By Valerie A. Zehl
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXIII, Number 1 - Winter 1997
In the beginning were only the great transverse mountains, seen as ridge upon overlapping ridge stretching far into the horizon of northeastern Pennsylvania. Wide expanses of sweeping landscape contained virgin forests—thick, verdant, and heavy. Deep valleys formed by resplendent rivers—on the east, the Delaware; to the west, the Susquehanna; and northward, the Lackawanna where it jointed the Susquehanna-held crystal clear creeks and streams laden with fish of beautiful varieties. Part of the great Appalachian valley, this majestic—almost magical—vast terrain of seventeen hundred square miles held an immense secret, one that would change the landscape, as well as the world.
Beneath the bosom of this uncharted wilderness lay great seams of hard coal. When its time came, anthracite helped fuel the country's industrial revolution, but in the wake of that revolution, the land that cloaked the coal fields—once brilliant with abundant life—lay torn asunder, scarred by both large and small mining operations. In time, trees disappeared and machinery and buildings took their place. Surfaces caved in where mines and tunnels had been abandoned. Water rushed downward not to fill steams but to fill these great pits. And steam shovels became the new beasts that thundered across the land.
What happened to this region is part of the story of anthracite. The impact of hard coal upon the economy of northeastern Pennsylvania is another. But the story that lingers is the saga of these that historian John Bodnar in 1983 christened the Anthracite People—the resourceful, vibrant, brave, and hardy people who came from al parts of the world to seek their fortunes by mining coal. This is their story, and the telling and retelling of their tale is the mission of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, located in McDade Park, overlooking the City of Scranton.
Over time, some nine billion tons of anthracite were mined from the narrow parcel that had been purchased in 1749 from the Indians of the Six Nations at a cost, in today's currency, of about twenty-five hundred dollars. Surface deposits of coal were soon exhausted, forcing workers to dig in ever deepening recesses in the earth. Open pits and shallow mines, drift and slope mines, all gave up their bounty to the relentless efforts of the industrious anthracite workers. At daybreak miners throughout this part of Pennsylvania climbed into vertical shafts and slopes that took them hundreds of feet below the surface, into the winding bowels of the earth.
The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum tells the story not only of coal the mineralogical phenomenon and of coal the industry, but of those who gravitated to the mines and built their lives in what they had believed to be a promised land. The museum commemorates the Anthracite People, the heterogeneous community that became the backbone of the region. It explores the work of the miners and laborers who toiled far below the earth's surface in pitch black darkness six days a week, and it examines the lives of the resourceful women who made homes out of the shabby dwellings that stood in the shadow of the coal breakers in grimy, bleak villages known as patch towns (see "A Jewel in the Crown of Old King Coal: Eckley Miners' Village" by Tony Wesolowsky in the Winter 1996 issue). The museum also investigates what life was like for young children whose daylight hours were spent working in the collieries—the breaker, boiler and engine houses, shops, and offices that composed a typical anthracite mining operation—and in the silk and lace factories that fed voraciously upon the abundant female labor force.
Anthracite, according to David L. Salay, editor of the definitive 1984 study, Hard Coal, Hard Times: Ethnicity and Labor in the Anthracite Region, is a ranking coal based on its carbon content and percentage of volatile material. Anthracite's high percentage of carbon and low sulfur content and volatiles make it a slow-burning, clean fuel, capable of generating enormous heat. It differs from bituminous, or soft coal lies in relatively flat seams, making it readily accessible and cheaper to mine. Hard coal is considerably more difficult to extract because its veins bend and fold irregularly and unpredictably within the layers of rock that have sheltered it for millennia. Mining it in the nineteenth century proved to be a complex and costly operation, but one deemed well worth the effort and expense. The country, reeducated to recognize the advantages of this new "stone coal" over other fuels, demanded increasing quantities. Early inventions, such as Judge Jesse Fell's grate for burning the hard coal that had long been regarded as too difficult to ignite and sustain, increased in popularity. After 1827, with Eliphalet Nott's anthracite-burning stove finding a place in parlors across American, the call for the new product grew high pitched. Coal companies proliferated, dotting northeastern Pennsylvania's landscape with their enormous machinery. With increased demand came a compelling need for more efficient means of mining anthracite and preparing it for market. Soon steam-powered machinery—fueled, of course, with hard coal—dug out the black gold, moved the cars that hauled it from the mines, and ran the equipment that processed it. But steam, too, would be replaced, giving way to petroleum, and eventually electricity. An extensive canal system, created to accommodate coal, timber, and iron, gave way to yet another system of transportation. The Commonwealth's railroads efficiently sped the coveted communities to seemingly insatiable markets throughout the United States and the world. With the three-prong punch of coal, iron, and petroleum, Pennsylvania was destined—and would become—the foremost industrial state in the country. And until the mid-twentieth century, the railroad itself would be a prime consumer of the anthracite it transported by the ton each and every day.
