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The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry, 1860-1902: Economic Cycles, Business Decision-Making and Regional Dynamics

Author(s):Healey, R.G.
Reviewer(s):Adams, Sean Patrick

Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

R.G. Healey, The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry, 1860-1902: Economic Cycles, Business Decision-Making and Regional Dynamics. Scranton, PA: Scranton University Press, 2007. xviii + 512 pp. $60 (paper), ISBN: 978-1-58966-150-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sean Patrick Adams, Department of History, University of Florida.

Pennsylvania?s anthracite coal fields offer a great deal to the business and economic historian.? Colliers there created one of America?s first industrial regions, with innovations aplenty in steam engine technology, canal and railroad systems, as well as corporate charters and cartelization.? As such, the anthracite trade formed the basis of important case studies across several generations of scholarship.? Jules Bogen, for example, explored the various attempts by railroads to control the flow of anthracite to urban centers in the late nineteenth century as a way to shed light on federal railroad policy in the 1920s.?? The early story of the anthracite railroads, Bogen argued, served as a kind of laboratory for industrial cartelization and corporate consolidation. A generation later, C.K. Yearley reconstructed the fierce anti-corporate rhetoric of Schuylkill County colliers in order to explore the proprietary tradition in American history. The anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace focused on a single community in his landmark study, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town?s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry.?? As the title suggests, Wallace?s case study asked why colliers were so eager to invest in a trade that seemed riddled with bankruptcies, deadly explosions, and widespread economic failure. While all of these examples told us a great deal about portions of the anthracite trade, none of them attempted to chronicle the entirety of the industry. Instead, they studied anthracite coal as a way to attack historical and contemporary problems in American industrialization. [1]?

R.G. Healey, a geographer at the University of Portsmouth, does not turn to Eastern Pennsylvania?s coal trade in order to address a particular question or problem.? Instead, he attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the business of anthracite mining from the Civil War to the Anthracite Strike of 1902 in his book, The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry, 1860-1902: Economic Cycles, Business Decision-Making and Regional Dynamics.? Although casual readers might find Healey?s book difficult to digest, the meticulous research and detailed analysis is truly impressive.? If there is a single overriding theme or argument here, it is the importance of temporal and regional context.? Healey pushes away from neo-classical theories of economic behavior and instead applies ?adjustment theory? to firms in the anthracite region, which ?focuses on decision-making under constraints? and seeks to provide ?an accurate representation of the responses of corporate and individual actors in real decision environments, whose actions led to the building of the regions in question.? (p.5)? If Healey?s aim is to complicate the anthracite trade by making readers aware of the many specific factors involved in mining coal in Eastern Pennsylvania, then this book is a resounding success.? The lengthy discussion of the vagaries of anthracite mining, however, limits the appeal of the book to the wider audience of economic and business historians.

The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry begins with a discussion of business cycles, as the author establishes that raising coal efficiently might not work to a collier?s advantage if national and regional economic conditions did not create a good environment for them.? Healey then walks the reader through the fairly specific topographic and geologic conditions of anthracite mining ? essentially this coal lay in sparsely populated, mountainous terrain in which routes to urban markets on the eastern seaboard served as critical lifelines to the collier.? In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a mix of coal mining and canal companies shipped anthracite, mainly to Philadelphia and New York. After the Civil War, railroads emerged as major players in the anthracite fields, both as carriers and as the operators of mines.? As more colliers raised coal and as more outlets to market came online, competition became more and more fierce, pushing firms to come up with innovative methods to control costs and hedge against market downturns.? Healey is interested in reconstructing the battery of strategies available to both proprietary and corporate mining firms by the late nineteenth century.? Complexity and confusion, he argues, reigned supreme as various firms struggled to make sense of a trade that was subject to shifting local, regional, and national contexts.? This is a gross simplification of Healey?s book, as he provides a blizzard of empirical data to take the reader through a year-by-year analysis of the shaping of the anthracite trade.? In fact, no short review of The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry can do justice to the thick description of the coal mining business here.

Although this book is essentially a blow by blow retelling of the industry?s development, Healey does revise some important themes. One of the central questions in the history of anthracite mining, for example, is whether consolidation or combination was a more effective strategy.? The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad famously tried the former approach under the leadership of Franklin Gowen during the 1870s.? The Philadelphia and Readings? unsuccessful attempt to corner anthracite is a well-worn story in the literature; much of the notoriety coming from Gowen?s colorful personality and willingness to give stump speeches about his railroad?s ambition.? Here Healey?s analysis is most useful for rethinking the history of anthracite, as he places the Philadelphia and Reading?s story in a wider context.? Gowen?s plan, he argues, was part of a larger conversion of an ?old and uneconomical way of working into an efficient mining economy? in which short-term proprietary operators yielded to corporate mining companies and railroads with an eye toward profitability in the long term (p. 248).? Consolidation of coal lands therefore seemed a sound business strategy given the constellation of market and political factors in place by the late 1860s and early 1870s.? A few decades later, large anthracite firms attempted to form cartels for the same reason.? For Healey, the agency of individual actors, like Franklin Gowen, always needs to be considered with the very specific constraints of their trade.? The ways in which Healey presents this array of options and constraints is a testament to the voluminous research he has done to reconstruct the year-by-year flow of the industry.?

That said, reading The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry is hard work at times. More than four hundred double-columned pages construct an extremely thick narrative flow that tends to meander from one very specific point to the other. Without signposts reinforcing a clear central question or theme for each chapter, the reader risks getting lost in Healey?s well-written but densely organized prose.? As for the evidence, it?s left in plain sight for the readers to see; Healey includes nearly two hundred figures ? mostly charts and graphs ? and over fifty tables.?? For specialists in late nineteenth century industrial history or in the history of coal mining, this will serve as an indispensible source of information.? On specific issues such as whether an anthracite railroad in the 1880s should seek a lease on coal-bearing lands or purchase a mining tract outright, The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry will provide comprehensive coverage.? In the painstaking process of providing this coverage, however, D.C. Healey has limited the audience of the book to those seeking that level of detail.??

1. Jules Bogen, The Anthracite Railroads: A Study in American Railroad Enterprise (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1927); C.K. Yearley, Enterprise and Anthracite: Economics and Democracy in Schuylkill County, 1820-1875 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961); Anthony F.C. Wallace, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Sean Patrick Adams is Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida in Gainesville.? He is the author of Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America (2004).?

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII