Robbing the Pillars
A Report from Anthracite Coal Country
by Michael Buozis, August 9, 2012

--My great-great-grandfather Francis Henry Pascoe preached to the coal miners at the First Congregational Church in Coaldale, another town dug into the side of a hill in the Eastern Middle Field. His brother Albert, later a mine foreman, placed second with D. Griffith in the 100 yard three-legged race at the First Annual Outing of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company on August 30, 1913. Not much of that history remains, in my family or in these communities.

--In Coaldale, on the way to Jim Thorpe to see the Carbon County Jail where seven Molly Maguires were hanged on June 22, 1877, we stop on East Ruddle Street outside the First Congregational Church, with rain coming down hard. Here, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Henry Pascoe, preached for decades.


Robbing the Pillars
In Essays on August 9, 2012 at 7:00 am
A Report from Anthracite Coal Country
by Michael Buozis

“There’s the trapper, sleeping as usual.”

The guide for this mid-July morning’s tour points to a plastic mannequin slumped on a stool over an aluminum lunchbox, in a chamber flanked by two heavy oak doors on huge iron hinges. When the guide asked the heavy Italian-American woman from New York, the last one through the first door, to shut it behind her, she said, “Are you serious?” She’s the only person in the group of more than a dozen visitors to show any signs of claustrophobia.

“This boy had to listen very closely for oncoming cars full of coal, cause if he hopped up just a second too late, the loaded car would crash through the door, knock it off its hinges and two tons of oak, iron and coal would crush the boy dead, instantly.”

The white-haired guide, who has a lean muscularity and casual posture, speaks generously when he calls the trapper a boy. No more than three feet tall, with a small carbide lamp strapped to his head, the mannequin looks more like a toddler, a little kid at most, not yet into boyhood.

In another room, we see a bigger plastic boy standing in front of a plastic donkey.

“Here’s the mule boy, about ten to fourteen years old, skinny as hell. Now this animal behind him is not quite right. As long as the curators here at the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour looked, they couldn’t find a mule for the display, so you’re looking at a donkey boy. The mules in Pennsylvania during the heyday of anthracite coal mining stood about seven feet high. You have those mules to thank for these spacious ceilings. Once the operator brought a mule down here, they’d often never see the light of day again.”

The guide speaks with a mild Irish brogue, though his grandfather worked the very mine we stand in, so he’s at least a third generation Scrantonian.

“The lamp on the mule boy’s head would give off about eight birthday candles of light. On either side of the tracks the boy led the mule and his loaded cart down, there’d be ditches one to two feet deep full of muck and water.”

He shows how if the colliery car got away from the mule boy, he’d have to throw a long piece of wood called a sprag under the wheels of the half ton car.

“Dangerous job, being a spragger.”

Our descent into the shaft takes us past the Rock Bed, Big Bed, New County Bed, Clark Bed and the No. 1 Dunmore Bed, into the No. 2 Dunmore Bed, 500 feet under McDade Park on the West Mountain of the Wyoming Valley where Scranton stretches out into Old Forge, Moosic, Pittston and finally Wilkes-Barre, a massive swath of suburbs and decaying urban centers once supported by the anthracite industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania. On the big flat screen of the theater in the visitor’s center up on the surface, a grainy video documenting the Knox Mine Disaster runs on a loop. Fifty empty 110-ton coal hoppers spin and disappear into a whirlpool on the banks of the Susquehanna River, like children’s toys sucked into a drain.

In January of 1959, the roof of the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine in Pittston collapsed, opening a 150 foot hole and draining 10 million gallons of water and ice from the river into the mines. Twelve of the forty miners trapped never escaped the flooded shafts. In the documentary, the rescued miners emerge wrapped in wool blankets. Their wives sit in the breaker office. The frumpy coats and sweaty coal bosses make the footage look decades older than it is. This disaster effectively ended anthracite coal mining in the Wyoming Valley.

Down in the Lackawanna Mine, a constant 53 degrees year round, in the thin light from lamps strung along the walls, we peer into a side chamber piled with coal fine. A plastic miner stands atop a pile, his white eyes peering startled from a black face. Two plastic hands stick up at his feet from the heap of fine.

“Maybe if the foreman liked you, he’d dig you out and bring your body into your house for your wife and lay it down on the couch in your parlor. But just the same, if your wife couldn’t find somebody to replace you in the mines, she and your kids would be kicked out of that company house. If the mining company men were feeling generous, they’d put the family’s belongings out on the curb. Otherwise, they’d just change the locks on the doors.”