As the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum poignantly portrays through artifacts and photographs, immigrant workers and their families thronged the area in response to the anthracite industry's need for labor. Following the Civil War, a crushing wave of immigrants from more than twenty countries arrived in Pennsylvania. From 1850 to 1920, population in the coal region spiked sharply, burgeoning from little more that one hundred and fifty thousand to more than one million residents. Coal companies, aggressively recruiting workers, dispatched advertisements, letter of invitation, and even representatives to induce immigrants to be a part of the new and exciting industry. Friends and family members recently employed in the industry were able to purchase steerage tickets from company agents or banks and send them to those they had left behind in Europe. Among the museum's artifacts is a prepaid steerage ticket issued in 1891, a simple scrap of paper to which clung an immigrant's dream for a better and brighter future in the United States.
The influx of foreigners into the region was but part of an enormous global emigration, the largest the word had ever witnessed. Emigrants, desperate to escape the famine that had held their families captive, left Ireland; others fled the poverty and hardship of England, Scotland, and Wales; still more sought relief from the uncomfortable density of overpopulated Germany. Many were simply eager to sample for themselves the freedom and boundless opportunity the young nation represented. It was no longer the Irish, English, German, and Welsh who came by the thousands. By 1900, Eastern and Southern Europeans were bounding off the "immigrant trains" that brought them to their new lives in the hard coal fields. The region's first miners, the Pennsylvania Germans, and the earliest immigrant soon found their nationalities among the minorities in the teeming patch town.
There was work to be had, too, in the anthracite iron industry—in the blast furnaces, the rolling mills, the foundries, and the factories. Many would labor in transportation, in silk mills, or in stores that served the workers' needs. Men, women, and children alike sought and found employment that promised them—or so they thought—entry to the good life in America.
Native-born Americans occupied the highest echelon of the occupational hierarchy in the industry. Skilled miners, such as the experienced English or Welsh, or Prussians who had attended steigerschulen that graduated master miners from their rigorous curriculum, found good jobs with the companies. Those with no experience found themselves able only to enter the lowest rung of the mining organization—not coincidentally also the bottom end of the pay scale. Most miners were paid a specified sum for each car they filled or for each ton of coal they extracted. They, in turn, paid their helpers, "miners in training" who aspired to someday join their ranks. Miners needed extensive knowledge to work safely—where and how many holes to drill in the "breast" or "chute" to accommodate the black powder (and later, dynamite) charges that would take another bite of the solid rock and anthracite; carpentry and lumbering; and first aid to save a life, it needed. After 1897, a two-year apprenticeship and an oral exam were required in order to receive a Certificate of Competency, as mandated by the Miners' Certification Law.
Not all who labored in the coal industry were miners. The job of breaker boy was held by a youngster who, today, would just be entering the first grade. Breaker boys, their fingers raw and bloodied, picked pieces of slate and stone from the endless mounds of coal sliding down chutes in mammoth breakers. Older boys graduated to the position of mule drive, guiding the animal through the mine tunnels. A mule driver's responsibilities entailed hitching and unhitching the coal cars while carefully avoiding the mule's kicks that could cause serious injury or, not infrequently, death. Others worked as door-boys, scrambling to open heavy doors for the approaching cars, or as runners, catching up with the moving coal car and thrusting a "sprag" a double-pointed stick, into its wheel to stop it. When they turned sixteen, boys might garner the position of an underground laborer in a move that would help them eventually attain the status of miner. And then the cycle begins again. When his mining days ended because of age or disability, a man might well find himself working again in the breaker, pulling slate and stone from the long, narrow chutes.
