Sunday, November 4, 2018

Graceton Coke Works

Today I headed up to Graceton to check out the remaining set of coke ovens. Apparently this area has been sold to a coal company and it is going to be stripped in the future. If that's the case, these ovens days are numbered. 


The mines at Graceton had two sets of coke ovens. There was this set and another plant a little further north. The other set has been totally reclaimed and there is no indication of any ovens ever being there. Most likely the ovens we visited today were the original ovens at Graceton.  


This 1939 aerial shows the coke plants at Graceton. Even then, the older coke ovens don't look like they have been used for many years. All the action appears to be taking place at the (now) reclaimed area to the north. To add to the confusion, Rosebud is currently mining in the reclaimed section so access is not possible.


Today we were concentrating on the remaining ovens which are located in the old section.  The mines and coke works at Graceton are very old. This was the very first coking operation in Indiana County. The mines worked the Upper Freeport Seam and apparently made a high quality coke. 


The following history of the Graceton Mines and Coke Works was compiled by Ray Washlaski and was originally featured on his PA, The Old Miner website. The website was taken down about a year ago because Roots Web and discontinued the service. In doing so, they robbed our area of a very vital resource. Ray's history of Graceton is very detailed and I think it's very important to keep it available.



By 1886, however, the first stirrings of a future coke industry were felt a few miles from Blairsville. That year, George A. Mikesell, a successful farmer, decided to expand his local coal business by building 12 bee-hive coke ovens on his land nine miles from Indiana. Firebrick for Mikesell's bee-hive coke ovens were made at the Black Lick brickyard by Meldron and Company. 
Once completed, the tiny battery of beehive coke ovens were charged with local coal, and in the summer of 1887, the first coke made in Indiana County was pulled from the coke ovens on Mikesell's property. Later, additional coal to supply the coke ovens was leased from small mines at nearby Reed. An initial load of coke, sold to the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown, proved satisfactory, and soon the plot of ground on which the ovens sat had a name; the little plant and the surrounding area became appropriately known as "Mikesell Station."

 Encouraged by his early success, George Mikesell slowly acquired an increasing number of customers for his coke in the area foundries. But after only a year in the coke business, limited capital forced him to sell his mine and coke ovens to J. M. Guthrie, Jacob Graff, and G. T. Kirkland, doing business under the name Guthrie, Graff & Company, who by October, 1888 had constructed an additional 37 bee-hive coke ovens near the site of the Mikesell Coke Works.  

 In ca.1890, ownership of Indiana County's first coke ovens changed hands again. That year, Guthrie, Graff and Kirkland, having tried their hands at the coke business, sold their interests to a firm composed of J. W. Moore of Greensburg, John McCreary, and Harry McCreary. Under the direction of the new owners, George Mikesell's original string of 12 beehive coke ovens was enlarged to 15 and "Coke Plant No. 2" was planned and put under construction. Eventually, the number of beehive coke ovens totaled 202. At the same time, the company owned coal patch town of Graceton came into existence to house the immigrate coal and coke workers who came to work at the mines and coke ovens.
Harry McCreary, although not yet 30 years old at the time of his venture into Indiana County coke production, was no stranger to beehive ovens. After completing a course of study at the Utica (New York) Business College, young McCreary secured a position as secretary and manager of the properties of J. W. Moore, a successful Connellsville coke operator. During those years, J. W. Moore and his brother owned a large coke plant near Uniontown.  In 1885, Moore began the development of his coking coal lands in Westmoreland County. At that site, Harry McCreary was given the responsibility of construction of 500 ovens at two plants known as Mammoth No. 1 and No. 2. During the building, young McCreary became familiar with all aspects of the coke industry.  In 1889, J. W. Moore sold his Westmoreland coke facilities to the formidable Henry Clay Frick and H. C. Frick Coke Company of Scottdale, PA. The selling price was reputedly $1,250,000 surely a testimony to the capability of McCreary's management of the properties. Therefore, after the sale, Frick asked McCreary to remain as manager of the plants, and offered an increased salary. Having completed six months in that capacity, however, young Harry decided to join J. W. Moore, his former employer, as a full partner in the McCreary Coke Company.

