A Biography of John Magee
The Fall Brook Coal Company
Demand for coal was increasing in the United States in the 1850s. Coal
fired the boilers of steamboats and railroad engines, and was a necessary
fuel for the country's growing industry. Coal was as significant to America
then, as oil is today. The spread of railroads made the coal regions of
Pennsylvania more accessible. It was through the railroads that John Magee
recognized the potential of the coal industry in Pennsylvania.
Proposals to connect the coal fields of Blossburg with the canal and
potential railroad facilities in Corning began even before the Erie Railroad
was built. In 1833, the Tioga Coal, Iron, Mining, and Manufacturing Company
of New York and the Tioga Navigation Company of Pennsylvania, received
permission from their respective state legislatures to build a railroad
along the Tioga River between Corning, New York, and Blossburg, Pennsylvania.215
In 1834, Charles Ellett, one of the engineers hired to survey a route
for the New York and Erie Railroad, said in his report, "The route of
the proposed railroad from the iron and bituminous coal district, near
the headwaters of Tioga River, was surveyed in 1832, and pronounced in
the report of the engineers to be feasible. It cannot be doubted that
the construction of the New York and Erie Railroad would accelerate the
development of the mineral wealth of that region…"216
There were some delays but the Corning and Blossburg Railroad was in
operation by 1840.217 The Arbon Coal Company in Blossburg used the railroad
to ship their coal to Corning, where it could be transported on the Chemung
In 1851, while Magee was busy planning the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley
Railroad, he acquired the New York section of Corning and Blossburg Railroad
that ran from Lawrenceville to Corning. Magee purchased the section of
railroad as partial satisfaction of a debt owed him by the Tioga Coal,
Iron, Mining and Manufacturing Company.219 Immediately, he set about improving
the railway. The strap rails were removed and replaced with more durable
T-rails and the gauge of the track was widened using money borrowed with
permission of the New York State Legislature.220 "The work of relaying
and widening to the six-feet gauge the track of the Corning and Blossburg
Railroad is proceeding with vigor, and will be completed the fore part
of next month," noted a newspaper report in July, 1852.221 Magee convinced
the stockholders of the Lawrenceville to Blossburg portion of the railroad
to make the same improvements. Since the gauge of the Erie was six-feet,
Magee was looking ahead to a future joining of the two railroads.
With a railroad extending to a coal region in his possession, the next
logical step was to secure an interest in coal mining. In 1851, Mallory
and Bostwick of Corning surrendered their lease to the coal mines at Blossburg
to Magee.222 Magee's eldest son, Duncan, was given the job of overseeing
the coal operations. A sawmill was also set up at Blossburg, and lumber
and coal were soon being shipped over the Corning and Blossburg Railroad
to be loaded onto waiting barges on the Chemung Canal.223
The operations were expanded in 1857, when Duncan Magee, acting in his
father's name, obtained the lease of the Bear Run Mine of the Arbon Coal
Company at Blossburg.224 However, Duncan was dissatisfied with merely
leasing mines. With the demand for coal constantly increasing, he wanted
the Magees to have ownership.225 His father agreed, and permission was
obtained in 1856 from C. L. Ward to explore for coal on his extensive
lands (called Ward Township).226 The agreement with Ward stated that the
discovery of coal would allow John Magee the right to buy as much of the
land needed at an established price per acre.227 A group of men including
Duncan Magee, explored the six-thousand acres of land, digging pits and
shafts in search of coal. 228 Coal was discovered but not in sufficient
quantities. In 1857, a large quantity of quality grade coal was discovered
on the west side of the Tioga River.229 Three obstacles prevented any
immediate action: elevation, water, and John Magee. The site of the discovery
was six hundred feet higher than the railroad at Blossburg, and the coal
vein traveled in such a direction that its excavation would carry the