The amalgamation of widely diverse people into a single, albeit segments, culture was generally painless, with the common bond forged by shared difficulty transcending ethnic differences and efforts of the companies to fragment the workers into separate factions. Ethnic groups organized fraternal and benefit societies to support their own in times of desperation, but often crossed over ethnic lines when help was needed by a neighbor. Their hard lives were to frequently punctuated by violence. Fear instilled by the legendary Molly Maguires and others—seen by some as terrorist gangsters, by others as stalwart advocates of labor—overshadowed the coalfields before supreme law and order, in the from of the company-engaged Coal and Iron Police and Pinkerton Agency detectives, too matters firmly in hand.
Anthracite People were tethered to their jobs by an invisible but insidious bond-the company that provided their living also dictated how and when they spend their meager income. Companies kept employees permanently indebted by directing them to purchase domestic goods and sundries, as well as tools and materials needed to work in the mines, at what was commonly called the company store. After the costs of rent, food, supplies, and medical care were subtracted from the worker's wages, he might well go home empty-handed or deeper in debt.
By 1920, natives of some three dozen countries called the anthracite region their home. Many languages reverberated throughout the hilly landscape, which had also changed dramatically. Many of the farms and villages once nestled in the bucolic mountains were gone, replaced by sprawling collieries, patch towns, railroad track, and factories. Towering breakers stood stark against the horizon. Canals cut through valleys to augment natural but insufficient waterways. And the countless miles of railroad tracks could be likened to the stitches on the body of a ravaged surgery patient—an apt metaphor for the mutilated terrain of northeastern Pennsylvania.
After World War I came a slow slide from which the anthracite coal industry would never recover. The years following World War II brought greater stagnation, eventually ending one of Pennsylvania's most lucrative enterprises. Many of the thousand of laborers who had come to the region to find a better life would again move in search of new livelihoods. But the Commonwealth was better for the discovery of anthracite and the social and economic powerhouse it created. It ultimately gave Pennsylvania the legacy of the Anthracite People.
The legacy of the Anthracite People is chronicled by the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum which is actually located atop one of the countless mine sites that once hallmarked the area. Visitors to the museum, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission are drawn into an extraordinary atmosphere, created by the powerfully evocative historic objects and photographs. There stirring exhibits pay tribute to the indomitable men and women who left Europe and minded the coalfields and kept homes and families to a landscape that has at times been described as hardscrabble and grim. From coal wagons and silk looms to a simple and ordinary kitchen, the museum's exhibits elicit a strong sense not only of history, but of the day-to-day drama of the lives of the Anthracite People.
Introducing visitors to the main exhibit area is a fascinating array of objects owned by mining families, such as an icon of Saint Nicholas, a crazy quilt, a Worthington wrench, a wash basin, and a worn pair of mine worker's boots, all of which reflect the varied but rich culture of the thousands of European immigrants whose lives are revealed and whose dreams are examined.
Hard coal mining was not the only nineteenth-century industry to rise in this part of the Commonwealth. Labor provided by women made possible the production of exquisite silk and fancy lace. Displays of the handsome machinery used in the textile industry offer a remarkable sense of another time—a time when patience and exacting craftsmanship were irrevocable entwined in the creation of beautiful goods and wares.
One exhibition segment features a warping creel, reed, and warping machine, all used in the process of readying silk filaments into yearns. The Scranton Lace Company is credited with bringing the manufacture of Nottingham Lace to the area, and the museum's collection includes the only remaining loom of the original fifteen that were used to begin the business in 1891.
By far one of the most evocative—and popular—exhibits is the kitchen of a typical mining family's house. The kitchen was the hub of family life. From the large coal-fired stove came precious warmth during harsh winter months, and always the hearty aromas of traditional ethnic foods, such as sauerkraut, past, sausage, and corned beef with cabbage. Not only food preparation and meals but sewing, laundry, bathing, and childcare took place in the kitchen.
