Historical Markers
Schuylkill County [Great Depression] Historical Marker
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Schuylkill County [Great Depression]

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
SE corner, Laurel Blvd. and N 2nd St., Pottsville

Dedication Date:
May 26, 1982

Behind the Marker

"We couldn't understand why all the mines were shut down. The companies came in, they raped the land and pulled out. We were very bitter. That's when the bootlegging started. Since the coal was in the ground and we all knew where it was people started digging their own holes."

Four men dressed in suits sit at a table.
The "big four" of the anthracite coal industry confer on proposals to reduce...
Thus Jack Campion, who grew up during the Great Depression in a patch town owned by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, summarized the sentiments of Schuylkill County's jobless coalminers.

When the Great Depression settled into the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania's anthracite region, it settled hard. After the hard coal miners suffered catastrophic job losses in the southern field, the core of which was in Schuylkill County, they turned in desperation to bootleg mining; that is, the illegal mining of coal on company-owned property.

The anthracite region in northeast Pennsylvania encompasses six counties and 500 square miles, under which lay 95 percent of the nation's hard coal. Since the 1820s, the region had been almost totally dependent for its sustenance on the mining of "black diamonds." In the northeastern United States, anthracite coal for generations was the primary fuel for home heating, industry, and transportation.

After World War I, however, the anthracite industry experienced a decline from which it never recovered. As oil, natural gas, and other fuels eroded the demand for anthracite, the coal companies squeezed their miners, who engaged in numerous strikes that disrupted supplies of coal to customers. And then the Great Depression struck, slashing industrial and household consumption of anthracite and crippling the region's mining industry. Between 1926 and 1933, the operators cut coal production by one-third and laid off nearly 67,000 out of a total work force of 169,000 anthracite miners.

East side of Rosa Street, Lorraine, Schuylkill County, PA, as it looked in 1918.
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East side of Rosa Street, Lorraine, Schuylkill County, PA, as it looked in 1918.
The Depression was calamitous in the southern anthracite field, where nearly half the miners lost their jobs. In this largely rural and mountainous region, many had virtually no other means of livelihood. By 1932, 39,000 - including 16,000 miners - of Schuylkill County's total labor force of 82,000 workers were jobless.

Forced to cut costs, the mine companies closed many less profitable mines and focused their operations on those mines where coal was close to the surface and thus cheaper to remove. The miners responded by pleading with the mine operators to practice "work equalization." Cut production across the board and distribute the available work equally among the mines and miners, they argued, rather than shut down whole mines and lay off all your workers.

The miners also requested that the operators limit the introduction of strip mining, a highly mechanized and environmentally destructive process that drastically reduced the need for miners. Between 1929 and 1936, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company increased its stripping operations by 400 percent. When their pleas fell on deaf ears, unemployed miners sabotaged power shovels, drag lines, and bulldozers used in stripping. When the companies still refused to budge, they turned to bootleg mining.

Policeman and miners stand at the entrance of a mine.
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Bootleg coal mine accident, Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, PA, 1936.
Bootleg mining soon spread throughout the southern field, where 90 percent of the mines were owned the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, whose absentee landlords resided in distant Philadelphia. Here, steeply pitched seams of coal were close to the surface and thus easily mined by hand with simple tools. The rugged ridges and valleys also provided more cover for bootleggers to carry out their clandestine work.

To stop the miners, Philadelphia and Reading in 1934 had its private police blow up 1,196 holes dug by bootleggers, who responded by digging more than 4,000 new holes. During the same period, the company's police also arrested seventy-seven miners, but were unable to find a single jury marker ready to convict them.

Those who mined bootlegged coal did not regard their actions as illegal or morally wrong. On the contrary, the bootleg miners of Schuylkill County considered the coal in the ground communally owned, like air and water. They felt that, as the inhabitants of the land, the coal belonged to them, especially when their livelihood depended on it and the operators refused to mine it.

In this they were supported by many local civic and religious leaders, including Father Weaver, a priest at Mount Carmel in neighboring Northumberland County, who pronounced that "coal bootlegging has no bad moral effect on the people. It keeps them from starving." Although communists actively recruited in the coal fields during the Depression, they made little inroads among bootleg miners, who were more concerned with their economic survival than systemic changes.

Bootleggers dug their coal with relative impunity. They cleverly camouflaged their little "dog holes" from the coal and iron police, and sympathetic local judges and juries either imposed a light penalty or refused to convict those who were arrested.

The bootleggers burned the coal in their homes and sold or bartered the rest. What began as shallow holes worked under the cover of darkness soon evolved into sophisticated operations, conducted in open defiance of the law, replete with deep shafts, mechanical breakers, and trucking systems to haul the illegally mined coal to distant markets.

As the bootleggers began to feel empowered, they organized local "bootleg unions" for protection against law enforcement and to otherwise advance their interests. By the mid-1930s, bootleg mining had become a thirty-million-dollar-a-year industry and represented 10 percent of the total anthracite produced. In 1941, bootleg mining still accounted for one out of four jobs in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties.

World War II renewed the demand for coal, and temporarily revived the anthracite industry. It also marked the end of large scale illegal mining. Nearly every bootlegger of draft age joined the military or returned to work in company-owned mines, and was exempted from the draft due to the federal government's edict that coal mining was essential to the war effort. For all intents and purposes, the era of bootleg mining was over. While it lasted, however, bootlegging had provided jobless miners, especially those in the southern coal fields of Schuylkill County, the means to survive the worst years of the Great Depression.
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