Formed in 1848 from part of Branch Township, Cass Township took its name from Lewis Cass, who ran for president that year, but lost. Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won the election with former President Martin Van Buren playing spoiler as a third-party candidate under the Free Soil banner. Cass had been a general in the War of 1812, governor of Michigan when it was a territory and later a U.S. senator from Michigan before his bid for the presidency, after which he served as Secretary of State. Another Pennsylvania township is named for Cass in Huntingdon County. In Schuylkill County, Butler Township, which borders Cass Township, takes its name from William Orlando Butler, who was the running mate of Cass in the 1848 election.
When founded, Cass Township had a population of 799. Buoyed by the growth of coal mining, the population rose to 3,061 by 1880. Now Cass Township is home to approximately 1,900 people, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates.
When the first settlers arrived in Cass Township, forests covered the area. Bears and wolves scattered pigs and sheep so frequently that settlers organized group hunts to protect their livestock, according to W.W. Munsell and Co.’s 1881 History of Schuylkill County, Pa.
While tilling their fields, early farmers found arrowheads, spear points and other signs of Native Americans.
Settlers built sawmills, the first of which was already abandoned by 1831 when miners started digging the region’s hard coal, known as anthracite, from the Black Heath Vein. Gideon Bast at the Big Whiteash colliery in Cass Township built the first successful coal breaker, a processing plant that crumbles coal from the mines into pieces of uniform size, in 1843.
Richard Kear at the Cass Township village of Primrose built the county’s second coal breaker. By 1878, the colliery of the Manhattan Coal Co. employed 260 miners and operated five steam engines that generated a total of 160 horsepower.
Today, only 3 percent of Cass Township’s residents work in mining, farming or forestry, according to recent Census estimates. The Census estimates 22.9 percent of Cass Township residents said they are of Irish heritage, and 13.6 percent hail from Ukraine. About 12.2 percent of the population trace their lineage to Poland and another 12.1 percent to Germany.
The ethnic heritage is reflected in the nationalities of churches that grew up around Cass Township. In Minersville, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is St. George’s, the Russian Orthodox Church is Ss. Peter and Paul’s, and the Byzantine Catholic Church also is named Ss. Peter and Paul’s. Roman Catholics worship at St. Michael the Archangel, formerly St. Vincent’s, and St. Matthew’s, which formerly was St. Stanislaus.
The Cass Township Village of Heckscherville was home to a Methodist church from 1853 to 1873. St. Kieran’s Church, founded in 1858 in Heckscherville, has closed, but the buildings remain for the church, the parish house and the parish school.
To learn more about the history of Cass Township and its surroundings, visit the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, 301 N. Centre St., Pottsville. The society is open Wednesdays from 1:30 to 6 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The telephone number is (570) 622-7540.