A compact woman with a nice camera slung over her neck asks if the miners were union here.

“They were union.”


“Yup. As far as I know. Now, I tell you the truth here. I can’t change history. I can only say what happened and hope in the future such bad practices don’t occur.”

A plastic fire boss sits with his feet up on a desk inside a white wooden structure at the entrance to the halls of another coal bed. Next to the door, a chalk board hangs from a rusty nail. The names seem authentic, in gothic script – Jack Hoffner, Tony Siatta, Louis Sebastinol, Len Fisher, Pete Rushi, Joe Yagajinski, Mike Rusnak, Merle Busek, Joe Murphy, Steve Kmetz, Mike Murancik, Mike Bizoc, Lee Hartski, Tom Supey.

“The last name, Tom Supey, we buried not more than two weeks ago. He worked in this mine for fifty years and his son worked in it for twenty-five and then helped start this tour.”

He turned away from the board in tearful pride.

Before we leave and before the obligatory period of pitch darkness when he tells the claustrophe from New York to hold onto her daughter, the guide demonstrates the method used to dynamite the coal, blasting a seam from floor to ceiling. When he pushes the plunger, an audio recording plays.

“How many blasts did you hear?”

A man in a camouflage jacket with a pink-bespectacled knee-high daughter no taller than the slumbering trapper clinging to him, says, “Ten blasts.”

“Eight. You’ve got to count, cause if you hear less blasts than you should, you’ve got a problem. Many miners died from exploding sleepers.”

On the surface, rusted machinery and rotting wood litters the yard over the entrance to Slope 190 – a track thrower, air hoses, chains, shaker chutes, blow fans, conveyor pans, mine timber, cap pieces, wedges, safety cable, barrel pulleys, shaker pans, stress arches, mine props, collars, rock loaders, dynamite magazines, and a cap house.

In the Anthracite Heritage Museum, further up West Mountain in McDade Park, the brief welcome video ends with a dated attempt by 1990s liberals to convince the sons and daughters of English, Welsh, Irish, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Italian immigrants to accept a new wave of immigrants flooding into the Wyoming Valley – Indian doctors, Chinese businessmen, Russian laborers. The Coal Miners Strike of 1902, the Lattimer Massacre and the art of Charles Edgar Patience, a black sculptor who anthracite coal as a medium, live in detailed essays and images mounted to the walls and artifacts chockablock in the halls of this important safe-house for one of America’s most neglected unique regional cultures.

Comprising seven counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the four anthracite coal fields – the Northern, Eastern Middle, Western Middle, and Southern – the largest deposits in the United States, provided an economic boom for the region, and powered much of the burgeoning industry of the nation in the early 20th century. The lower grade bituminous coal fields stretch across many mountainous states, but the mining operations there have always been different from those in anthracite coal country and the cultures have died slower outside of the Wyoming Valley, where the Knox Disaster forced a sudden turn away from deep mining practices.

The quick death might have served the Northern Field well. In Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Old Forge and Pittston, many of the communities slowly adjusted to new economic models – establishing colleges and universities, big shopping malls and ski resorts. Scranton’s Victorian county courthouse and brutal modernist U.S. circuit courthouse face each other across a well-maintained central square. Around the corner, on Lackawanna Avenue, Pete and Bob Ventura serve the same Coney Island Texas Weiner recipe – a split Berks All-Beef Hot Dog, on a steamed National Bakery Roll, topped with Dusseldorf mustard, fresh chopped onions, and a homemade chili sauce – their grandfather started serving Scrantonians in 1923. They prepare the food right in front of the customers and serve red cups of birch beer from behind a lunch counter decorated with Phillies and Yankees memorabilia. Down in Old Forge, the “Pizza Capital of the World,” where they really do have more pizzerias per capita than anywhere else in the world, the tradition dates back to at least 1962 when Arcaro and Genell opened on South Main Street and popularized a regional pizza only a local could love – soft-doughy crust, plastic American cheese and ketchupy red sauce on a square pie called a “tray” served on plastic cafeteria trays.

The cheese, sometimes called brick cheese, from half a try sits just like a brick in my gut as I drive through the blasted mountains north to Lackawanna State Park, far enough away from Scranton’s lights to have the best night sky I’ve seen in years, with streaks of purplish Milky Way visible like a backbone arching over the trees.

