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Governor Mifflin's First Coal Fire by Jonathan F. Kelley


It is truly astonishing, that the inexhaustible beds—mines of anthracite coal, lying along the Schuylkill river and ridges, valleys and mountains, from old Berks county to the mountains of Shamokin, were not found out and applied to domestic uses, fully fifty years before they were! Coal has been exhumed from the earth, and burned in forges and grates in Europe, from time immemorial, we think, yet we distinctly remember when a few canal boats only were engaged in transporting from the few mines that were open and worked along the Schuylkill—the comparatively few tons of anthracite coal consumed in Philadelphia, not sent away. As far back as 1820, we believe, there was but little if any coal shipped to Philadelphia, from the Schuylkill mines at all.

Our venerable friend, the still vivacious and clear-headed Col. Davis, of Delaware, gave us, a few years ago, a rather amusing account of the first successful attempt of a very distinguished old gentleman, Gov. Mifflin, to ignite a pile of stone coal. The date of the transaction, more's the pity, has escaped us, but the facts of the case are something after this fashion.

Gov. Mifflin, of Pennsylvania, lived and owned a fine estate in Mifflin county, and in which county was discovered from time to time, any quantity of black rock, as the farmers commonly called the then unknown anthracite. Of course, the old governor knew something about stone coal, and had a slight inkling of its character. At hours of leisure, the governor was in the habit of experimenting upon the black rocks by subjecting them to wood fire upon his hearths; but the hard, almost flint-like anthracite of that region resisted, with most obdurate pertinacity, the oft-repeated attempts of the governor to set it on fire. It finally became a joke among the neighboring Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, and others of the vicinity, that Gov. Mifflin was studying out a theory to set his hills and fields on fire, and burn out the obnoxious black rock and boulders. But, despite the jibes and jokes of his dogmatical friends, the old governor stuck to his experiments, and the result produced, as most generally it does through perseverance and practice, a new and useful fact, or principle.

One cold and wintry day, Gov. Mifflin was cosily perched up in his easy-chair, before the great roaring, blazing hickory fire, overhauling ponderous state documents, and deeply engrossed in the affairs of the people, when his eye caught the outline of a big black rock boulder upon the mantle-piece before him—it was a beautiful specimen of variegated anthracite, with all the hues of the rainbow beaming from its lacquered angles. The governor thought “a heap” of this specimen of the black rock, but dropping all the documents and State papers pell-mell upon the floor, he seized the piece of anthracite, and placing it carefully upon the blazing cross-sticks of the fire, in the most absorbed manner watched the operation. To his great delight the black rock was soon red hot—he called for his servant man, a sable son of Africa, or some down South Congo—


“Yes, sah, I'se heah, sah.”

“Isaac, run out to the carriage-house, and get a piece of that black rock.”

“Yes, sah, I'se gone.”

In a twinkling the negro had obtained a huge lump of the anthracite, and handing it over to the governor, it was placed in a favorable position alongside of the first lump, and the governor's eyes fairly danced polkas as he witnessed the fact of the two pieces of black rock assuming a red hot complexion.

“Isaac!” again exclaimed the governor.

“Yes, sah.”

“Run out—get another lump.”

“Yes, sah.”

A third lump was added to the fire; the company in the governor's private parlor was augmented by the appearance of the governor's lady and other portions of the family, who, seeing Isaac lugging in the rocks, came to the conclusion that the governor was going “clean crazy” over his experiments. It was in vain Mrs. Mifflin and the daughters tried to suspend the functions of the “chief magistrate,” over the roaring fire.

“Go away, women; what do you know about mineralogy, igniting anthracite? Go way; close the doors; I've got the rocks on fire—I'll make them laugh t'other side of their mouths, at my black rock fires!”

In the midst of the excitement, as the governor was perspiring and exulting over his fiery operation, a carriage drove up, and two gentlemen alighted, and desired an immediate audience with Gov. Mifflin; but so deeply engaged was the governor, that he refused the strangers an audience, and while directing Isaac to tell the strangers that they must “come to-morrow,” and while he continued to pile on more black rocks, brought in by Isaac, in rushed the strangers.

“Good day, governor; you must excuse us, but our business admits of no delay.”

“Can't help it, can't help you—see how it blazes, see how it burns!” cried the abstracted or mentally and physically absorbed governor.

“But, governor, the man may be hanged, if—”

“Let him be hanged—hurra! See how it burns; call in the neighbors; let them see my black rock fire. I knew I'd surprise them!”

“But, governor, will you please delay this—”

“Delay? No, not for the President of the United States. I've been trying this experiment for eight years. I've now succeeded—see, see how it burns! Run, Isaac, over to Dr. ——'s, tell him to come, stop in at Mr. S——'s, tell Mr. H——to come, come everybody—I've got the black rocks in a blaze!” And clapping on his hat, out ran the governor through the storm, down to the village, like a madman, leaving the strangers and part of his household as spectators of his fiery experiments. Just as the governor cleared his own door, a pedler wagon “drove up,” and the pedler, seeing the governor starting out in such double quick time, hailed him.

“Hel-lo! Sa-a-a-y, yeou heold on—yeou the guv'ner?”

“Clear out!” roared the chief magistrate.

“Shain't deu nothin' of the sort, no how!” says the pedler, dismounting from his wagon, and making his appearance at the front door, where he encountered the two rather astonished strangers—legal gentlemen of some eminence, from Harrisburg, with a petition for the respite of execution.

“Halloo! which o' yeou be the guv'ner?” says the pedler.

“Neither of us,” replied the gentlemen; “that was the governor you spoke to as you drove up.”

“Yeou dun't say so! Wall, he was pesky mad about som'-thin'. What on airth ails the ole feller?”

“Can't say,” was the response; “but here he comes again.”

“Now, now come in, come in and see for yourselves,” cried the excited Governor of the great Key Stone State; “there's a roaring fire of burning, blazing, black rock, anthracite coal!”

But, alas! the cross sticks having given away in the interim, and the coal being thrown down upon the ashes and stone hearth,—was all out!

“Wall,” says our migratory Yankee, who followed the crowd into the house, “I guess I know what yeou be at, guv'ner, but I'll tell yeou naow, yeou can't begin to keep that darn'd hard stuff burning, 'less yeou fix it up in a grate, like, gin it air, and an almighty draught; yeou see, guv'ner, I've been making experiments a darn'd long while with it!”

The laugh of the governor's friends subsided as the pedler went into a practical theory on burning stone coal; the respite was signed—hospitalities of the mansion extended to all present, and in course of a few days, our Yankee and the governor rigged up a grate, and soon settled the question—will our black rocks burn?


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