September 15, 2018
Before we left West Newton, in the Ruritans’ reclaimed rail car, we learned about some of the sights we were to see along our way toward Connellsville. There’s a lot of history along the GAP trail that is worth at least a fleeting glance, so a rider can understand the context of the trail’s roots and bones, rising from its origin as a railroad bed.
When talking about The Ruins Project in the most recent post, I mentioned the town of Whitsett (MP 103). As a traditional “company town,” Whitsett is a living example of the “cracker-box” houses that were owned by the company, along with the infamous “company store.” In the song Sixteen Tons, the singer says, “I owe my soul to the company store”—not an uncommon situation in which many of the coal mine workers found themselves. Because goods in the company store were tremendously expensive, most miner families had to buy food and goods on credit, ending up owing the mining company more than their wages, and plunging them into indentured servitude.
But Whitsett is known for another reason: the populace is extremely proud that the town has always been an integrated community. Neighbors in Whitsett have watched out for and stood by one another through many hard times. The floods of 1936, ’54, and ’72, plus two train derailments (1947 & 1974) brought distress to the families of Whitsett. But the town has become more closely-knit, and today is known, among other things, for generating some of the finest amateur baseball teams known.
Early in our ride, I stopped to see this marked feature along the trail (marked with a post and the words “Mailbox Formation”). It was pretty cool.
A tufa is a rare formation of limestone that grows out of fresh water seeping through the ground outside of a cave (as the water warms, calcium carbonate emerges and fossilizes, covering anything it falls upon, drip by drip). It’s like the deposits found in caves (stalactites and stalagmites) but without the protection of the surrounding rock. A tufa is exposed to and vulnerable to the elements.
To teachers, students, and naturalists interested in geology, it is a delicate outdoor classroom—it’s difficult to ‘get’ geology indoors because of its scale (this tufa stands 37 feet tall). To archeologists, the tufa is a scrapbook: layers upon layers of calcium salts have trapped the history of the last 18,000 years. Every day, something else disappears (and is preserved) under the constant, slow, drip, drip. For example, dust from passing trains in the 30s; from distant volcanic eruptions; even from the first atomic tests in the 40s—could be recovered and studied, telling tales and stories intimate to the era in which it has been preserved.
As such, the tufa is vulnerable to destruction by curious visitors, fertilizer runoff, logging activities, pipelines, and exploration. Therefore, not many of the locals let folks like us know exactly where it is, because its fragile situation is quite close to the trail. Happily, it is difficult to see and to find, and it’s on private property.
I did try to find something like what I’d read about and seen in an old newspaper article. But what I saw and photographed (and intentionally left off here) might simply have been a slow-moving spring polluted by a long-gone mining operation. I mention it because it’s interesting, but I leave the photo out so the tufa won’t be destroyed by folks as curious as I am.
In the industry’s heyday, hundreds of these beehive-shaped ovens would be burning, all in a long row (for ease of loading coal from rail cars into the ovens; and then for transfer of the coke back to rail cars to head up to Pittsburgh for steel-making). Elder residents can remember the coke ovens lighting up the night sky. The area around MP 89 and Connellsville became known as Dante’s Inferno.
A fellow named Cochran, who lived in nearby Dawson, had discovered how to make coke from coal around the 1840s. The key was a small, dome-shaped oven, modeled after bread ovens. For nearly 100 years afterward, coke ovens (also called “beehive ovens”) were in use along the Yough River (until about 1930). Cochran’s method was the biggest industrial discovery ever made along this section of the GAP trail, and resulted in the greatest number of millionaires per capita residing in the geography between Connellsville to Perryopolis than anywhere in the United States. At one time, 13,000 bushels of coke were boated from Connellsville to Cincinnati.
Here’s a brief primer on coal, coke, and steel.
Bituminous coal (black coal) is relatively soft, and contains a tar-like substance called bitumen (asphalt). Bituminous coal is of higher quality than lignite coal; yet it is of poorer quality than anthracite.
If it is to be used for many industrial processes, bituminous coal must first be “coked” to remove the volatile components. Coking is achieved by heating the coal in the absence of oxygen (to the extent possible), a process which drives off hydrocarbons (for example propane & benzene among others) as well as sulfur gasses. Much of the water in bituminous coal is also driven out during carbonization.
While the coal is heating in the “beehive oven” in a very low-oxygen environment, it softens, allowing the volatiles escape through its pores. When cooled, the resultant coke has swollen (as compared to how it began) resulting in a larger volume—contrary to what we know to be typical of burning, where the end result is most frequently a much smaller volume than what was burned in the first place.
