and the Punxsutawney Foundry were among the firm's best customers. A second foray into the blast furnace industry began in June, 1902, when the R&PC&I called a special stock holders meeting at Punxsutawney for the purpose of increasing the company's indebtedness by the sum of $2 million. This was done "in order to purchase a certain tract of land situated in Sandy Township in Clearfield County near DuBois: 75 acres...for the erection of a blast furnace… to be known as the Adrian Furnace." Taken together, the two blast furnaces remained profitable for many years. By 1935, however, they had become obsolete; the furnaces were scrapped and the companies were liquidated.
Due primarily to the construction of the blast furnaces, Jefferson County coke production continued to rise during the first decade of the 20th century. The R&PC&I continued to build ovens at Walston until 1904, and that same year, the Powhattan Coal and Coke Co. opened a new mine at Sykesville. One year later, the fledgling company sold out to a group of New York investors who changed the name to the Cascade Coal and Coke Co. At that time, under the direction of C.C. Gadd, 100 coke ovens were built. Two years later, a local paper noted that "they are working regularly at the Cascade mines. A good grade of coke is being make there, and business is brisk." By 1918, 300 additional ovens had been constructed, and 240,747 tons of coke produced. As the new century dawned, however, the R&PC&I, Jefferson County's largest coal and coke producer began to outgrow the area of its origin and by 1900, an extension of the BR&P Railway was headed south. Gradually, until an all-time low production rate was reached in the early 1920s, the beehive ovens of Jefferson County began to cool.
But before the glow of the beehives disappeared forever from the skies of Jefferson County, one last attempt was made to produce coke in the area. Ed Murphy, who operates a service station south of Sykesville, recalls, "The ovens here at Cascade Coal and Coke were shut down before World War II, and no coke was made here after that except once, in 1950. "I was still in school then, but I was working, and I got a job here at the old ovens on the property of Kovalchick Salvage. At that time, some fellows wanted to see if coke could be made again, so they repaired four old ovens with new firebrick, and converted them so that they could be machine-drawn. "The men involved sent all the way to Uniontown for an experienced coke burner to teach us all how to make coke, and we did make a little coke from coal brought over from Cramer. But there were union problems, and marketing problems, and they gave up and shut them down. That was the last coke ever make in Jefferson County."
About a decade before the turn of the century, the development of Jefferson County coal mining combined with a burgeoning steel industry to send a steady stream of coke pouring into railroad cars destined for markets as far away as New England. In nearby Indiana County, rich coal fields awaited the arrival of the BR&P Railway, and the Indiana Times lamented in February, 1882: "there is not a single coke oven in Indiana County." By 1886, however, the first stirrings of a future coke industry were felt a few miles from Blairsville. That year, George Mikesell, a successful farmer, decided to expand his local coal business by building 12 beehive coke ovens on his land nine miles from Indiana. Firebrick from Mikesell's ovens were made at Black Lick by Meldron and Company. Once completed, the tiny battery of ovens were charged with coal, and in the summer of 1887, the first coke made in Indiana County was pulled on Mikesell's property. Later, additional coal to supply the ovens was leased from small mines at nearby Reed. An initial load of coke, sold to the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown, proved satisfactory, and soon the plot of ground on which the ovens sat had a name; the little plant and the surrounding area became appropriately known as "Mikesell Station."
Encouraged by his early success, George Mikesell slowly acquired an increasing number of customers. But after only a year in the coke business, limited capital forced him to sell his ovens to J. M. Guthrie, Jacob Graff, and G. T. Kirkland, who constructed an additional 37 beehives on the site. In 1890, ownership of Indiana County's first coke ovens changed again. That year, Guthrie, Graff and Kirkland, having tried their hands at the coke business, sold their interests to a firm composed of J. W. Moore of Greensburg, John McCreary, and Harry McCreary. Under the direction of the new owners, George Mikesell's original string of 12 ovens was enlarged to 15 and "Plant No. 2" was planned and put under construction. Eventually, the number of ovens totalled 202. At the same time, the town of Graceton came into existence to house the coal and coke workers who came to work at the mines and ovens.
