History of the Mine Part 2 Tower Hill 2 Mine & Coke Ovens, Tower Hill Pennsylvania

From the outset, the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coke Company planned to use the new, technologically-advanced rectangular coke ovens at both their No. 1 and 2 plants. W.J. Rainey first experimented with rectangular, or push, ovens at Mt. Braddock in 1905-06. Rectangular ovens are similar in function to beehive ovens except they are mechanically emptied, rather than hand drawn. Rectangular ovens cost more to install, but they were more economical to operate, saving money in the long run. Workers could draw the coke from a rectangular oven in two minutes, as opposed to 2-3 hours for hand-drawing a beehive oven. Also, the rectangular ovens had a larger load capacity. The rectangular ovens built at J.V. Thompson's Tower Hill and Thompson mines were the first ovens in the Klondike constructed for machine drawing. The technology became standard after H.C. Frick adopted it the following year. Eventually, 2,666 of the 28,000 ovens built in the Klondike were machine drawn rectangular design.

By 1913, the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coke Company had became the third largest coal producer in the 16th Bituminous District, producing 621,278 tons. Top producer H.C. Frick mined 1,168,951 tons. However, when all of Thompson's operations in the district are combined, the Tower Hill-Connellsville Plants, the Thompson-Connellsville plants, and the Isabella-Connellsville plant totals surpassed the Frick Company with an output of 1,442,460 tons.

By 1914, J.V. Thompson had assumed the presidency of the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coke Company. He was by far the largest owner of coking coal lands in the world and had successfully extended his control to the burgeoning coal lands in Greene and Washington Counties. Thompson's position enabled him to dictate who the players in the coke market would be, threatening the dominance of H.C. Frick.

The inspection reports for Tower Hill No. 1 and No. 2 reveal numerous improvements to the premises during the first ten years. These improvements included: new overcasts and stoppings; larger capacity sprinklers and pumps for the ovens; larger circulation fans in the fan houses; additional coke ovens; and compressed air, and later, electric narrow gauge railroads for hauling coal.

Coke markets were particularly volatile just before World War I due to controversy over conflicting regulations and the government's inability to curb over-development in the industry. This volatility resulted in underemployment and low coke prices. Investors and creditors became more cautious during this period, a time when Thompson needed capital because he had over-extended his land investments. Thompson was forced to accept interest rates as high as thirty percent on his borrowed money. His institution, the First National Bank of Uniontown, similarly could not borrow money to meet its debt obligation to Andrew Mellon's Union Trust Bank At the same time, many small depositors, who were nervous about their investments, initiated a run on the First National Bank. Federal regulators closed the bank on January 18, 1915, sending all of J.V. Thompson's assets, including the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coke Company, into receivership. Although Thompson's assets, valued at $70,000,000, greatly exceeded his liabilities, J.V. Thompson was forced into bankruptcy because he was not able to convert his vast real estate holdings into cash. Frick and other coal barons waited for Thompson's lands to be marketed at sacrifice prices before purchasing them. This ended Thompson's dominance over the coking industry.


Tower Hill No. 2 continued to operate with a surprising degree of regularity during the four-year receivership of J.V. Thompson's assets. Coke production was low, 35,999 tons in 1915, but jumped to nearly six times that amount the following year. Because of war-related manufacturing, 1916 marked the peak of U.S. coke production. By 1917, the President had to establish a price ceiling of six dollars/ton due to the high demand for coke. Tower Hill No. 2 continued to prosper and coked 234,632 tons of coal the following year.

The Piedmont Coal Company bought out many of J.V. Thompson's holdings in 1919 for the sum of $5,500,000. Included in the deal were 9,000 shares of preferred stock and 4,000 shares of common stock in the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coal Company. One year later, Piedmont transferred all of Thompson's former assets in Fayette, Beaver and Allegheny Counties to the Gallatin Land Company, probably a subsidiary company. Piedmont hired J.V. Thompson as a salesman for a time after his bankruptcy.

Stock in the Tower Hill-Connellsville Coke Company rapidly changed hands after the 1919 buyout, fueling suspicions among Thompson loyalists that a steel-backed conspiracy was in progress. Tower Hill No. 1 was sold to the Eastern Coke Company. The Hillman Coal and Coke Company acquired controlling interest of Tower Hill No. 2 in 1920. Formerly called the United Coal Corporation, Hillman was affiliated with industrialist J.R. Nutt of Cleveland. The purchase of Tower Hill No. 2 brought Hillman's ownership up to 23 mines with a 6,000,000 ton capacity. Hillman also bought the Thompson-Connellsville Coke Company and the Isabella-Connellsville Coke Company. Although the plants had not had the benefit of capital investment since before 1915, they remained among the largest and most modern operations in the Klondike. Hillman upgraded Tower Hill No. 2 with electrical power during 1920-21.

