A Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company Patch Town
By Eileen Mountjoy
Formerly a Research Associate in the History Department of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA
Published with the permission of the author, Eileen Mountjoy. This version of her paper was first published in the "Indiana Evening Gazette," and later it was placed online under her former married name of Eileen Mountjoy Cooper in ca.1991 by the Special Collections Section, Indiana University Library, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.
With the founding of Ernest in Rayne Township, Indiana County,
Pennsylvania the coal company-owned coal patch mining town became a familiar
idea to Indiana countians. Even as railroad crews labored on
the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway extension from Jefferson
County to the new coal patch town of Ernest in Indiana County, however, officials
of the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company were already making
plans for the opening of a second major coal field in Elders Ridge, the Iselin
|Iselin The Beginning, Iselin No. 1 Mine & Iselin No. 2 Mine|
|In June of 1903, surveyors were seen along
the banks of Harper's Run in Young Township, Indiana County. Coal mining
preceded the settling of the new coal patch town, as reported in the Sept.
9, 1903 edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette: "Considerable
coal has already been taken out at Elders Ridge. An opening has been made
on the old Steffey farm and upwards of a 1,000 bushels of coal mined. The
opening has been cut into the hill for a hundred yards or more."
The firm of Hyde-Murphy Company, from Ridgway, PA, won the contract for the building of the miners houses in the new mining town. The construction firm was just completing the coal patch town of Ernest, at the same time. By the end of September, 1903, 12 houses were completed in the new town, located one mile northwest of Elders Ridge, and the new coal patch community was named Iselin in honor of the New York banker and owner of the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway, and a major stockholder in the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company.
Harrisburg's "Report of the Bureau of Mines of Pennsylvania for the year 1903" included the Iselin Mines, and records that beginning in August of 1903, two drift mines, Iselin No. 1 Mine & Iselin No. 2 Mine, were operated at the location for a total of 131 days.
Richard Smith was the general superintendent of the Iselin
Mines that first year. Attracted by the high coal of Iselin's six
foot high Pittsburgh coal seam, 42 coal miners came in the initial months
and the number of men grew steadily.
In June of 1904, Charles Rowe secured the contract for building
a hotel at Iselin. The masive three-story wood structure Iselin Hotel, owned
by Ross Mahan, contained 39 rooms and cost $9,000 to build. A school, theater,
railroad station, and huge brick two-story coal company store soon added
the final touches to the physical makeup of the coal patch town of Iselin.
Two church buildings were later added to the town.
A 1910 raid in the community of Iselin in Indiana County found House No. 179 had 90 cases of beer, two cases of whiskey in quarts, and three more in pints. House No. 20 was stocked with 100 cases of beer, three cases each of whiskey in pints and quarts, and other alcoholic beverages.
By 1921, a feature of the Iselin (Indiana County) festivities was competition between three Bloomer Girl ball teams.
1921: A unique sports twist in the celebration at Iselin in Indiana County was the three ball games played between the Bloomer Girl teams of the nearby communities of Graceton and Josephine.
|Nesbit Run, Iselin No. 4 Mine
Iselin No. 4 Mine was known as Nesbit Run. A tiny mining
community, totaling only 14 houses by ca.1925, stood near the opening. After
1910, the Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company also opened two more small mines at
nearby Big Run; these mines were called Fritz No. 1 Mine and Fritz No. 2
Mine. At the present time, ca.1982, there is a mine maintenance
school on the site of the Big Run Mines; this school is an extension of Penn
|Mealtimes for so many people were particularly
difficult to manage. "They didn't have dining rooms then as they do
now," Victor says. "The tables were made of the heavy wooden boards used
for making mine cars. The company would give them to the men to make tables
and benches from. They had a kitchen, with a cookstove, where everyone ate,
and all the rest of the rooms were bedrooms." The woman who cooked,
cleaned, and above all, washed, for more than a dozen men in addition to
her own husband and family received relatively little benefit for her
Sometimes, boarders divided the price of the groceries among themselves and this way, the housewife received free food, as she and her family shared the common meals. In another system, each boarder bought his own food staples. "Each man," Victor remembers, "would tie a piece of string on his piece of beef or pork in such a way as to identify that meat as his." Then, instead of paying for part of the grocery bill, each boarder paid a share toward the rent.