waters of the Tioga River into the mine drowning the miners.230 John Magee
grew concerned with the news of the water problem, and with the Panic
of 1857 making money hard to get, he was considering calling off the exploration.231
Civil Engineer, Humphries Brewer, a member of the exploration party convinced
Magee it would pay to continue, and three months later a large deposit
of coal was found in a more accessible location along Fall Brook, a tributary
of the Tioga River.232
In 1858, "Drift No. 1 was put in near the falls on Fall Brook under the
direction of Duncan S. Magee, William Griffith, Robert Pryde, John Dunsmore,
Alexander Pollock, Sr., and Thomas Morgan."233 Magee purchased six-thousand
acres of land from C. L. Ward, and plans were initiated for a railroad
from Blossburg to the mine. Engineer Humphries Brewer advertised: "The
Fall Brook Coal Company will be prepared to contract for the grading and
masonry of their road in short sections July 5. Plans and specifications
can be seen at their office in Blossburg."234
John and Duncan Magee, along with James Gulick, applied for a charter,
which passed in the Pennsylvania Legislature. However, a rival mining
company lobbied against it, and convinced Governor William F. Packer to
veto the charter.235 The Pennsylvania Senate and House overrode the veto
on April 7, 1859, and the Fall Brook Coal Company was officially in business.236
By the time the Fall Brook Railroad was completed in the fall of 1859,
a small mining village had sprung up. There was a sawmill, coal chutes,
thirty to forty crude dwellings, a supply store, boarding houses, blacksmith
shops, and a carpenter shop,237 Facilities for the industry were also
established in Corning and Watkins to aid in the shipment of coal. Magee
had purchased many tracts of land in Watkins at the head of Seneca Lake,
where he erected trestle-works, sawmills, boat building yards, a steam
flouring mill, carpenter shops, and dwellings for his workers.238 What
is now called Salt Point in Watkins, was once called Coal Point, and located
there were trestles, docks, and buildings belonging to the Morris Run
Coal Company, a later subsidiary of the Fall Brook Coal Company.239 The
Fall Brook Coal Company had trestle works near the present site of the
Watkins Salt Company office. The remains of the railroad switch leading
to the trestle was uncovered when the salt company office was built.240
The Watkins office building for the Fall Brook Coal Company still stands
today, and is now a residence on Fourth Street. It is a large brick building
across from the Watkins Salt Company.
The coal was semi-bituminous and was used for smithing, rolling-mills,
and to generate steam.241 Magee had samples of his coal sent to industries
throughout the country, and many commented upon the good quality of it.242
The preparations in Corning, Watkins, and the new village of Fall Brook
were completed, and on April 1, 1860, Duncan Magee announced to the public
that the Fall Brook Coal Company had "ample facilities for shipping this
coal at Corning by canal and railroad, and have also arrangements for
delivery directly from the mines by rail to Watkins, at the head of Seneca
Lake, and there transferring it to the enlarged Erie Canal boats."243
Originally, the coal was sent on the Fall Brook Railroad to the Corning
and Blossburg Railroad. It was carried to Corning and loaded onto canal
barges on the Junction Canal of the Chemung Canal. Once it arrived in
Horseheads, the Elmira, Jefferson and Niagara Falls Railroad was used
to carry it to Watkins. The trestles at Watkins were used to load the
coal onto barges on Seneca Lake, and it was taken north to Geneva. Once
in Geneva it could be put on the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad
or on the Erie Canal via the Seneca Canal. 244 Magee never liked the canal
route, however; it was closed in winter, and was not kept up properly.
Efficiency was important to him. In July, 1865, permission was received
that allowed a railroad track, called the Magee switch, to be built from
East Tioga Avenue in Corning to Hope Cemetery, thus connecting the Corning
and Blossburg line with the Erie Railroad.245 The Erie Railroad was used
to carry the coal to Horseheads instead of the Junction Canal.
