Teach PA History
Life in a Coal Patch
Background Information for Teachers

Coal is unusual because it is a rock that burns. It is found in two main forms - anthracite ("hard coal") and bituminous ("soft coal".) Bituminous coal mining in Pennsylvania first started in the 1740s. The coal from this early mining was used for heating one's home and cooking. In the early years, however, wood was still the main fuel. To see growth, the coal industry still had some obstacles to overcome. Transportation of coal was too costly to make it an affordable fuel.

During the mid-nineteenth century two critical changes spurred enormous growth in the industry. First, railroads went into bituminous coal fields. This made the cost of transportation much cheaper and also allowed for the expansion of its sales market. Second, new uses of bituminous coal were developed. New uses included fuel for locomotives and steamships, but the most important users were the iron and steel mills. Bituminous coal could be "baked" into a fuel-source called coke, and coke was needed as fuel by the iron and steel industries to run their plants. It supplied a very hot, constant, and long burn. Bituminous coal had different levels of carbon and sulfur, and the difference in these levels made some bituminous coal preferable to others. The bituminous coal found in the Pittsburgh seam in the Connellsville region of Pennsylvania was the best-suited coal in the nation for making coke.

Coke was made in this time period by taking the bituminous coal from the mine and putting it into a special outdoor oven called a beehive oven. (Named for its resemblance to a beehive, the oven was made by placing fire brick in a hemisphere shape and adding earth as insulation. These ovens were usually built in groups into a retaining wall and placed on a hillside. Note: coke oven images used in this lesson are available in the teacher resource section. ) The coal was then bricked into the oven, where it was burned for 2 to 3 days. When this process was complete the coal had become coke. In this process it lost a large amount of its weight. Thus, the cost for the mining company was less to load it on the trains after the coking process than just sending the raw bituminous coal. It is important to note that the steel plants did not need to locate near the source of fuel. As a result, the towns that grew up were formed totally around one industry - bituminous coal mining. The economics of the entire communities depended on this one commodity. When this industry began to fail, there were no other economic possibilities for these towns. Entire towns that were once exploding with growth are now completely gone.

The industry of mining bituminous coal and of coking grew enormously in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and with this growth came the need for more workers–preferably cheap, unskilled workers. From 1878 to its peak in 1914, employment of bituminous miners grew. Workers came from all over to work in the mines. Some came from English speaking countries–English, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish–but they were in the minority. Many more people came from southern and eastern Europe - Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Germans, Italians, Yugoslavians, and Russians. They came to look for a better life in America and to find good paying jobs. Towns grew up in farmlands practically overnight around the mines. These settlements, built by the mine companies, were called "patch towns". Not only did the companies build the mine and all of its buildings, but they built the company store where all the miners and families could buy their supplies - often using company "scrip" which was simply deducted from their paychecks. The company also built the workers" houses and then rented them to the miner families while they worked in the mine. Sometimes the company would also build a church, a school, and possibly a post office. In these patches the miners lived, often settling along ethnic lines into neighborhoods.

The growth of the coking and beehive industry was spectacular, but so was its rapid decline. It peeked around 1914, and by the 1930s it was essentially gone. The main reasons were: overproduction of coal; uses of other forms of fuel for home heating such as natural gas and petroleum which were now cheaper and caused less pollution; more machines in the mine requiring fewer miners; and also a new method of producing coke called the by-product method which was much more efficient and environmentally-friendly. This new coke manufacturing method requires the coke to be made at the site of the steel plant (instead of the coking ovens at bituminous coal mines). Due to these pressures bituminous mining slowed down quickly. As the mines slowed down, so did the patch towns. There was no other industry for the workers to turn to, and new industries were not attracted to these coal patch towns.

Coal mining is, and always was, a hard and dangerous job. The mining companies were often more concerned with profits than with the welfare of their employees. Mines were very dangerous and unsafe places to work. Many miners died in catastrophic accidents that grabbed headlines and national attention. These were tragic events in the public eye. Many more miners, however, died one or a few at a time over the years. These accidents were common. Rock falls, explosions of mine gasses, premature detonations of explosives, electrocution, and locomotive and mine cars that crushed workers all claimed lives. Coal mining was one of the most dangerous occupations in the Commonwealth. Between 1877 and 1940, 18,000 men and boys died in Pennsylvania bituminous mines. December 1907 was the worst month for miner's deaths - over 3,000 died nationally. In that same year, 806 miners died in Pennsylvania alone. (The average fatality rate was 286 persons per year.) Even if miners escaped death in the mine, many suffered injuries in mine accidents or acquired "black lung"–a disease caused by inhaling dust in the mines.

Miners worked long hours - often 10 to 14 hours at a time. Their wages were poor, barely enough to provide for a family. Often it wasn't enough, and families would take boarders into their already crowded houses to earn more money. Unions were slow to form because mining companies fought strongly against them. It is important to remember that the miners not only were paid by the company, but they also received housing, food, and heating and cooking fuel all from the company. The company controlled their lives in many ways. Fighting the company was not easy. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was formed in 1890 and did fight for decades to better the lives of miners. The UMWA won many victories for workers, especially in higher wages and safety practices. One of the men who significantly contributed to the United Mine Workers of America was John Brophy, a Pennsylvania miner himself as a young boy (quoted several times in this lesson).

In this lesson your students will learn about life in the coal patch, exploring six different aspects: the company store, food, houses, schools, recreation, and chores and daily work. They will also read a number of quotes about mine disasters and strikes which occurred at bituminous coal mines and integrate one of them into a creative writing assignment.

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