Mark Twain’s Father-in-Law’s Monopoly: A Brief History of The J. Langdon Coal Company


EDITOR”S NOTE: What follows is a revised version of a talk delivered by Dr. Reigstad at the 8th Quadrennial Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. It draws upon materials from both the CMTS archives and the Chemung County Historical Society

Mark Twain officially joined the Langdon family and became associated with its vast coal enterprises when he became engaged to Olivia on February 4, 1869. Three weeks later Twain found himself hanging out in New York City with his future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, invited to sit in on the J. Langdon Coal Company annual meeting.

Although he described the experience in humorous terms, Twain was dazzled by his intimate view of naked capitalism. Twain listened to Jervis Langdon and his managers discuss ways to increase the coal company’s profit margin. Twain comically described the scene to Olivia. His letter began with a pun: “I could not get much of Mr. Langdon’s company (except his Coal company).” He then satirized the cutthroat nature of the big business world, referring to the attendees as “two or three suspicious looking pirates from other districts,” “that dissolute Mr. Frisbie from Elmira and a notorious character by the name of Slee, from Buffalo.” Twain’s fascination with inside business machinations seems evident, as he confessed to Olivia: “The subject of coal is very thrilling. I listened to it for an hour—till my blood curdled in my veins.”

The Langdon coal business was well underway by the time Twain tagged along. But its history is yet to be fully written. Here is a truncated version.

Jervis Langdon came to Elmira in 1845 and decided to specialize in Pennsylvania coal: hard coal, or stone coal, also known as anthracite, which was clean and smokeless, the preferred fuel in American cities. Most of the early Langdon Company collieries (the technical term for mines and their associated processing facilities) were in the Shamokin district of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal belt, located along the Great Shamokin Path, an old Native American trail. The Shamokin coal region, in east central Pennsylvania was at first serviced by the Reading Railroad to ship coal to market. This rich coal area was situated conveniently less than 130 miles due south of Langdon’s Elmira headquarters. Jervis Langdon became one of the first coal dealers in the United States to engage in the mining, handling and forwarding of coal. An unfortunate legacy of J. Langdon’s presence in Shamokin is that to this day the area is still listed by the state of Pennsylvania as an asbestos exposure site.

In 1857 J. Langdon & Co. (known initially as Audenreied, Langdon & Co.) was one of just three coal dealers in Elmira. From 1860-1864 they operated as J. Langdon & Company in partnership with Samuel W. Branard as coal and iron dealers with an office at 44 Fifth Street at the corner of Hatch in Elmira.

 

Corner of E. 5th St. & Hatch, original site of J. Langdon & Co.

 

By 1865 J. Langdon had severed ties with Branard and rented space at 6 Baldwin Street. In 1873, J. Langdon bought the building, and the address was renumbered as 110 Baldwin. That building was occupied by J. Langdon & Company or their later iteration, Chemung Coal Company, until it closed in November of 1946, at which time the Elmira Sunday Telegram described the office as “the quaintest place of business in Elmira, a Dickensian establishment that has the atmosphere of 19th century London, an office unchanged since the Langdons equipped it in 1873.”

The Elmira headquarters of J. Langdon at 110 Baldwin Street featured a well-appointed interior of black walnut trim, a fireplace, lovely walnut desks and chairs, and Langdon family portraits adorning the office walls. On the left side, there were additional desks, and dark woodwork framed a long, high counter that required three-foot stools for the clerks. To the right of the main office was an executive inner sanctum with a large round wooden table surrounded by grill-work. Toward the rear were bank-sized vaults. One wall was lined with six ornately carved customer service “cages.”

In 1861 Theodore W. Crane, who had married Jervis’s adopted daughter Susan, joined the company in Elmira as a partner. Also in 1861 Langdon formed the Anthracite Coal Association to market coal to Buffalo at less expense. It consisted of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Co.; the Pittston & Elmira Coal Company; and the J. Langdon Coal Company.

Despite J. Langdon’s overall success, there were risks and downturns that may have caused Twain to question his allegiance to the family business. During the summer of 1869 Buffalonians kept a wary eye on the increasing coal rates charged by the Anthracite Coal Association, which had reached an exorbitant $10.50 per ton. All three major newspapers – The Express, The Daily Courier, and The Commercial Advertiser – united in joint outrage at the monopoly’s stranglehold. The Express was the most stridently anti-monopoly. Amid this furor, Sam Clemens became a co-owner and managing editor of The Express. Within four days he engineered an abrupt editorial about-face.

Ad for J. Langdon’s Anthracite Coal Co. in Buffalo Express (November 27, 1869)

Perhaps the story that motivated him to act was from the August 18th Niagara Falls Gazette. It harshly criticized the Anthracite Coal Association and Jervis Langdon: “The cause of the trouble was not a combination of companies, but a control of the avenues to Buffalo by Mr. Langdon of Elmira, so that the Queen City of the Lakes is under control of an inferior city on the banks of the Chemung. No one but Mr. Langdon can get coal over the roads to Elmira.” The story closes by pointing a finger at “the criminal rapacity of the forestaller of the market, Mr. Langdon.” Twain wasted no time in using his editorial bully pulpit to reverse The Express’s editorial coal monopoly stance and to shield Jervis Langdon. Two days after the Gazette ripped into Langdon’s iron hand on coal prices, Twain wrote an unsigned editorial, “The Monopoly Speaks,” and printed a letter by Slee, both pieces promoting the benevolent intentions of the Anthracite Coal Association.

