Historical Markers
Windber [Bituminous Coal] Historical Marker
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Windber [Bituminous Coal]

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
501 15th St., Windber

Dedication Date:
September 13, 1999

Behind the Marker

Birds eye view of the town of Windber, with numbered identification legend which includes the following: 9. Windber Planing Mill 10. W.T. Geddes Lumber Co. 13. Scalp Level Planing Mill [Schrecengost] 14. Scalp Level Flouring Mil [Driggs] 15. Berwind White Coal Mining Company, Eureka Mines #s 30-35
Bird's eye view of Windber, Somerset County, PA, 1900.
Among the dozens of company towns that developed with bituminous mining in southwestern Pennsylvania, the town of Windber in northern Somerset County stands alone. Even when compared to other "model" company towns, Windber's unique plan–one large independent town center surrounded by thirteen dependent mining settlements, or "satellites,"–set it apart. Coal mining put its best face forward through the tree-lined streets of downtown Windber, but it was the small mining villages that defined life for most of its miners.

Windber was the creation of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, one of six coal companies owned by industrialist Edward J. Berwind. Thanks to the scope and scale of his operations, Berwind was considered the biggest name in bituminous coal mining. At the time of his death in 1936, he was reported to be the largest individual owner of coal properties in the country.

Northern Somerset County was far removed from Berwind's base in Philadelphia, but it figured prominently in his financial aspirations. Beginning in early 1894, Berwind instructed land agents to begin purchasing land in southern Cambria and northern Somerset County. The company opened thirteen mines in 1897, and by 1900, output from the mines accounted for over half of its state tonnage.

The company accumulated 70,000 acres of coal lands by 1900. Thanks to its industrial concerns in and around Windber, the company almost single-handedly transformed Somerset County from a quiet rural district into one of the most productive coal regions in the state.

Snow covered roofs of houses and the ground paint a bleak picture of this coal patch town.
Company-owned housing near Eureka Mine 37, Windber, PA, circa 1920.
Like other company towns, Windber was conceived as a place to house workers whom the company employed in its neighboring mines. By September 1897, the company erected its first set of company houses and bestowed the town's name, an anagram derived from the company's owner and founder. But company officials also envisioned Windber as a corporate headquarters and command center for their expanding western Pennsylvania mining operations. As a result, they endowed the town with amenities that were unheard of in standard-issue company towns: wide, tree-lined streets; a central park with bandstand; relatively well-appointed and -maintained detached workers' houses; and a downtown commercial district bustling with independent retailers and specialty shops. Company officials billed it as the "metropolis of Somerset County," and encouraged outside investors.

Even with these amenities, Windber conformed to patterns typical of company towns. Housing stock was still highly stratified. Large brick homes that lined the Hill, a seven-block residential section northeast of Graham Avenue, were reserved for company managers. More typical worker housing was detached but still small, generally five rooms, often identical (despite company claims that workers were given input into house design), and located close to the mines where its tenants worked. Housing was also segregated by nationality. Near Mine 31, for instance, the company built three wood-frame tenements that became known as "Hungarian Quarters." Another cluster of housing was identified as "Swede Street." (Thanks to the aggressive recruitment of immigrant labor, by 1911 Windber residents were about seventy-five percent foreign-born.)

A long row of snow covered roofs on miner's homes, and the snow covered ground offer a desolate view of Miners' Homes, Mine 37 of Berwind-White Company.
Miners' Homes, Mine 37 of Berwind-White Company
Signature features of company-town life were even more apparent in the satellite communities. By 1910 company officials erected thirteen such satellites on the outskirts of town to house workers closer to new mines. In sharp contrast to Windber proper, satellite "plans" were stripped to their bare essentials. Each was just far enough removed from Windber–and one another–to warrant their own cluster of housing but very little else.

Mine No. 35 contained three semi-detached frame houses for mine bosses, with another forty-seven semi-detached workers' houses arranged in a linear pattern on both sides of a street. A Eureka Company Store, a no-frills version of the downtown store, was located in the center of town. Most satellites did not even have their own name, beyond the number of the mine with which each was associated. Thus, residents living in company housing stock near Mine 40 simply referred to their housing cluster as "40."

A black and white photograph of the complex, coal filled rail cars, and tracks.
Mine 37 of Berwind-White Company
Everyday life in Windber's satellite communities was consistent with what outside observers had come to expect from hastily built company towns. A marker survey done by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1911 found that the satellites were overcrowded and lacked proper sanitation. At Mine No. 35, fifty-five of the seventy-three households surveyed were forced to take in boarders to help pay the rent. There was no indoor plumbing, and waste water ran off into open gutters and pipes. Yards, such as they were, opened up onto a railroad switching track. The town was practically devoid of vegetation. Unlike residents in town, satellite miners were not permitted to purchase their homes, but instead paid nine dollars a month in rent to the coal company. An independent investigation launched during the early 1920s concluded in no uncertain terms that living and working conditions there were "worse than the conditions of the slaves prior to the Civil War."

The Berwind-White Coal Mining Company made some concessions that were unusual for mine operators, but when it came to issues of control, the company showed no signs of relinquishing its reins. Along with owning the housing and the company store, it dominated the boards of virtually every political and social entity in town, from the town bank and town newspaper to school boards and the local utility. When its miners struck, as they did in 1922 (see markerWindber Strike of 1922-1923), Berwind-White also resorted to typical mining company practice: it evicted its striking miners and drove them out of town. Windber may have looked like a model town, but the company's actions belied its aspirations.
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