Why Tamaqua?


Presumably, late in the year of 1845 Hopkin Thomas returned to his home in Beaver Meadow and said, “Dearest Catharine, today Aaron and I and the others spoke with Mr. Weatherly of the company and informed him that we were no longer going to manage the Beaver Meadow operations.  So our stay here is now over and we will move on”.  And Catharine presumably replied, “Oh, my goodness, dear, does this mean that we will return to Philadelphia?” “No, dearest, I am thinking of pursuing opportunities in Tamaqua.”  In a state of surprise, Catharine would have exclaimed “Tamaqua? Tamaqua? Are their schools for our children in Tamaqua?”  “Why Tamaqua?”


If Hopkin replied, there is no record. Why Tamaqua, indeed?


Where is Tamaqua?


Tamaqua is not too distant from Beaver Meadow – about 15 miles southwest. It is located in a different anthracite coal field and on a different rail and canal system than Beaver Meadow. Specifically, it is located in the Southern Coal Field on the Little Schuylkill River – and so had access to the Philadelphia market via the Schuylkill River system.


Location of Tamaqua vis-ą-vis Beaver Meadow.  Click here for more maps.


When Hopkin first arrived in Beaver Meadow (1837)  there was no rail connection between Beaver Meadow and Tamaqua. There was, however, a stage line that ran regularly, so that it was possible that even in the early years Hopkin had visited the town and developed possible business interests. The railroads were developing rapidly in the Schuylkill region and Hopkin would have been following those activities. The Little Schuylkill Railroad began to develop along the Little Schuylkill river from Port Clinton to Tamaqua in the early 1830s and was fully functional, at least as a coal road, by 1845. 


In addition to the railroad activity, mining was becoming a significant industry. Hopkin, of course, had expertise in both areas. Did he have a contact there that encouraged him to get involved in these activities?


There is no written record of such contact. So what could Hopkin’s interest in Tamaqua be? Tamaqua in that period was a rapidly growing town – primarily due to the coal trade. According to the Searfass history, Iron Steps, the population grew from 464 in 1840 to 3080 in 1850. Why the rapid growth? Coal, of course.  And because of the need to transport the coal, there was significant growth in the railroads and the canal system.


Hopkin’s Interest in Tamaqua


We know now that Hopkin had a plan to develop a machine shop and foundry business. Information obtained from the records of the Office of the Recorder of Deeds of Schuylkill County provides an insight into this activity. Records #3-5 of those transcribed describe property on Rail Road Street in Tamaqua that Hopkin and a partner named James Ollis acquired to support activities of a business referred to as Thomas and Ollis, Machinists and Iron Founders.  Lots # 151, 152 and 153 were deeded from Hopkin Thomas to Thomas & Ollis on January 31st, 1848. Lots 154, 155 and 156 were deeded from John Ollis to Thomas & Ollis on January 31st, 1848.  Thus the partnership acquired a plot 124 feet along Railroad Street by 130 feet deep on which, presumably, to erect a shop. Additionally, Hopkin kept two lots – No.s 149 & 150 in his own name. Hopkin had acquired these lots on September 3, 1847. Was this to be the location of his home?  Possibly, but probably not, as this region of Tamaqua was recognized as the industrial section of town.


The area purchased by Hopkin and John Ollis is highlighted in yellow in the map below which indicates the location of #156 and #142 Rail Road St. Note that the properties abut the Little Schuylkill Railroad trackage – a fact not mentioned in the deeds.  Note also that the river is but two short blocks from the property.


Blow-up from a composite map of Tamaqua, 1875 – F. W. Beers & Co.  Click here for entire map.


Railroad Street, ca. 1970


No biographical information on John Ollis has been uncovered. In Munsell’s 1881 history, there is a reference to the establishment of an iron works in Tamaqua by John Ollis in 1846 – it  is referred to as “Water’s Foundry”. It is stated that in 1847 it passed into the hands of “Hudson & Waters”. Perhaps John Ollis erected a foundry for Hudson & Waters – otherwise why would he have possessed the property for such a short period of time?


Several other records indicate that Hopkin had formed a business In a biography of Daniel Davies, a Welshman who came to America in 1846 it is stated that Davies “went to Tamaqua where he entered the employ of Hopkin Thomas”. He left Tamaqua in early 1849.  (Davies daughter, Mary, later married Hopkin’s son James Thomas.)


Also, it is written that Giles Edwards, a Welshman who came to America in 1842, “drew the attention and interest of Hopkin Thomasand went to work for Mr. Thomas, down into Schuylkill County, which was then known as " the southern coal field," and superintended the Thomas works at Tamaqua on the Little Schuylkill River.”  (Edwards later went to Alabama and was involved in the development of the Birmingham area iron business. These quotes are from Ethyl Armes book, The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama.  See Biographies and Genealogies for more on Giles Edwards.))


Finally, in the testimonial published in the Catasauqua Dispatch after Hopkin’s death, it is written “he ventured into partnership and built a machine shop at Tamaqua, in which he lost large sums of money.”  There is no hint in the histories of the Thomas family as to whom that might have been. However, we now know that was John Ollis.


As to why Hopkin lost large sums of money, we note  that the business was located in that area of Tamaqua which was the site of growing industrial activity – between the Little Schuylkill R.R  and the Little Schuylkill river. This was the area of Tamaqua that was wiped out in the Great Flood of 1850.  This is covered in a later chapter.


One puzzling feature is the date at which Hopkin actually moved from Beaver Meadow to Tamaqua. According to the property deeds, when Hopkin purchased the Railroad Street lots, he was a resident of Carbon County – that was September 1847. When he transferred the property to Thomas & Ollis, he was a resident of Tamaqua.  The search of the Schuylkill County deeds does not reveal any other property acquisition in Hopkin’s name – property that may have been his Tamaqua residence. Nor were any records of property disposal by Hopkin. Thus, the period when Hopkin was actually residing in Tamaqua is not resolved.


There are two other factual documents that place the Hopkin Thomas family in Tamaqua.


Hopkin and Catharine’s oldest daughter, Mary, had been courted in Beaver Meadow by James Harper McKee, a railroad man originally from western Pennsylvania. Mary would have been about 15 years of age when the Thomas’s moved to Tamaqua. A marriage certificate has been located which places her residence in Tamaqua on April 24, 1848, age 17.



Second, a copy of the 1850 census has Hopkin and family in Tamaqua in August of 1850.

For additional information on the census form, click here.


Note that Hopkin’s age is incorrect – he would have been 56 years of age at that time. It is possible that the census may provide a further clue with respect to Hopkin’s business. The Census of 1850 included a special survey, concluded in June of 1850, of manufacturers. The survey dealt with the number of people employed, the type of power (water, steam, etc.) used in the manufacturing process, and other items – including the name of the business. To this date a copy of that census has not been located, however, the search continues.


It is possible that other records exist. Financing of the business must have been arranged. Were there bank records?  Further, when the operation was destroyed by the flood of 1850, was there a bankruptcy process involved? To date there has been no pursuit of such records.



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Rev. Novmber 2010