Hopkin Thomas and Family
by A. Newton Bugbee, Jr.
A Presentation given to the Catasauqua Preservation Society, April 21, 1998
As a great, great grandson of Hopkin Thomas through my mother, Helen Horn Bugbee, daughter of Blanche Thomas and Charles R. Horn, I have long been interested in gathering and collating the history of Hopkin Thomas and descendants in one continuous treatise. The preparation for this evening's talk has given me the opportunity and incentive to do just that.
The deserved fame of David Thomas, the premier iron master and founder of Catasauqua is well known and has been much publicized. This is the story of another Thomas, Hopkin, who came to America in 1834, of his career and that of his family who played an important role in the industrial development of the Lehigh Valley and of Catasauqua at the height of its prosperity. It is a tale of early railroads, coal mining, iron smelting and casting, blast furnaces, foundries and machine shops, tunnel rings, silk manufacturing and bringing electric power and light to the town.
Hopkin Thomas was born December 19, 1793 in the village of Bryncoch (Red Hill), Glamorganshire, South Wales and died May 12, 1878 in Catasauqua, PA. In 1809 at the age of 16, he started to work at the Neath Abbey Iron Works and acquired the trade of machinist. He had a fertile brain and speedily attained a high position among his fellow workers. He worked at Neath, and possibly Merthyr-Tydfil during the next 25 years.
Coincidentally David Thomas was born November 3, 1794 in the parish of Cadoxton-Juxta Neath, Glamorganshire, South Wales only a few miles distance from Bryncoch and Neath. He also started his apprenticeship at Neath Abbey Iron Works in 1811 and worked there for 5 to 6 years in the fitting shop and blast furnaces before going to Ynyscedwyn Iron Works in the Swansea Valley. David's specialty was in blast furnaces and smelting. HopkinÕs specialty was in machine shop practices, steam engines and mechanical devices. It was at Ynyscedwyn that David was successful in perfecting the hot blast as a means of smelting iron ore using anthracite coal which eventually resulted in his coming to America in 1839.
Hopkin and David must surely have been acquainted in their youth, living only 2 to 3 miles apart and working together at Neath Abbey Iron Works for a period of 5 years. As far as family relationship is concerned, our family never alluded to any blood ties to the David Thomas family although there is a strong possibility which is lost in the dim past of 200 to 300 years ago in an area of Wales where the name of Thomas is as common as Smith and Jones in this country. If anyone knew the genealogy of the Thomas family it was my Grandmother Horn, born Blanche Thomas, a granddaughter of Hopkin Thomas who was the only one I ever knew who could keep all the Thomas families straight and in their proper relationships. Naturally, in my youth, this "went in one ear and out the other". This relationship could be an interesting subject for future research. There was, however, the marriage of Hopkin's daughter, Helen, to David's son, John, which will be discussed later.
Bryncoch is situated in the Clydach River Valley 2 or 3 miles above Neath. Here Hopkin lived for 16 years on his parents' small farm. According to one account Hopkin's father was a miller and another that the Thomas's ran the local forge and smithy. It is said by a local Welsh historian, Alan Hayward, "that this Thomas family were renowned for their skilled technical ability in approaching day to day problems."
In 1809 Hopkin, at 16 years of age, started his apprenticeship as a machinist at the Neath Abbey Iron Works, which for its time, was one of the few integrated iron works in that part of Wales. They had their own blast furnaces, coke ovens and coal mines with limestone and iron ore in the near or close vicinity. In addition to the cast house there was a puddling furnace for wrought iron production, a bar mill with forge oven and trip hammer, a rolling mill, pattern shop, machine shop and fabrication shop. Initially all power was supplied by water which fed from a dam in the stream above the works with cast iron troughs carrying the water to the wheels. By 1796 the furnaces were blown by one Boulton and Watt steam engine.
Neath Abbey Iron Works, located in the Cwm-y-Felin, a valley off the River Clydach, was operated by Richard Parsons from 1785-92. Parsons is the same man who operated the Ynyscedwyn furnace of David Thomas fame, before the ownership of George Crane. In 1792 Parsons leased the property to George Fox and his associates, Peter Price and Samuel Tregelles. This group were Quakers from the Falmouth area of Cornwall, who slowly developed the works into a prosperous venture. As Quakers, they would not engage in providing the British government with any armament during the Napoleonic Wars, a practice that allowed their competitors to advance more rapidly financially. Nonetheless, they specialized in quality products. The furnaces produced 75 to 80 tons per week. The works made beam engines, winding engines, pumping engines and locomotives for many of the other collieries and iron works throughout Wales. By 1841, Neath Abbey Works employed 175 adults, 47 children under 18 years , and 11 children under 13 years. Boys of 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 years of age were employed as fetter tenders, moulder attendants, furnace attendants, and attending the men in the boiler making and iron ship building departments.