Harry McCreary, although not yet 30 years old at the time of his venture into Indiana County coke production, was no stranger to beehive ovens. After completing a course of study at the Utica (New York) Business College, young McCreary secured a position as secretary and manager of the properties of J. W. Moore, a successful Connellsville coke operator. During those years, J. W. Moore and his brother owned a large coke plant near Uniontown. In 1885, Moore began the development of his coking coal lands in Westmoreland County. At that site, Harry McCreary was given the responsibility of construction of 500 ovens at two plants known as Mamouth No. 1 and No. 2. During the building, young McCreary became familiar with all aspects of the coke industry. In 1889, J. W. Moore sold his Westmoreland coke facilities to the formidable Henry Clay Frick. The selling price was reputedly $1,250,000 surely a testimony to the capability of McCreary's management of the properties. Therefore, after the sale, Frick asked McCreary to remain as manager of the plants, and offered an increased salary. Having completed six months in that capacity, however, young Harry decided to join J. W. Moore, his former employer, as a full partner in the McCreary Coke Company.
At Graceton, serious problems claimed the attention of the new owners. Graceton coal contained a higher percentage of impurities than that of its competitors in the Connellsville region. For the first few months, McCreary made coke with coal just as it came from the mines at Graceton, but the resulting product was less than satisfactory. In 1894, after several experiments, McCreary adapted plans for a coal washing plant which cleaned the coal of much of its slate and pyrites before being charged into the ovens. The washing system gave dramatic results, and within a short time, advertising circulars billed Graceton coke as lithe best in the world." In a 1977 interview with Ernest B. Fricke, Ralph McCreary related that his parents, Harry and Zett McCreary, were married in 1894, and at first, lived in Indiana. But "... father was superintendent of the mine and coke plant at Graceton and was installing some kind of machinery for washing and cleaning coal -- something new in the country, really. And the only way he could get to Graceton from Indiana, a nine-mile trip, was to take a train early in the morning and come back on the train late in the evening. "So, because (my father) wanted to be closer to his work he suggested to mother that they move down and live in a company house. She was a good sport and went along with it. I was born in a house at Graceton. In 1898, we moved back to Indiana." In the midst of Harry McCreary's success, tragedy struck. Late in 1898 the coal washer at the Graceton plant burned. Undaunted, the young coke producer started over again, and four months after the fire another washer stood on the same spot, rumbling thunderously as it processed clean coal for the ovens.
On January 1, 1900, the Graceton coke plant changed hands once more. On that date, Harry McCreary, having bought out J. W. Moore's share of the McCreary Coke Company, sold the business to Youngstown Steel Company, whose investors renamed the plant "The Graceton Coke Company." The property on the day of transfer consisted of the two coke plants, "the best washer in the county," company store, and "company houses enough to accommodate 200 families." Shortly after the purchase, the Indiana County Gazette reported: "There are no dull seasons at Graceton. The market for the product is always sure, as the owners of the plant, the Youngstown Steel Company, burn the coke in their own furnaces, which are rarely idle. The ovens at Graceton are under the management of a skillful cokemaker, Colonel Everhart Bierer. Colonel Bierer received his training as an engineer and coke man in the Connellsville field. At the two plants, 300 men are employed. The steel company gives Superintendent Bierer a free hand in the management, and simply ask for results; and they get them in quantity and quality a coke unsurpassed anywhere in the United States."