The business boomed thanks to the outbreak of the Civil War, and the
village of Fall Brook soon had one hundred and eighty dwellings and a
population of 1,400.246 Improvements continued to be made. The company
established a telegraph line from Fall Brook to Corning in 1864, and in
1865 erected the Fall Brook Hotel.247 In 1866, exploration for new coal
fields began near Wilson's Creek, twelve miles south of Wellsboro.248
Coal was found and the necessary land was purchased. Plans were then begun
to construct a railroad through Lawrenceville and Wellsboro to the site,
which was called Antrim after the county in northern Ireland the Magee
family had emigrated from. However, John Magee did not live to see the
1872 completion of the Corning, Cowanesque, and Antrim Railroad.
Although the Civil War stimulated the business of the Fall Brook Coal
Company, it also caused some problems for its management. Labor was scarce
as thousands donned uniforms to perform their patriotic duty. In 1863,
John Magee even paid the three hundred dollar draft exemption for several
of his employees.249 The miners of the Fall Brook Coal Company, and of
the surrounding mines, were able to make demands of the management and
have them met, thanks to the scarcity of labor and huge demand for coal
due to war. The Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Union was formed in 1863
at Fall Brook and at Morris Run, just two miles from Fall Brook.250 Shortly
thereafter, the laborers, such as carpenters and mechanics, formed their
own separate union.251 The unions operated as closed shops. No one could
be hired unless he belonged to the union and had the union's approval.252
Through this, the union could control not only who worked for the company,
but also how many. Exercising their growing power, the unions demanded
and received pay raises. By 1865, miners were earning eight dollars per
day, and laborers received $2.25 to $2.75 per day.253
Eventually, a showdown would occur. By December, 1864, the Confederate
armies and cities were being crushed. Union victory was known to be coming
soon. The end of the war would bring a slackening in the demand for coal
and the discharge of thousands of soldiers requiring jobs. The pendulum
of power was swinging back to the mine owners.
There was a shortage of housing for the workers at Fall Brook and Morris
Run, where two companies, the Morris Run Coal
Company and the Onondaga Salt Company, had operations. The owners at
both places continually tried to keep pace with the demand by building
more tenements, but it was not enough.254
When John Magee paid a visit to Fall Brook in 1864, he discovered that
there were Morris Run workers living in Fall Brook housing, and that Fall
Brook workers had residence in Morris Run housing. He had not intended
to house rival workers, and very angrily berated Superintendent Humphries
Brewer for allowing such a deplorable thing to exist.255 After making
an agreement with the companies at Morris Run to do the same, the workers
were informed that they could reside only in the housing provided by their
employer. The unions refused to comply, and on December 30, 1864, the
following notice was served to all occupants of Fall Brook housing:
Sir,____you are hereby notified and required to quit, remove from, and
deliver up to the Fall Brook Coal Company, possession of the premises
and house No.___ now occupied by you, which you hold as an employe [sic]
of said company. In default of your immediate compliance of this demand,
legal proceedings will be resorted to for possession of said premises.
H. Brewer, Manager256
John Magee also issued a letter addressed "to the Miners and Laborers
employed at the Fall Brook Coal Mines."257 It said:
You have been notified that the business of mining at Fall Brook is this
day suspended, and it will continue suspended as long as the miners and
others employed by the company arrogate to themselves the right and exercise
the power to dictate and control the business of the company. For more
than three years you have run the mines very much in your own way; certainly
not to the satisfaction or profit of your employers, and it is believed
not to the satisfaction of yourselves. The company has therefore resolved
to take charge of their own business and manage it hereafter, as they
have a right to do, independent of dictation from those they employ. If
they cannot obtain men on these terms who will respect the rights of their
employers, they will not resume business. Their rights must hereafter
be respected, and their superintendent and bosses treated with respect
and obeyed in the rightful performance of their duty. If you or any portion
of you shall regard the rules adopted for the future conduct of the business
at Fall Brook herewith submitted, to be inconsistent with your rights
or the dignity of labor, you will of course leave and seek employment
in some other locality. This you have a right to do; but you have not
the right to dictate, control and disorganize the business of your employers.
It is well known that a portion-a majority it is believed-of the people
at Fall Brook are industrious and well disposed; and it is equally well
known that another portion constitute a disturbing element, ever busy
in fomenting discontent, seeking to exercise power and dominion over others.
