Picking, Cracking and Screening Coal

Picking, Cracking and Screening Coal

(by Stephen A. Kalista, Sr., The Valley Gazette, July 1984, All rights reserved by the author)

Much has been written in the Gazette about coal pickers in Lansford, etc.

I would like to remember my coal picking days while in my teens living in Coaldale during the 30’s.

Coal picking was for the minorities of our days—Polish, Slovaks, Greek Catholics, etc.

The Lehigh Navigation Coal Company allowed us to pick coal in certain designated areas. The large coal bank near No. 8 Colliery and Water Street was off bounds. My dad was once fined for picking in this area.

If one wanted chestnut sized coal with a minimum of cracking, the favorite place was below the existing swimming pool and near the old gas plant (now non-existent).

The athletic field between Lansford and Coaldale now covers this area. About five or six feet below the surface was scrap coal and slate dumped by the coal company. People from East Ridge St., Fisher Ave. and East St. were the main tenants. Each family staked out a plot of area about 10 feet by 10 feet. My dad would dig down, locate the wet coal and slate, shovel it out and let it dry out overnight. Others did the same. Very little theft occurred. Most were honest. We used a screening device made from a box about five feet by two feet by three inches, covered on the bottom with screen. Legs in a U shape kept the boxed screen off the ground.

Mr. Zaleha, who owned a store on East Ridge St. (Now the residence of Dr. Laigon) designed a more efficient screening device. He made a cylindrical shape and covered it with a screen. He placed a shaft the entire length of the cylinder. He placed a handle on one end. In this manner, turning the handle was easier and more efficient than the back and forth motion needed with our screening device.

If one wanted pea-sized coal, the place to go was east of Skintown, off Lehigh Street. A large refuse bank contained this type of coal—no cracking and easy to process.

The next place was the strip mining being done off Third Street, next to the old Coaldale dump. Picking coal here was the hardest of the three areas. One had to know when coal was being dumped down a bank while surface stripping was being done. I never knew how my father knew when this was being done. There must have been a grapevine in effect. As the trucks were dumping, everyone with a coal bag would run up the bank as the coal and dirt came down. The intent was to pick the biggest pieces of coal coming down the bank. Next came the hardest part—cracking the coal—then screening, bagging it in #80 bags and transporting it by wagon and wheelbarrow to 119 E. Ridge St., our home.

My dad never made my sisters pick coal. My father, Casimer, brothers Joseph and Martin (all deceased) and myself did it.

I found coal picking the most degrading job I ever did. People staring at you as you came down the street—the so-called rich people or middle class of Coaldale.

As a finale, during the Depression years, parishioners of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church picked coal and donated it to the church..