The next morning on the way to the Eckley Miners’ Village, we drive past the site of the Stockton Mine Disaster, a wooden sign with newly painted gold letters hidden in the trees on the side of a country road. Back in the woods a grave marker lists the names of six people, four Rouches and two Swanks. Two of the Rouches were unbearably young when they died in 1869. Three of them were female.

The Middle Fields feel different from the Northern Field, more abandoned and dirty with less of a path to the future. My travelling companion, Cyrus Kleege, from Brooklyn, visiting the museums and markers of the labor movement in anthracite coal country as research for a novel about a Polish mining family in the early part of the 20th century, tells me that sections of Shenandoah were more densely populated in 1910 than any other part of the United States other than the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When we drive through town, the windows on the storefronts stand shattered or shuttered and no one bothers to visit the Miner’s Memorial in Girard Park on a sunny Sunday morning. Mahanoy City and Girardville, like the other towns we’ve passed through, spring up on the sides of blasted hills, but here in the Western Middle Field, the houses sit huddled tightly together along main streets. Bars and general stores inhabit residential townhouses with dirty white aluminum siding and blind old men sit on their porches remembering when people filled the sidewalks. A few hangers-on still live in Centralia, not far to the west, where an underground coal fire has burned since Memorial Day, 1962, when an exposed coal seam ignited from burning trash in the dump. The weed-choked blocks, where houses were bulldozed and foundations filled in, harbors the most rich diversity and density of both flora and fauna of anywhere we visited in the coal region. Grasshoppers and fritillaries skip from the brambles and mountain laurel underneath impressive oaks and hollies. But up the backs of the stop signs at the corner of every street – presumably for sightseers and curiosity seekers – the coal fumes cling as black tar to each bolt and metal panel. The baby blue Orthodox Church across the valley from the smoldering landfill nestles between the hemlocks and reminds me how beautiful this landscape is, if you blot out all the failed towns.

I feel guilty about the imagined blotting and also when the following thought springs to my mind. “What the hell do these people do with themselves?” I know the answer is similar to the answer for any locale in the United States. They watch TV and drink and eat dinner with their families, but the decay here is sadder than most because it masks an old promise apparent in the over-large churches and the occasional well-kept Victorian mansion further up the hillsides. My great-great-grandfather Francis Henry Pascoe preached to the coal miners at the First Congregational Church in Coaldale, another town dug into the side of a hill in the Eastern Middle Field. His brother Albert, later a mine foreman, placed second with D. Griffith in the 100 yard three-legged race at the First Annual Outing of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company on August 30, 1913. Not much of that history remains, in my family or in these communities.

But some of what the locals do now is continue mining, as attested by a large swath of black blasted coal fine from strip mines stretching six miles from Hazleton skirting the train tracks down the road from the Stockton Mine Disaster marker through Jeddo to the Eckley Miners’ Village. The strip mines of the Hazleton Shaft Corporation hide behind berms of coal and rock, spindly birch and oak growing up along the roads. This method of mining does not involve sending men hundreds of feet into the ground with pickaxes and headlamps, but instead uses heavy machinery to literally strip the earth over the coal leaving enormous swathes of devastated land. Much of the destruction can only be seen from satellite images, unless you ignore the many menacing signs posted by Hazleton Shaft and other companies like it warning you away from the access roads.

More traditional, deep shaft anthracite coal mining operations required enormous structures called breakers where breaker boys (and girls) sorted the blasted coal into grades and removed rock from coal carts. Two of these breakers still stand. The Huber Breaker, in Ashley, sits moldering behind the offices of the Earth Conservancy across South Main Street from a storefront piled with junk and a plank of wood with the words “Redneck Windchime” carved in its face strung up on fishing line with three empty bottles of Budweiser and two spent shotgun shells hanging below. The Saint Nicholas Breaker in Mahanoy City juts out of the hillside across route 54 from an old house with six broken down cars and an unhitched trailer with the words “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE, SOME GAVE ALL, ALL GAVE SOME” spray-painted across its roll door parked in the steep yard. As hard as you may try to ignore the history of this region, you can not miss these breakers.

Signs posted along the empty road out to the Eckley Miners’ Village along the berm hiding the strip mines, announce Armed Forces Tribute Weekend on the grounds of the state-owned historic site. Instead of rednecks who might show pride in the wind chimes in the Ashley storefront or spray-paint words about freedom across an abandoned trailer’s rear, enthusiasts and re-enactors of both World Wars and the Civil War, line Eckley Main Street. Military jeeps and bicycles and a muscular olive drab motorcycle sit in the grass, while men and a few women in period uniform slumber and chat under canvas tents. An old radio, probably a reproduction with an i-pod hooked into it, plays a slow lilting Tommy Dorsey song. A white crossroads sign points in every direction, listing the distance in kilometers to Wiltz, St. Vith, Clervaux, Sibret and Schmidt.

