(Compiled by John B. McVey – see source citations below)
James Thomas was born in Philadelphia, September 22, 1836, and was the youngest son of Hopkin Thomas and his wife Catherine (Richards) Thomas. He inherited his father's genius in mechanics, and early in youth thoroughly learned the iron industry, in which business his attentions were engaged all his active life and in which he was eminently successful.
James Thomas came to Catasauqua, from Tamaqua, with his parents in 1853 at age 17. He apprenticed at the Crane Iron Works under the tutelage of his father, Hopkin Thomas, Master Mechanic (Chief Engineer) where he gained extensive knowledge of the iron-making business. During these early years, the Thomas family lived on Church St. and among his neighbors was William R. (Billy) Jones. James and Billy became lifelong friends; both became experts in the iron-making industry. At about the age of 20, James and Bill Jones left Catasauqua and for several months they entered the employ of William Millens, who operated a machine shop at Janesville, Luzerne County. In 1856, they moved to Philadelphia, and worked as machinists in the shops of I. P. Morris & Company, where they worked on two large blast engines for the Lehigh Crane Iron Works, and they were sent to Catasauqua with the force of men to erect the same.
In 1858, at the age of 22, he went to Parryville, Pa. to take on the superintendency of the Carbon Iron Works. The first furnace of the Carbon Iron Company, originally known as the Poco Anthracite Furnace, was built by Bowman Brothers and Company in 1855. The site was on the east side of the Lehigh River, on the canal at Lock No. 13 and just upstream of the mouth of the Pohopoco, Creek. The first furnace stack was 40 feet high, with an open top and a 13 foot bosh. The original water-powered blast machinery was replaced with steam equipment in 1857. Two more furnaces; No. 2 stack, 52 by 16 feet, was built in 1864, and No. 3 stack, 65 by 16 feet, was completed in 1869. Both of the newer stacks had closed tops to capture waste gas to heat the stoves and generate steam for the blowing engines.
The Carbon Iron Company, ca. 1865 (Courtesy, Bartholomew & Metz)
In 1861 Thomas married Mary Ann Davies, who was born in Wales and was the daughter of Daniel Davies, a colleague of Hopkin Thomas. During their stay at Parryville, the Thomas’ lived in a comfortable home above the iron works where four children were born.
Mary Ann (nee Davies) Thomas
Map of Parryville from Beer’s Atlas, 1875
In 1863 Thomas’ career at the Carbon Iron Works was interrupted by the campaigns of the Civil War which were threatening the population of south-central Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania formed the34th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Emergency Volunteers under the Command of Col Charles Albright. Companies F, A, and G of this regiment, which served during the emergency in June and July, 1863, were formed by the men of Carbon County. Capt. James Thomas led Company F consisting of two officers and 76 men; his first sergeant was brother-in-law and future business partner George Davies. The company marched to Gettysburg, thence to Port Richmond, Philadelphia, where the men in the unit were honorably discharged.
James Thomas continued on at Parryville until 1871 at which time family members, James Harper McKee and James W. Fuller, who had contacts, principally Giles Edwards, a former colleague of Hopkin Thomas, in the Birmingham Alabama area, prevailed upon Thomas to take his family to the war-devastated, but now redeveloping iron center. Thomas traveled to Jefferson county Alabama, and while there held the position of general manager of the Irondale and Eureka Iron Companies. Among many accomplishments, detailed in James Thomas and the Alabama Iron Industry, 1872 - 1879, he held the distinction of having made the first coke-iron in Alabama.
Somewhat frustrated by the slow pace of progress in obtaining agreement among the various railroad and iron works principals relative to investments in the development of the rich Alabama mineral resources, he once again responded to an inquiry from the McKee-Fuller interests. McKee and Fuller had formed the Lehigh Car, Wheel, and Axle Works in what was to become Fullerton, Pa. They were in need of a supplier of forgings and castings to be used to produce rolling stock. In 1879 James Thomas returned to Catasauqua and formed a partnership with George Davies under the name of Davies & Thomas. (This company was the outgrowth of a small concern which was established in 1865 by Daniel Davies. Shortly after its establishment a co-partnership was formed with Wm. Thomas and in 1867 the interest of the latter was purchased by George Davies, a son of Daniel Davies. They organized under the firm name of Daniel Davies & Son, this firm existing until the death Daniel Davies.) James Thomas and George Davies greatly expanded the activities of the foundry which continued in existence until the deathof George Davies in 1894. The following year the heirs of George Davies and the surviving member, James Thomas formed the Davies, Thomas Company.
