ASA LANSFORD FOSTER
PAGES 700 TO 704
Asa Lansford Foster was a native of Rowe, Franklin Co., Mass., whence, with a good common-school education, fair health, and Yankee energy, he came, when quite a young man, to Pennsylvania, then the “Far West,” and engaged in the mercantile business with an older brother, who had preceded him, at Berwick, on the Susquehanna River.
A few years later – about 1821 or 1822 – he engaged in the same business on his own account at Bloomsburg, and married Louisa Chapman, a niece and member of the family of Isaac A. Chapman, one of the earliest pioneers of the Lehigh coal operations.
The mercantile business of that time and locality…
… was chiefly that of trade or barter of the merchandise usually kept in country stores, for the products of the farm and forest. Part of these products were taken on wagons or sleds to Philadelphia and part were sent to markets down the Susquehanna on the spring and fall freshets in rafts or arks. Goods for the store were brought in wagons or sleds from the city.
The Susquehanna and Lehigh Turnpike, which, under a charter granted in 1804, had been made from Berwick to Mauch Chunk, was the only avenue of transportation from the Susquehanna Valley, over the mountains, to the valley of the Lehigh, and thence to the Delaware.
After the commencement of operations by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, Mauch Chunk became an important market for the products of the Susquehanna Valley, and a very desirable one, for here cash could be obtained for them in the shape of checks upon a Philadelphia bank. These the merchants of the valley were glad to get, and the traffic with Mauch Chunk made the operations there familiar to Mr. Foster, when about 1826 he disposed of his business at Bloomsburg and removed to Philadelphia, intending to engage in the wholesale trade in such merchandise as his experience had taught him was needed in the country.
While residing on the Susquehanna various plans for the navigation of that river were subjects much discussed among progressive men. Among them was the attempt to run a small steamboat, called the “Cadorus,” which exploded on its first trial. Mr. Foster was on board, but being a good swimmer and fortunately blown into the water with only slight injuries, narrowly escaped with his life.
In Philadelphia he accepted temporarily a position in a wholesale house, and while there, through his connection with Isaac A. Chapman, then civil engineer for the Lehigh Company, and residing at Mauch Chunk, Mr. Foster made the acquaintance of Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, and was by them engaged to take charge of the company’s large supply-store at the latter place. He removed with his family to Mauch Chunk about 1827. Here he found a very large and substantial stone store-building, filled from garret to cellar with goods which had from time to time been sent by the managers of the company, many of which, owing to their ignorance of the needs of their employés, were useless and unsalable. These he had packed and returned to the city and replenished the stock with such goods as were wanted.
His management of the store made it very popular, and it soon became the center of supply, not only for those employed by the company, but also for the country from the Susquehanna to the Delaware, which found here a ready market for its products.
The company employed hundreds of men in the construction of its canal from Mauch Chunk to Easton; its descending navigation from the head-waters of the Lehigh to Mauch Chunk; in the construction of the railroad to the mines; in getting out timber, sawing lumber, building arks, dwelling-houses, and other structures; and at the mines, quarrying and hauling coal; with other hundreds of horses, mules, and oxen, all of which had to be provided for through the store. Many men were employed in the forests getting out lumber, and at other points at considerable distance from Mauch Chunk, the center of operations, where all came for their pay and supplies. The store and offices were kept open on Sundays as well as week-days for their accommodation, and Sunday was often the busiest day of the week.
To manage such a business, keeping the stock of goods and supplies full, with the facilities for transportation then available, - by wagons from a city nearly a hundred miles distant, - required ability, foresight, and energy, which Mr. Foster had and exercised to the entire satisfaction of the company, while the attention which he gave personally and required of his assistants behind the counters to all customers, made them all his friends and patrons.
