by Stephen D. Lane
You hear it all the time from fellow Juniata College students, a simple expression of slight dismay and frustration. “There’s just nothing here.” Whether referring to post-graduation employment opportunities or simply what to do on a Friday night, the “we are in the middle of nowhere” case is a big one in campus life today.
Unfortunately, speaking as a local, it can be very hard to find decent employment opportunities in the area, at least upon graduation of high school. However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, it is far from it. The whole county, even fifty years ago, was really quite a place to see. For the rest of the article we will be referring to the majority of the county, not just the immediate Huntingdon area.
Now let’s place ourselves into the shoes of a local high school boy, graduating with the class of 1925 from either the Huntingdon Area High School, Mount Union High School or, in the more southern end of the county, Orbisonia or Saltillo High Schools. Faced with the world at their feet, just like we all were at one time, these newly graduated students have a decision to make. What will I do and where will I work?
If you’re not concerned with going on to college, there are several opportunities for you. Everything from coal mining, logging, industrial factory work and railroading is available. Out of these, we can start with one of the better industries and professions to have: working at a railroad.
Trains are considered by a lot of people as an icon of the industrial revolution. It was the first technology that truly mobilized the transportation of goods at a fast pace and economical rate. The town of Huntingdon alone had three forms of rail transportation at one time. The first was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s major East-West Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route, which ran through the heart of Huntingdon with four mainline tracks. The second was the Huntingdon and Broad Top Mountain Railroad, which ran from the coalfields of the Broad Top Mountains to Huntingdon. There also existed a short trolley line from right outside of Founders Hall here at Juniata College to the train station area in Huntingdon.
Outside the town of Huntingdon there was the East Broad Top Railroad that ran again from the coalfields of the Broad Top Mountains to the town of Mount Union, Pa., roughly eleven miles east of Huntingdon. There were also numerous quarry and logging railroads throughout the county. Growing up in this area, you didn’t have to look too far if you wanted to become a railroader; it was a job that came with a great deal of respect at times.
The railroads were generally regarded as one of “the” places to find employment. Whether it was as a station agent or a fireman on a steam locomotive, you generally were paid well for the “at times” dangerous job you did. Physically demanding, a fireman on a manually loaded coal burning locomotive (most were during this time) could expect to shovel a few tons of coal a day to keep the steam pressure up on the mountainous territory the area railroads traversed. But whether a block operator at HUNT tower for the Pennsylvania Railroad or a brakeman on the East Broad Top, it was some of the better employment you could find in the area. Now, assuming working for the railroad was your No. 1 goal (we all have the No. 1 job right?), and you couldn’t get “in” with a railroad, you had many other options as well.
Bricktown USA, was the local name given to the town of Mount Union. The small town was labeled as the firebrick capital of the world, as three large brick furnaces existed here. The brickyards were the Harbison Walker Refractories, North American Refractories and the General Refractories Co. (locally known as the “Star Plant”). The brickyards were what truly built up the town of Mount Union, literally. Fair portions of the town and nearby villages owe a lot of their construction to the brickyards, as they are former brickyard company houses. They were modest and small, but they sufficed, and several families were raised in the quaint wooden houses. Many examples of these buildings exist in the area today.
In addition to the brickyards, Mount Union was quite an industrious town. If the choking dust of working around the kilns became too much, there was the Etna Explosives Plant nearby. This was a railroad tie manufacturing company, two brickyard-owned quarries, a few clothing factories, banks and a massive coal cleaning plant that cleaned the “semi bituminous” coal that the East Broad Top Railroad delivered to its northern terminal in Mount Union for shipment over the mainline. If you couldn’t find work in Mount Union, you weren’t looking.
Speaking of coal, that was what many people in the southern end of the county carved a living out of. A geographical anomaly, the Broad Top Coalfields are not connected to any other vein of bituminous coal, and they are isolated from the main coal veins in the Appalachian Mountain Range. The Broad Top coal was a sought after fuel, being it is from the “Semi-Bituminous” category. This means that it was low in volatiles (considered “smokeless”) and burned really hot. It was used in place of anthracite coal, a coal that gave considerably less heat.
Whether on the western or eastern side of the mountain, the men of the broad top risked a lot to provide for their families. Cave-ins, flooding and accidental explosions either from powder or methane gas were a few of the risks associated with the trade, not to mention the term that shook a lot of fear into many miners: getting a case of “Black Lung.” It was a trade that was dangerous, but it was a reliable means to provide for your family.
It’s not to say that the jobs in the area always involved manual labor and danger, there were plenty of jobs that were clerical, managerial and not dangerous at all. Additionally there was also a lot of wealth in the area, although it was a bit overshadowed by the common people. Take a walk sometime in downtown Huntingdon and try to trace the heritage of some of the buildings; what you find may surprise you.
History is for everyone; it’s the story of how we got to where we are today. You arrived to a college in an area that is rich in history, and although it seems a little murky as to what was here, you just have to look a little harder. Don’t believe a derelict building is an eyesore or a hindrance to progress, but rather a gravestone or memorial to those who came before you. After all, each and every one of us was just like the 1925 high school graduate described above with the world at our feet, looking for the best opportunity. What will you make your legacy a part of?
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 9 Campus Spin