The works were situated on the east bank of Catasauqua Creek, adjoining the borough limits, and covered about five acres of floor space. The plant contained every convenience for the successful prosecution of their work, and the quality of the products was inferior to none. The firm manufactured castings for many important enterprises including the underground electric railway in Washlngting D. C., the Broadway Cable in New York, the East River tunnel and the Traction and Peoples Cable lines in Baltimore. They also manufactured car castings and were the designers of the Davies & Thomas engine. The plant was classed with the largest in the country conducting general foundry and machine work. The works were enlarged from time to time and were amongst the most extensive and best equipped of their kind in the state.
The Davies & Thomas Company, Catasauqua, Pa.
As an outgrowth of this success James Thomas became prominently identified with every enterprise calculated to promote the prosperity of Catasauqua. He was a founder and president of the Wahnetah Silk Company as the silk fabric business flourished in the Lehigh Valley
The Wahnetah Silk Company, Catasauqua, Pa.
As his reputation for accomplishment grew, he became acquainted with many of the important industrialists of the late nineteenth century era – including Andrew Carnegie (mentor of his fellow Crane apprentice, Capt. Billy Jones) and Thomas Edison. By virtue of his contact with Edison, the borough secured the establishment of an electric light plant -- established in 1890. The plant was situated along the public road in the southern extremity of the borough. The company (Catasauqua Electric Light and Power Co.) was organized by George Davies, Rowland T. Davies, James Thomas, and Rowland D. Thomas, and incorporated with a capital of $60,000. The plant supplied the town with electric lights, under an agreement with the borough, at designated points. The streets of Catasauqua had been lighted by gas lamps, set on posts, from 1856 to 1890; then incandescent electric lights were substituted, and in 1900 arc lights were added. Being an Edison plant the power was direct current. Eventually, as the power plants in the various Lehigh Valley boroughs and towns were consolidated, the Westinghouse alternating current method, which was more efficient in transmitting, was employed.
During this period, James Thomas also became president of the Bethlehem Electric Light and Power Company. Consolidation of the local franchises began in 1890 when the Lehigh - Northampton Gas and Electric Co.was organized. In Dec. 1913, the Lehigh Valley Light and Power Co. became the lessee of all the franchises.
James Thomas was active in community charitable affairs. He was a member or Grace M. E, Church, Porter Lodge, F. & A M., Catasauqua Chapter, and Allen Commandery, No. 20, Knights Templar. He was a Republican in politics and among the honors given him by his party was an appointment as delegate to the national convention held in Minneapolis in 1892. (His daughter Ruth Thomas McKee recalled that he was disgusted with the back-room negotiations conducted at the convention and never again sought to be involved with politics.) He took a keen interest in educational affairs and served for several years on the school board.
As a result of his financial success he became a director of the Catasauqua National Bank. He supported several building projects most notably the erection of the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church edifice adorning the corner of Fifth and Walnut Streets. As a pillar of the Methodist Episcopal Church, he served it in all its offices for many years; also was the honored superintendent of the Sunday school for many years.
Grace M. E. Church, 5th & Walnut Sts., Catasauqua
His biographies state “Mr. Thomas was one of the best informed men, reading broadly upon all matters of general interest and carrying his investigations into the best of literature. He was public-spirited, which, together with his high social standing and courteous manners, made him a very popular and honored citizen.”
Mr. Thomas was married to Miss Mary Ann Davies, June 11, 1861. They were the parents of the following children: Blanche T., wife of Charles R. Horn; Mary C. Thomas (died at the age of twenty-eight years); Rowland D. Thomas; Mrs. Ruth (Thomas) McKee, wife of William Wier McKee; Helen T., wife of Dr. James L. Hornbeck; Catherine R. Thomas (died aged eighteen year; Hopkin Thomas.
James Thomas died December 18, 1906 at his home following an illness with stomach disorders.
Bartholomew and Metz, The Anthracite Iron Industry of the Lehigh Valley, 1988.
Lambert and Reinhard, A History of Catasauqua in Lehigh County Pennsylvania, 1914.
Obituary, The Allentown Morning Call, December 19, 1906.
Portrait & Biographical Record, Lehigh, Northampton, and Carbon Counties, 1894.
Roberts, C. R. et al, History of Lehigh County Pennsylvania 1914.
John W. Jordan, Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, 1914
Rev. July 2010