Prior to 1831 the company owned all of the land and houses in Mauch Chunk, but about that time concluded to lay out the town in lots and sell them. The plot of that part which had been built upon was so arranged that the dwellings were upon separate lots. The prices asked were fair, the terms of payment easy, and very soon nearly all of the lots – as well those built upon as those vacant – were disposed of. The company had, however, reserved several parcels which the acting manager, Mr. White, thought might be needed for their own use, among them the corner now occupied by the Lehigh Valley Railroad offices. The company had also concluded soon to relinquish the mercantile business to private enterprise, and Mr. Foster was very desirous to purchase the corner lot above mentioned for the purpose of erecting thereon a store building. His application for it was repeatedly declined; but, to settle the matter finally, by asking for it what he thought a price so high that no purchaser could be found, Mr. White named six hundred dollars as the very lowest figure. Mr. Foster, to the surprise of the manager, immediately accepted the offer, and with Messrs. Benjamin Rush McConnell and James Brodrick, purchased the lot and erected a store upon it.
Previous to this time Mauch Chunk had become widely known, and its coal-mines – then a great novelty, its wild and picturesque location, as well as its wonderful railroad, then the only one in the United States – attracted many visitors. Mr. Foster thought the time had come when the patronage of these visitors and the many now interested in the progress of the coal-trade and of the Lehigh Company, together with the local patronage, would support a newspaper. The business of the company also required a large amount of job printing. Having the assurance of Mr. White that a printing-office would have the …
… company’s patronage, Mr. Foster conferred with his friend, Amos Sisty, then an apprentice (nearly out of his time) to the printer’s trade at Berwick, and a young man of superior literary ability, with the result that he paid the master for the remainder of Mr. Sisty’s “time,” purchased a very complete outfit for a newspaper and job printing-office, and while retaining his position as store-keeper for the company, commenced, in 1829, the publication of the Lehigh Pioneer and Mauch Chunk Courier, with Amos Sisty as editor. The investment yielded no more income than was necessary to meet current expenses, although the paper was ably edited and will compare favorably, both in matter and typography, with the newspapers of half a century later.
The ability of Mr. Sisty soon attracted the attention of other journalists, and he accepted a more important and lucrative position upon a Baltimore paper. The Pioneer and Courier was, however, published (in later years under the title of the Mauch Chunk Courier) under the several editorial and business managements of Mahlon H. Sisty and John and William P. I. Painter, until about the year 1842, whn Mr. Foster sold the material of the office to Joseph H. Siewers, who changed the name to the Carbon County Transit. A year or two later, Mr. Siewers sold it to William Reed, when the paper came again under the control of Mr. Foster for a short time, during which the old name was revived; but upon again changing owners, the name was again changed to the Mauch Chunk Gazette, under which name it is now published, fifty-five years after the Lehigh Pioneer and Mauch Chunk Courier first made its appearance.
The “corner store” was erected, supplied with goods, and business commenced about the time that the Beaver Meadow Railroad, from Beaver Meadow to Parryville, and the “Upper Grand Section” of the Lehigh Navigation, from White Haven to Mauch Chunk, were in course of construction. Mr. Foster’s abilities as a merchant were again called into action, this store becoming the principal point from which supplies for the army of men employed on these great works were drawn.
There were no such facilities as there are now for procuring such supplies as were needed. It is true, the canal was finished and the store was so constructed that a boat, loaded with goods, could be floated under it and unloaded by wheel and axle, through hatchways in the store-floors, which was an advance upon the old plan of hauling goods from the city in wagons; but there were no great packing-houses for the curing of meats; molasses and sugar came in hogsheads. There was no such thing as browned coffee in market, pepper and spices came in bulk and unground. To furnish cured meats, droves of cattle and hogs were purchased and slaughtered, and the meats packed in barrels. Flour and potatoes were purchased by the boat-load, and in the fall in quantities sufficient for the demand through the winter.