Hopkin would have gained experience in all phases of the iron industry of that time as well as technical knowledge of steam engines and locomotives which would prove invaluable in his employment after emigrating to America. He possessed more than ordinary ability and it was not long after his apprenticeship that he was promoted to a high position by his employers.
It is unlikely that he spent his entire Welsh career at Neath Abbey, as he met and married Catharine Richards of Merthyr-Tydfil. Three of their children were born there: William R. in 1829, Mary (1831) who became Mrs. James H. McKee, and Helen (1833) who became Mrs. John Thomas, John being a son of David Thomas.
Seeking better opportunities, Hopkin, his wife, Catherine, and their three children came to America, landing in Philadelphia in 1834. It must have been a heart wrenching experience for this couple, or for that matter, any of our fore-fathers to leave their homeland for America. They were leaving their home, parents, brothers, sisters and friends, probably never to see them ever again and then had to endure a long ocean voyage with three young children. I can just picture Hopkin and Catherine standing at the ship's rail holding their three kids, their eyes filled with tears, watching their beloved Wales recede on the horizon. It was a test of faith and courage, a time for contemplation and prayer, yet a busy time with the care of three young children in the confines of a tossing ship at sea.
Hopkin obtained almost immediate employment with the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia for a short period of time and then moved on to the shops of Garrett and Eastwick, where he worked until becoming master mechanic of the Beaver Meadow Railroad. Garrett and Eastwick, later Eastwick and Harrison, were quite advanced for that time in the building of steam locomotives with orders for two for the Beaver Meadow Railroad and Mining Company. An interesting side light to this account is that Eastwick and Harrison were invited by Czar Nicholas I to come to Russia, set up shop and build locomotives for the infant Russian railroad system. Consequently, they ceased operation in Philadelphia in about 1842 and moved to Russia. Fortunately, our Thomas family moved to the wilds of the Beaver Meadow coal fields instead of the snow and ice of Russia.
Coal had been mined in the Beaver Meadow area starting in 1813 mostly by open quarrying. The Beaver Meadow Railroad and Mining Company was chartered in 1830 with mining initiated in 1831. Work on the railroad started in 1833 and was completed in 1836 and extended from the mines at Beaver Meadow, approximately five miles east of Hazelton to loading wharves at Parryville, where the coal was transferred to boats of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for shipment to various market destinations. The railroad followed the Beaver and Hazel Creeks to the Lehigh at Penn Haven, thence along the Lehigh to Mauch Chunk and Parryville Repair shops, foundry, and round house were built at Beaver Meadow on the banks of Beaver Creek with the machinery powered by a water wheel. Originally 5" x 7" wooden rails covered with 5/8" thick x 2 1/2" wide iron straps were used with 5" x 8" wood ties at three to four foot centers. The ties were notched and the rails set in and wedged to align and hold them in place. Sometime in the early 1850's, the wood rails were replaced with wrought iron tee rails. Two inclined parallel planes at Weatherly transferred loaded cars from the higher level on the run from Beaver Meadow to the lower level run to Penn Haven and beyond-a total vertical height of approximately 145 feet.
When the two locomotives were completed for Beaver Meadow Railroad, they were shipped via canal to Parryville, arriving in late October, 1836. Here the final assembly was completed by Mr. Eastwick and his foreman, Hopkin Thomas and they were placed on the rails to be driven under their own power to their destination, the foot of the planes at Weatherly, then called Black Creek. The engines were driven by Mr. Eastwick and his foreman, Hopkin Thomas. Upon arrival the entire party was hauled up the planes and convened at Wilson's Hotel in Beaver Meadow where the advent of steam locomotion was celebrated by all, including the railroad officials with a "banquet, much toasting, and the consuming of several baskets of champagne."
The engines, S. D. Ingham and Elias Eley were named after the president of the railroad and a principal stockholder. They were classified as 4-2-0 locomotives, and had a front truck of 4 wheels and 2-drivers five feet in diameter in the rear under the fire box and steam dome. At first, wood was used as fuel. There was no protection for the crew and they were exposed to the elements and sparks from the locomotive. In a 1903 account of early railroading, A. R. Longshore, an original brakeman (1836) on the Beaver Meadow Railroad mentioned that:
"The first winter was open. If two or three inches of snow fell, we fastened two husk brooms to the frame of the engine to clear the tracks. There was a great deal of cold freezing weather. The hail came with such force that it almost blinded us as there was no shelter of any sort on the train. When the storm was too severe, we crawled under rocks along the right of way.