Ten years later, in 1879, as J. Langdon was dissolving the Anthracite Coal Association, it was still publicly disputing charges of monopolism. This time the accusations were of collusion with the Northern Central Railroad to ensure high prices. Over the decades, J. Langdon managed to survive the taint of monopoly and other hazards – financial panics, mine flood, fires and explosions, railroad worker and miner strikes – that faced the disaster-prone coal industry.

In the summer of 1863 production halted for a few weeks due to the Confederate Army invasion of Pennsylvania. But by 1867, the demand for coal was surging, and J. Langdon purchased the lease of the Big Mountain colliery from the Bird Coal and Iron Co., made many improvements, and continued buying out competitors.

In 1870 J. Langdon & Company first handled coal by chutes in Buffalo with a trestle at their strategically located coal yard at the Lake Erie Basin. This key 210 ft. by 207 ft. waterfront property at the foot of Genesee Street, had a bordering slip that connected Buffalo’s Lake Erie harbor on its southside to the Erie Canal on its northside. The J. Langdon coal yard also boasted a spur of the New York Central Railroad with four sets of tracks, one with a switcher, running through it. For many years, J. Langdon brought an annual average of 200,000 tons of coal to Buffalo for delivery by canal or rail, or westward by freighter over the Great Lakes to Chicago and beyond.

Another J. Langdon corporate move in 1870 included opening the McIntyre Coal Company in the Lycoming County coal basin of northeastern Pennsylvania at Ralston, a few miles north of Williamsport. Coal mining had taken place there on a small scale, but J. Langdon was the first to open a major operation, built on a steep (45 degree angle), long (2,300 feet) inclined plane to transport the coal from the mine to the waiting railroad cars. For eight years, the McIntyre mine supplied 200,00 tons of coal per year for consumption as fuel coal in New York and Canada. Also in 1870, Langdon started a partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt to provide fuel coal for his New York Central Railroad steam locomotives.

On May 1, 1870, with Jervis Langdon gravely ill, the company was restructured into four partners: Jervis still as principal, his young son Charles “Charley” Jervis Langdon, his son-in-law Crane, and Slee. After Jervis Langdon died in August of 1870, the partnership was expanded to include his widow and his daughter Olivia.

After the McIntyre mine was exhausted and shut down, the J. Langdon mine and company town of 300 households, a church, store and school were abandoned. Soon thereafter, Charley Langdon, under J. Langdon, opened another coal mine 100 miles west at Clearfield, Pennsylvania, again with the Vanderbilts supplying rail shipment. Charley became president of the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Co. and it became the largest coal producer in western Pennsylvania, with 58 individual mines.

Intersection of Water & Baldwin (J. Langdon & Co. offices located in second building with awning on right side of street.) Photo courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society.

In 1885 J. Langdon reached its zenith with Charley Langdon when it incorporated. During its twenty years of incorporation, from 1885-1905, it put in the market over nearly 9 million tons of anthracite coal, and its sales reached $3 million per year. When J. Langdon & Co., Inc. dissolved on January 1, 1905, all of its assets were distributed to stockholders.

However, J. Langdon & Co. continued, in conjunction with Chemung Coal Co., at the 110 Baldwin office, with Charley as president, his son Jervis as vice president, W.L. Sampson as treasurer, and H.K. Fuhrman as secretary, until Charley retired around 1911. He had sold the invaluable Buffalo waterfront coal yard in 1910, one month after Twain died.

Under Jervis Langdon’s leadership, J. Langdon and Chemung Coal carried on, specializing in blue coal, limestone and wood. J. Langdon & Co. was listed in the Elmira City Directory for the last time in 1937, after which only the Chemung Coal Co., under Jervis and Eleanor Langdon, was entered at the 110 Baldwin address.

110 Baldwin St. Today

After a 73-year run there, Jervis Langdon moved what was left of the corporate offices in 1946 to the Realty Building in Elmira. All iterations of Chemung Coal Co. and J. Langdon & Co. seem to have ceased around 1952.

 

Thomas Reigstad is Professor Emeritus of English at SUNY-Buffalo State and author of Scribblin’ for a Living’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo (Prometheus, 2013).

 

Two vital sources for this brief history are ““Jervis Langdon, Mark Twain’s Father-in-Law,” by Jervis Langdon, Jr. (unpublished and undated manuscript at the Chemung County Historical Society) and “Jervis Langdon: Christian Businessman” by Herbert A, Wisbey, Jr., a lecture delivered as part of CMTS’s Trouble Begins series at Quarry Farm (March 22, 1989). The latter lecture is streamable and downloadable from the [email protected] archives

Have any Questions or Comments? 

3 comments on “Mark Twain’s Father-in-Law’s Monopoly: A Brief History of The J. Langdon Coal Company

George Murphy

In all of my 60 or so years of living and working in Elmira, i had never heard of the Langdon family being so heavily involved in the coal mining, shipping and selling millions of tons of Pennsylvania coal . A fascinating piece of Elmira history! I can well imagine Mark Twain’s puzzlement at seeing big business operate in that New York meeting. I did know Jervis Langdon in the 1960’s, and his past history with railroads.

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George Murphy

In my 60 or so years of living and working in Elmira, I had never heard of the Langdon coal business, which involved mining, selling and shipping millions of tons of Pennsylvania coal. A fascinating piece of Elmira history!

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George Murphy

Wonderful history of the Langdons!

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