Expressive, deeply hewn faces mark the dramatic mural of Eastern Europeans who immigrated to work in the coalfields about 1890, their baggage too small for anything but a few beloved possessions to pass on to future generations as prized heirlooms and remembrances of their roots. These people, with their distinctive ethnic styles, customs and traditions, beliefs, and sense of community endowed this region of Pennsylvania with a heritage that will never die. Unlike the industry that lured them to America and then faded into the past, the imprint of these stalwart people endures. They need no further introduction. They are the Anthracite People.
The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, featuring a permanent exhibition entitled (appropriately enough) "Anthracite People: Immigration and Ethnicity in Pennsylvania's Hard Coal Region," is open Monday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.; and Sunday, Noon to 5 P.M. There is an admission charge. For more information about exhibitions and special programs, write: Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, R.R. 1, Balk Mountain Road, Scranton, Pennsylvania 18504; or telephone (570) 963-4804. Individual with disabilities or who need special assistance or accommodation should write or telephone the museum in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.
In addition to the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, the PHMC administers, as part of the Anthracite Museum Complex, the Scranton Iron Furnaces in center-city Scranton, Eckley Miners' Village, near Hazleton, in Luzerne County, and the Museum of Anthracite Mining in Ashland, Schuylkill County. [Note: In 2006, the museum in Ashland was turned over to the Borough of Ashland, Schuylkill County, for operation].
Visitors to the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum may wish to visit other popular Lackawanna County attractions, including the adjacent Lackawanna Coal Mine, which takes visitors three hundred feel below the earth's surface to see, firsthand, what work was like for miners. The Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, founded in 1886, and housed in a handsome English Tudor-style house, features exhibits examining the society's social, economic, political, cultural, and industrial history. Located in the city's scenic Nay Aug Park, the Everhart Museum offers both permanent and changing exhibitions, as well as study collections of fine and decorative arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth known local artist John Willard Raught. Railroad enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to nearby Steamtown National Historic Site, noted for its extensive display of steam locomotives and rolling stock, as well as for its special excursions.
For more information about museums and historic sites in Lackawanna County, write: Lackawanna County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1300 Old Plank Road Mayfield, PA 18433, or phone 1-800-22-WELCOME.
Valerie A. Zehl of Conklin, New York, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and international publications, including The Rotarian
, American Legion
, Midwest Express
, and Locomotive and Railway Preservation
. Her Bringing Steamtown to Life was published in conjunction with the Steamtown Volunteer Association, under the editorial guidance of the National Park Service, in July 1995.
The author and editor thank Chester J. Kulesa, curator, and Steven Ling, director, of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, and Vance Packard, director of the Anthracite Museum Complex for their advice and contributions made during the writing, editing, and illustration of this article.
For Further Reading
Bodnar, John. Anthracite People: Families, Unions, and Work, 1900-1940. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1983.
Campbell, Patrick. A Molly Maguire Story. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Dinteman, Walter L. Anthracite Ghost. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1995.
Freeman, Aileen Sallom. Anthracite Trust. Paupack, Pa.: FOSI Ltd., 1994.
Jones, William D. Wales in America: Scranton and the Welsh. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1993.
Klopfer, Tom. Anthracite Idiom (or Sunday We Are Closed Go Around the Back). Clarks Summit , Pa.: Castle Publications, 1995.
Lindbergh, Kristina, and Barry Provorse. Coal: A Contemporary Energy Story. New York: Scribe Publishing Company, 1977.
Miller, Donald D., and Richard E. Sharpless. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
Percival, Gwendoline E., and Chester J. Kulesa. Illustrating and Anthracite Era: The Photographic Legacy of John Horgan Jr. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnace Associates, 1995.
Perry, Daniel K. "A Fine Substantial Piece of Masonry": Scranton's Historic Furnaces. Harrisburg : Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnace Associates, 1994.
Poliniak, Louis. When Coal was King. Lebanon, Pa.: Applied Arts Publishers, 1977.
Roberts, Ellis W. The Breaker Whistle Blows. Scranton: Anthracite Museum Press, 1984.
Salay, David L., ed. Hard Coal, Hard Times: Ethnicity and Labor in the Anthracite Region. Scranton: Anthracite Museum Press, 1984.