...the sparks from the engine...lit on our clothes and literally burned them up. On one trip the entire crown was burned out of a fur cap...and later, a wool cap was full of holes. When oil cloth coats first came out we each bought one, thinking they would shed sparks, but very soon the coats shed neither sparks nor water." Crew wages per day were: Engineer, $2.00; Fireman, $1.50; 3 Brakemen @ $1.00 each.
When Hopkin Thomas was hired as master mechanic of the Beaver Meadow Railroad and Mining Company, perhaps his services were part of the deal between Garrett and Eastwick and the railroad company. The position of master mechanic at this time in industrial history is best described in John Fritz's autobiography. Fritz came up through the ranks in the early iron industry to build Bethlehem Iron, the forerunner of Bethlehem Steel. Quoting J. Fritz: "The best old time mechanic would have to make his own drawings and patterns, make his own forgings, and fit up the work, all without tools except of his own making."
Hopkin Thomas met the challenge head on and succeeded in keeping the railroad running and the mines producing. His inventions include a method to burn anthracite coal in locomotives, the chilled cast iron car wheel, improved Cornish mine pumps and a new coal breaker design. In 1837-38 while at Beaver Meadow, he constructed: the "NONPAREIL" a ten wheel locomotive with 6 wheels connected, the first of its kind in the country.
On page 261 of Matthew and Hungerford, Hopkin Thomas is described as follows:
"In his mechanical inventions and appliances he was conceded to be the pioneer of the Lehigh Valley. Through one of his inventions, anthracite coal was first made available for use in locomotives, and in this application he was at least 20 years in advance of others."
To overcome the heavy grade above Weatherly, two inclined planes one half mile long were constructed west of town. The planes were operated by mule power. It was difficult to get the heavy locomotives up these planes to the shops for repairs and further, the owners decided to rely on water power as being more economical than steam. Therefore, the shops were moved to Weatherly on the bank of the Black Creek where a more reliable source of water could be obtained and the steep planes avoided. While master mechanic of the railroad, Hopkin was further challenged by two disastrous floods or "freshets" as they were described in the newspapers of that time. One was in 1841 and another was in 1850. These both required extensive repairs of tracks, bridges, and shops to restore service, and caused the company's stockholders to wonder about the future of their investment.
While Hopkin was busy with locomotives and mine equipment, what of the rest of his family? Beaver Meadow of the 1840's had a population of about 500 to 600 people. It was the center of Coal Basin #1 and the mining of coal and its transportation were the hub about which all the town's life revolved. The Beaver Meadow Railroad shipped 33,617 tons of coal in 1837 which increased to 383,748 tons by 1851 and then to 746,313 tons by 1859, thus indicating the richness of the coal field.
It was to this frontier type of town with few amenities that Catherine Thomas arrived with four children: William 7, Mary 5, Helen 3, and James, a babe in arms, born in Philadelphia, September 22, 1836. The town was home for a large number of miners and their families from the various mines in the vicinity. They were largely of Welsh, English and Irish nativity with some local Pennsylvania Germans, so that the Welsh Thomas's were not at a loss for companionship. A daughter, Catherine Maria, (Kate) was born there in 1841. By 1850 the town contained one Presbyterian church at which the Methodist also held services, two public schools, one machine shop (after Beaver Meadow Railroad moved), three hotels, three stores, and one military company.
At that time general medical care was provided by a succession of doctors starting with Dr. Bolles in 1836, Dr. Stanbury in 1840 and Dr. A. B. Longshore, who had the contract for attending families of the employees of the coal mines in the region and also the people employed by the Beaver Meadow Railroad. He was later assisted by a Dr. Leonard. With the exception of the few hours spent in the primitive elementary schools, most of the education of the children was by their Mother at the hearth, in the kitchen, and around the house in general. At an early age, maybe 10 or 11, the boys were probably starting some sort of apprenticeship in the shops. Hopkin was a practical "hands on" type of man and I'm sure believed in learning by doing and that experience is the best teacher. This is evidenced by his sons, William and James, moving up to responsible management positions at a very early age.
The Hopkin Thomas family remained in Beaver Meadow for some time as evidenced by Hopkin's and William R.'s names listed as subscribers of "Rupp's History of the Lehigh Valley" published in 1845 which listed them as residents of Beaver Meadow at that time. They also lived for a time in Weatherly where the Beaver Meadow Railroad shops had moved.