Many of the points where supplies were needed, along the navigation and railroad in course of construction, were accessible only by steep roads down the mountain-sides. To some, roads could not be made, and from the nearest accessible point supplies had to be lowered by ropes. To reach them sugar and molasses were transferred from hogsheads into barrels or smaller receptacles. There were no conveniences for browning coffee at the shanties. This the store-keeper had to have done, spices had to be ground and packed and many other things done, to meet the emergency, all of which was so satisfactorily accomplished at the “corner store” that it became very popular, and flourishing and profitable trade was the result.
The store was, while under the management of Mr. Foster, at first owned by the firm of McConnell, Foster & Brodrick, then Foster & Brodrick, and finally owned by Asa L. Foster alone.
Mr. Foster removed from Mauch Chunk in 1837 to engage in another enterprise, leaving his mercantile business in charge of one of his salesmen, Robert Q. Butler, to be closed out, and soon after sold the lot and buildings to Asa Packer; the site now occupied, as before mentioned, by the building erected since Judge Packer’s decease, for the accommodation of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s offices, for which purpose – except the “corner” of the first floor (which is still a store), and three rooms of the same floor fronting on Susquehanna Street – it is now used.
Asa L. Foster, by his intimate social relations with Messrs. White, Hazard, and Isaac A. Chapman, during his connection with the Lehigh Company, when coal, in all of its aspects, from location in the ground to its use as fuel, was the leading topic of study and conversation, had made himself thoroughly conversant with its geology and the surface indications of its deposit. Mr. Chapman had also given the subject much study, with the advantage of several years’ longer experience in this and other localities.
In his business as a surveyor, some years before he entered the service of the Lehigh company, Mr. Chapman had noticed the surface indications of coal on several tracts of land in the southeastern part of Luzerne County, which, year after year, had been offered for sale for the taxes assessed and unpaid upon them. These lands were of little value as timber lands, being bleak mountain tops, and were entirely inaccessible to market, even if they had been covered with timber. The lands which Mr. Chapman believed contained coal were at his suggestion purchased at tax sale by him and Mr. Foster, as partners, some years prior to their becoming residents of Mauch Chunk, Mr. Chapman at that time saying to Mr. Foster, “They may never be of any value to us, but, being coal-lands, they may be to our children.”
The construction of the slack-water navigation from Mauch Chunk to White Haven brought the product of these lands within four miles of an avenue to market, and in 1835 or 1836, Mr. Foster (Mr. Chap-…
…man having died) went to see them. Finding upon them the geological formation of coal-lands, as Mr. Chapman had done several years earlier, he made arrangements for proving the location and value of the coal strata by shafting, but postponed active operations for a time when he could more conveniently give them his personal attention.
The progress of the proposed navigation stimulated the owners of lands in its vicinity, which had before been considered not worth the taxes, to look after them, and among these were the owners of the original titles to the lands which Messrs. Chapman and Foster had purchased. This led to much correspondence, threats of lawsuits based upon irregularities in the tax sale, and precipitated not only the examination of the lands to ascertain their value, but also the desire to get actual occupancy and possession, which Mr. Foster, in the interests of himself and the heirs of Isaac A. Chapman, found it advisable to do in the winter instead of the following summers, as had been intended.
Procuring the necessary help, he cut a road through the forest from the nearest saw-mill, two and a half miles distant, built a small house or shanty, and commenced exploring for the coal. Although there was two or three feet of snow upon the ground, the landmarks which he had made during his visit the previous summer enabled him to locate his point of operations, and in a few days the whole Lehigh region was amazed by the news of the discovery of a new coal deposit.
Mr. Foster’s observations while in that neighborhood were not confined to his own land, but, having found the key, he unlocked what is now the great Black Creek coal basin, and obtained knowledge which many men, more ambitious and less scrupulous, could have turned greatly to their advantage.
The immediate result of Mr. Foster’s discovery was the organization of the Buck Mountain Coal Company, of which he was appointed superintendent, and in the fall of 1837, having had a log house built on the top of the Buck Mountain, he removed his family there, and for a year or more continued his explorations, to ascertain the depth of the basin and the location of the coal strata, with a view to the best method of working the mines.
