Stories from PA History
Mining Anthracite
Mining Anthracite
Overview: Mining Anthracite

Coal deposits are scattered around the globe, but the coal from a 500 square mile region of northeastern Pennsylvania is special. During the Paleozoic era, 300 million years ago, what is now rugged and mountainous terrain was a steamy plain filled with swamps. Tropical plants grew and died here, and as decaying matter, sank to the bottom of these swamps to form a dense organic substance known as peat. Over millions of years, shifts in the earth's plates and other landscape changes compressed prehistoric peat deposits into mineral layers known as coal.
Group of breaker boys pose for a group picture at their work benches.
Breaker Boys from South Pittston, PA circa 1910. 

In northeastern Pennsylvania, however, the ordinary process of coal formation was accelerated by a violent upheaval known as the Appalachian Revolution. In this "revolution," rising mountains literally folded over, splitting open and thrusting up rock and peat formations from deep inside the earth. The extra pressure from this process yielded coal that was more pure, harder, and of higher carbon content than other types of coal. This coal is anthracite and over 95 percent of the Western Hemisphere's supply comes from this special region in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Image of David Thomas, head and shoulders.
Ironmaster David Thomas, circa 1860.
The Appalachian Revolution contributed to another, more recent upheaval: the Industrial Revolution. Anthracite kept millions warm in growing cities, fired furnaces in the industrial northeast, spawned extensive transportation networks, provided jobs for immigrants seeking better lives, gave rise to the development of modern corporations and management practices, and spurred the government to take up activities for economic development and social justice. What initially appeared to be just black rocks became black diamonds, creating astounding wealth for some Pennsylvanians and holding so many more in poverty.

The story of anthracite is complex and stirring, encompassing not only the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit of early capitalism and masterful technological and engineering feats, but also the difficult lives of the men and boys who mined, broke and loaded millions of tons of coal and the women and girls who helped hold the mining communities together. Their hard, dangerous, and usually low-paid work brought anthracite out of the earth and into the cities to fuel historic transformations in manufacturing, transportation and market integration.

Two miners are working over a conveyor belt in a mine. Both men are kneeling, and their heads and shoulders are against the ceiling of the mine.
Coal miners working over a conveyor belt, Lackawanna County, PA, 1915.
The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe when, according to folk legend, a hunter in Carbon County stumbled across "the black stones." This seemed an appropriate description at first, because anthracite was not only harder and denser than the more familiar types of soft coal, such as lignite or bituminous, but also more difficult to ignite. Once lit, however, anthracite proved to burn longer and more efficiently than its cousins. Turning these "black stones" into fuel required the ingenuity of inventive men like Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre and David Thomas of the Crane Iron Works in Catasauqua, who devised techniques that turned anthracite into the premier fuel source of nineteenth and early twentieth-century America.

American industry was in its infancy at the time anthracite was discovered and relied primarily on wood and charcoal as fuel sources. As industrialization progressed, alternative sources of energy were needed; there simply were not enough forests to power the hungry factories of the burgeoning nation. With its high carbon content, anthracite appeared to offer a solution, but digging it up, getting it to market, and making it suitable for commercial and household use all proved to be enormous challenges.

Railroad cars on docks above canal boats in the canal basin. Several canal boats are visible, waiting to be filled.
Transferring coal from rail cars to canal boats at the head of the Delaware...
At the time, northeastern Pennsylvania was not an easy place to transport goods. Opening up the isolated and mountainous region required the efforts of a generation of capitalists and politicians, who used their resources and influence to create a transportation network that made the coal revolution possible. Canals were the first step in unlocking the great potential of anthracite fields. These man-made waterways connected the four fields of anthracite - in Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne and Lackawanna counties - to inland rivers and then to eastern cities.

Railroads, consuming the iron rails produced in anthracite-fueled furnaces, then extended these transportation routes and came to dominate the markets. Coal barons, with thousands of acres under their control, became a railroad cartel and held the anthracite region and its people captive in order to supply Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City with anthracite. This revolution in transportation led to corresponding revolutions in the fueling of industries and the heating of urban residences, which in turn required an army of miners, laborers, mule drivers and slate pickers to extract and process anthracite from "the black hell."

Men walk down a city street. Left to right:  George W. Harltein, (Secretary, District 9) John Mitchell, Mr. Barrett (Reporter, Scranton Truth) May 7, 1902.
George W. Harltein, (Secretary, District 9) United Mine Workers of America president...
By the Civil War era, coal was king in the United States. Success and prosperity, however, were not shared by all in the anthracite region. The new and often rough-hewn coal communities that sprouted up during the anthracite boom became rigidly defined places, where elite and often arrogant coal operators built magnificent Victorian mansions while their immigrant laborers lived in overcrowded, company-owned "patch towns." Waves of European families arrived to live and work in these isolated company towns: first the German and Welsh, then the Irish, and later, the Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian. Despite deplorable living conditions and discrimination directed at them from established groups, they created vibrant ethnic cultures that built churches, formed clubs and aided each other in times of need.