Weatherly is picturesquely situated between the Broad and Spring Mountains on the banks of the Hazel Creek about 14 miles above Mauch Chunk, now called Jim Thorpe. The town was originally called Black Creek because the color of the water was caused by the dense hemlock growth in the swamps of its origin. It was settled in 1825 with very few houses, a saw mill, and a store. In 1835, Samuel Ingham, president of the Beaver Meadow Railroad, built a shop for making locks which proved to be unsuccessful and was abandoned, but was later used as part of the railroad shops.
Upon completion of the Beaver Meadow Railroad in 1836, the small town became the stopping place for heavy engines and the crews of the railroad company. When the railroad shops moved to Weatherly from Beaver Meadow in 1840, it spurred the growth of the town. Phillip Hoffecker, who had started as an apprentice in Beaver Meadow, succeeded Hopkin Thomas as master mechanic early in the 1850's and remained with the company throughout his life. Beaver Meadow Railroad was consolidated with the Lehigh Valley Railroad in the 1860's and the shops became the principal site for that railroad's locomotive and car construction and repairs until a change in management moved the shops to Delano, thus ending Weatherly's reign as the main repair facility for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Weatherly shops built two 4-8-0 locomotives, one named the "Hopkin Thomas", in 1881, 3 years after Hopkin's death. This was the ultimate accolade for a railroad pioneer.
The marriage certificate of daughter Mary and James Harper McKee dated April 24, 1848 indicates that Mary Thomas lived in Tamaqua. As she was only 17 years old at the time, it is doubtful that she lived anywhere other than with her parents. We can perhaps say that Hopkin moved to Tamaqua some time between 1845 and 1848. We have checked the census record of 1850 for Tamaqua-Schuylkill County in the Pottsville Public Library and find Hopkin Thomas listed as machinist, as well as wife Catherine and children: Helen 17, James 13, and Catherine 8. Mary, of course, was married by this time and William R. was completing his apprenticeship in the shops at Weatherly.
Possibly Hopkin was employed in the shops of the Little Schuylkill Coal and Iron Company which started a railroad in 1829 from Tamaqua to Port Clinton on the big Schuylkill River about 22 miles away. During the first three years, the coal cars were horse drawn. This railroad had no connection with the Beaver Meadow Railroad, but some years later connections were made with other railroads to the north and west. At the time we speak of a stage coach operated from Beaver Meadow to Tamaqua via Hazelton. The L.S. C. & J. Railroad in 1832 imported a steam engine from England named the "Catawissa". Later in 1833, 2 more locomotives, the "Tamaqua and Tuscarorra", and also 2 English engineers were imported from England and added to the line. Coal was the main product handled, but passenger service was started in 1849. The engines, nicknamed "Lokies" were small and compact and designated 0-4-0.
Further evidence of Hopkin living in Tamaqua in late1840 to early 1850 is found in Roberts History, Volume 11, Page 215 under the heading George Davies Family. Daniel Davies, a molder by trade and later father-in-law of James Thomas, left Merthyr-Tydfil, Wales for New York in July 1846. Following his trade of foundryman he worked his way west to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and later to Tamaqua, where he entered the employ of Hopkin Thomas. The exact place of Hopkin's Tamaqua employment is still open for investigation.
The Tamaqua of the 1830's is described in the Official Gazette of the State of Pennsylvania for the year 1832 as "wild, mountainous, and barren country with 30 dwellings, 2 hotels, and 3 stores. In 1829 there was a population of 150 people; in 1832-300; by 1840-464 people; and by 1850-3080 people. Coal was driving the growth of the town. The town was incorporated in 1834 and was officially surveyed and mapped in 1849 by A. D. Sweeney.* The town was a stop on the stagecoach route from Pottsville to Mauch Chunk. *Sweeney's map should provide some clues.
The foregoing facts on Tamaqua were gleaned from a quick reading of and note taking from "Tamaqua Tale," found in the Tamaqua Public Library. Time and lack of further informational resources prohibited more research.
In 1853, Hopkin and Catherine Thomas and family of three, moved to the "Iron Borough", Catasauqua, with employment as master mechanic of the Crane Iron Company. Crane Iron had converted from water power to steam in 1846 and was about to commence operation, in conjunction with the Thomas Iron Company of Hokendauqua of the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad. They were also planning to build a new very large blowing engine, designed by David Thomas. David Thomas and Sam Thomas, now superintendent of Crane Company, probably got their heads together and said, " We need someone who knows steam power, pumps and locomotives and the shop work needed to build and run all that, so why not call old Hopkin in to take charge? These improvements were made at the Crane Iron Works and the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad was built in 1856 and opened for traffic in 1857. The Crane Company eventually ran 10 locomotives.