[from "The Indiana Democrat," Indiana, PA, Thurs., March 26, 1891.]
Our reporter visited the new and thriving town of Graceton on Saturday and found the Messrs. McCreary busily engaged in making out the pay rolls for the present month, for the McCreary Coke Co., putting each employees money in neat envelopes for delivery during the afternoon.  There is now 150 employees on the pay roll regularly besides some others who work transiently.  The pay roll this month amounts to $6,000 in round figures, besides the bills incurred during the month at the store.
The entire plant is now in operation with the exception of 24 ovens in the new works, and they will  be fired just as soon as competent and reliable miners can be secured, which will give a grand total of 190 ovens.  Work on the upper end of the new plant will commence as soon as spring opens, and 60 more new ovens will be built during the summer.
The first mail was delivered to the Graceton post office on Saturday.  The office will have two mails a day each way.
The railroad gang under the direction of our friend Eph. Eckman were busily engaged setting the corner stones on the lot of ground donated by the company for the railroad station.  A passenger and freight station will be erected as soon as possible.  The old station at Ransom's has been moved up to Graceton to serve temporarily until the new station is built.  The water plug will also be moved in a short time so that engines can take water while waiting at the station.
The McCreary Coke Co. have also generously donated the use of one of their buildings to Rev. Father Toney, who has taken possession and fitted it up handsomely with alters, confessional, baptismal fort and seats for the congregation, and at 8 o'clock on Sunday last, Palm Sunday, the new church was dedicated to the worship of God, with impressive ceremonies, the bell was blessed and a number of children baptized.  Father Toner has already gathered a congregation of 150 souls together and proposes to hold services regularly every Sunday.  The Choir of St. Bernard's church of this place were present, and sung a high mass.  Father desires to acknowledge the many courtesies and kindness he has received from the McCreary Coke Co. and a number of citizens of Graceton, and especially returns thanks to Mr. Buttrbaugh for the use of his organ in the church.
A number of new houses will be built this summer by the company, and the surroundings of all will be improved.  It is expected that some arrangements will be made to furnish a supply of good water, as the well water is not of good quality and has caused a great deal of sickness.
Before the summer ends Graceton will have 600 inhabitants.
[from "The Indiana Democrat," Indiana, PA, Thurs., March 26, 1891.]

[from "The Indiana Progress," Indiana, PA, Sept. 16, 1891.]
Twenty Huns Fight Among Themselves - Two Huns Hurt and a House Badly Used Up.
On last Saturday night between the hours of eleven and twelve, the thriving little town of Graceton was awakened by loud yells from the Hungarian neighborhood of the No. 1 coke works.
It was soon found that they were in a rough-tumble fight. Pokers and coke forks figured very prominently in the drama.  John Smith was struck a severe blow on the head with a poker, and, as a consequence, he is nursing a very sore head.  George Gavosky was struck below the eye with a coke fork and several others were more or less hurt.  All this took place in front of Mike Katkos' house, which did not own a pane of glass or a door when the muss was over.  The Huns didn't leave their quarters during the fight and no persons except them were mixed up in the affair.
An interview with Mr. Roalley, the manager of the company store, proves that whiskey and beer was the cause of all this trouble.  The Huns received thirty gallons of whiskey and eleven kegs of beer by freight that evening.  Everything is quiet now, but for a short time outsiders doubted the safety the town.
[from "The Indiana Progress," Indiana, PA, Sept. 16, 1891.]

