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Carbondale: The Biography of a Coal Town
Background Information for Teachers

Anthracite Coal Patch Towns
Pennsylvania's anthracite region is spread over 10 counties and covers nearly 500 square miles in the northeastern part of the state. Most of the world's known supply of anthracite coal lies beneath the rugged surface of heavily forested steep ridges and narrow valleys. Few settlers were attracted to this wilderness, and Wilkes-Barre remained the region's only town of note into the early 1800s. But the discovery of a method to burn anthracite for home use, combined with a fuel crisis during the War of 1812, created a demand for this hard coal.
Pottstown, Carbondale, Shamokin, Hazleton and Scranton grew up around rich deposits of anthracite. These "free towns" grew rapidly and attracted all manner of businesses: banks, merchants, grocers, manufacturers and real estate developers. Mine workers had options as to where they lived and where they shopped. But many coal entrepreneurs bought more remote and cheaper land and with the spread of mining across this rugged wilderness, many new towns were created. Some, such as St. Clair in Schuylkill County, were also "free towns." Here, a coal entrepreneur or land speculator sold building lots - but retained the underground mineral rights - and welcomed any and all to purchase lots and pursue whatever enterprises they sought. This practice attracted not only miners but also a wide variety of businessmen who were willing to take a chance in these new towns. This movement away from developed areas also created the opportunity, or necessity, of building company towns. A company town, such as Eckley, was built and fully owned by the coal operator, and the coal operator had the final say as to who lived in the town and who did business there.
Company towns were business ventures, and the buildings were quickly constructed using the cheapest of materials since the sooner the residences and colliery buildings went up, the sooner the company would start making money - and there was no telling when the coal would run out and the mining operation abandoned. The centerpiece of the town was the breaker. Here, near the mine opening, coal was separated from dirt and rocks, and then it was sorted by size and loaded for shipping. Culm banks, large piles of rock and dirt, grew quickly around the breakers. Houses for the workers were built nearby. Just as today, residences reflected the socio-economic status of the residents. The mine superintendent usually lived in a house large enough to accommodate his family as well as house servants; laborers and their families had four- room duplexes; and unmarried workers were relegated to boarding houses. Miners and foremen lived in slightly larger single-family houses. Larger houses were located in the "nicest" part of town while the boarding houses and duplexes were near the breaker and railroad tracks. The distribution of housing according to employment status also tended to create ethnic neighborhoods. Lower paying jobs tended to go to the most recently arriving European immigrants (Irish in the mid-1800s and Italians and Eastern Europeans later in the century) while higher status jobs tended to go to the English and Welsh. Rent for these houses was deducted from the workers" pay, often accompanied by a deduction to help pay the town doctor and priest or minister. Payroll deductions were also taken for the coal these families used for cooking and heating.
Most company towns had a company store. The store was operated by the coal company and carried a limited selection of life's bare necessities. Miners were required to provide their own tools and blasting powder and could purchase these at the company store. Their wives shopped there for canned food, flour, salt, fabrics and sewing items. Frequently the prices for these items were higher than those in the stores in "free towns," but stores with cheaper prices were often too far away and didn't offer town residents credit. Just as rent was deducted from the workers" pay, purchases from the company store could be taken directly from paychecks. Frequently, miners picked up only an empty envelope on payday.
The company set all the rules in a company town, and the workers who lived there were compelled to follow these rules. If a mine superintendent were a "Temperance man," sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages would likely be banned within the town limits. If local farmers wanted to sell fresh produce or meats door-to-door from their wagons, they needed the superintendent's permission. Company houses were for company workers, so if an employee was killed or disabled on the job, the family faced a difficult decision: either move out of town or send a son to work for the company. During periods of labor unrest, outspoken and activist miners were frequently fired from their jobs and immediately evicted from their homes. All town rules were efficiently enforced by the mine company's police force, usually known as the Coal and Iron Police.
When companies found that it was no longer profitable to operate a mine, the mine was closed and the town abandoned. Workers were frequently given the opportunity to purchase their houses from the company. This was a practical option if jobs were available nearby, but since residents were there only there because of work at the mine, families tended to move along, looking for work elsewhere. Many company towns vanished without a trace while others, such as Lattimer, remain today.

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