Hopkin and family moved into a house on Church Street, a short distance from the iron works, and sometime later to a house on the southwest corner of 3rd and Walnut. James, now 16, probably started as an advanced apprentice at Crane Iron and was trained in all aspects of the iron industry because by 1859, at the early age of 23, he was made superintendent of the infant Carbon Iron Works in Parryville.
The Hopkin Thomases were close neighbors of the Rev. John J. Jones and family. Jones earned his living as a patternmaker for Crane Iron and is described in "The Romance of Steel", published in 1906, as the religious and intellectual leader of the Welsh in the village of Catasauqua. He is reputed to have had an outstanding private library, unusual for the times. His son was William R. Jones, who later became famous as "Captain Jones", Andrew Carnegie's top manager and superintendent of the Edgar Thomson Works at Braddock, Pennsylvania where he set world records for the production of Bessemer Steel. Bill Jones started his apprenticeship at Crane Iron at the age of 10 in 1849 and upon the arrival of James Thomas in Catasauqua in 1853, the two boys formed a close friendship through neighborly contact and at the Crane Iron Works, where they both came under the supervision and training of David and Samuel Thomas, as well as Hopkin.
From the obituary for William R. Jones in the Catasauqua Dispatch of September 28, 1889"
"Mr. James Thomas and William R. Jones learned their trades in the machine shop of the Crane Iron Works, and in 1857 left Catasauqua for Jeansville where they worked for a few months and then went to Philadelphia, where they worked on two ponderous blast engines for the Crane Iron Works and were then sent to Catasauqua with the force of workmen to erect same."
Later, when Captain Jones became superintendent of the Edgar Thomson Works and had just completed the erection of Furnace F, he invited James's daughter, Mamie (then 20 years old), who was visiting the Jones family, to light the new furnace on October 17, 1886. This furnace produced 224,796 tons of iron in 2 years and 7.3 months which established a national production record before being blown out. This fact induced Captain Jones to send a special invitation to Miss Thomas to relight Furnace F on September 25, 1889. The furnace was called Mamie in her honor. An elegant ring with a sapphire and two brilliant diamonds was presented to Mamie to commemorate the occasion.
The story of Captain Jones' career is fascinating and deserves further telling, but time will not permit its development in this discussion. The friendship of Bill Jones and Jim Thomas lasted through the years, until the tragic death of Captain Jones in 1889 caused by an explosion while tapping molten iron from a furnace at the Edgar Thomson Works. At Captain Jones' funeral, which included a procession of over 10,000 workers, the honorary pall bearers were Andrew Carnegie, New York; Henry C. Frick, Pittsburgh; Robert W. Hunt, Chicago; Owen Leibert, Bethlehem; Andrew Hamilton, Johnstown; and James Thomas, Catasauqua. We have a beautiful Sevres vase at home, given by Captain Jones to my Grandmother Blanche Thomas Horn as a wedding gift upon her marriage to Charles R. Horn. The vase was always referred to in the family as "Captain Jones" and as children playing at home, we were constantly admonished-"Be careful of Captain Jones."
The career of Bill Jones included working in rail rolling mills in Chattanooga, Tennessee; service in the Civil War where he attained the rank of Captain; sub boss in the Cambria Works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania under George Fritz, brother of John Fritz who was the first superintendent of Bethlehem Iron Works; and finally for Carnegie where he achieved an international reputation as the foremost producer of steel. He hand picked Charles Schwab to work for him at Braddock. Schwab succeeded to his position after Jones' tragic death and later organized the consortium that formed United States Steel Corporation and followed that with the acquisition and reorganization of Bethlehem Steel.
The bond with the David Thomas family was further strengthened with the marriage of Hopkin and Catherine's 23 year old daughter, Helen, to John Thomas, David's son on May 7, 1855. John became superintendent of Crane Iron in 1855 and then went on to manage Thomas Iron in Hokendauqua.
Meanwhile, James Thomas following his training at Crane Iron, was hired in 1859 as superintendent of the Carbon Iron Company in Parryville. This company, at first called the PohoPoco Iron Works, was originally organized by the Bowman brothers in 1855 to make anthracite iron. After the "Panic of 1857" the company was reorganized as the Carbon Iron Company. David Thomas was a stock holder in Carbon Iron Company and I suppose was instrumental in recommending James for the position of superintendent, as a young man possessing the knowledge and ability to run the fledgling iron works. The Bowmans would also have known Hopkin from the early days of coal shipments to Parryville via the Beaver Meadow Railroad. Like all the early anthracite iron furnaces, this furnace was powered by the water of the Pohopoco Creek, which was later supplanted by steam power.