 Albert "Led" Oswalt has spent his entire life at Graceton, and most residents know him best in his role as community postmaster. "Led" explains that, at first, Graceton was known as "Ransom." "When the Pennsylvania Railroad went-through between Blairsville and Indiana, there were no towns at all along the line -- just stations. There was Reed Station, and Rugh Station, and where Graceton is now, that was called Ransom Station. So when Harry McCreary applied to establish a post office here, he put 'Ransom' on the blank, but the application was returned because there was already a town of that name in the hard coal region. So they named the town Graceton. Many people believe that the town was named for a member of the McCreary family, but really, it's a mystery where the name came from. At any rate, the first post office was established here in 1892, and Harry McCreary was the first postmaster."  Following the pattern of earlier Jefferson County coal and coke towns, the coal company owned coal patch houses at Graceton to shelter families of immigrants who came seeking employment. An 1890 edition of the Indiana Times noted that "there are 200 Italian employees at the old Mikesell Coke Works."
At Graceton, serious problems with the coal claimed the attention of the new owners. Graceton coal contained a higher percentage of impurities than that of its competitors in the Connellsville region. For the first few months, McCreary made coke with coal just as it came from the mines at Graceton, but the resulting product was less than satisfactory. In 1894, after several experiments, McCreary adapted plans for a coal washing plant which cleaned the coal of much of its slate and pyrites before being charged into the coke ovens.   The coal washing system gave dramatic results, and within a short time, advertising circulars billed Graceton Coke as the "best in the world." 
In the midst of Harry McCreary's success, tragedy struck. Late in 1898 the coal washer at the Graceton plant burned. Undaunted, the young coke producer started over again, and four months after the fire another coal washer stood on the same spot, rumbling thunderously as it processed clean coal for the ovens.
On Jan. 1, 1900, the Graceton Coke Works changed hands once more. On that date, Harry McCreary, having bought out J. W. Moore's share of the McCreary Coke Company, sold the business to Youngstown Steel Company, whose investors renamed the plant "The Graceton Coke Company." The property on the day of transfer consisted of the two coke plants totaling 200 bee-hive coke ovens, "the best coal washer in the county," company store, and "company houses enough to accommodate 200 families," and 800 acres of coal lands.  Shortly after the purchase, the Indiana County Gazette reported: "There are no dull seasons at Graceton. The market for the product is always sure, as the owners of the plant, the Youngstown Steel Company, burn the Graceton produced coke in their own blast furnaces, which are rarely idle. The coke ovens at Graceton are under the management of a skillful coke maker, Colonel Everhart Bierer. Colonel Bierer received his training as an engineer and coke man in the Connellsville field. At the two plants, 300 men are employed. The steel company gives Superintendent Bierer a free hand in the management, and simply ask for results; and they get them in quantity and quality a coke unsurpassed anywhere in the United States."
By ca.1904, Youngstown Steel Company had purchased another 3,500 acres of coal lands around Graceton and was building more bee-hive coke ovens and a newer coal washer plant at the Graceton Mine.
Production at the Graceton Mine & Coke Works in ca.1907 totaled over 143,000 tons of coal, making 87,000 tons of coke in 202 working bee-hive coke ovens.
When the Graceton Mine & Coke Works was purchased by Youngstown Steel Company, the small coal company patch town of Graceton was filling up rapidly.
By ca.1908, the Graceton Coke Company, under the ownership of Youngstown Steel, was kept busy filling orders in New Jersey and New England. Locally, the Indiana Foundry, manufacturers of sand-drying stoves and many other articles, claimed that the Graceton coke was "better than Connellsville." For nearly 20 years, the Graceton Coke Company continued to produce "low-ash, high-carbon, low-sulphur foundry coke." Under the direction of superintendent C. M. Lingle, "business boomed," and "20 large coke hopper cars were sent out daily." 
In ca.1914 business was being done as the Graceton Coke Company.  Output from the Graceton No. 1 Mine and Graceton No. 2 Mine totalled 188,000 tons of coal and 67,000 tons of coke.  Employees numbered 290, of whom 159 of the men and boys were miners.
[from the "Indiana Evening Gazette," Indiana, PA, July 6, 1909.]
The Slayer of Little Glen Johnston Gets the Law's Limit.
Lou Williams, convicted of manslaughter for killing little Glen Johnston at Rossiter, was sentenced to pay a fine of $100, the costs of prosecution, and to undergo imprisonment in the Western penitentiary for a term of 12 years.
Mike Boloski, who plead guilty of manslaughter for killing George Fetset at Graceton, was sentenced to pay a fine of $100, and the costs of prosecution, and to undergo imprisonment in the Western penitentiary for a term of 12 years.
[from the "Indiana Evening Gazette," Indiana, PA, July 6, 1909.]
[from the "Indiana Evening Gazette," Indiana, PA, Aug. 18, 1913.]
The Graceton Coke Company, Graceton, Indiana county, Pa., has resumed operations after an idleness of some months during which time a serious fire was being fought by drilling holes and flooding the mines with water.  The mines produce 200,000 tons of coal from which coke is made and a limited tonnage of coal sold at low figures, as a rule.
[from the "Indiana Evening Gazette," Indiana, PA, Aug. 18, 1913.]
In the summer of 1920, the Graceton Coal & Coke plants and the town of Graceton at the old Mikesell Station were transferred a fourth time.
A July issue of the "Indiana Evening Gazette" told the story:
"Graceton Coke is sold to New York Interests: Vinton Colliery Company, New York City, N.Y., the Graceton plant with all machinery and equipment, and houses, was acquired by Warren Delano and associates. The price is estimated to be three quarters of a million dollars. Mr. Delano (an uncle of FDR) has other interests in Indiana County," and Cambria County. After the purchase, the name of the plant was changed to Graceton Coal and Coke Company.
[from the "Indiana Weekly Messenger," Indiana, PA, Sept. 21, 1922.]
The KKK have made their appearance in Blacklick.  On Saturday night the usual symbol of the order, the burning cross, was seen on the hillside near Grafton.  There is siad to be about one hundred members of the Klan in this vicinity.  There is quite a bit of excitement over the appearance of the Klan.
[from the "Indiana Weekly Messenger," Indiana, PA, Sept. 21, 1922.]
[from the "Indiana Weekly Messenger," Indiana, PA, Thurs., Feb. 22, 1923.]
A. R. Laughrey Killed in Graceton Mine.
Allison Robert Laughery, aged 69 years, son of the late Joseph Laughery, of Marion Center and himself a former resident of White township, for many years, was instantly killed in Mine No. 3 at Graceton Saturday afternoon at four o'clock.
Employed as a driver, Mr. Laughrty was coming to the main haulage with his l;ast car, he fell in front of the car and was ground to death beneath the wheels.  His body was found a few minutes later by fellow employees.  He was alone at the time of the accident and just how it occurred will probably never be learned.
Mr. Laughery had been living at Graceton, where he was a steady and faithful employee of the Graceton Coke Company for the past 25 years.  He was born in Marion Center on January 9, 1854 and grew to young manhood in that borough.  He leaves his widow, Mrs. Margaret Lamison Laughrey and one daughter, Mrs Harry Coy and these sisters.  Mrs. John R. Haight of Vandergrift, and Mrs. Jennie Butler of Leechburg.
Funeral services were conducted at his late home Tuesday afternoon at 1:30 o'clock by Rev. T. J. Chilcote, pastor of the Homer City Methodist Episcopal church.  Interment was in the Oakland cemetery here.
[from the "Indiana Weekly Messenger," Indiana, PA, Thurs., Feb. 22, 1923.]