Northeastern Pennsylvania retains its multiethnic character, having overcome many cultural differences that in the past set groups against each other. In an effort to overcome the "divide and conquer" strategy that employers sometimes used to prevent ethnically diverse coal workers from uniting, labor leader and United Mine Workers of America president, Johnny Mitchell, once told them, "It's not Polish coal, or Italian coal or Irish coal. It's coal."

Houses and boarding house face what appears to be a culm pile.  Several residents of the town pose for the camera.
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West Laurel Street, Shenandoah, PA, circa 1891.
Courage, a dose of fatalism and the relief of getting out alive after another workday were feelings that cut across the ethnic and religious differences of those working underground. The above-ground laborers at the colliery - at the coal breaker, stables, machine shop, or powder house - also shared a certain awe of the massive size and power of the operation, coupled with resentment toward the autocratic bosses. Even "breaker boys," children who bloodied their fingers picking out bits of rock from the crushed coal, felt the social distance between themselves and the owners and managers, learning soon to doubt the company's interest in their own welfare.

Too often families and communities mourned for fathers, brothers, and sons crushed in a tunnel collapse or burned to death in an explosion. Yet the mine workers found dignity in their work and in providing for their families, a pride that was sometimes ignored, belittled or deemed radical by mine owners and those far away from the coal fields. These feelings of pride, dignity, and injustice led the workers to risk their jobs and their lives again and again in unionizing efforts that at times turned violent and even deadly.

Group of men posed along train, anthracite strike, Pennsylvania.
Anthracite Coal Strike Arbitration Commission during its inspection tour of...
Often the region lived in a state of civil war. The struggle between labor and capital defined the latter stages of the anthracite revolution, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The conflicts were about fair wages, underground safety and above-ground social justice for working families, who saw their own interests and the mine owners' interests in supplying coal to the nation inextricably linked. In the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, or the "Great Strike," mining communities rallied in support of the drive to organize, cooperating in order to survive during the dreaded but necessary strike. Owners asserted their right to manage their property as they pleased, and demanded their workers be subservient to the "business of mining."

Anthracite workers, however, had finally gained some leverage in their struggle with the railroad oligopoly: stopping the flow of anthracite to the nation's factories and furnaces created a crisis serious enough to warrant the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Despite the production of anthracite reaching an astounding 100 million tons by 1917, the owners' efforts to isolate the coal fields, and to exploit them and their laboring peoples as private "colonies," didn't work out as they planned.
East Bear Ridge Breaker, between Mahanoy Plane and Girardville, Schuylkill County,...

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit the region particularly hard, and the primary market for anthracite, the urban northeast, turned to cheaper fuel alternatives such as electricity, oil and natural gas. The anthracite railroad cartel remained locked in its labor battle, resorted to leasing its operations to small and often non-union operators, and did not develop new markets or technologies for their precious coal. Anthracite tonnage by 1938 was 46 million, less than half the tonnage of twenty years before. With fewer and fewer jobs in the anthracite industry, sons no longer followed their fathers into the mines, businesses closed and communities began to empty.

By the later decades of the twentieth century, the once booming coal region had become economically depressed, slowly coming to terms with the most recent chapter in the anthracite story: the painful deindustrialization process that many Pennsylvania towns and cities continue to experience. In sharp contrast to the imperatives of the free market and the "fountain" of private enterprise in the past, by the 1950s through the 1970s, the state and federal government played crucial roles in diversifying the economy and rejuvenating the region's opportunities for the good of the people.

Breaker boys playing a game of pick up football with the tipple in the background.
Breaker boys playing a game of pick up football, northeastern Pennsylvania, circa...
In anthracite's heyday, huge coal breakers dotted the landscape and marked the numerous collieries in northeastern Pennsylvania. Described in 1906 as "enormous preying monsters," breakers crushed and separated anthracite into different sizes, processing it for market. Then, nearly 175,000 anthracite workers supported a million people. Today, the above-ground strip operations employ fewer than 2,000 workers, and new monsters are on the scene: drag lines scrape away layers of earth, exposing the tops of nearly vertical veins of anthracite. These enormous, electrically-powered machines resemble cranes, but the largest of them can hold two buses in their scoop.

Environmental groups have loudly protested both the resulting decimation of the landscape and the United States' continued reliance on carbon-based fuels that worsen air pollution. Meanwhile, owners of mine properties are now discovering new profits from processing for electricity their old, abandoned "bony piles," black mountains of left-over slate, rock and bits of coal from the breaker, which for decades have polluted local waters with toxic run-off. In another cruel irony of the anthracite industry, building these piles was uncompensated "deadwork" for the miners, who were paid only for the coal they delivered, not for the work of sorting their loads. Some former anthracite workers still have not escaped other dangers of the mines; after years of inhaling coal dust, they are debilitated by Black Lung or "miners' asthma."

In another generation, those who can remember the experience of working hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet underground will be gone. Still, the heritage of anthracite is alive in people's minds and hearts in the region; as in the past, the communities have proven resilient in the face of hardships. The anthracite boom was, and is, a remarkable, revolutionary saga, mixing economic and technological triumphs with human and environmental tragedies.

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