On June 11, 1861 James married Mary Ann Davies, daughter of Daniel Davies, previously mentioned, who with her brothers, George and John, was born in Merthyr-Tydfil, Wales and came to America in 1846. Mary Ann was one of the early school teachers in Catasauqua. James brought his new bride to Parryville, then a village of 30 dwellings, a tavern, a store, a gristmill and a saw mill. The original iron works had one furnace with 12 foot bosh and was 52 feet high. In 1864 a second furnace was built with 15 foot bosh and 52 feet high. The third furnace was built in 1869, 18 foot bosh and 65 feet high. In 1860 a covered railroad and wagon bridge was constructed across the Lehigh River to gain access to the Lehigh Valley Railroad on the west side. The wooden bridge was demolished by a flood in 1862, but was immediately rebuilt. Carbon Iron employed 150 men and had an output of 600 tons per week. Much of the pig iron produced was shipped via canal boats to Easton.
James and Mary Ann Thomas lived in the superintendent's house at the top of Center Street hill. Here were born Blanche (my Grandmother Horn) on April 15, 1863, Mary (nicknamed Mamie) on January 4, 1866, Rowland (Uncle Rowland) on October 28, 1868, and Ruth (Aunt Ruth McKee to me and "Bomba" to the McVeys and Shannahans) on April 1, 1876.
During the Civil War, James served as captain of Company F, 34th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, during the emergency of June and July of 1863 when Lee's Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania. They were ordered to Gettysburg and saw service in the reserves with discharge at Fort Richmond near Philadelphia following Lee's retreat. George Davies, by that time brother-in-law of James and an employee of Carbon Iron, was a sergeant in this company.
In 1871, James and his family of four moved to Jefferson County, Alabama where he held the position of Manager of the Irondale and Eureka Iron Companies and had the distinction of making the first coke iron in Alabama. My Grandmother Horn said her father invented a type of bell hopper for loading blast furnaces. George Davies succeeded James as manager at Carbon Iron Company.
The family lived in Oxmoor, about 8 to 10 miles from the works at Irondale which were situated on the outskirts of Birmingham. Their move occurred only 6 years after the end of the Civil War and one wonders what kind of reception our Yankees got in the deep south of that time. Three more children were added to the Jim Thomas family-Helen (Aunt Nell Hornbeck), Catherine ("Kitty, to me, a faded face on a painting, b. November 5, 1874 d. March 31, 1890) and Hopkin (Uncle Hop b. July 16, 1876 d. March 23, 1924). My grandmother sometimes talked about the heat in Alabama and how they went barefoot during much of the summer with just ribbons around the ankles. She made up stories about hoop snakes that would take their tails in their mouths and roll down the hill and certain birds known for their messiness which the locals called "Shitepokes". The James Thomas family remained in Alabama until 1879, in which year they returned to Catasauqua.
The Post Civil War south attracted other iron men. David and Samuel Thomas were interested in the possibilities of investing in the south and in 1868 visited a section later known as Thomas near Birmingham where they purchased large tracts of mineral lands. They built two furnaces, coke ovens and developed coal and iron mines all under the name of Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company which was later sold to Republic Iron and Steel Company in 1889.
The next phase of this narration can only be told by detailing the family ties that influenced events. Hopkin's daughter, Catherine, always called Kate, married James W. Fuller in 1864. Her sister, Mary, had married James Harper McKee as mentioned before. In 1866 the two brothers-in-law formed McKee, Fuller and Company Car Wheel and Axle Works, later called Lehigh Car, Wheel, and Axle Works with James Thomas, Clinton Fuller, and William R. Thomas as partners. The business struggled at first and the last named partners withdrew to pursue other interests. The business expanded slowly, but got a tremendous boost with orders for modern 8 wheel cars from the Erie Railroad in 1879-80. It was at this time that Jim Fuller telegraphed Jim Thomas, his bother-in-law in Alabama, to come home and help reactivate the Davies and Thomas Company to produce the castings required for the massive car order.
