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Unless you're a truck driver, have family there, or happen to be a guest of the Commonwealth, you'd probably never heard of Schuylkill County, PA until recently. Then this guy, Mark Kessler, came along. The Police-Chief-For-Now of Gilberton, a town of about 750 citizens, has Schuylkill County on the map to stay, and not in a good way. This ongoing story is personal to me, because I grew up in Schuylkill County.

This diary is the first promised followup to my comments and the conversation they generated here. I say first because it's almost impossible to explain what makes the area tick politically without a nod to history. In this installment I'll cover the rise of the anthracite coal industry in the 19th and early 20th century.

 For a quick, irreverent tour of Schuylkill County, these guys nailed it. They're only exaggerating the accent slightly. Follow me below the slow-burning embers for more.

Who built all these little towns in the rolling hills of East Central Pennsylvania, and why? Who lived there, why did they settle there, and what did they do for a living? The answer to all of the above comes back to one word: coal. Specifically, anthracite coal.

Anthracite (Greek aνθρακίτης (anthrakítes), "coal-like," from άνθραξ (ánthrax), coal)[1] is a hard, compact variety of mineral coal that has a high luster. It has the highest carbon content, the fewest impurities, and the highest calorific content of all types of coals, which also include bituminous coal and lignite.

Anthracite is the most metamorphosed type of coal (but still represents low-grade metamorphism), in which the carbon content is between 92.1% and 98%.[2][3] The term is applied to those varieties of coal which do not give off tarry or other hydrocarbon vapours when heated below their point of ignition. Anthracite ignites with difficulty and burns with a short, blue, and smokeless flame.

Schuykill County is known as the "heart of the anthracite coal region," or simply coal region.
Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Region. Schuylkill County is the black gold nugget in the middle.
The Coal Region is a term used to refer to an area of Northeastern Pennsylvania in the central Appalachian Mountains comprising Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Carbon, Schuylkill, Northumberland, and the extreme northeast corner of Dauphin counties.

The region's population was 890,121 people as of the most recent census. Many of the place names in the region are from the Delaware Indians or Lenapes and Susquehanna native American Indians. The region is home to the largest known deposits of anthracite coal found in the Americas, with an estimated reserve of seven billion short tons (PA DEP Website). It is these deposits that provide the region with its nickname.

Anthracite coal fields, source I'll explain the star a in a moment.

According to legend, a hunter named Necho Allen discovered anthracite coal in 1790 near Pottsville, PA, now the Schuylkill County seat. He

... fell asleep at the base of the Broad Mountain, and woke to the sight of a large fire; his campfire had ignited an outcropping of coal. By 1795 an anthracite-fired iron furnace was established on the Schuylkill River.
It's plausible, given what happened to the nearby town of Centralia after a trash fire in 1962 ignited a vein of anthracite that burns to this day. The documentary "The Town That Was" (2007), available on, tells the story. My grandpa worked in nearby Mt. Carmel and I remember driving through Centralia with him in the 70's. "See this town?" he'd ask. "It won't be here when you grow up. It's on fire, you just can't see it yet."

As always, he was right.

In 1791, another hunter stumbled upon a vein of anthracite near what is now Summit Hill, PA. That site is roughly in the center of the star on the coal field map above. I was born in Hazleton, southern Luzerne County, at noon on the star.

The origin of Pennsylvania's role as the world's leading producer of anthracite coal is linked to the story of ne'er-do-well Philip Ginter (often spelled Ginder). His "discovery" of the first anthracite in Pennsylvania's great eastern coal field - the world's largest deposit - remains one of those historical events that lies somewhere between fact and folklore.

According to a story that originated in the Mahoning Valley, Ginter and his young family were living in "a rough cabin" in the woods around Sharp (later Mauch Chunk) Mountain in the Panther Valley. Struggling to survive "by the proceeds of his rifle," the Ginters were without food and growing desperate when one rainy day in the early 1790s Philip "stumbled against something" curious that turned out to be "stone coal" or anthracite. Ginter had accidentally hit upon a tremendous deposit of hard coal that stretched over seventy miles to the west, a deposit that would help fuel Pennsylvania's industrial revolution.

