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Did famous Summit Hill fire start in Lansford?

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Harry Miller, president, Summit Hill Historical Society, points out a framed image in the town's borough building that depicts extensive workings geared toward extinguishing an underground fire at what was called the "$3…
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Harry Miller, president, Summit Hill Historical Society, points out a framed image in the town's borough building that depicts extensive workings geared toward extinguishing an underground fire at what was called the "$3,000,000 Burning Mine."
Published January 18. 2013 05:02PM

Archival files at the No. 9 Mine and Museum in Lansford contain an 1884 newspaper story about a deep mine fire in Lansford that might have implications for the Burning Mine in Summit Hill.

The story, discovered by Dave Kuchta, president, Panther Creek Valley Foundation, casts light on what was an extensive 1850s mine fire in Lansford. After reading about it, Kuchta, feels certain that it continued to smolder and was the beginning of the "Infamous Summit Hill Burning Mine Fire" of 1859.

In honor of Mining History Week, the TIMES NEWS is reprinting the story from the 1884 New York Enquirer:

"Five miles west of Summit Hill, on the direct road between Mauch Chunk and Pottsville, between Summit Hill and Tamaqua, the land is rich in coal deposits, and is owned by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, a wealthy and powerful corporation, whose President is E. W. Clark, of Philadelphia.

"The land is leased by the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, Charles Parrish, of Wilkes-Barre, President. Within the past 10 years this company has made extensive and costly improvements upon this large tract, proving and developing the veins and erecting a succession of mammoth breakers, extending in a chain through the Panther Creek Valley from Tamaqua to Summit Hill. The different collieries are designated numerically.

"At Lansford, four miles east of Tamaqua, is situated No.9, one of the most extensive of the chain. Close by this thriving village, which has a population of 3,000, composed principally of miners and their families, is situated the mouth of the tunnel which leads into Colliery No.9. This tunnel has been driven for about a mile into the base of Sharp Mountain, where it strikes the coal vein.

"To those unfamiliar with coal mining it may be necessary to explain that the coal was worked out from the level of this tunnel, a perpendicular distance of 700 feet to the surface. This is called the first 'lift.' After exhausting the coal in this 'lift' a slope was sunk from the level of the tunnel down a distance of 300 feet, where new gangways were constructed and the process of working out the coal up toward the first level was prosecuted. This is called the second 'lift.' In order to raise the coal from the bottom of this slope to the tunnel above, as well as to pump water and drive the air fans, large stationary steam engines were constructed upon the level of the tunnel at the head of the slope. The steam for driving their engines was furnished by 25 large boilers, each about 3 ½ by 30 feet in dimensions, situated near the mouth of the tunnel at Lansford. The gangways of both the first and second 'lifts' extend right and left along the vein for several miles.

"About 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon it was discovered that a fire had broken out in the interior of the mine. The report quickly spread to Lansford and the other villages in the vicinity, where the majority of the miners had their homes, and created the utmost consternation, as about 500 men and boys were employed in the mine, and the rumor said that their escape was cut off.

"Fortunately, the event proved this terrible rumor to be untrue. The vast extent of the mine, with its numerous air-shafts, offered many avenues of egress, and through these the workmen all succeeded in effecting their escape unharmed, with the exception of Thomas Powell, the engineer and the head of the slopes, who was taken out with great difficulty, and in the state of complete exhaustion.

"The origin of the fire has not yet been positively settled, but the most authentic reports state that it started at the engine at the head of the slope. This engine, as it has been said, was run by steam forced down from the surface. It was surrounded by wood-work to protect it from the dripping of water, and in time the intense heat of the steam-pipes rendered the wood as dry as tinder. It is said that the engineer, Powell, after trimming his lamp, threw a burning wick upon the ground, and thus set fire to this wood-work. Upon discovering the mischief he labored with desperation to extinguish the flames. His efforts were unsuccessful, and they almost cost him his life. He is still in such a prostrated condition as to be unable to give any account of the origin of the fire.

"A visit to the scene this afternoon and conversations with the workmen and bosses afford at the best but gloomy prospects of the future of the mine. The fire is above water level, so that it is impossible, even if the water were at hand, to adopt the usual expedient in such cases of turning in the water of a stream and thus drowning out the fire.

"The workings are very extensive and are furnished with numerous air-shafts, provided for the ventilation of the mine, but which now afford so many flues to furnish draft for the flames. Hundreds of men are at work closing up the mouths of those chimneys with earth dumped upon timbers thrown across them, while a dense volume of steam from the 25 large boilers outside the mouth of the tunnel is being injected into the mass of roaring flames in the workings.

"Despite all these efforts, so intelligently projected and energetically executed under the direction of Mr. William D. Zehner, the company's Superintend (note: a Superintend was not the superintendent), the dense white clouds of steam which arise from the mouths of the air-shafts give too unmistakable evidence that but little has been effected in the direction of subduing the flames. Should the extinguishment of the fire prove impossible, the financial loss will be almost beyond computation. The breaker alone cost $150,000, which is insignificant in comparison with the damage which will be entailed should the fire put a permanent stop to the working of the mine; and, worse still, should it extend, as now seems probable to adjacent workings.

"The consequential damage to Tamaqua from the fact of five hundred men and boys being thrown out of employment is a very serious consideration to merchants, and altogether the catastrophe, in its present aspects, is the most serious in the history of this part of the Anthracite coal regions."

Historically, it has been believed that the Summit Hill fire began on February 15, 1859, perhaps due to burning garbage at the site. Attempts to extinguish the smoldering blaze failed until about 1910.

Some say smoke and steam were visible even years later. For instance, Harry Miller, president, Summit Hill Historical Society, was born in 1937 and has recollections of seeing smoke coming from the Burning Mine location during childhood visits to nearby Ginther Field.

Dale Freudenberger, Anthracite Region Coordinator, Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Inc., says the general timeframe of the two mine fires helps to fuel speculation of a link.

Kuchta believes it just makes sense that a smoldering No. 9 mine fire slowly spread until it emerged near Summit Hill.

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