Another family connection was with George Davies who was a brother of Mary Ann, James Thomas's wife. George's father, Daniel, after leaving Tamaqua and Weatherly, came to Catasauqua where he worked for a time at Crane Iron. He left Crane in 1865 and started his own foundry and machine shop in East Catasauqua with William Thomas (no relation to our Thomas family) as a partner. The firm traded as Davies and Thomas for a period of two years, when the partnership dissolved and William Thomas moved home to Wales. George entered the business and the firm conducted operations as Davies and Son until Daniel's death in 1876. George had been employed as a master mechanic in various shops and finally at the Carbon Iron Company in Parryville. When James left to go south, George took over as superintendent of Carbon Iron from 1871-1875. Upon his father Daniel's death, George operated the business alone until 1879 when James Thomas returned to Catasauqua and bought a half interest, thereby creating the second and highly successful Davies and Thomas Company.
The following is a description of the Davies and Thomas works by Matthews and Hungerford 1884. "...are among the most extensive and best equipped of their kind in the Lehigh Valley. The buildings comprise a foundry fifty by two hundred ninety feet; a cupola; machine shop fifty by one hundred twenty feet; two buildings forty by forty and an extensive office. The aggregate floor area was about 35,000 square feet. The motive power was supplied by five vertical engines. There were one hundred seventy-five to two hundred employees. The products of the establishment consisted of general foundry and machine work, vertical and horizontal engines (steam), car castings and all kinds of furnace, mill, and mine appliances." Employment eventually reached a peak of 500 to 600 men during tunnel contracts.
Later, the firm manufactured castings for many important enterprises, including the underground electric railway in Washington, D.C.; the Broadway Cable in New York; the East River Tunnel; the Hudson River Tunnel for the Pennsylvania Railroad; the Traction and People Cable Lines in Baltimore; and the Harlem River Tunnel for the Lexington Avenue Subway connecting Manhattan with the Bronx. (Photos of the last project are on display on the side tables.)
Following the deaths of George Davies in 1894 and James Thomas in 1906, the firm of Davies and Thomas was continued by the heirs with son Rowland Thomas as president and Hopkin Thomas as General Manager. My Grandfather, Charles R. Horn, husband of James's daughter, Blanche, was the New York sales agent. Further contracts included castings for the Holland Tunnel and a portion of the Lincoln Tunnel. Some of us can recall the tunnel rings about 18' in diameter by 15' high assembled beside the railroad siding along the Catasauqua Creek for inspection prior to shipment to New York.
The reputation for quality was the hallmark of Davies and Thomas. They had to meet exacting specifications in the various alloys of cast iron and in the casting and machining of the tunnel segments.
James Thomas was an entrepreneur in the truest sense. He was instrumental in organizing the Wahnetah Silk Company which he served as president. He brought light and power to this town and Bethlehem, as president of the Electric Light and Power Company of Catasauqua and the Bethlehem Electric Light and Power Company. He brought Thomas A. Edison to town to set up these enterprises and Edison was a guest in his home on Fourth Street.
Stock holders of the Wahnetah Silk Company, in addition to James Thomas, were Frank M. Horn, James W. Fuller, Samuel Thomas, C. R. Horn, William W. McKee, and George Davies, a group all related by blood or marriage. The electric works was organized by James Thomas, George Davies, Rowland T. Davies and Rowland D. Thomas, brothers-in-law, sons, and cousins.
James was active in the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church and was instrumental in the construction of the present church at 5th and Walnut. He served on the school board and was a delegate to the Republican Presidential Convention in Minneapolis.
The original residents and owners of the mansions on the east side of 4th Street from Bridge to Pine Street all have a tie with Hopkin Thomas. Kate Thomas Fuller and James W. Fuller 2nd built the house, now demolished on the corner of 4th and Bridge. Kate Fuller's daughters Blanche Salade (wife of Dr. L. A. Salade) and later Maud (wife of J. Sketchley Elverson) occupied the house at 4th and Strawberry Streets. James Thomas built the house on the corner of 4th and Pine, now the Binder Apartments and Aunt Ruth McKee (Mrs. William McKee) lived in the gray stone house on 4th north of Pine. This house was a wedding present from her parents, James and Mary Ann Thomas.
William R. Thomas, the oldest son of Hopkin and Catherine Thomas (born in Wales in 1829) after completing his machinist training in Weatherly at the age of 20, followed his trade in the Lehigh Valley except during the Civil War as a 1st Lieutenant in Company C, 46th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry from August 17, 1861 to April 4, 1862. During Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania he re-enlisted as a private in Company B, 30th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry serving from July 1, 1863 through August 7, 1863. In 1865 he became superintendent of the Thomas Iron Company for seven years. He then was superintendent of the Crane Iron Company for 5 years, followed by 3 years as superintendent of the Redington Iron Works. All of these enterprises involved David Thomas and his sons.
