Today is Earth Day. It was first started on April 22, 1970. My mom was just days away from giving birth to a baby (me!). Wonder what she did to celebrate such a monumental event.
I was born in Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania. Up there, anthracite coal was king. It was first discovered there in the 1700’s and coal mines snaked for miles under its terrain. As the Industrial Revolution erupted in the late 1700’s into the 1800’s, the Wyoming Valley – that part of Northeast Pennsylvania where I grew up – was a major contributor of coal as source of fuel and power.
According to Earth Conservancy.org, At its height in the 1800s, the Wyoming Valley produced more than a million tons of coal a year that was transported via canal systems to major ports along the East Coast. Collieries, which included breakers and other related processing buildings, could be found everywhere throughout “the Valley”, and small towns sprung up around them. The small town economies relied on the work supplied by the collieries.
Good job my hometown! Making jobs, building economies!
Of course, those jobs were unflinchingly backbreaking and dangerous. To get to that shiny black rock out from miles underground, men (and sometimes kids) were lowered down long shafts in elevators. Poison gas, lack of air, cave ins, dust…it all came with the territory. It didn’t stop once you retired either. Black lung affected many former miners, including my grandfather, a miner in Carbon County, PA, another anthracite stronghold.
And this tough work was done by the tough immigrants – the Polish, the Slovaks, the Russians, the Germans, the Scotch-Irish, the Welsh, the Dutch – all the immigrants that came to this country to escape the hard times in their own country. If America is a melting pot, Northeast Pennsylvania is the cast iron skillet that blended all these flavors together, charred bits on the bottom and all.
By the mid-1900s many mining operations had exhausted the available coal and the industry began to decline, helped by the advent of other energy sources such as gas and oil. Many companies closed or went into bankruptcy and left the mine workings, machinery, pits, culm banks and workers to deal with the loss. This happened not just in the Wyoming Valley but across the entire state. Today, Pennsylvania has more than 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, culm banks, highwalls, and mine shafts in 45 of its 67 counties, more than any other state in the nation. Additionally, water pollution in more than 5,000 miles of stream accompanies the environment ail problems left by the end of mining in the state.
I grew up in the shadow of a coal breaker, the Harry E, which was a scant two miles from my house. I’m sure it was an architectural marvel at the time. Once, in grade school, I even built a replica of the Harry E for the school science fair (won a prize too.)
Before it’s rusted, rotting hulk of structure was demolished, I couldn’t tell you how many times we drove under it’s long enclosed conveyor belt. Because, yes, Main Street in Swoyersville ran under the coal breaker. (Frankly, I look back and am just happy it never collapsed on anyone driving under it.)
What was once king in NE PA was its downfall as well. The mining companies raped and pillaged the land leaving an environmental mess in their wake. Of course, back there, no one was concerned about the environment.
Now, it appears there is concern. Driving along Main Street last week, not far from where the Harry E stood, I saw the green sign, above, peeping out of the straw grass. Clean up seems to be underway. I also had to grab a photo of the culm bank – no telling how much longer it’ll be there.
Actually, there is telling. While I’m surprised now to see housing developments being built in the areas that were ALL culm banks in my youth, I don’t expect to return one day and see it all gone.
Northeast Pennsylvania was built by coal, on coal. Unfortunately, it was also brought down by coal as well.
Happy Earth Day indeed.
The history of the coal mining industry is fascinating. For more information:
* NY Times 1902: Breaker Boys and Miners Tell Of Their Hardships (PDF)
* Lewis W. Hine’s images of children of the mines.
* Video: Living In A Coal Mine (this young gal did a great job with this documentary.)
© Mark V. Krajnak | JerseyStyle Photography | All Rights Reserved 2014