Coke (also called metallurgical coal) is used in the manufacture of steel, where carbon fuel must be as volatile-free and ash-free as possible. The strength and density of coke is particularly critical when used in a blast furnace. In steel-making, the coke is not only a fuel but also a reactant in the steel-making blast furnace.
In steel making, impurities (nitrogen, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, and excess carbon) are removed from raw iron ore. At the same time, alloying elements like manganese, nickel, chromium, and vanadium are added, which produce different grades of steel. The use of coke in the furnace also limits impurities (termed “inclusions”) in the steel, which is also critical to ensure the quality of products cast from molten steel.
This is how the “beehive ovens” worked: A fire brick chamber shaped like a dome, typically ~13 ft. wide and ~8 ft. high, was used to make coke. The roof had a hole for introducing the coal and other kindling from the top.
In the lower part of the wall was an opening (with a door) through which the coke was removed. In a coke oven battery, a number of ovens were built in a row with common walls between neighboring ovens. An average battery consisted of a great many ovens, sometimes hundreds, in a row.
Bituminous coal was introduced from above to an even layer of about 25 to 35 inches deep. Initially, air (and sometimes kindling material) must be supplied to ignite the coal. Carbonization (burning) then began, producing the volatile gases, which subsequently burned inside the oven, providing both the heat as well as the oxygen-free carbonization environment required to make coke.
Carbonization happened from top to bottom of the layer of coal, and was completed in 2 or 3 days. Because the heat was maintained by the ignited and igniting volatiles, no useful by-products of the burning were recovered. Exhaust gasses were allowed to escape to the atmosphere.
The hot coke was then quenched with water and removed manually through the side opening. The walls and roof of the beehive oven retained enough heat to ignite the carbonization process for the next layer of 25-35 inches of bituminous coal.
Impurities not driven off and/or burned as gasses accumulated to form “slag.” Basically, slag is the accretion of those removed impurities not burned, evaporated, or discharged out the roof hole. In the early days of coke-making, slag was simply an unwanted by-product and was discarded into enormous piles. Later, it was found to have some use, as an ingredient in brick-making, mixed cement, and granule-covered shingles.
The man who discovered this process, Cochran, lived in Dawson, and we rode across the river to see the town. Possibly due to the floods of Gordon, but possibly because its a dying community, we found a ghost town. But we did see the well-maintained former Cochran home.
Much of the area, however, looked like this elderly structure, which some intrepid soul had once tried to turn into a shop-filled destination.
Another ambitious person had tried to set apart his/her home, sited right next to the active rail road, by painting it purple.
There was a pretty church in the town, and the sign outside said there were Tiffany windows preserved within. We didn’t get inside, so we couldn’t see the windows.
As we were riding toward the bridge back across the Yough, another interesting home with a wrought-iron fence around it caught our attention. In one of the gate “posts” was an active honey bee hive. We thought it was quite appropriate to see these gentle workers after seeing the coke ovens, and considering the mosaic of the “beehive” oven we discovered at The Ruins Project (see my post here).
We passed under the glass arch into Connellsville around lunch time. Since the demise of the coal and steel industries, Connellsville has re-made itself as a glass making center.
We rode into town to the Connellsville Canteen—site of a railroad stop-over for troop trains heading with soldiers toward the ports from which they’d ship to fight in WWII. Mrs. Rose Brady, founder of the Canteen, organized 600+ women volunteers between the ages of 21 and 80 to offer warm, healthy food and smiles to troops heading to fight. The Canteen served more than a half-million servicemen and women between April 1944 and April 1946, an average of 3,500 people every week.
The place had lots and lots of WWII memorabilia, photos, icons, stories, and objects donated to the “museum” by Connellsville residents. It is a very personal museum dedicated to honoring the military men and women and their families who haled from Connellsville. We ate an excellent meal, before which we were invited to go see the elaborate HO-gauge train town set up in a back room.
Sept. 15 was a great ride full of interesting stuff, topped off with excellent meals including a hole-in-the-wall, local Italian dinner at Ruvo’s Italian Restaurant. Well worth the discovery.
We slept for the night at the Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, just off the trail, complete with a bike-washing station and free towels to wipe the bikes down after their rinse.
- Ride time: 2:30
- Stopped time: 5:00
- Distance: 29.3 miles
- Average speed: 11.75MPH
- Fastest speed: 17.8MPH
- Ascent: 301 ft.
- Descent: 77 ft.
Next up: Connellsville to Confluence