History of Anthracite Region


Massive culm banks, isolated breakers and varied ethnic surnames are the few disjointed remains of a once dominant industry which touched the lives of many in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Although largely vanished from the landscape and from modern life, the anthracite industry is not forgotten.

Anthracite is hard coal. It is the oldest type of coal-that is, it took nature the longest to form. It burns the most steadily and cleanly and the longest of all coal. It has the highest carbon content and thus has the highest heat content of all coal. It is also the shiniest and is often called “black diamonds”

Coal was formed when great accumulations of rotted vegetation were covered by huge masses of earth and rock. Pressure and heat, acting through millions of years, transformed the rotted material through various stages of peat, lignite, bituminous and finally anthracite.

Perhaps 90% of the nations reserves of anthracite were located in Middle Eastern and Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Early prospecting for coal was both casual and unscientific. Outcroppings, where coal seams were exposed on the surface, were the most readily discovered. Seams where only a shallow layer of earth covered the coal were also easily detected.

Outcroppings occurred mostly on rocky ridges which were traveled routinely by coal prospectors. Black meadowlands and salty soil were clues to shallow lying beds of coal, as were downed trees with coal particles clinging to their roots.

As demand for anthracite increased, exploration became more scientific. Test boreholes would be driven in regular patterns and the drill cores examined and measured. In this way depth and thickness of rock strata and coal seams could be computed and the geology of wide areas plotted. Less commonly, test shafts would be sunk or tunnels driven to locate coal.

For years, after the discovery of Pennsylvania anthracite, there was little demand for it. Potential users did not know how to burn it. Being denser than bituminous, it was more difficult to ignite, just as heavy logs are more difficult to kindle than lighter wood. It also requires a stronger sustaining draft. Stoves, forges, and industrial furnaces had to be adapted to its use.

Judge Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre made an important breakthrough when he succeeded in burning hard coal in an open grate in his tavern on Northampton Street in 1808.

Jacob Weiss of Carbon County and Jacob Cist, a Philadelphian who married the daughter of Matthias Hollenback of Wilkes-Barre, were strong and unrelenting advocates of anthracite. Both did missionary work on its behalf among the craftsmen and manufacturers of the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, who needed heat in the production of their goods.

The War of 1812 demonstrated the need for a reliable source of fuel for northern cities. Coal from Great Britain was not available for obvious reasons, and due to the British blockade of the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, Virginia coal (bituminous) could not reach those cities except by very costly overland transport. The war also stimulated industrial activity, thus increasing the need for fuel.

Early transportation of anthracite from the mountain fastnesses of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a formidable undertaking. One-and-a-half-ton loads were actually shipped by four-horse teams and wagon the 135 nearly impassable miles from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. The impracticality of substantial shipments over great distances was obvious and eventually the horse and wagon was relegated to local deliveries. Soon Wilkes-Barre coal was floated down the Susquehanna by barge and scow to Baltimore; and Summit Hill coal down the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers to Philadelphia. But scows and barges could not be returned upstream against the current, and then needed dismantling to be sold as lumber in the destination cities.

To overcome this, slack water canals were built along the rivers and cross-country from river to river. Slack water canals also ensured a year-round adequate level of water.

Railroads-both steam and gravity powered-came soon on the heels of the canals. Many railroads were built for the explicit purpose of hauling anthracite.

Eventually, motor trucks would replace the horse and wagon for local delivery, and great trailers and semi-trailers would give stiff competition to the railroads in long distance hauling.

Underground, with the exception of steam powered hoisting engines, the mule almost exclusively provided the power for transport for almost an entire century. Even after the advent of electric and compressed-air locomotives, the mule stayed on in the smaller mines and in the secondary haulage ways of large mines.

There are four kinds of entrances to deep mines: Shaft, slope, tunnel, and drift. Some large mines had all four types.

A shaft is an opening that is sunk from the surface straight down through the strata of earth, rock, and coal. As coal seams are encountered, passageways (called headings and gangways) are driven outward through the coal, and, in turn, from them the working chambers are driven. All of these must be driven in pairs with connecting passages between them to facilitate air circulation.

A slope is essentially the same thing as a shaft, except that it is driven at an angle and not straight down.Ê Slopes are often driven to serve one section of a single vein of coal. Slopes also differ from shafts in that rails must be laid, for the coal is hoisted in mine cars. In shafts, coal, men, and mine supplies are raised and lowered in reciprocating carriages that essentially are elevators.

A view of an abandoned slope located at the Exeter Colliery, taken after the closing of the mine workings sometime in the late 50's

The first stage of the pictured slope is driven through a steep layer sandy soil. From the mouth of the slope to where it encounters solid rock overburden, the sidewalls must be shored with one inch boards nailed to the legs of the cross timbers to hold back the loose sand. Likewise, rough lagging-called “fore poling”-must be installed above the collars of the cross timbers lengthwise of the slope to prevent sand runs from above.

A drift is a horizontal or nearly horizontal passageway. It may be driven directly into the vein at an outcropping and thus the coal is mined directly from the outside; or it may be a horizontal tunnel used to intersect the veins in areas where the earth has folded over and the coal seams lie at extremely steep angles, as they do in the southern divisions of Pennsylvania’s hard coal fields. In this latter type of mining, as the coal seams are encountered, side tunnels are driven through the coal, and, in turn, working chambers driven upward from the side tunnels.

