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Down In The Mines - Part 1

This is another in a series of columns on long-lost occupations.


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For the majority of male immigrants to Northeastern Pennsylvania, working in the anthracite coal mines was neither easy nor enjoyable. Many had no experience with mining and spent hours laboring in the dark, dusty, and dangerous tunnels. Those who came searching for the American dream wound up instead in an anthracite nightmare.

Anthracite, or hard coal, the type commonly found in Northeastern Pennsylvania, is almost pure carbon, producing little smoke or residue when burned, and at the same time providing more heat than bituminous or soft coal. This region of Pennsylvania contains the largest deposits of anthracite coal in the world.

Though Native Americans and early settlers discovered anthracite coal, few knew what to do with it. It wasn't until 1808 when Judge Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, designed a ventilated grate that supplied this coal with constant oxygen, enabling it to burn for up to 12 hours. This grates fit into a home fireplace, so within several years, everyone wanted it to heat their homes. New factory owners, also saw the benefits of using anthracite.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads had laid over 2,000 miles of rail over which ran steam locomotives, powered by anthracite coal. So during the latter half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, anthracite coal was one of the most sought after fuels in the world.

And with that demand came a need for miners. At first, Pennsylvania collieries hired miners from England and Southern Wales, where bituminous and some anthracite coal had been mined for decades. But as the demand for anthracite coal increased, the need for miners grew ever higher.

By the end of the 19th century, Austrians, Carpatho-Russians, Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Scots, Slovaks, Slovenians, and Ukrainians had joined the English and Welsh miners.

Immigrants, desperately seeking to make a new life in America, made the long and treacherous journey cramped aboard sail and steamships for weeks or months at a time. Some brought their families along, while others sailed alone. Few spoke English and most knew little of American culture, and most arrived with little, if any, money and no connections.

Mine owners provided transportation from eastern seaports to the area around Scranton, Pennsylvania. Single miners lived in crowded dormitories while families eventually settled into cramped four-room company houses in company towns, or "patch towns." A miner who was injured and unable to work ran the risk of eviction unless another family member could take his place at the colliery.

Most mine operators paid their employees in script certificates, instead of real money, which miners and their families could exchange for goods in the company store. This system of earning and spending money under the watchful eye of the company kept mine workers in almost complete dependency on the colliery for which they worked.

Boys as young as seven could work for a colliery, laboring in a breaker, a multi-story building used for cleaning, sizing, and crushing the massive coal slabs brought up from the mines. Breaker boys, as they became known, worked in the upper levels of the breaker, perched directly above chutes of coal that moved quickly under their feet. They had to pick through the coal in search of rocks, slate, and other waste materials that couldn't be burned. Working 10 to12 hours per day for a few cents an hour, they suffered from severe back pain from the hours they spent sitting, as well as damage done to their hands from sifting through racing piles of sharp coal pieces. Boys were also victims of crippling or fatal injuries that occurred while working too closely to the heavy machinery.

While the breaker boys sorted the crushed coal, their older brothers and fathers worked deep in the mines. Teenagers, who began as breaker boys, eventually graduated to "mule boys," door keepers called "nippers, and "spraggers," who controlled the speed of the mine carts. In time, with the proper training and certification, they could move up the labor ladder to become miners.

Though miners received better pay than simple laborers, they faced worse hazards. Mines were constantly in danger of cave-ins or floods, if the mine had been built under a river. Coal needed to be dynamited from the walls of a mine and dangers from black powder and other explosive materials were a constant threat. After years of inhaling coal dust, many miners contracted

pneumoconiosis, commonly known as "black lung disease," due to the dust being permanently embedded in their lungs. Plus the daily strains of their work–backbreaking labor, long hours, and little pay–eventually took their toll. A typical day for the approximately 156,000 miners working in the early 20th century began at sunrise and lasted until the last family member had gone to bed.

By then, one in four residents of the region had either come from another country, or could trace their heritage back to someone who had emigrated to the United States.

Following the end of World War I in 1918, the ease and availability of oil and natural gas began to overshadow the need for coal. Collieries began to close and miners soon found themselves out of work. The Great Depression made things worse as even more mines shut down. Mining disasters, such as happened at the Knox Mine in 1959, made many realize that mining was no longer worth the cost in money or human life. So by the late 1960s, the anthracite industry that had dominated Northeastern Pennsylvania for years had mostly disappeared.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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