When purchased by Youngstown Steel, the town at Graceton was filling up rapidly. Albert "Led" Oswalt has spent his entire life at Graceton, and most residents know him best in his role as community postmaster. "Led" explains that, at first, Graceton was known as "Ranson." "When the Pennsylvania Railroad went-through between Blairsville and Indiana, there were no towns at all along the line -- just stations. There was Reed Station, and Rugh Station, and where Graceton is now -that was called Ransom Station. So when Harry McCreary applied to establish a post office here, he put 'Ransom' on the blank, but the application was returned because there was already a town of that name in the hard coal region. So they named the town Graceton. Many people believe that the town was named for a member of the McCreary family, but really, it's a mystery where the name came from. At any rate, the first post office was established here in 1892, and Harry McCreary was the first postmaster." Following the pattern of earlier Jefferson County coal and coke towns, the houses at Graceton soon sheltered families of immigrants who came seeking employment. An 1890 edition of the Indiana Times noted that "there are 200 Italian employees at the old Mikesell coak works." One resident adds: "many Slovaks, Poles, Croatians and Hungarians also migrated here." "Led" Oswalt recalls, there were 67 double houses here at one time, and a few single houses. And there were nine shanties near the coke ovens -- just one or two rooms. Mostly bachelors lived there."
The town of Graceton, like other mining towns of the period, was self-contained. "We had a company store," Oswalt says, "and a pool hall with two bowling alleys in it; the building stood 'till 1938. After a time, the first company store proved small, and they built a new one. After that, the old one was used as a dance hall and basketball court. "We had a Justice of the Peace in town who kept a shoe repair shop; he also had a place in his shop to hold the hearings. Most people shopped at the company store, but a man named Asper kept a dry goods store below town. And another man, a Mr. Pearlstein, had a meat market and grocery store. He was shot and killed when someone-robbed his store, and after that Mike and Ray Rich took over the business."
For recreation, "Led" explains, "Most people just stayed in Graceton. Youngstown Steel built a community park for the kids, with swings and slides and a Maypole. On Sunday, the band always practiced there, and people came and sat on the grass to listen. There was always baseball on holidays, and races, and greased pig contests. On Halloween, the men of Graceton would dress up and go to Indiana on the train for the parade. Fair week was a big time too. Special trains ran every 15 minutes between here and Indiana, and they were always filled.
"Graceton was a pretty town. There was a fence around the company property, and it was always kept whitewashed. It really looked nice. And although the families in Graceton were always allowed to keep cows and chickens, the front row of houses was restricted -- I guess the officials thought that made the town look tidier!"
By 1908, the Graceton Coke Company, under the ownership of Youngstown Steel, was kept busy filling orders in New Jersey and New England. Locally, the Indiana Foundry, manufacturers of sand-drying stoves and many other articles, claimed that the Graceton coke was "better than Connellsville." For nearly 20 years, the Graceton Coke Company continued to produce "low-ash, high-carbon, low-sulphur foundry coke." Under the direction of superintendent C. M. Lingle, "business boomed," and "20 large cars were sent out daily. In the summer of 1920, the plants and town at the old Mikesell Station were transferred a fourth time. A July issue of the Indiana Evening Gazette told the story: "Graceton Coke is sold to New York Interests: the plant with all machinery and equipment, and houses, was acquired by Warren Delano and associates. The price is estimated to be three quarters of a million dollars. Mr. Delano (an uncle of FDR) has other interests in Indiana County." After the purchase, the name of the plant was changed to Graceton Coal and Coke Company.
Throughout the twenties, sales of coke at Graceton fluctuated with the market. By early 1935, only eight ovens were in operation; most had been shut down since 1932. "In June, 1936, "Led" Oswalt says, "the Graceton Coal and Coke Company went bankrupt. In August, the company's stock was sold at a receivership in front of the company store. Four men bought the plant; one of them was Abe Light of Punxsutawney. Then the name was changed again to 'Coal Mining Company of Graceton.' "For a while," Oswalt continues, "things were at a standstill; the coal and coke business was really bad. Then World War II broke out and coke was in demand again. Mr. Light bought out the other three men and made coke throughout the war. "After the war, the Coal Mining Company of Graceton leased the ovens to someone else for a couple of years, but the last men to operate the beehives at Graceton were Smith and Burns, who leased them from the Coal Mining Company of Graceton. They produced coke for eight or ten years. Finally, in March, 1953, the Graceton ovens cooled off for good." During the years of coke production at Graceton, a second beehive operation existed just a few miles south. In 1980, the Indiana Coal and Coke Company was founded by Jacob and Paul Graff, J. M. Guthrie, G. W. Hoover, John Elkin, and John R. Caldwell. In the next few years, 24 coke ovens were built on the site and a tiny company town of six houses was established. Named "Oklahoma," the settlement housed cokeworkers from the Indiana Coal and Coke Company plant.
