Industrialism took hold along the Schuylkill River and its tributaries very early in the nation's history. The abundant natural resources and the fast moving waters of the river and its tributaries fueled the nation's economic engine for centuries. Mines, factories, mills and forges sprung up across the region and helped make Southeastern Pennsylvania an industrial powerhouse and worldwide leader in the Industrial Revolution.
credit: Historical Society of Schuylkill County
Dozens of factories, forges, mills, and mines dotted the landscape and gave rise to technological innovations that would change the course of human history. Transportation networks traversed the landscape to deliver the goods these industrial giants produced to markets. Drawn by the abundant employment opportunities and the promise of a new life, immigrants from around the globe came to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area to find work and establish communities. These groups wove a rich tapestry of languages, foods, music, and arts up and down the river that made the Schuylkill a vibrant, diverse, and culturally significant region.
A wealth of resources
The unique geography and geology of the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont meant that Southeastern Pennsylvania was blessed with a number of fast moving water courses, abundant forests, and a variety of underground minerals. These resources attracted entrepreneurs and innovators who sought to harness the earth for economic and societal gain to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. The rugged limestone and granite peaks of the Kittatiny Ridge of the Appalachians cross the river in Schuylkill County and contained the nation's largest supply of anthracite coal within their folds. As the mountains flattened into a series of rolling hills and valleys on their way eastward, the limestone flattened into a thick slab that extended westward toward the Susquehanna. The limestone served to make the soil in Berks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties among the most fertile lands east of the Mississippi. The stone also provided settlers with a durable and abundant building material for their homes and barns. Iron ore, jasper, ochre, and other minerals were also found in abundance beneath the surface.
Mill at Anselma, Chester Sprigns
The waters that coursed out of the mountains and through the valleys powered the mills and factories that made these resources ready for consumption and then transported them to market in Philadelphia. The lush valleys of the Piedmont gradually turned into coastline and marshlands along the Delaware River in Philadelphia where wharves, docks, and other facilities waited to transport goods to markets around the world.
The diversity of the landscape and the variety of natural resources made the Schuylkill River Heritage Area ripe for the development of several important industries. The presence of iron ore helped make the region the most productive iron producer of all of the colonies. At the time of the American Revolution there were more ironworks in Pennsylvania than in all of the other colonies combined, and nearly 2/3 of them were in Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties.
Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train, Ashland
The discovery of anthracite coal in Schuylkill County in 1790 led to the development of one of the world's greatest industries and changed the way individuals heated their homes and factories powered their facilities. The iron and coal industries found a happy marriage with the development of steel technology and led to the large factory complexes in places like Reading, Birdsboro, Phoenixville, Conshohocken, and Philadelphia. At the turn of the 20th century Philadelphia was known as the "Workshop of the World" and was home to the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Stetson Hats, and a variety of knitting mills, breweries, and steel mills. Textile mills, tanneries, ship yards, and refineries and numerous other industries all used the river and its tributaries as a source of power.
Getting the goods to market
The success of industry depended almost entirely upon the ability of manufacturers to transport the products to market. The Schuylkill River served as the spine of a complex transportation network that
Schuylkill River Navigation Canal, Hamburg
extended from Philadelphia to Schuylkill County and that helped to usher in industrial innovation and growth of global significance. The discovery of coal prompted a number of Philadelphia merchants to establish the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1815 to undertake construction of one of the earliest canal and river navigation systems in the country. The Schuylkill Canal transported coal downstream and finished goods to upstream communities. The Canal was surpassed in the mid 1800s by railroads that could move goods and people over land faster and cheaper than by water. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was established in 1834 to haul coal from Schuylkill County via Reading and onto Philadelphia. In the 1870s, the P & R was the largest corporation in the world. By 1924 the railroad was composed of 24 separate lines and was renamed the Reading Company. The Reading went bankrupt in 1971, but today the Blue Mountain, Reading & Northern Railroad operates on a part of the original alignment in Berks and Schuylkill Counties, making it one of the oldest operating railroad alignments in the world. The Pennsylvania Railroad, also based in Philadelphia operated an extensive network along the Schuylkill, and sections of the Schuylkill Valley Branch became the 140-mile long Schuylkill River Trail that runs from Philadelphia to Pottsville.
Byzantine Male Choir, Schuylkill County
credit: Carrie Kline
It's the people that matter
The real success of the Industrial Revolution in the Schuylkill River Heritage Area should be attributed to the men and women who labored in its factories and mines. Immigrants from around the globe flooded the docks in Philadelphia and New York during the 19th and 20th centuries hoping to find work in the region's burgeoning mills and coal fields. In the anthracite region, German and Welsh miners helped to open the earliest mines and were quickly followed by Scots-Irish, Italians, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Greeks and others in record numbers. Each group spoke a different language, ate different foods, worshipped a different god, and yet coexisted in the same communities and shared similar experiences. This diversity was mirrored in communities up and down the river and today millions of Americans can trace their ancestral roots to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.