The Table Rock

The Table Rock

by Bob Sharpe

It was there long before the town of Coaldale ever existed and will probably be there long after the town is gone. About three-quarters up from the base of the mountain which separates Coaldale from Hauto is an outcropping of very large boulder known to the townsfolk as the "Table Rock". It is always referred to in the singular, although in actuality it is made up of several boulders sitting atop the others. In reference to its location on the street grid of the town, it is between 4th and 5th streets. This particular section of the Broad Mountain range runs just north of the Panther Creek.

Nobody knows what this mountain looked like prior to the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company's commencement of mining operations around 1800. The major byproduct of deep coal mining is "culm". In other words, all the "non-coal" that had to be removed in order to extract the anthracite. The culm was simply dumped alongside the mountain until it began to form its own mountain of black and gray rocks. By the time I took notice of the mountain, the culm banks had already grown to several hundred feet and ran alongside the Broad Mountain for as far as the eye could see from east to west. My bedroom window faced this mountain and I remember as a child waking up on a warm summer's morning with the window open and the sound of huge diesel engines powering equally huge dump trucks filled with culm along the top of this bank. At times there might be a dozen or so trucks working their way back and forth from the No. 8 Breaker and dumping their load down the bank and toward the creek. Watching this activity from my window, I often wondered what things were like up there. I imagined myself driving one of those monster trucks and what fun it would be to watch all the debris roll out the back as I raised the truck bed up at the edge of that bank. With several of my buddies as fellow drivers, I could think of no better job to have Townsfolk often talked about the Table Rock, although I never heard anyone say that they had actually made the climb to the Rock. With my having little concept about climbing or the time and distance involved in getting there, the Table Rock could just as well have been the moon for me. The two Ruddle St. buddies I hung around with back then were Tommy Sabol, who was a year older than I and Jimmy "Skrabby" Skrabak, who was about three years older. One particularly nice Saturday afternoon in mid summer, Skrabby announces to me and Tommy that we're going to climb to the Table Rock. It was bright and sunny with low humidity perfect climbing weather, according to Skrabby. Also, since it was Saturday, the mines were closed and we probably wouldn't get caught trespassing on company property.

James Skrabak was one of the most interesting characters I had known in Coaldale. I've written a bit about him previously and still, part of him is a mystery to me. Typically, a boy that age doesn't hang around with other boys several years younger than he, and it wasn't like Skrabby didn't have other friends his own age. It's just that, for some reason, he enjoyed being with Tommy and me. I suppose it was a desire to be an "older brother" to us. He and his mother, Margaret lived directly across the street from me. I don"t know whatever happened to his father. He didn't live there and I never met him. Likewise, Skrabby never talked about him. Skrabby had a reputation as being a bit of a trouble maker in town. Some of the older guys he hung around with definitely fit that description. Interestingly, Skrabby never attempted anything wrong or illegal when we were with him; nor did he ever ask us to do anything wrong.

After spending many years trying to master the art of being a good parent, I find myself wondering how my parents"and my father in particular"balanced making sure I stayed out of trouble while still not seeming to be too over-protective. Neither of them ever told me to stay away from Skrabby, although they both surely knew stories about him. Maybe one day Dad took Skrabby aside and told him that if he ever did anything to harm me, he would be forever sorry; or just maybe Skrabby didn't want the trouble that some of his other friends led him into and felt more comfortable with Tommy and me.

But anyway, we were preparing for my first real adventure into the wilderness at age 11. Neither Tommy or I had ever ventured past the Panther Creek alongside Railroad St. It feels strange calling it the "Panther Creek". Nobody in town ever called it that either. All knew it simply as the "Shit Crick" and for good reason. Prior to the Environmental Protection Agency, there were few, if any regulations regarding disposal of waste. The town did have a sewer system back then, but it couldn't handle the houses right alongside the crick because they were too low. Raw sewage simply went from house to the Panther Creek. From there it merged into the Little Schuylkill River in Tamaqua and finally into the Schuylkill River and on to Philadelphia. Common wisdom back then in town was, 'When visiting Philly, don't drink the water".

We met in front of Harold"s Store. Skrabby suggested we knock down a Ma's root beer in preparation for the climb. An old pair of dungarees and sneakers were proper attire. Tommy and I were still apprehensive about this adventure, but Skrabby assured us he had done this before with his older brother, Frank so we had nothing to worry about. With 12 ounces of root beer in our stomachs, we headed down Church Hill, behind the VFW building and crossed Water St. near Domin's Garage. Railroad St. was only a dirt road and then over the bridge. The company built a small wooden bridge over the crick for moving their coal cars. We now stood at the base of the culm bank that rose several hundred feet at about a 40 degree angle. Skrabby warned us about the loose rock and that we should never climb directly in a straight line because any rock we dislodge will hit the person behind. That part of the climb took about a half hour using all four's for most of the trip. Reaching the top was an accomplishment in itself for me at that time. We took a moment to survey the town from that elevation and I was impressed.