For some men, living as a boarder was only temporary. Almost all single men eventually married, while others sent for wives and families left behind in Europe. A few isolated cases were known of married men who never sent for the wives and children they left behind. "They lived like single men here in Iselin," Victor recalls, "and left their families over there to fend for themselves." Social organization in Iselin before World War I showed evidence of a rigid structure which disappeared as the passage of time equalized various nationality groups. But in the early days, native Americans, English and Scottish miners, having the dual advantage of language and, often, previous mining experience, quickly achieved positions as foremen. Outward signs of such advancement was usually the attainment of a single house on "English" Street - and no boarders.
Nationality differences were also reflected in working conditions at the mines. For inexperienced Hungarian or Czech miners, advancement to a position of responsibility was difficult until years of underground work prepared a man for a move to more skilled labor. Victor Fello's father, for example, had never been inside a mine until he came to Iselin. "You bought your pick and shovel at the company store and were told, 'There's the place - you load'." Each man also timbered his own room and "shot down" his own coal with a minimum of instruction, although it was the usual practice to give a new man an experienced partner in his first days on the job.
Exposure to the realities of life came early to children in early coal towns. Victor Fello was 11 years old when he went into the mines at Iselin. "My dad used to smuggle me into the mines to help him load road coal - that's the coal that fell off the cars onto the underground track. The track would fill up with coal and you had to load it out in order to keep the cars and motors from wrecking." Victor felt no fear of the mines the first time he went in; "I was used to it; I was around the mines all the time." Although working hours were long and difficult, Victor Fello remembers his youth in Iselin with pleasure as well. "This was a prosperous town, and a pretty town to live in. And people had fun. In the summertime, on a Sunday afternoon, there was a picnic under every good tree."
People came to Iselin from several European countries, but probably the highest concentration of new arrivals came from Italy. Many Italians sailed from Genoa and Venice at the recommendation of two brothers, Jack and Dominic Ritchey. These men were skilled masons, and were responsible for building the foundations of most of the houses in Iselin, as well as all the drifts in the mines.
Jack Ritchey was well known for his decorative cement work, such as the porch railings made for the Holy Cross Catholic Church. Dominic Ritchey was a talented artist who during his stay in Iselin produced several ceiling paintings. One particular work, recalled with detail by several Iselin residents, once decorated the ceiling of the downstairs kitchen in house No. 1. Although no sign of the picture remains, those who remember it describe the scene as that of two battle ships in full sail, complete with men armed for battle crowding the vessels as blue waves carried them out to sea. Other ceilings in Iselin houses still show traces of designs once painted there by Dominic Ritchey.
|The Miners Memorial
Iselin Union Cemetery.
The Ritchey brothers are best remembered, however, for the hand-crafted cement cemetery markers they made for the Iselin cemetery. Their masterpiece, now sadly damaged, is a remarkable monument which covers the remains of the first man killed in the Iselin mines. The name of the dead man is uncertain, due to the ravages of time and vandals, but the eight-foot-high column of cement-covered brick remains, surrounded by six smaller columns topped by cement urns. An older generation of Iselin residents can remember the grave marker as it originally appeared, complete with realistic miner's cap, carbide lamp, pick and shovel, all carefully modeled in cement.
(Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Section, IUP Library, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA)
|By the mid-twenties, most of the houses
in Iselin patch stood completed, and there seemed to be no place for a master
mason and his artist brother. Leaving behind them a legacy of creativity
unique among Indiana County's coal towns, the Ritchey family moved on to
Rome, New York, where they presumably became involved in a construction
business. The pre-World War I population of Iselin was predominantly
male, but many women came to America with their husbands or came later as
soon as they were financially able.
Mrs. Caroline Kaminski has lived almost her entire life in Iselin. "I came here in 1912; then, the town was booming!" she says. "I came from across because my dad was working here; he heard that the mines at Iselin were safe mines." Mrs. Kaminski's father, John Michalisczyn, whose name was, quickly shortened to Miller, lived two years alone in Iselin before he could send to Austria for his wife and three little girls. During that time, John was once buried in a mine cave-in for two days although his wife never knew of his close call. Another time, Mrs. Kaminski's mother received a communication from Iselin reporting that her husband had been killed in the mines. Weeks passed before another letter arrived canceling the information in the first one.