These disturbers are respectfully requested to leave. They will have no
difficulty in selecting themselves out from the rest.
The company have at all times paid liberal prices; they have done every
thing in their power to make the people comfortable; have respected their
feelings, all their rights, and intend always to do so. Their liberality
and kindness have not been generally appreciated.
With you it is left to determine whether work shall be resumed with your
aid or stand suspended. To the company it makes but little difference.
They have no contracts to perform, no debts to pay. Their coal is safe
in the mountains, and it is better to leave it there than to bring it
out at an enormous cost under humiliating circumstances. The proprietors
are not dependent upon the revenue derived from the mines for their support,
and can get on quite comfortably during the time of suspension, be it
one, two or more years, without supplies from that quarter. This is not
said in a spirit of boasting, but to place before you the fact that we
are not in your power. The houses have been built for the accommodation
of those employed and willing to do their duty; not for idlers or disturbers
of the company's business. Hereafter no one can occupy a house except
he executes a contract defining his rights and duties. To this end a special
agreement has been prepared and will be submitted herewith, which must
be executed by all who wish to occupy our houses in the future.
There shall be no relaxation on this point. The company will maintain
the right to control their property. Self-respect and justice require
this. If the company had at any time denied you full, generous compensation
for your services you would have had some reason to form combinations.
As it has been, and is, your action is uncalled for, unreasonable and
disorderly, as well as disrespectful to your employers and best friends.
The continuance of such unjustifiable conduct cannot and will not be tolerated.
The accompanying notice and regulations have been prepared upon mature
deliberation on the part of your employers, with a fixed and unalterable
determination on their part to insist upon and sustain them at all hazards.
The above remarks considerations are addressed to you, believing that
their careful and candid consideration as well as observance by you will
conduce as much to your welfare as to that of your employers.
John Magee, President258
The letter made it clear that Magee intended to break the unions. Although
unions had made some gains under Jacksonian Democracy, Magee was a conservative
Jackson Democrat who regarded unions as radical. It was his company and
he insisted on absolute control. The fact that he was once poor made no
difference, since he felt the workers were given the same opportunities
to improve themselves and succeed as he had. Now that he was a wealthy
businessman, he felt the workers responded ungratefully to the jobs, income,
and housing he provided.
The mines at Fall Brook and Morris Run were closed as the new year of
1865 began. The workers remained in their housing, exploiting to the fullest
a Pennsylvania law that required three months notice from the landlord
before eviction proceedings could be initiated.259 After four weeks had
passed, some of the miners and laborers grew concerned. While some just
packed up and moved away, others began to urge for a settlement. Union
diehards would not listen.260 As the three month deadline approached,
the laborers' union capitulated, signed the housing contracts, and returned
to work.261 The miners stubbornly refused to give in, and legal action
was begun in Blossburg by the Morris Run companies, and in Fall Brook
by Magee's company.262
Constable D. W. Noble of the Borough of Lawrenceville, received the Fall
Brook writs of ejectment and found the task to much for him. As soon as
he removed a family, another family sheltered them.263 On May 8, 1865,
he solicited the help of Sheriff Leroy Tabor, who organized a posse of
over two hundred men to carry out the evictions. They were repulsed by
the workers wielding guns and clubs.264 Unable to displace the miners,
and with other area miners entering the tumult to support their fellow
workers, the sheriff asked the Governor of Pennsylvania for help. As a
result, "the Bucktail regiment was ordered by the governor to go at once
to the assistance of Sheriff Tabor…and before the miners were aware of
their approach about 300 Bucktails suddenly steamed into Fall Brook and
took possession of the town."265 Twenty-four of the miners' leaders were
arrested,266 and the next day the Pennsylvania troops evicted the miners,
"removing their household goods to the cars which were standing on the
track in front of the depot."267 With the families on board with their
possessions, the train carried them to Blossburg. There they were dumped
to fend on their own.268 The same method was used to clear Morris Run
of the determined miners. Talks between the miners and coal companies
quickly commenced, resulting in many being re-hired. However, the contract
that was signed called for a reduction of wages nearly fifty per cent.269
By mid-June, the miners were back to work, "with the exception of a score
or two who have been discharged by the company."270 The mines at Fall
Brook continued without labor strife until 1873, when the workers once
more went on strike to protest the slashing of hours made necessary by
an economic depression.271 Magee had succeeded. The union influence in
the company was eliminated.