A tunnel through the conglomerate to reach the bottom of the basin was finally decided upon, and this, with four miles of railroad, including two inclined planes and a tunnel, with wharves, etc., for shipping at Rockport, Mr. Foster, with two others as partners, contracted to build, taking a large percentage of the cost of the work in the bonds of the company. The work was completed and one boat-load of coal shipped in the fall of 1840.
In January, 1841, the Lehigh navigation was destroyed by a great flood, and Mr. Foster having exhausted his own means in exchange for securities which were now and for several years after of little market value, and which he was obliged to dispose of at a great sacrifice, became comparatively a poor man. He remained at Buck Mountain and Rockport for a year or two after the navigation was rebuilt, in the employment of Carey & Long and E. W. Harlan, who had taken the contract to mine and deliver coal into boats, and in the fall of 1844 returned to Mauch Chunk.
Here, for a short time, he edited and published the Mauch Chunk Courier, then the only newspaper in Mauch Chunk, and afterwards, in partnership with his old salesman of the “corner store,” Robert Q. Butler, obtained a contract for driving one of the tunnels in Panther Creek Valley, near Summit Hill, where he remained, in that capacity and as book-keeper and financial manager for Daniel Bertsch, one of the coal contractors, until 1855, when he became a partner with Messrs. Sharpe, Leisenring & Co., afterwards Sharpe, Weiss & Co., in the lease and opening of the Council Ridge Colliery, at the eastern end of the great Black Creek coal-basin, and within two miles of the place where twenty years before he had developed the existence of coal in that locality.
It was his knowledge of the resources of this great coal-field, and their confidence in Mr. Foster’s judgment, that induced these gentlemen to invest all of their means in the venture. It was financially successful, and although, like many pioneers in great projects, Mr. Foster was at first unfortunate, unlike many of them he lived to participate largely in the fruits of his early labors and enterprise.
For many years prior to his decease, Mr. Foster deservedly enjoyed a reputation second to that of no other man for his great knowledge of the geology of the anthracite coal formation, and for his excellent judgment as to the probable position of the coal strata as to pitch, depth, and axis beneath the surface, - matter of vast importance in fixing the proper location for openings and deciding upon the best plan for the working of mines. As an expert in such matters, his services were often requested and cheerfully rendered, generally without compensation, although, in many instances, requiring many miles of fatiguing travel on foot through forests, often at long distances and for many days’ absence from his home.
Asa L. Foster was an eminently progressive man, manifesting at all times much interest in every measure which he believed to be for the welfare of the people, both general and local. He was one of the earliest advocates of the common-school system, at a time when that now popular institution had few friends, and labored earnestly with voice and pen for its adoption.
He was a careful reader, a close reasoner, of great foresight, and an excellent counselor in all matters pertaining to the progress and development of the great mineral and other resources of the Lehigh…
…Valley. In friendly and intimate social relations with their chief projectors, and particularly so with the late Hon. Asa Packer, who, we learn from the correspondence between them, often sought Mr. Foster’s advice and counsel, and was encouraged in his hours of greatest despondency to renewed efforts to push forward his great projects to completion.
Mr. Foster was a sincere Christian, not in profession only, but he carried his faith into, and was guided by, its precepts in all of his social and business relations. Liberal in his charities, kind and sympathetic in his intercourse with high and humble alike, he was one who constantly gained new friends and never made an enemy.
Asa L. Foster died at Wilkesbarre after a short illness, contracted while on a visit to friends there, on the 9th day of January, 1868, in the seventy-first year of his age. An appropriate monument and memorial marks his last earthly resting-place in the cemetery at Mauch Chunk. The borough of Lansford, in Carbon County, and the township of Foster, in Luzerne County, also perpetuate his name and memory.
The History of the Counties of Lehigh & Carbon, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,
Alfred Mathews & Austin N. Hungerford
Published in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1884
Transcribed from the original in September 2003
Susan Gilkeson Sterling
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