What really surprised me was the plane we now stood upon. It extended back about a half mile and looked like the surface of the moon. There were roads carved out for those huge trucks I watched from my window years earlier, but there were also huge craters that went down about a hundred feet. The "stripping holes" had flat silt-filled beds to them, some with water and some were dry. Beyond this lunar surface we could finally see some green. There was the "real" mountain with plenty of trees and bushes. Right in the middle of our view toward the summit was the Table Rock, looking much bigger than I had ever imagined. We wound our way along the truck paths and on toward the next part of our climb. Suddenly we were in forest rather than rocks and we picked up a path the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. had cut through the woods that paralleled the ridge of the mountain. As we got closer to the Rock, I realized we could no longer see the Rock. The trees and other growth obscured our view. Skrabby said that he knew the secret spot where we would leave the PP&L trail and begin our second ascent on the mountain. He told us we could spend the rest of the day trying to find the Rock without any success because you can't really see it until you're within a stone's throw.

Before we began this next climb, Skrabby picked up a 4-foot long tree branch which had fallen and suggested both of us do the same.

"Hey Skrabby, why do we need a stick"?

"In case we run into a copperhead or rattlesnake"!

"A what"??

"You never know. We just gotta be careful. Keep poking in front of where you're walking".

Tommy and I hesitated a bit, but figured we made it this far. We stayed right behind Skrabby this time and let him do the initial poking. Another quarter mile and suddenly there it was…rising out from the mountain was the giant monolith. We scrambled up around the back side and climbed several other underlying rocks until finally mounting the Big One.

It’s not quite on par with Sir Edmund Hilary's conquest of Mt. Everest and we certainly couldn’t lay claim to being the first ones there but at that age Tommy and I considered it one of life’s great accomplishments. If only we had a Coaldale town flag to plant. The view was breathtaking. In one sweeping vista we could see all of Coaldale and Seek, Lansford, and the front side of Summit Hill. To our left was good old No. 8 Breaker and all the accompanying buildings, rail track, and cars. We searched for our houses, schools, hangouts, etc. None of us had ever been in an airplane at that time but this was the next best thing. We sat up there for over an hour,often not talking at all. Along with the view, I remember enjoying the smell of the trees, the sounds of the birds, and the cool breezes that blew across the mountain. It was probably 10 degrees cooler up there than back in town.

The decent was certainly anticlimactic; albeit a lot easier. The only part that was different was coming down on the culm bank. Pushing free a loose rock wasn't bad on the way up because you could quickly regain traction. Facing forward on the way down could mean going into a serious forward roll. Descending backward was one possibility, but Skrabby's advice was to go forward on a diagonal switchback decent and if you begin to lose footing, just sit down and let your butt act as a brake. It's rough on the pants, but better than the alternative. We finally made it back to Harold's by late afternoon and decided to celebrate with another cold soda.

Several times that summer when I awoke again to the sounds of the trucks on the culm bank, I'd walk over to the window and just stand there for a few minutes to take it all in once again. I'd look beyond all the activity and catch a glimpse of the Table Rock. Yep, been there--- done that.

Over many subsequent years, I've made that climb several times with several friends, but always with Tommy. I had the good sense to bring along my trusty Kodak Pony camera to capture the moment. Some o of those pictures accompany this piece. Once, over Spring Break from college, my college buddy Pete came to Coaldale with me. We teamed up with several friends from town and decided to again make the climb. Only this time we decided to make it a party. I’m not sure how we managed to carry a case of beer and snacks up the culm bank, but then youth has a lot of blissful ignorance associated with it. We partied before the second ascent, but still carried a few drinks (and a small American flag) to the summit.

The sound of an approaching vehicle sent us all scurrying for the cover of the bushes. It had to be a Coal & Iron cop car. No other cars are allowed to drive that area. I peeked out from behind a tree, indeed it was a cop. But not just any cop. My uncle, Dan Zeigler was the man in charge of the police force and he was the one making the rounds that day! Great, my father was then the mayor of Coaldale and my uncle busts up a beer party that I had organized on company property. I"ll need to save a copy of tomorrow's Tamaqua Courier with the headline "Mayor"s Son Busted" and our mug shots from the police station. Fortunately Uncle Dan didn't notice a few beer cans we forgot to hide and continued on with his patrol.

Years later at a family reunion at the Zeigler's, I mentioned to Dan about the party he missed back then. He had a good laugh over it and told me it wouldn't have been the first beer party he had crashed. In fact, he said "That was how I restocked my beer fridge at home,by confiscating beer from the partygoers".

I don't get back to Coaldale very much any more. The family is gone; the house on Ruddle St. is gone; and most of the people I've known are gone also. All too often lately, the reason for a brief visit to the town is for the funeral of a relative or friend. Still, as I drive into town along Route 209 from Tamaqua, I always glance to my left for a quick peek at the mountain. I am amazed at how well Mother Nature has reclaimed that mountain back from the LC&N. Trees are now growing in that culm bank and hopefully in a few more decades, most of the man-made scars on the mountain will be healed. At some point in my recent visits "no matter how brief they may be".I find a few minutes to stop around 4th and Ruddle Streets and look north toward that old mountain. I often wonder if I'm still up to the challenge of making that climb in my mid 60's. I also wonder if I'd be able to talk Tommy, or one of the old gang, into making the climb with me. I'll be smart enough to make sure my cell phone is fully charged and operating, but still…it's going to look really foolish when the local newspaper carries the story of how a couple of old men got lost and/or trapped on Broad Mountain while in search of their long-lost youth.