The Fall Brook Coal Company served to increase the growth of several
areas. The population of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, increased by 7,057
from 1850 to 1860 partly due to the founding of the Fall Brook Coal Company
in 1859.272 Watkins enjoyed a decade of prosperity when Magee located
the transhipment works there. The Watkins operation was abandoned by 1877
and moved to Corning, dealing an economic blow to Watkins that took some
time to overcome.273 Although Schuyler County, where Watkins is located,
had risen in population to 18,842 by 1880, it dropped to 16,711 by 1890.274
Corning also benefitted from the success of the Fall Brook Coal Company.
It was said that "the operations of the Magee interests…have done more
to 'put Corning on the map' as a manufacturing center than all the rest
of the railroads with trackage here."275
From 1859 to 1873, the Fall Brook Coal Company produced 2,700,000 tons
of coal.276 By 1906, that figure had risen to 11,002,925 tons.277 The
Twentieth Century brought eventual diminution of the nation's need for
coal, and the fading of the Fall Brook Coal Company.
Notes to Chapter Five
215 Chemung County Historical Society, file folder on
Fall Brook Railroad, "A Short History of the Fall Brook Railway Co.,"
by Joseph C. Boyd, Feb. 1957, p. 2.
216 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p.
217 History of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, (NY: W. W.
Munsel and Co., 1883), p. 39.
218 Ibid., p. 45.
219 W. W. Clayton, History of Steuben County, p. 256.
220 "A Short History of the Fall Brook Railway Company"
by Joseph C. Boyd, p. 2
221 Uri Mulford, Pioneer Days and Later Times, p. 185.
222 - 223 The History of Tioga County, Pennsylvania,
(Harrisburg: Harrisburg Publishing Co., 1897), p. 633.
224 Ibid., p. 615.
225 - 227 Ibid., p. 633
228 - 235 Ibid., p. 634.
236 History of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, (NY: W. W.
Munsel & Company, 1883), p. 41.
237 Ibid., p. 635
238 W. W. Clayton, History of Steuben County, p, 188.
239 - 240 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy
folder, undated newspaper clipping, "Excavation Turns Back the Pages of
History," by Frank W. Severne.
241 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p. 577.
242 - 243 History of Tioga County, 1897, p. 635.
244 "A Short History of the Fall Brook Railway Company"
by Joseph C. Boyd, p. 3.
245 Uri Mulford, Pioneer Days and Later Times, p. 185.
246 History of Tioga County, 1897, p. 635.
247 Ibid., p. 636.
248 History of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, 1883, p. 42.
249 Thomas Dimitroff and Lois S. Janes, History of the
Corning Painted Post Area, p. 50.
250 - 252 Ibid., p. 50.
253 Ibid., p. 52.
254 - 257 Ibid., p. 51.
258 Ibid., pp. 51 - 52.
259 - 263 Ibid., p. 52.
264 - 265 Ibid., p. 53.
266 The Agitator, Wellsboro, N. Y., May 17, 1865.
267 - 269 History of Tioga County, 1883, p, 53.
270 The Agitator, June 14, 1865.
271 History of Tioga County, 1883, p. 53.
272 Ibid., p. 41.
273 - 274 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy
folder, undated and untitled newspaper clipping with reprint from an 1893
issue of the Watkins Democrat.
275 Uri Mulford, Pionee r Days an d Later Times, p. 185.
276 History of Tioga County, 1883, p. 45.
277 Papers and Proceedings of the Tioga Historical Society,
part I, vol. 2, (Wellsboro: Advocate Print, 1909), p. 40.