The alternative to deep mining is open pit or strip mining. In this method great earth-moving machines remove all of the overburden of earth and rock and the coal is exposed for removal by those same machines.

Once coal is mined it must be prepared for market, that is, it must be cleaned of impurities such as slate, rock and bone (often pronounced boney by the miners), a stratified mixture of slate and coal, crushed into workable sizes, then sorted by size. This is done in a large structure called a breaker. Breaker is a word peculiar to Pennsylvania hard coal country. Elsewhere in the world of coal mining it’s called a tipple.

In the old days, coal was cleaned by young boys working over chutes in the breaker. As the coal passed beneath them the boys would pick out the rock and slate by hand. This was a mean, dirty, and often dangerous job. In the 1920’s machinery began to take over this work.

No two breakers seemed to look exactly alike. They were odd-looking, asymmetrical buildings with all sorts of architectural protuberances with shed-type roofs. One feature they almost all had in common was a covered conveyor line running from the head of the mineshaft to the top of the breakerwhere the run-of-the-mine coal began its journey down through the cleaning and crushing machinery and the sizing screens.

The use of anthracite in the production of iron and steel greatly expanded the demand for hard coal. Eventually coke, made from bituminous, replaced anthracite in the smelting of iron and steel. Nevertheless, demand for anthracite continued to increase. Steam locomotives and stationary steam engines used great quantities of it, and other industrial uses for it proliferated. Improved anthracite-burning cooking stoves were developed as well as furnaces for homes and larger buildings, and new markets opened up.

For a period of years America’s surging industrial revolution was fueled largely by Pennsylvania anthracite; and as foundries multiplied, so did coal mines. Manpower was required and the demand soon outstripped the supply of native labor. Industry then looked eastward to Europe for workers, and they came in great waves. First to come were the skilled miners of Great Britain- the Scots, English and Welsh. Soon to follow were hundreds of thousands of Irish fleeing the famine caused by a succession of blighted potato crops. Central and eastern Europe would nourish the human tide, as would Italy. Among the Italians there were a smattering of workers from the sulfur mines of Sicily. Finally, from the Middle East came Syrians and Lebanese. And the steel towns and mine patches of Pennsylvania would attain a cultural richness and variety unrivaled across the United States.

Anthracite production reached its zenith during World War I, but industrial activity waned in the post-war years with attendant diminution in the demand for coal. In the 1920’s cheap oil began to contest the coal markets-an ominous sign. Then the Great Depression cast a pall over the world, and industry slowed to a crawl. Mines stood idle. At some mines expensive pumping of water was discontinued and the workings filled up. Later on, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would provide funds for special pumps to drain these mines.

All the while, strip mining was accounting for a larger and larger share of production. Giant earth-moving machines made it practical to remove overburden from deeper and yet deeper veins of coal. Several machine operators, along with a handful of truck drivers, could produce as much coal as hundreds of underground miners. The work force fell off sharply.

World War II brought about a temporary revival of the hard coal industry, but the end of the war brought even more vigorous competition from oil. Now for the first time, domestic heating by oil came to coal country, and, though some considered it a breech of regional patriotism, oil burners proliferated.

Then great pipelines brought in natural gas that provided even greater convenience in home heating than oil. And another nail was driven in the coffin of King Coal.

Other factors eroded the demand for coal. Diesel locomotives replaced coal-burning ones, even on anthracite railroads. Oil burning power plants, and then nuclear powered plants, reduced the need for coal in the production of electric power.

By January 1959 not a large colliery in the Wyoming Valley was working at full capacity. Most had leased out small sections of their mines to independent operators, as the Pennsylvania Coal Company had done with the vast Ewen Colliery in Port Griffith. Other mines had been idled and allowed to fill up with water-this time forever. On January 22, 1959 the Susquehanna River broke into the workings of the River Slope section of the Ewen Colliery, which was being worked under lease by the Knox Coal Company. Extensive mining had been done under the river beyond the red stop line. The old standard had required that 50 to 60 feet of solid rock must exist between the river bottom and the coal seam for coal to be removed. The standard had been relaxed to 35 feet for the Knox and the red stop line established accordingly. Red stop lines appear on mine maps to mark the limits of leases granted to exploiting independent companies. In the case at the Knox, the red line also acted as a danger line beyond which all mining was forbidden. Mine maps show that the test bore hole nearest the point where the river broke through showed a reading of one foot seven inches of rock cover. On January 13 the last regular shift of coal ever to come out of the River Slope was fired and loaded by the sole remaining coal crew in the section. It was taken with permission from the foreman, but in violation of the mine superintendentÕs orders, from the very spot where the river eventually entered the mine. Nine days later, with the Susquehanna swollen to near flood level by a January thaw, the thin shell of rock gave way and the river rushed into the mine.

The Knox Disaster is commonly charged with causing the end of deep mining in the Wyoming Valley. The charge is not entirely fair. The falling market for anthracite was the true cause. The Knox Disaster was merely a catalyst that brought about the end more abruptly.

The market continued to fail, and strip mining continued its march to dominate production.Ê By the early 80s, there were left throughout the entire four divisions of the anthracite coalfields only two deep mines, both in the southern division- one at Tower City, and the other nearby at Hegins. Between the two mines there were employed perhaps 150 men. Thus passeth the reign of King Coal in the anthracite region.

Note on author: Nowadays, lifelong West Pittstonian and historian Bill Hastie is a civilized citizen of mine country who is striving to keep alive the fading memory of the coalmining years.