The Black Land

Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region

From an area of a bit more than 1,400 square miles in Northeastern Pennsylvania came the power that fueled the industrial age in America. Anthracite has been taken from the ground for more than two hundred years. It broke the dependency on overseas coal and manufacturing, promoted the building of the first canals and railroads, and initiated the birth of large companies with great economic and political power.

At its peak, America’s first gigantic industry was mining 100 million tons each year with over 180,000 people employed. The coal companies formed the United States’ first cartel and executed the first price fixing. Often, they had their own employee housing and stores. Some hired their own police force.

The coal industry dominated all aspects of life in this region. The social fabric was sewn with the layers of immigrants seeking work in the mines. They unionized and fought the companies in the most dangerous occupation of the day.

These photographs are an interpretation of the anthracite region and its history. Each photograph represents a part of the flavor of what is the coal region of Pennsylvania. Each picture has history behind it and alludes to a piece of the total story.

“One Hook Per Man”

Shamokin, PA

“The wash house is a suitable structure on the surface, as required by the Anthracite Mine Law, wherein the men employed in the mine can change their clothing before entering the mine, and can wash themselves and change their clothing on returning therefrom.”
– Surface Arrangements at Anthracite Mines, 1907

Shrine

Byrnesville, PA

A victim of the Centralia mine fire, the last home in Byrnesville was demolished in 1996. This shrine is the final remaining structure.

Backyard Coal Breaker

Shamokin, PA

In the depression year of 1933, 20,000 men were operating illegal “bootleg” mines then selling the coal door to door in towns and cities. In defending these bootleg operations, they were known to have dynamited coal company steam shovels and shot police horses.

John Siney’s Grave

Saint Clair, PA

In 1868 John Siney formed the first functional union for coal miners, The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. The union was destroyed in The Long Strike of 1875 when it challenged Reading Anthracite, one of the largest companies of its day.

“Pray” – Mine Building

Harwood, PA

“Coal was king, and all the people in the coal region were his worshippers.”
– History of Schuylkill County, 1881

Wooden Pipe

Jeddo, PA

As anthracite mines were below the water table, it was necessary to remove 5 to 10 tons of it for each ton of coal. Wood pipes were used because they did not degrade from the acidic water.

Mine Fire Exhaust

Centralia, PA

“By the spring of 1965, from the edge of town, Centralia citizens could see an unearthly glow at night over the pit excavated during the third state project.”
– Unseen Danger, David Dekok

Haunted Grotto

Heckscherville, PA

The early days in the struggle for unionization in the Coal Region were bloody. Behind this grotto, a Garment Union organizer was assassinated by company hirelings. Her apparition has been seen at night.

Hopper Car

Locust Summit, PA

“The gloom and dreary aspects of decay and ruin everywhere meets the eye and saddens the heart…It can afford you no satisfaction to look upon the grand old mountains and picturesque gorges and valleys that surround you for they are strewn with the fragments and ruins of a great trade.”
– Eli Bowen, 1862

Coal Breaker Rollers

Locust Summit, PA

“At least if there’s a war, they won’t bomb us. The planes will look down and think we’ve already been bombed.”
– Darryl Ponicsan, Andoshen, PA

Mine Waste and Cloud

Beaver Brook, PA

There are currently 180,000 acres of mine wasteland in Pennsylvania holding over 2 billion tons of waste coal.

Mahanoy Plane Engine House

Frackville, PA

Built to hoist coal cars over the Frackville Mountain to the rail terminals in St. Clair, the Mahanoy Plane Engine House was considered one of the greatest sights of the anthracite fields. It was visited every year by thousands of sightseers. Its steam engines were the second largest in the world, exceeded only by those operating the Panama Canal. The nine sets of boilers required 150,000 gallons of water and 125 tons of coal each day. The last car went up the plane on February 27, 1932.

Abandoned Church

Excelsior, PA

Church formed the core of society in the mining communities. Priests conducted English and citizenship classes there. Festivals and other social functions were coordinated through the church. The buildings themselves were often built with volunteer labor.

Miner’s Homes

Mahanoy City, PA

“… the attention of the Commission was called to a few houses in which miners or mine workers dwelt which were not fit to be called habitations of men…”
– Report of the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission, 1903

Coal Brook Power House

Carbondale, PA

Pennsylvania Anthracite Production 2013 = 2,058,000 tons
Pennsylvania Anthracite Production 1917 = 100,445,299 tons

Locust Summit Breaker

Locust Summit, PA

In the 1930’s, the Locust Summit breaker was the largest in the world. In 1911, the National Child Labor Committee photographer Lewis Hine, was often unable to photograph inside breakers because the coal dust was so thick.

Mine Entrance

Off the Side of a Road, PA

There are an estimated 1000 open portals and vertical shafts in Pennsylvania.

House of God

Centralia, PA

“Hunger has conquered the miner, poverty the operator. Both have yielded and both have helped to lay the basis for future unhappiness.”
– Engineering and Mining Journal, August 1870

Exposed Mine Shaft

Locust Summit, PA

Strip mining, having replaced deep mining, often exposes old workings. This shaft was once underground.

Gangway

Lansford, PA

The need for roof supports caused the land to be deforested. Miners would listen to creaking timbers as a warning of possible roof collapse.

Hereditament

The architecture of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region illustrates the economic and social history the of the area. The boom years when coal was king financed construction of ornate buildings, both residential and commercial, mainly located at towns’ centers. Churches, still standing from the late 1800’s, reflect the ethnic and religious roots of the waves of immigrants who came to labor in the mines. Firehouses became social centers for these diverse cultural groups. The decline of the coal industry is evident in the faces of the abandoned or repurposed factories, mills, and store fronts.

The structures stand proud, as if they remember the years of prosperous, tight knit community, but are saddened by those memories fading in the current economic challenges that the area faces. Companies bankrupt, churches close, homes abandoned but the municipalities often cannot fund the removal of these decaying properties.

Transformations

“At least if there’s a war, they won’t bomb us. The planes will look down and think we’ve already been bombed.”
— Darryl Ponicsan, Andoshen, PA
“ the gloom and dreary aspects of decay and ruin everywhere meets the eye and saddens the heart…It can afford you no satisfaction to look upon the grand old mountains and picturesque gorges and valleys that surround you for they are strewn with the fragments and ruins of a great trade.”
— Coal and the Coal Trade, Eli Bowen, 1862
The economic collapse of the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania is unmistakable. The natural landscape is scarred. Mammoth open pits where coal was excavated by huge mechanical shovels; abandoned breakers and underground mines; man-made mountains of culm, the refuse of the mines, dotted with the hearty but stunted birches that are all that manages to survive on this rugged landscape… All contribute to the region’s look of desolation.
— The Face of Decline, Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht

Near Tuscarora

West of Tamaqua

Cross

Gilberton

Portal

Snow and Strippings

Snow Scene

Near Shenandoah ll

Pottsville

Frackville

Gilberton lll

Juliette Fashions

United Wire Works