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Blast from the past

  • A late 1800s lithograph depicts the Weldy plant, with the Tamaqua Tunnel visible far right.
    A late 1800s lithograph depicts the Weldy plant, with the Tamaqua Tunnel visible far right.
Published June 10. 2011 05:00PM

Coal, railroad and iron turned Tamaqua into a bustling small city in the late 1800s, but it was explosives that created a boom town.

Explosives for mining and industry, plus gunpowder for war, helped one local man build an empire

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there is renewed interest in rediscovering one of the town's first great industries - H. A. Weldy Powder Works of Tamaqua.

According to an early publication by J. H. Beers & Co., Henry A. Weldy was born Sept. 13, 1831, and spent his early life at Reading, Berks Co.

Weldy began an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, working with B. & H. Rhein, later turning to pattern-making, a career choice that led him to accept a job in 1853 with the Little Schuylkill Railroad Company of Tamaqua.

In March, 1862, Weldy left that job and joined with Conrad F. Shindel in buying a small powder mill owned by H. Huhn, located on the Little Schuylkill River just two miles above Tamaqua.

If demand for explosives in coal mining weren't enough, an ongoing need for gunpowder in the Civil War helped to fill any voids.

Known as H. A. Weldy & Co., the firm manufactured all things explosive. The name remained the same after the admission of E. F. Shindel to the partnership in 1863. The plant prospered, but not without controversy. The first setback took place in April, 1871, when one of the mills was blown up, injuring one and causing substantial damage to the plant.

The accident led to changes in ownership.

Weldy remained with the business, but the Shindels sold their shares to duPont, de Nemours & Co.

According to historian Dan Schroeder, Locust Valley, Weldy built another powder mill plant nearby after the duPont purchase. Schroeder and son Nicholas have spent years studying and archiving Weldy's operation.

"It was located north of the first one," said Schroeder. That location would have put it on the opposite side of the Tamaqua Tunnel.

After the first plant was merged into a powder trust, it still carried the H. A. Weldy & Co. name and continued to grow, managed by Weldy. The plant expanded and was constantly equipped with newer and more modern facilities. It was said Weldy was always open to new contrivances. He tested new products and new methods, always analyzing what was available to see if it offered potential for improvement and economy.

"It has become one of the largest establishments of its kind in the country," reported the 'History of Schuylkill County, Pa.' published by W. W. Munsell, 1881.

A later Schuylkill County biography publication described Weldy as a Tamaqua citizen who "filled a place of conspicuous usefulness in the upbuilding of several of its most valuable business institutions. During all but the first decade of his residence there, he was one of the proprietors of what grew to be a large industrial establishment, the powder mill which early in the present century became absorbed by the trust.

"This was always his chief interest and held first place in his attention, his best efforts being devoted to the improvement of the plant and the expansion of the trade. But it did not prevent him from seeing the necessity for other enterprises, some in the class of private business, some in the nature of public utilities, with which he associated himself to the advantage of the community as well as the profitable employment of his own capital. His judgment was esteemed so much that his sanction of any undertaking was sufficient to make it considered worthy the favor of local investors generally. "

But the explosives industry was dangerous and production at the plant proved volatile.

Another explosion in 1874 killed two workers - John Crouse and Isaac Mumme.

On August 17, 1878, another blast hit the plant. One year later, tragedy hit again with yet another explosion, killing James Neifert and two little girls playing at a nearby farm.

Interestingly, deadly accidents seemed to follow Weldy. An article in the March 6, 1881, edition of the New York Times reports that Weldy sustained a severe injury to his forehead when a train in which he was riding was struck by two engines traveling in the opposite direction about 11 miles from Baltimore. Weldy sustained a severe cut to his forehead but survived, along with former U. S. President Rutherford Hayes and his wife. However, at least two others were killed.

Weldy's business continued to be brisk, allowing him to live the good life. He built a mansion on Pine Street in Tamaqua where he lived for nearly half a century. The structure remained until the 1970s, when it was razed by a local church.

As for Weldy's personal life, he married on November 19, 1854, joining hands with Ann Lambert, daughter of George and Kate Lambert of Sinking Spring. The couple had four children: Charles H., Kate G., John E., and Clarence S.

Eldest son Charles served as bookkeeper at the plant.

Sadly, Weldy's wife passed away in 1900. That same year, on April 1, son Clarence also passed away.

Despite personal setbacks, Weldy's persevered. His influence as a civic leader was impressive and his powder works company was successful, prompting additional entrepreneurship. Weldy helped to organize the Edison Electric Light Company of Tamaqua and was president and a director for years.

He also established the Tamaqua Boot & Shoe Manufacturing Company in 1888. The business employed forty-five workers. Its annual output was valued at $50,000, and incredible sum in those days.

The shoe factory closed in 1898 due to the illness of Weldy's son Clarence.

But with his thriving powder works plant, Weldy had hit gold in Tamaqua. The Weldy name became synonymous with success, and for Henry A Weldy, the future never looked brighter.

Next Friday: H. A. Weldy & Co. comes to a sudden, shocking end. Plus, a look at what remains 150 years later.

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