[from "The Indiana Progress," Indiana, PA, April 25, 1923.]
John Sholik, of Graceton, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of removing checks from mine cars to defraud.  Sentence was suspended on payment of costs of prosecution, and $25 to the Graceton Coal & Coke Company in reimbursement.
[from "The Indiana Progress," Indiana, PA, April 25, 1923.]
In 1929 production at Graceton Coal & Coke Company had fallen to 126,000 tons of coal, and 33,000 tons of coke.  Only 110 of the 201 bee-hive coke ovens were in use.  Employment had dropped to 220 men and boys.
Throughout the twenties, sales of coke at Graceton fluctuated with the market.
Most of the Graceton Coke ovens were shut down.
By early 1935, only eight ovens were in operation; most had been shut down since 1932.
"In June, 1936, "Led" Oswalt says, "the Graceton Coal and Coke Company went bankrupt. In August, 1936, the company's stock was sold at a receivership in front of the company store. Four men bought the plant; one of them was Abe Light of Punxsutawney. Then the name was changed again to 'Coal Mining Company of Graceton.'  "For a while," Oswalt continues, "things were at a standstill; the coal and coke business was really bad.
Then World War II broke out and coke was in demand again. Mr. Light bought out the other three men and made coke throughout the war with the plant operating at capacity. 
"After the war, the Coal Mining Company of Graceton leased the ovens to someone else for a couple of years, but the last men to operate the beehives at Graceton were Smith and Burns, who leased them from the Coal Mining Company of Graceton. They produced coke for eight or ten years.
Finally, in March, 1953, the Graceton coke ovens cooled off for good.

During the years of coke production at the Graceton Coke Works, a second beehive coke operation existed just a few miles south. In ca.1880, the Indiana Coal and Coke Company was founded by Jacob and Paul Graff, J. M. Guthrie, G. W. Hoover, John Elkin, and John R. Caldwell. In the next few years, 24 coke ovens were built on the site and a tiny company town of six houses was established. Named "Oklahoma," the settlement housed coke workers from the Indiana Coal and Coke Company plant.
The beehive ovens at Oklahoma were also destined to undergo several transfers of ownership. In 1902, Harry McCreary again entered the coal and coke business with the purchase of the Indiana Coal and Coke Company lands, tipple, and houses. In addition, McCreary purchased 6,000 more acres of adjoining coal lands. Upon completion of all his transactions, McCreary sold the entire parcel of property to Joseph Wharton, a Philadelphia investor whose corporation also owned an iron foundry in Wharton, New Jersey.   By ca.1902, the name of the plant and town had been changed to "Coral" local folklore says that the name was derived from the statement of a "oldtime coal prospector." This individual, evidently a far-sighted man, remarked to an early oral historian, "the coal and clay hereabouts will be as valuable as Coral."
On acquisition of the Coral properties, Joseph Wharton was understandably anxious to secure the best management for his new plant, and persuaded McCreary to remain as temporary superintendent. By late 1903, 300 ovens and 150 company houses stood at the location. His work completed, Harry McCreary resigned his position with the Wharton corporation; he was succeeded by Thomas Murray.