The beehive ovens at Oklahoma were also destined to undergo several transfers of ownership. In 1902, Harry McCreary again entered the coal and coke business with the purchase of the Indiana Coal and Coke Company lands, tipple, and houses. In addition, McCreary purchased 6,000 more acres of adjoining coal lands. Upon completion of all his transactions, McCreary sold the entire parcel of property to Joseph Wharton, a Philadelphia investor whose corporation also owned an iron foundry in Wharton, New Jersey. By 1902, the name of the plant and town had been changed to "Coral" local folklore says that the name was derived from the statement of a "oldtime coal prospector." This individual, evidently a far-sighted man, remarked to an early oral historian, "the coal and clay hereabouts will be as valuable as Coral." On acquisition of the Coral properties, Joseph Wharton was understandably anxious to secure the best management for his new plant, and persuaded McCreary to remain as temporary superintendent. By late 1903, 300 ovens and 150 company houses stood at the location. His work completed, Harry McCreary resigned his position with the Wharton corporation; he was succeeded by Thomas Murray.
While the first Cokeworkers in Indiana County kept the beehive ovens burning at Graceton and Coral, another battery of ovens was under construction at Ernest, the R&PC&I's new coal facility. In December 1903, seven months after the tracks of the BR&P Railway reached the site, a company town stood near completion and company houses filled with families. While coal poured from the newly opened mines, crews of men and horses graded landed southwest of town in preparation for the building of coke ovens. By October 1904, the Indiana County Gazette observed that "more than 200 ovens are being fires at Ernest." Eventually, the string of ovens numbered 278.
An indecent near the Ernest coke ovens just after World War I seems to be responsible for the popular folklore that "lots of bodies disappeared into coke ovens." Andrew Aruskevicius, a resident of Ernest since 1914, tells the tale:
"There were two or three ornery coke bosses here in he old days. One was just never found - people said he was probably thrown into an oven. Another boss was stubborn about switching two gangs of cokeworkers. He would make the men who lived right in Ernest work on the ovens nearest Creekside, and the men who lived in Creekside were forced to work at the Ernest end. Ell, they say it wasn't too long before that boss was found down by the ovens - shot dead. Still a third coke boss was discovered dead between two railroad flats - hanging down over the bumpers. After that, things tamed down a good bit, and I never heart any more stories."
Andy Aruskevicius went to work at the Ernest coke ovens when he was 14. "It was in March of 1924, just before they started to mechanize. I mad e $2.40 a day driving the team of mules that took the ash form the coke ovens to the dump. When it was till hand-drawn, we went right along with the puller - when they were done, we were done. But after machine-pulling came in, we sometimes waited around a lot. "When I started, the ovens had been shut down since 1921 due to lack of orders and had just fired up again. Fred Zaziski was the coke boss then - and he was the best. It was hand pulling then - an awful lot of work. You could tell between an experienced coke puller or if somebody was careless, because he'd have all the skin scorched off his face. At the very least, you could always tell the pullers by the state of their clothes - they were always burnt in the front. And, in spite of the awful heat, it was freezing down there in the winter. I cold hardly wait until I was old enough to get into the mines," Andy laughs. "In 1926, I left the coke ovens for good!"