Caroline Kaminski will never forget the day she and her family arrived in Iselin: "What a shock!" she says. "We never even had a picture! No sidewalks, no bathroom -nothing! Coal stored under the porch. And the outside toilet - four boards, two holes, and a catalog hanging on the side!" Arrival in the town itself -was achieved only after a difficult and confusing ocean voyage on a crowded steamer. Upon landing in Baltimore, the Michalisczyn family boarded a train for Indiana. "And I couldn't speak English and my mother couldn't speak German; we always talked to her in Polish. We stood on the station platform in Indiana and someone came who spoke German. We spent the night in the old Moore Hotel. Next morning we came to Iselin."
Once settled in Iselin, the Michalisczyn family also kept boarders. "We had ten," Mrs. Kaminski says. Mrs. Michalisczyn had a special relationship with her boarders. "Many were young boys just come across. My mother was like a mother to them; she babied them and made special food for their dinner buckets." Mrs. Michalisczyn never adjusted to the move from the beautiful family farm in Austria, however, and, after only a year in Iselin, she died. "When she got sick the doctor said she was so lonely she couldn't fight the illness," says Caroline Kaminski.
In addition to the grief felt by her husband and three little girls, Mrs. Michalisczyn was sorely missed by her young boarders: "When my mother died, they all cried." After her mother's death, Caroline went to live with the Popachock family who kept a store "at the Y," about a mile outside of Iselin towards Clarksburg. There, at age 14 Caroline met and married Stanley Kaminski, Popachock's butcher. When Stanley went to work at the Iselin company store two years later, Mrs. Kaminski moved back to Iselin. She still lives there, but now resides on "English" Street with her son. The death of Caroline Kaminski's mother after only one year in America is a story that might be repeated by many others who can remember "the good old clays.
In the years before concentrated public health efforts, many small towns suffered epidemics of diptheria, measles and typhoid, and Iselin was no exception. A March 3, 1911, Gazette reported. "An Epidemic of Fever Down at Iselin - Water the Probably Source of Infection." At the time of printing, 20 people were ill from the disease, and four had died. One of the dead, in an incident all to common in mining towns, "was not claimed by relatives and was shipped to the State Anatomical Society at Philadelphia." By the next day the paper reported that a total of 50 persons 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 also 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, an illness "closely allied to it" except that it seemed to be "not contagious." At the end of March the epidemic subsided -with "A Total of Twelve Deaths to Date." The Gazette article ended on the note of hope that- "the fact that no additional cases have been reported . . . has removed all cause for alarm." Investigations into the causes of Iselin's epidemic were begun the next month by Indiana County health authorities. When completed, evidence seemed to indicate that the mysterious, non-contagious disease which appeared concurrently with the typhoid fever could be traced to consumption of pork from cholera-infected hogs.
Before the advent of modern medicine, many other diseases attacked Indiana County coal towns. Victor Fello can remember the 1918 influenza outbreak in Iselin. "Here in town, they carried them out every day," he says. Iselin residents who recall these epidemics note the tireless energies of several devoted company doctors and volunteer nurses who worked around the clock to restore health to the community.
|Newcomers to Iselin in the years before World War I also witnessed some spectacular crimes and post-payday brawls which progressed beyond the ordinary. During this period, county newspapers often featured headlines like these: "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, for, even in the days before Prohibition, isolated
coal towns were regular targets for this type of crime. For young miners
with no dependents and a full pay envelope, whiskey often proved an irresistible
"Some men spent their money this way the day they got their pay," recalls a woman who worked in the Iselin company store. "Sometimes, then, on Mondays, they wouldn't even go to work. They had a pretty good time!"
On occasion, however, community police officers or county law enforcement agents caught up with evildoers.
In August, 1910, the Indiana Evening Gazette reported, "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 evidently a well-mannered individual, as he politely thanked Judge S.G. Telford before being returned to his cell in the Indiana County jail.
|Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, Iselin,
In a sharp contrast to the notorious side of life in Iselin, the story of the building of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church stands as a testimony to the devotion and resourcefulness shown by community residents. In addition to Holy Cross, an inter-denominational Protestant church was also built at the top of the hill below the water tower, but due to the large number of Catholics in the town, Holy Cross parish remains the larger of the two. Longtime residents of Iselin recall that the first Mass ever celebrated in the community was said by a priest, whose name is now forgotten, who traveled out from Indiana in a horse and wagon. Far from finding accommodations even adequate, the priest was called upon to hold services in one of the tarpaper shacks near the tipple, part of a "shantytown," better known as "The Pig's Ear."