(History of the Graceton Mines & Coke Works, Graceton, Center Twp., Indiana Co., PA, adapted with additional data from "Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company, The First One Hundred Years," by Eileen Mountjoy Cooper,  formerly of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.  Published by Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company, 1982.) ("History of Coke" by Eileen Mountjoy Cooper,  formerly of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA. Published on-line in the series "Coal Dust: The Early Mining Industry of Indiana County" by the Special Collections & Archives Indiana University Library, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.)
(History and description of the Graceton Mines, adapted with additional data  from "Indiana County, Pennsylvania: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, 1993,"  America's Industrial Heitage Project, National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record, U.S. Department of the Interior, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)


A portion of the 1902 Indiana, PA topographic map showing the two sets of coke ovens at Graceton. The ovens we explored today are the smaller set just below the word "Graceton" on the map.

 Most of the following photos were from Ray's website and most were credited to the Homer City Historical Society. Also, a couple of them I obtained from eBay.

Graceton Coke Company Mine. Year not listed. This would most likely be the area north of where we were that has been reclaimed.

Another view of the mine.

No. 3 Mine at Graceton in 1908.

Pit mouth of one of the Graceton mines.

Graceton mining engineer. Year not noted.

Pit mouth at one of the Graceton Mines. This is very likely the entrance behind the ovens we were at today. When I was walking behind the ovens looking for the mine entrance, I came to an area that looked very similar to this photo terrain wise. The entrance itself is buried but the way these walls make an upside down "V" shape toward the entrance is almost identical to the terrain I was looking at today. The walls are gone but there is a good bit of stone still clinging to the hills.

Graceton Mine Executives. Year not noted.

Inside of one the Graceton Mines.

Pit Mouth No. 3 Mine 1907.

No caption was attached to this photo.

Early Graceton tipple. This is most likely the area we were at today.

This is what is left there.



Approaching the remaining ovens.

The front's are all gone but what remains is in fairly good condition.

This block arch remains but the back of the oven has collapsed.

The layout here is pretty identifiable. Here, I am standing in the coke yard. The ovens are to the right and the railroad siding is to the left.

Looking down the railroad siding where the coke was loaded onto the trains.

Looking at some of the ovens that are in worse condition.

A big pile of old coke oven blocks.

A bunch of coke still sitting in the yard.

This is looking back up. The ovens are on the left and the branch is on the right.

Railroad siding full of old tires.

This is the certainly the most intact oven remaining.

Another view of the intact arch. The back of the oven has fallen in but the front shows a great example of the beehive shape where these ovens got their name.

Inside the most intact oven.

This shows an excellent example of how these ovens were constructed. At the bottom the brick remains. At the top all that remains is the clay that was used to help insulate the oven. These ovens were constructed out of brick, when they were done, they were buried with a layer of clay followed by dirt. In a lot of cases, the only thing identifiable about a former coke plant is the out line of the oven in the clay.

This is a piece of an old foundation on the other side of the railroad siding.

This appears to be the end of this bank of ovens.

An old section of railroad track sticking out of the ground.

Made it over to the old foundation.

Near the old foundation is a remaining section of the pier wall that would have lined the entire length of the railroad siding.

The rest of this stone wall was probably carted off to use for different construction. I have no idea why this section was left behind.

An engraved piece of coke oven block.

Looking over at Graceton. The Homer City generation plant is in the background.

A rainbow over Graceton.

One of the circa 1890 coal company houses at Graceton.

These two photos are a little further down the road. They show the location of the former Coral coke plant.

A new industrial park is in the works at one part of the old Coral Coke Works.

1939 aerial showing the old Coral plant when it was still active. This had to have been a massive reclamation project.



  1. Very interesting. My wife has family living in Blacklick. This past winter I hauled coal just for a bit for Rosebud out of Brush Valley to Dutch Run...and a few other places. Also hauled boney to Homer City generation plant. I love spotting those spoiles piles, indentations in the hillside, or old and fallen structures identifying what once was.

  2. Nicely done, as always!!! Nice picture with the generating station in the background, good juxtaposition of the old and new (newer?). I remember the electric generating station being built in the 1960s.