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Iselin: Tracing the Path of Coal and Community

The founding of Ernest in Rayne Township brought the familiar idea of company-owned mining towns to Indiana County.  As crews labored on the railroad extension from Jefferson County to the new town of Ernest, officials of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company (R&P C&I) were making plans for the opening of a second major coal field in Elders Ridge.

The Indiana Evening Gazette informed its readers on November 26, 1902, that “an unconfirmed rumour” was that the rich Elders Ridge coal field had been sold to “a powerful syndicate.”  Negotiations for the estimate 6,000-tract were conducted by Lucius Waterman Robinson, then general manager of the R&P C&I.

The sale of the coal field was welcomed by the Elders Ridge landowners.  Once the transaction was complete, more than a half-million dollars found its way into the pockets of Indiana Countians who transferred their land to the Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company, a subsidiary of the R&P C&I.

On February 25, 1903, it was reported that the Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company “will operate the new field as soon as a branch of the BR&P is built from Ernest to the new territory.”  It did not take long for the dream to become reality, as within a month the new branch called the Ridge Branch of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad was on its way.

In the spring of 1903, work commenced and by the end of May, 400 men were settled into several camps located along the route between Parkwood and West Lebanon, many being Italians, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks.  In June, more men arrived, growing the labor force to 675.

While construction occurred, the men ate and slept in camps of “shanties” set up along the proposed railroad.  Andrew Tedisco built a gigantic outdoor bake oven at Parkwood, which had a capacity to bake over 1,000 loaves of fresh bread per day.  He also constructed several grocery stores along the eight-mile stretch of road.  All of which helped to sustain the labor force.

Life was not easy for the group of immigrants seeking a better life in America.  Accommodations were far from comfortable.  Unfortunately, liquor was easily obtainable, and bouts of weekend drinking frequently led to “riots” among the crew.

Although there were two large steam shovels at the railroad construction site, most of the labor was done with pick and shovel.  Many of the men only stayed on the job a few weeks, drifting to already established mining towns or large cities.

In June 1903, surveyors were seen along the banks of Harper’s Run in Young Township.  The firm of Hyde-Murphy of Ridgway won the contract for building the houses in the new mining town.  By the end of September, 12 houses were completed in the new town, one mile northwest of Elders Ridge.  The community was named Iselin, in honor of the New York banker and owner of the BR&P Railway.

The Bureau of Mines for the year 1903 included Iselin and reported that in August 1903, two drift mines operated at the location for a total of 131 days.  42 miners came in the initial months, with the number steadily growing thereafter.

By early 1904, Iselin was transformed from a labor camp to a coal town.  In mid-January the railroad reached West Lebanon and a steel bridge over Crooked Creek at Shelocta was completed.

March saw the first scheduled train on the Elders Ridge Branch.  The regular Punxsutawney to Ernest train, after reaching Ernest in the morning, went back to Ridge Junction at Creekside and from there traveled to Iselin.  The arrival of full train service helped not only with the growth of the mines but also the town.

Inside the mines, electric motors hauled coal out and up into the tipple, which helped reduce the number of animals used underground.

In June 1904, a three-story structure, containing 39 rooms served as a hotel building; a school, theater and brick company store added the final touches to the physical makeup of the town.

By 1905, there were 440 men working underground at the Iselin mines #1 and #2.  The next year, two additional mines opened at nearby Whiskey Run.

Mining towns were quickly being established around each opening. The main town of Whiskey Run lay at mine #3. Across the hill another village was founded at #5, which locals called “Hart Town” to distinguish it from Whiskey Run #3.  Hart Town was built on the site of Joseph Hart’s farm and woolen mill, an early Indiana County landmark.

With the coming of World War I, the demand for coal grew greatly.  The two sections of Whiskey Run had a total of over 60 houses, a doctor’s office, and a company store.  Iselin #4 mine, also known as Nesbit Run, was a tiny community, having only about 14 houses by 1925. After 1910, the Pittsburgh Coal Company opened two more small mines at Big Run being known as Fritz mine #1 and #2.

By 1914, the Iselin mines had a daily output of over 6,000 tons of coal.  With the opening of Iselin mines #3, #4, #5 and Fritz #1 and #2, the need for manpower doubled.  In 1904, total employment in and around Iselin mines #1 and #2 was 513 men.  By the end of 1908, total employment rose to 1,203 and by the close of 1910 to 1,695.

The current population of Indiana County could not meet the demands of the labor shortage, and so immigrants arrived in Iselin constantly after 1906, the year Whiskey Run was opened.  Immigrants came from several European countries, but the highest concentration of new arrivals came from Italy.

Many of the Italians sailed from Genoa and Venice at the recommendation of two brothers, Jack and Dominic Richey, skilled masons who were responsible for building the foundations of most of the house in Iselin as well as the drifts in the mines.

Unfortunately, by the mid-1920s, most of the houses in Iselin stood completed, which left little for a master mason.  So, the Ritchey family left Indiana County, moving on to Rome, New York, where they became involved in a construction business.

The pre-World War I population of Iselin was predominantly male, but many women traveled with their husbands or came later as soon as the family was financially able.  However, arrival in Iselin only came after a difficult and confusing ocean voyage on a crowded steamer.  One of the ports of entry was Baltimore, and from there many boarded a train for Indiana.  One of those difficulties was a language barrier, many of the immigrants couldn’t speak English.

