By Tim Ballingall
The year is 1808, the place, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Judge Jesse Fell has just burned a rock of anthracite coal on an iron L-shaped grate in his living room fireplace. This not only proves hard coal useful for home heating and cooking. It will fuel the engines of industry well into the twentieth century.
At first, little came about of this discovery. Coal fields in Northeastern, Pa, amid the Appalachian Mountains and Susquehanna River, were difficult to reach, and coal was expensive to transport to places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
From 1825, with the opening of the Schuylkill Canal, to 1846, with the completion of the Lehigh and Susquehanna River Railroad, hard coal depended largely on canal systems. With the advent of the railroad, following the years of the American Civil War, the coal industry boomed.
Flash back 300 million years. Pennsylvania is a steaming flat bed of swamps, trees, and ferns. Decaying organic material dies and sinks to the bottom of these swamps, becoming a dense substance known as peat. Over hundreds of millions of years, under a bajillion tons of pressure while tectonic plates shift and the landscape transforms, peat is compressed into coal.
The formation of the Appalachian Mountains accelerated this process, making the coal harder and purer. Anthracite contains a carbon content between 86 and 98% with few volatile hydrocarbons; it burns almost without flame and gives off tremendous heat. Ninety-five percent of the Western Hemisphere’s supply of anthracite comes from a 500-mile radius in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
When anthracite was first discovered in the Wyoming Valley of Northeastern Pa, in 1762, it was estimated that below, in the coalfields of Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Lackawanna County, lay 16 billion tons of coal. These troves of “black diamonds” beckoned miners.
Laborers from all over flocked to the Coal Region. According to Luzernecounty.org, “fifteen million immigrants from Europe entered the United State from 1870 to 1915 to get jobs. As many as one hundred thousand ended up in the coal fields of Luzerne County.” Immigrants left behind Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Germany, Italy, and Poland in exchange for Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, Plymouth, Hazleton, and Kingston.
Mining was highly dangerous and low-paying. In April of 1869, 110 miners at Steuben Coal Company’s Avondale Colliery asphyxiated when the breaker caught fire and collapsed down into the shaft. The next year, state legislature passed the Mine Ventilation Law. And yet, over the next thirty years, 10,000 miners would die in mining accidents.
Mine owners built Victorian estates while lowly miners dwelled in overcrowded fast-and-cheap “patch towns.” Economic tensions came to a head in the Great Strike of 1902. The 140,000-member United Mine Workers called for better safety regulations and higher wages. The strike lasted nine months before President Theodore Roosevelt intervened.
Anthracite production peaked in 1917 at 99.7 million tons. Employment peaked three years earlier with 181,000 working miners. During the twenties, the energy market started focusing away from anthracite toward oil, gas, and electricity. Anthracite production sank—like everything else—during the Great Depression but revived itself somewhat during the Second World War.
Deep mining ended after the 1959 Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine disaster. State law prohibited mine roofs within 35 feet of a riverbed. The roof of the River Slope Mine was 19 inches below the Susquehanna River. On January 22, the roof caved. Twelve men died and deep mining ceased throughout the entire region.
Much to the interest of Silent Hill gamers is the underground mine fire at Centralia, Pa. In 1962, trash was being burned in a strip-mine pit just outside of town. A coal vein on the surface caught fire. Days later, it was discovered that the fire had spread underground. The fire remained under the surface until the 1980s when adverse health effects started being reported. Over the next several years, inhabitants relocated and Centralia became a ghost town.
If you’re driving on Route 61, it’s possible to drive right through to Mount Carmel. What used to be the town center is now a seemingly random intersection in the middle of nowhere. Less than a handful of houses still stand. There’s a municipality building and a Russian Orthodox Church at the top of a hill.
If you go during winter, the snow-covered field only reveals the ghost town when you stop the car and really look. Faint, used-to-be roads appear in a grid formation. You trek up Hammie Hill, where toxic fumes billow from the ground and surrounding rocks have a reddish mold on them. You smell the sulfuric stench. You remember facts and theories you read about on Roadside America blogs and Wikipedia. It’s hard to believe there’s a fire an acre and a half below your feet.
Looking out over what used to be a town, devastated by environmental precautions not taken, and appreciating the irony of the tuft of wind turbines out on Locust Ridge, you hope what happened here won’t happen in the western part of the state, the Marcellus Shale region.
Research for this post came from links already provided and ExplorePAHistory.com. If Geology interests you, check out EBSCOhost in the Library’s Articles and Databases. If PA History is your thing, there are lots of great articles on Project Muse and JSTOR. Centralia photographs were taken by Eric Stevens.