Down the gravel road, nestled between the box houses with gray siding and black window frames, next to a blacksmith in a clapboard shed and behind a big iron stove with an eight foot chimney and massive cast iron pots and kettles dull black in the sun, one of three middle-aged ladies calls us back to another tent to hear a story. Two chairs sit caddy corner around a wooden table with spindly legs. An ashtray full of butts and an old root beer bottle filled with iced tea sit in the clutter of rags and dishes on the table. One of the ladies, bigger than the others, sits away from the table, working a needlepoint hoop. The folds of her ankle-length dress hide the chair beneath her.

“My grandfather was a mule boy in one of the mines not far from here,” another of the ladies tells us, after she explains what women did in the Civil War, keeping tenuously in character as she described the regiments sent from Eckley to fight for the Union. She pretends to dry dishes as she talks. The seated lady says, “My grandfather was a fire boss.” The youngest of the women, wearing a clean white apron over a fancier dress than the others, says, “Mine was a foreman, we think, from the records we can find. Sometimes these things are vague.”

The younger woman’s son, no more than thirteen years old, appears and takes a seat next to where his mother stands. He dresses in Union blue, a fresh-faced little drummer boy. When we ask about the Stockton Mine Disaster, which we can’t find in the books we consult, he speaks authoritatively, telling us about mine subsidence caused by robbing the support pillars of the seams, undermining houses where mining families lived.

“They were eating breakfast, and their house collapsed into the mine, killing the whole family, all cause of the greed of the company, stealing too much coal from the seams, mining too close to the surface.” He talks excitedly about his trip into a mine operated by the Hazleton Shaft Corporation. I can’t tell what the ladies think of the catastrophic strip mining all around Eckley, but the talkative one tells us about secret places, old patch towns like Eckley, prefabricated concrete housing, moldering in the woods. They all know more about this region than books can tell and seem proud of the relative prestige and hardship of their grandfathers’ work.

A clip from the New York Times, Sunday, December 18, 1869, Hazleton, PA, reads, “Another terrible mining accident occurred at 5 o’clock this morning at Stockton, near this place. A coal mine caved in, filling the shaft and tunnel with enormous masses of earth, carrying two large houses down with it, and choking the entrance to the mine. There were several persons in the dwelling houses at the time of the accident, and those were carried down in the falling mass, buried in the ruins, and doubtless instantly killed. As yet it has been entirely impossible to reach their bodies. Some men were in the mine, it is reported, at the time of the terrible disaster, and they are supposed to have been killed instantly. Ten persons in all lost their lives, and efforts are now being made to extricate their bodies. The houses fell a distance of forty feet and were broken to fragments.”

Down the road from the Civil War ladies, in the 1880 house, Bob Zimmerman tells how people lived in Eckley 130 years ago, showing us the trundle bed and rope box spring where the expression “sleep tight” comes from. He tears up when he talks about his own uncle who, 70 years later, couldn’t talk about D-Day on his death bed. His mustache droops and he speaks in a voice like a muted trumpet, low and brassy. He impressively recites the nationalities of all the miners and their descendants he grew up with. “Any Slav was a Hunky. We used to call their part of town Hunkeytown.” But every time he expresses astonishment at the fact the miners came to Eckley for a better life than in Europe, he says, “I wish we knew more about what was going on in Europe at the time that might have made these people come over. Must’ve been some bad stuff.” In the company store, a remarkably sturdy 72-year-old woman with hair dyed jet-black, tells how glad she was when her mother bought a bigger washtub, so three kids, out of her six siblings, could fit in at once, reducing the times she had to fill the tub from three to two. The woman, who spoke in the same brogue as the tour guide up in the Lackawanna Mine, never indicated whether the stories she told us were her own or those of some character from the past.

In Coaldale, on the way to Jim Thorpe to see the Carbon County Jail where seven Molly Maguires were hanged on June 22, 1877, we stop on East Ruddle Street outside the First Congregational Church, with rain coming down hard. Here, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Henry Pascoe, preached for decades. I do not take a picture. The building, a one-story box with vinyl siding, is not impressive, and I’d like to know more about Francis Henry before I pass judgment.

Photo Credit: Michael Buozis