Illness also caused heartache for the town.  In the years before concentrated public health efforts, many small towns suffered epidemics of diphtheria, measles, and typhoid.

The Gazette reported on March 3, 1911: “An Epidemic of Fever Down at Iselin – Water the Probable Source of Infection.”  At the time of printing, 20 people were ill and four had died.  By the next day the paper reported that a total of 50 people were ill, and of that number, nine had been taken by train to the Adrian Hospital in Punxsutawney.  By March 6, evidence of the epidemic had been felt in Jefferson and Cambria Counties, although “Iselin had a larger number of cases than any other town.”

In the midst of the typhoid outbreak, a second, unidentified disease appeared in Iselin, similar to typhoid except that it did not appear to be as contagious.

By the end of March, the epidemic subsided with “A Total of Twelve Deaths to Date.”  The Gazette article ended on a note of hope that “the fact that no additional cases have been reported…has removed all cause for alarm.”

The Indiana County health authorities began investigations into the causes of Iselin’s epidemic the following month.  When the investigations were complete, evidence seemed to indicate that the mysterious, non-contagious disease could be traced to consumption of pork from cholera-infected hogs.

Many other diseases also affected Indiana County coal towns before the advent of modern medicine.  During the 1918 influenza outbreak, people were dying every day.  The company doctors and volunteer nurses worked around the clock to restore health to the community.

In the years prior to World War I, there were also crimes and post-payday brawls.  County newspapers often featured headlines such as: “Three Men Shot, One Fatally, in Iselin Riot,” “Mob at Iselin Released Two Prisoners from Constable,” “Serious Cutting Affray at Iselin Boardinghouse,” “Iselin Men Used an Axe,” and “Gambling the Cause of Iselin Stabbing.”

Many misdemeanors involved the sale of illegal beer and liquor, as isolated coal towns were regular targets for this type of crime.  Young miners with no dependents and a full pay envelope often found whiskey to be an irresistible temptation.

On occasion, community police officers or county law enforcement agents caught up with the evildoers.  The Gazette reported in August 1910, “Speakeasy Man Gets Salty Sentence,” and described one raid on an Iselin house which unearthed “an hundred empty beer cases and a quantity of whiskey.”  “The Speakeasy Man,” after pleading guilty to his crime, received a sentence of a $500 fine and six months imprisonment in the Allegheny County Workhouse.

The prisoner was apparently a well-mannered individual, as he politely thanked Judge Telford before being returned to his Indiana County jail cell.

There is also a story of devotion and resourcefulness shown by community residents through the building of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church.  The first Mass celebrated in the community was said by a priest, whose name is not known, who travelled out from Indiana in a horse and wagon.  Far from finding accommodations adequate, the priest held services in one of the tarpaper shacks near the tipple, part of a “shantytown,” better known as “The Pig’s Ear.”

In 1904, a resident of Iselin wrote a letter to the Bishop in Greensburg and requested that a priest be assigned to Iselin to care for “seventy-five Italian people, thirty Poles, and a few English.”

The response was rapid, within a month Father McNelis of Indiana began coming out to Iselin every Saturday night and remaining overnight, so that Mass could be celebrated Sunday morning at Pat Carroll’s house on English Street.

In 1905, R&P president Lucius Waterman Robinson responded to a written plea from the parish by indicating that the coal company was willing to help the residents of Iselin erect a church building.  Within three years, the sanctuary was completed and in use.  Father Francis Wieczorek was the first resident priest.

During the early part of 1918, both the church and the rectory were destroyed by fire.  But Mass continued in Iselin’s old town hall until, several months later, the Bishop granted permission to rebuild together with a gift of $13,000 to help cover the costs.  In the late 1940s, the final mortgage on the church was cancelled by the R&P.

The end of World War I, resulted in a decline in the demand for coal, and marked the end of an era for Iselin.  As the post-war economic slump gradually lowered Iselin’s production, a few families began to drift away for other occupations.  The number of boarders in each house declined, and life in town grew less hectic.  The population stabilized, and the refinements of community living were enjoyed in earnest.

Hungarian, Polish, Slavish, and Italian lodges and fraternities met regularly.  The Iselin baseball team thrilled crowds as part of the R&P league.  A nickelodeon occupied part of the Theater Building by the Hotel.  In the winter, children sledded down the “Store Hill.”  Education assumed greater importance, and the children of Iselin went to the high school at Elders Ridge.

Towns, like people, pass through several stages in the course of a lifetime, and by the 1930s, Iselin was changing.  By 1932 it was common for the mines to only operate two days per month.  By 1934, the change from steam to diesel-powered locomotives made Iselin’s Pittsburgh seam coal an obsolete product, and the mines closed down.

Fortunately, the mines at Coal Run had just opened, which provided employment for Iselin miners who needed a job.  But others went on to the steel mills, or to Detroit, as they were able to make the adjustment to working in low coal after spending years in Iselin’s eight and nine foot high seam.

Houses soon stood vacant, the store closed, and the tipple was torn down.  Life as a coal town was over.  Unlike many of Indiana’s former coal towns, Iselin retains much of its former appearance.  Many houses look basically as they did 100 years ago, while others have been changed over the course of time.

What may not be so obvious is the spirit of those turn-of-the-century immigrants but is best seen through the carefully-tended churches, thriving gardens, and the pride shown in the appearance of homes.

Learn more about Iselin at our upcoming Author Talk with Sara Lambert Bloom on April 4, 2024 at 6:30 p.m.

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