Deep down, Michael Havrischak was always interested in history, and he became an historian who goes down deep -
as far as 500 feet underground into the anthracite mines in Schuylkill County.
A life-long Coaldale resident, Havrischak is vague about how long he's been studying mines because he is secretive about his age. But during the last 15-20 years, he has shot thousands of rolls of film of miners working in and around the mines. He has filled up countless scrapbooks and slide carousels of the pictures. He also collects mining artifacts, such as a turn-of-the-century mining cap made of leather and cloth with a small oil lamp attached to the front for light, air measurement instruments, postcards, literature and just about anything to do with mining.
There's not enough room to keep his collection in his home on Water Street, which is where he grew up. So he stores his material in a warehouse. Before giving a presentation, he gathers some of the collection, packs it in boxes and paper grocery bags, puts the stuff in his car and heads off.
Havrischak has dedicated himself to recording the lives of independent anthracite miners, a vanishing and proud breed of men and women who dig far into the ground to remove the black hard coal.
"I realize the value for history," Havrischak said. "We're in a transition from the big days of coal to where it's possible there won't be any deep miners. In its heyday (from World War I to World War II), there were 100,000 miners. Now there are 3,000."
Some of those remaining miners work for larger operations, such as Reading Anthracite Co. of Pottsville and Jeddo-Highland Coal Co. of West Pittston, and the workers are affiliated with the United Mine Workers of America. They are not considered independent miners.
While there are some larger, non-union coal companies, such as Kocher Coal Co. in western Schuylkill County, most independents work by themselves with their families in small mines. Independents - then called bootleggers - sprouted around the time of the Depression, when many larger coal companies shut down.
The children and grandchildren of some of those original independents carry on the traditions today.
"They are the small ones who've been forgotten about in the course of history," said Havrischak, who holds a bachelor's degree in social studies and a master's degree in education from Penn State.
After enrolling in college, he studied aerospace engineering, but found he didn't have much interest in rockets and jets. So he switched to social studies, which allowed him to read history, his main interest. Later, he combined his special interest in the coal region with his academic training to mine the rich history of the area.
Havrischak is a substitute teacher for several school districts near his home. On days when he doesn't work, he can usually be found in the mines, said his mother, Emily.
"He likes to go out in the mines, and he has friends in the mines that he likes to see," she said.
Havrischak's interest in mining history began in earnest while an undergraduate at Penn State. His father, who worked more than 20 years at Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.'s No. 9 colliery in Coaldale until it closed in 1961, took him to an independent mine.
" 'Let's go see my one buddy in Tuscarora,' " Havrischak recalled his father telling him. After that, he was hooked on mines. His father and two grandfathers worked in the mines. They all died from black lung disease, a respiratory ailment that has claimed many miners.
"What the heck did these miners, like my father, like my grandfathers, do? Nobody had the pictures."
Havrischak decided to begin taking the pictures, so at least there would be a photographic history of the contemporary independents. In the first couple of years of exploring mines, he snapped photographs with a small Kodak, which he got with S&H Green Stamps. When he graduated from college, his brother gave him his first 35mm camera.
The independents have become folk heroes in the anthracite region for their strong stance against government regulations, many of which, the miners have said, are intended for large operations and have no bearing on their small mines. Havrischak has written stories about the battle of the independents for the Kentucky-based Independent Coal Operator, among other publications.
His most widely-read story concerned an incident from 1974 when federal inspectors shut down a mine in New Philadelphia for "imminent danger" - lack of a government-approved toilet. The mine was closed for about 18 months, he said, until the operators succeeded in having the court open the mine.
In 1985, Havrischak received $1,000 from the state Historical and Museum Commission to put together a slide show, which he premiered before the Tamaqua Historical Society last October.
Eventually, Havrischak would like to see a place where he can exhibit his collection, instead of being limited to his traveling museum. He is motivated to continue his work to create a living memorial for the independent miner.
"There's nothing greater for someone to know that there'll be something to be remembered by."