He then went south for six years erecting and superintending iron industries, perhaps at the David and Samuel Thomas infant Pioneer Mining and Iron Company near Birmingham. He then accepted a position of master mechanic for a western railroad. In 1887, he became the mechanical engineer for the Davies and Thomas Company, a position he held almost until the time of his death in 1917.
William R. married Martha Mayhew of Jeansville, the town adjacent to Beaver Meadow. Martha, the daughter of Francis Mayhew was born in England. They were the parents of Frank, James, John, Helen, Katie, Mary, Ira, William R. Jr. and Fritz. Upon the death of his uncle, James Thomas in 1906, William R., Jr. ("Butch") succeeded to the presidency of the Wahnetah Silk Company, where he remained for his entire business career.
Some concluding thoughts: Welsh ancestry and family connections seemed to be the norm for doing business in the good old days and having the name of Thomas was certainly no hindrance. But each generation from Hopkin on were carefully trained in the school of experience and groomed for the supervisory jobs that were their careers.
The leaders of the iron and steel industry of that era, while fierce competitors, did share the latest advances in technology with one another and the winners like Captain Jones and James Thomas had the ability to lead men and get the most out of the mills of that day. The following is an excerpt from a biography of Captain Jones in the History of Allegheny Country published in 1885 before Jones' death, relating to his early training under the supervision of Hopkin Thomas whom Captain Jones considered one of the brightest mechanics of his day. "Hopkin Thomas was noted for his development of youthful minds and it was his boast that he never produced a bad mechanic, and in the later years of his life he pointed with pride to the men who occupied leading positions in the mechanical and metallurgical world, who were formerly apprentices under his direction. In addition to Captain Jones and Hopkin's own sons, William R. and James, the list includes Phillip Hoffacher, master mechanic of the Lehigh Valley Railroad; George Davies, Foundry Manager; Owen Leibert, Superintendent Bethlehem Iron Works; Samuel Davis, Superintendent Port Oram Mines, Dover, New Jersey; and Daniel N. Jones, General Superintendent, Colorado Coal and Iron Company, Pueblo, Colorado."
The Thomases, and Catasauqua influenced much of the iron industry of the mid to late 1800's, having trained men like Captain Bill Jones of Carnegie Steel, sponsor of Charlie Schwab of U. S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel fame. John Fritz and brother George operated a machine shop and foundry at Front and Pine before going on to fame as organizers of Bethlehem Iron and the Cambria Works in Johnstown. The Catasauqua Rolling Mill and Bryden Horseshoe Company brought Oliver William and George Holton to the fore. The Lehigh Car Wheel and Axle Works of James Fuller 2nd and James H. McKee evolved eventually into the Fuller Company, manufacturers of heavy mill equipment, especially for the cement industry.
Unfortunately, that golden age is gone, but we can reflect on that part of the past when Catasauqua was "The Iron Borough", cradle of the glorious iron and steel industry which is now but a memory in the Lehigh Valley. Anyone who has ever seen the fireworks of a tap of molten iron from the mouth of a furnace will never forget it or the men who braved the fires of Hell to make it all possible.
Acknowledgments and Sources
A History of Catasauqua, PA, 1914 Lambert and Reinhard.
Anniversary History of Lehigh County, 1914 ed. Charles Roberts, editor.
Anthracite Iron Making and Industrial Growth in the Lehigh Valley by Craig Bartholomew,
1978 Proceedings of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
History of the Lehigh Valley by M. S. Henry 1860.
History of Northampton, Lehigh, Monroe, Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, 1845 by Daniel Rupp Reprint by Schiffer LTD. Exton, PA.
History of Lehigh and Carbon Counties, Matthews and Hungerford, 1884.
History of Allegheny County-1885- Bethlehem Public Library.
Dimmick Library Jim Thorpe -Photocopies of excerpts from Histories of Beaver Meadows; Parryville; and Banks Township and Carbon County.
Catasauqua Public Library, Clipping Book No. 1-obituaries.
Pottsville Public Library-copies of 1850 census-Tamaqua from Micro film.
A History of the Iron Industry and Allied Businesses of the Iron Borough, Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, compiled by Dale Wint.
Lance Metz-National Canal Museum, Easton, PA Information on Captain Jones, etc.
Slide Library of Catasauqua Scenes-Tony Imhof.
Monica M. Bugbee for years of research and collection of data on the Thomas and Horn Families.
John B. McVey for his Treatise "A Search for Neath Abbey Ironworks" and other information shared via mail.
Tom and Anita Shannahan-printers and publishers of this work.