In 1904, an Iselin resident wrote a letter to the Bishop at 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 from the Bishop was rapid, and within a month Father McNelis of Indiana began coming out to Iselin each Saturday night and remaining overnight, so that in the morning he would be available to celebrate Mass at Pat Carroll's house on English Street. Then, 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 people of Iselin erect a church building. Within three years the sanctuary was completed and in use. Father Francis Wieczorek was the first resident priest; he was followed by Father Anthony Baron who came to Iselin in ca.1911, During the pastorate of Father Baron, a rectory was built on Barber Street.
During the early part of 1918, both the church building and the rectory were destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Mass was said in Iselin's old town hall until, several months later, permission to rebuild was granted by the Bishop, together with a gift of $13,000 to help cover costs. In the late 1940s, the final mortgage on the church was cancelled by the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company. "We really celebrated then," recalls a woman who attended the ceremony. "We had a big party, and the officials of the coal company came and helped us burn the mortgage."
The end of World War I, with a resulting decline in the demand for coal, marks 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 to other occupations. As the number of boarders in each house declined, life in the town grew less hectic. The population stabilized, and the refinements of community living were enjoyed in earnest.
|Undated photograph of the
Iselin Italian Band
(Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Section, IUP Library, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA)
| Hungarian, Polish, Slavish and Italian
lodges and fraternities were founded and met regularly. As war-time economies
abated, three-day-long celebrations at weddings and christenings were the
The Iselin baseball team thrilled the crowds as part of the
R&P League, and everyone enjoyed watching the game of "bocche" played
by the Italian members of the community.
The mines which operated under the coal company name "Pittsburgh
Gas Coal Company," also known as the "Iselin Field," were relatively short-lived
operations. The mines at Whiskey Run were abandoned in December, 1929.
The mines at Nesbit Run followed; coal was last mined at that location
in May, 1928. Today, not a single house remains at the site of all
the violence, and only a green and white township sign reading "Whiskey Run
Road," marks the spot for passersby.
The mines at Iselin closed in 1935. Untill recently,
Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company maintained a modern surface strip
mine and the Iselin prep plant near the original sites of the Iselin No.
1 & No. 2 Mines. The town of Iselin is still an active bedroom
|May Have to Face Charge of
John Canz shot his boarding mistress, Mr. Wasy Osa, through
the stomach, on Sunday night, about 8 o'clock, at Iselin and little hope
is entertained for her recovery. Canz had been drinking heavily and
becoming loud in his talk, Mrs. Osa ordered him out of the house. He
made threats of killing her and the other borders. His weapons were taken
away from him but he secured a gun some place and came back to the house
and shot the woman. He was arrested and brought to the county jail.
AS Mrs. Osa was about to become a mother it is likely that a charge
of double murder will be held against Canz. Following the arrest of
Canz an ugly murmur rose among his companions, leading the officers to take
particular caution forhis safety.
|"History of the
Iselin, Young Twp., Indiana County, Pennsylvania"
Coal Company Patch Town,
Iselin No. 3 & No. 5 Mines, Whiskey Run, Young Twp., Indiana County, Pennsylvania"
Memorial Iselin Mines
Iselin, Young Twp., Indiana County, Pennsylvania"
& Pittsburg Railway at the Iselin Mines
Iselin, Young Twp., Indiana County, Pennsylvania"
|To Select another Index
to Indiana County Coal Mines
Click on the Larry cars for Index Page
or on a Letter below
|Select another Index to the Coal Mines
of Indiana County, Pennsylvania
[Click on a letter to take you to that Index]
|Return to the Main County Index for Southwestern Pennsylvania Coal Mines|
Links to other coal mining sites
|Reference Sources for Southwestern Pennsylvania Coal Mines||The New Message Boards have not worked, Use our guestbook. Email the Editor.||Have
information to add on Indiana County Coal Mines?
E-Mail the Editor
|Let the Old Miner know you've been here.
FastCounter by LinkExchange
If you have additional information or pictures on the Coal
Mines of Indiana County, PA
Contact: Ray Washlaski, Editor
Copyright 2008, All rights reserved, by Raymond A. Washlaski, Ryan P. Washlaski & The 20th Century Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Web site Design by "Mercers, an Undertakers" Web Design Company