Alvin Watkins of Indiana also worked around the Ernest coke ovens. "At first, I was an all-around utility man and did hand-pulling," he says. "I also worked on the coke oven tipple. In time, I became tipple operator and was responsible for keeping the tipple in good running order. That sometimes included changing burned-out motors. Fred Zaziski was the boss at Ernest. He was brought down here from Jefferson County, by R&P, because Fred knew all there was to know about making coke. And you always knew what Fed wanted from you - you could hear his voice from one end of the ovens to the other." Watkins recalls that "the coke ovens at Ernest were mechanized in the summer of 1926. The mechanized coke-pulling machine really changed things. It had a sort of pointed scoop on it that went right in under the coal and lifted it out. It could do in a couple of hours what it would have taken a man all day to accomplish. Originally, the ovens at Ernest also had conveyors that carried the coke up and over screens for sizing."
In 1929, three years after mechanization, the Ernest coke plant reached its highest production level to date, 118,000 tons. But by 1935 the demand for beehive coke had declined significantly. That year only 4,000 tons were made. The ovens shut down in 1936, and remained unused until World War II. In 1945, production peaked at 145,000 tons. The ovens at Ernest closed down for the last time in the early 1960's; in 1965, the mines also produced their final carloads of coal. But at Lucerne, not far from Graceton and Coral, a battery of 264 beehive ovens still glowed red in the evening sky.
The last battery of beehive ovens ever built in Indian County was constructed in 1952. At that time, F.P. "Pete" Calhoun was in charge of all R&P operations outside the mines, "and coke ovens fell into that category." Pete continues: "The ovens at Lucerne were built because, in the 50's, the steel industry couldn't produce enough coke in their own ovens to keep up their capacity when it exceeded 90 percent. By then the byproduct ovens had become obsolete and cost around ten times as much to construct as beehive ovens. Also, Indiana County coals tend to expand in the coking process, and work out best when coked in the beehives. "The ovens at Ernest had demonstrated that we could make coke cheaply, and, at Lucerne, we eventually achieved 30 percent more production per day that we had at Ernest."
Pete knew something about making coke before the ovens at Lucerne were built. "In the early thirties, the Ernest ovens were shut down because there was no market for coke," he recalls. "They were making bronze castings at the Ernest machine shop foundry, so they started up a few ovens and did everything the old way. Work was slack in the coal business then, so the coking was done by salaried personnel. "Out we'd go to pull an oven or two! It was backbreaking work, but it game me first-hand experience in making beehive coke." The system of production at Lucerne utilized the latest technology. "The line of ovens was double, and the charging larries, designed by R&P engineers, were reversible and ran either way," he says. After charging, a leveling machine came along with a probe and panagraphic arms leveled off the coal into a flattened cone. As every third oven is pulled at a time, the whole thing stayed hot and the coke stared to burn in a couple of hours.
"When it was ready, the coke was pulled by a Covington coke-pulling machine that was developed in the Connellsville region. The machine had a ram on it, and as the ram was pulled out, wings came up and pulled the coke out. One man could operate it, and it took about 20 or 30 in -and- out motions to clean out an oven. There was one machine on each side of the double ovens, and each machine cold pull 45 ovens in a day's wok, so the yield was about ten tons per oven or 450 tons of coke per day per machine. As another machine was pulling on the opposite site, those figures were doubled. At the site, we also had a crushing and screening plant." The coke-manufacturing process at Lucerne, Pete says, "one for each side. There were men to charge, and a machine operator and his helper, a waterman, and that most important individual of all - the coke burner. At Lucerne, we had Fred Zaziski Jr., who followed in his father's footsteps."
In December, 1957, R&P sold the Lucerne ovens Shenango, Inc. "Shenango didn't have enough coke capacity for their own furnaces," Pete explains, "and they liked to be able to stockpile it for their own use. And since there was always an assured use for the coke, the ovens could be utilized more uniformly than if R&P simply sold coke to
individual consumers." Shenango made coke at Lucerne for well over a decade, and the resulting product still ranked high when compared with by-product coke or coke manufactured outside the district. In 1972, the plant at Lucerne was shut down; as the ovens grew cold, the glow of the beehives dimmed Indiana County forever.