Thomas Iron Company attracts immigrant workers
In this new series, I'm visiting a unique hamlet, Darktown. Many of my readers have driven through the hamlet, situated on the banks of the Lehigh River in Hokendauqua, Whitehall Township.
Two of the proud residents are Mr. and Mrs. Michael Bednar. Mike is a passionate railroad buff who has written 10 well-documented books on railroad history. I decided to interview my friend Mike on a variety of topics. Poor Mike, my incessant questioning seems to unearth anything and everything that might interest my readers.
I want to explore Darktown, home to past immigrants. During its history, there were stores, tavern's, Thomas Iron workers, floods, a fire company and a memorial dedicated to those who have faithfully served the nation in war and peace.
I'll be sleeping in Darktown tonight so I can mentally return to "Remember" the past.
Mike's grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1900. He would follow relatives from Austria-Hungary to pursue the American Dream.
After processing at Ellis Island, Jan Bednar boarded a Central of New Jersey train at what is now Liberty State Park. The train passed through Northampton and stopped North of Jim Thorpe in the middle of nowhere where the Central crosses the Lehigh Valley Railroad tracks, at a station named Penn Haven. Today, this spot is part of Lehigh Gorge State Park.
At the station were agents from the coal companies, cement companies and iron works. Most of these immigrants were in a new land and could not speak the language. Jan was of Slovak origin. Some agents were multilingual, they offered employment to the new arrivals. This was the end of the line, so hasty decisions were made.
He was offered a job by the Thomas Iron Company of Hokendauqua so he boarded a Lehigh Valley train for Hokey, where there was a railroad station in 1900.
Born in 1874, Jan was married and had a one-year-old son. His wife and baby had remained in the old homeland until Jan could make arrangements to bring them to America.
Representatives from the iron company took him to Murphy's Hotel in Darktown where new Thomas employees boarded. He was sent to Eberhard's Quarry in Mickley's which provided limestone for the iron companies.
Mike Bednar remembers, "My grandfather worked long hours, seven days a week, manually moving mountains of stone to the iron works."
In 1903 the Thomas Railroad connected with the Lehigh Railroad at the 13-track Biery rail yard in West Catasauqua, to facilitate the movement of iron ore and serve a rapidly growing cement industry.
In 1902 Mike's grandfather brought his wife, Anna, and their son Michael to Darktown. She followed the same route as her husband.
When the train stopped at Penn Haven, the immigrants were hungry, and with no McDonald's in sight, walked to the wooded area nearby, which was covered with huckleberries. They picked and ate berries and again boarded the train for Hokendauqua.
The new family was provided with a Thomas Iron Company home to rent and reside in.
Jan and Anna raised a wonderful family of eight children Michael, John, Anna, Mary, Agnes, Helen, Joseph and Paul. All the children were delivered by midwives and friends.
The family moved to Darktown in 1917. The home was purchased for $800.
All the children attended school in Hokendauqua. It was a walk up the hill to two buildings. One was only for first grade, the second building dating back to the 1860s was on land donated by the Thomas Iron Company. They also provided funds to construct the school. A sturdy building with dedicated teachers resulted in a solid "iron" education for the students. The structure became a public school and is presently utilized as a day care center.
The Thomas Iron Company was instrumental in the development of Hokendauqua. Oldtimers called it a company town. Two Welsh men, Samuel and John Thomas, were superintendents of the operation. They, as the crane works in Catasauqua, used anthracite in the production of iron. The rich deposits of coal in Eastern Pennsylvania brought both employment and prosperity to the area.
The population in Hokendauqua exceeded 1,000 residents by the late 19th century. The giant furnaces with their red glow produced over 18,000 tons of iron each year.
Early Hokendauqua was a planned community boasting schools, churches, stores and homes. Just as the cement companies attracted immigrants to Northampton, Coplay, Egypt, Cementon, Ormrod and other communities, so did the iron industry.
In two weeks we will take a ride on a railroad based in Hokendauqua which served Darktown and the Thomas Iron Company. Come along for the ride!