The conclusion of World War I brought about radical changes in the coal and coke industry that affected operators and workers alike. Competition brought about the trend of mines becoming captive (allied with) to steel companies, as Hillman did with Pittsburgh Steel. The conclusion of the war also brought about changes in demand and supply. To curb post-war overproduction, in December, 1919 the Fuel Administration ordered coke producers to curtail their production to 50 percent of the previous month. The order rendered many workers idle. In 1922, workers in the Klondike went on strike after a market collapse caused wages to plummet. Some violence associated with the strike did occur at Tower Hill No. 1 in April, 1922, but the No. 2 plant's role in the strike is not known. Many Fayette County mines shut down entirely in the early 1920s. Although Tower Hill No. 2's production fell by half in the years before the strike, it managed to maintain a moderate level of output, probably due to its captive status.

Adding to the upheaval caused by various strikes were technological changes which would redefine the coke production process. The major advance was the invention of the byproduct, or retort oven, which captured the chemicals and gases which were released from coal as it burned into coke. World War I had brought forth marketable uses and high demand for these gases and chemicals. With materials such as oven gas, ammonia, light oils and coal tars accounting for as much sales value as the coke they came from, beehive ovens became intolerably wasteful in the post-war economy. The new ovens also yielded 6-8 percent more coke per ton of coal. For a number of reasons these by-product ovens were not constructed at the site, one being that they were very expensive to build, costing $12,000-$18,000 compared with $700-$800 for the beehive. With the Connellsville Coke District nearly mined out, steel companies decided to install the new ovens at their steel plants and ship raw coal in from the various mines. Thus, the beehives rapidly fell into disuse during the 1920s. Also detracting from the Connellsville district's competitiveness was that the byproduct ovens did not require as pure a coal as existed in the District to make high quality coke. They could use coal from any convenient and economical source, giving upstart Southern Appalachian operators a toehold in the market.

A strike in 1922 pitted the union mines against the non-union and non-mechanized mines (particularly prevalent in the South and West) which were driving down prices for everyone. No longer able to turn a profit under their wage agreements, many union mines began to close down. Tower Hill No. 2, being still non-union and captive, enjoyed increased production until 1927. Eventually, a miner's strike during 1927-28 shut down production in all mines. Tower Hill No. 2's output in 1928 was nearly one-quarter that of the previous years. The bituminous coal and coke industry entered a virtual state of collapse during the Great Depression. The year 1932 marks the nadir of the crisis. Together, Tower Hill No. 1 and 2 produced only 258 tons in that year.

Tower Hill's beehive ovens appear to have been abandoned around 1927, and the rectangular ovens were used exclusively afterwards. During periods of high demand, such as World War II, beehive ovens were often pressed back into service. This does not appear to have been the case at Tower Hill No. 2. However, during strikes or times of economic distress, homeless families and single men, made homes out of the old beehive shells. The practice was surprisingly common throughout the Connellsville District during the Great Depression, which hit Fayette County particularly hard. During the depression, men who had families to support received preference in hiring. However, almost everyone in the patch had to go on relief in the early 1930s. In the late 1930s, rail sidings accessing the beehive ovens were removed and bricks from some of the oven facades were removed to build retaining walls in the company town.

With new despairs engendered by the Depression, United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis began a recruitment drive to unionize the Connellsville District and the captive mines after the passage of the National Industrial Relations Act under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program. Miners at captive mines desired affiliation with the UMWA, and called a wildcat strike in Fayette, Westmoreland and Greene Counties when the operators refused to recognize the union. Close to 30,000 workers walked out during this drive. Although Tower Hill did not operate at all from 1933-35, its workers appeared to have unionized during this time. In November of 1933, all the coke fields (except Frick's) succeeded in unionizing. Each year after that, Tower Hill No. 2 workers held a parade on Mitchell Day to celebrate unionization.

World War II brought about a need to drastically increase production of iron and steel for war materials, leaving coke producers scrambling to meet the sudden demand. Production figures for the Tower Hill No. 2 group (which by then included Tower Hill No. 1 and Thompson No. 1) increased as much as 750 percent in the war years over the level when the conglomerate reopened in 1936 after the Depression. Another national miner's strike occurred in 1942-43. It was not severely felt at Tower Hill, possibly because the local union leaders were called up for the draft. After the war ended, the mine closed since its coal supply was depleted. The ovens, however, continued to operate for a time to coke coal trucked in from other Hillman mines, before they closed in the mid-1940s. Today, coal is still mined in the Connellsville district, but on a much reduced scale. The industry is highly mechanized and only employs a small number of people in southwestern Pennsylvania.