Philip Ginter memorial, Ludlow Park, Summit Hill, PA
The discovery of anthracite coal coincided with the industrial revolution and its power-hungry factories. Demand grew steadily into the 1820's from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City. The challenge was getting the coal to market. In 1827, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company built the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway
Switchback gravity railway, Mauch Chunk, PA. Year unknown.
The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway or Mauch Chunk & Summit Hill Railway, was built in 1827 by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (LC&N) and the second operational United States railroad — was a 18 miles (29.0 km) 'Loop Route' (9 mile (14 km) one way, and one way travel) begun as a gravity railroad that connected Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) and Summit Hill, PA servicing the site of one of the earliest anthracite mines in Pennsylvania with Freight and Passenger services. The railroad became an early American tourist attraction and is considered as the world's first Roller Coaster, a role it would keep and satisfy with tourists for over four decades after it was abandoned as a primary freight railroad.
Another local landmark was born in the 1820's when
The German brewer David Gottlob Jüngling immigrated to the United States in 1823 from Aldingen, a suburb of Stuttgart, in the Kingdom of Württemberg. He anglicized his surname from Jüngling to Yuengling and began the "Eagle Brewery" on Center Street in Pottsville in 1829.
Yuengling is recognized today as America's Oldest Brewer, and it's seriously good beer. Here's how good:
President Barack Obama has stated that Yuengling is his favorite beer.[19] On Friday, March 19, 2010, President Obama sent a case of Yuengling to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper along with a case of Molson Canadian to cover a friendly wager on the outcome of the 2010 Winter Olympics ice hockey final.[20] The beer was delivered by US Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, who delivered it while wearing a Canadian national team hockey jersey as part of the bet.
Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, the coal industry's dominance grew as the transportation infrastructure advanced.
By the Civil War era, coal was king in the United States. Success and prosperity, however, were not shared by all in the anthracite region. The new and often rough-hewn coal communities that sprouted up during the anthracite boom became rigidly defined places, where elite and often arrogant coal operators built magnificent Victorian mansions while their immigrant laborers lived in overcrowded, company-owned "patch towns." Waves of European families arrived to live and work in these isolated company towns: first the German and Welsh, then the Irish, and later, the Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian. Despite deplorable living conditions and discrimination directed at them from established groups, they created vibrant ethnic cultures that built churches, formed clubs and aided each other in times of need.
Conditions in the mines were horrific, and child labor widespread, often in the form of "breaker boys"
Breaker boys, Pottsville, PA, 1884.
22,000 coal miners worked in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. 5,500 of these were children between the ages of seven and sixteen years,[17] who earned between one and three dollars a week separating slate from the coal. Injured miners, or those too old to work at the face, were assigned to picking slate at the "breakers" where the coal was crushed into a manageable size. Thus, many of the elderly miners finished their mining days as they had begun in their youth.[18] The miners lived a life of "bitter, terrible struggle".[19]
By the 1850's, an Irish labor organization called the Molly Maguires was re-organizing in the coal region.
Molly Maguire was, supposedly, the leader of riots in Ireland against exploitative English landowners during the 1840s. In the 1850s, Irish coal miners brought the organization with them when they crossed the ocean to work in the anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania. Conditions were terrible in the Pennsylvania mines - safety regulations were non-existent or neglected; breaker boys as young as six worked picking slate; families lived in poor company-owned houses, and were forced to shop at company stores; nothing except a few dollars compensated those injured or the families of those killed in this dangerous trade; and foremen frequently abused workers or undervalued the quantity of coal mined, which determined their wages.
The Mollies were infiltrated by a Pinkerton detective, leading to multiple charges and the execution of ten Mollies by hanging. This remains the largest mass execution in Pennsylvania history.
Members of the "Mollies" were accused of murder, arson, kidnapping and other crimes, in part based on allegations by Franklin B. Gowen and the testimony of a Pinkerton detective, James McParland (also known as James McParlan), a native of County Armagh, Ireland. Fellow prisoners testified against the defendants, who were arrested by the Coal and Iron Police, who served Gowen, who acted as a prosecutor in some of the trials.[1]
The story of the Molly Maguires was dramatized in the 1970 film starring Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Samantha Eggar.

Yet more blood would be shed in 1897.

After close to two decades of comparative quiet, labor tensions in Pennsylvania's anthracite coal fields were again heating up. In the summer of 1897, the Hazelton Evening Standard in Luzerne County offered coal operators a blunt editorial warning: "The day of the slave driver is past and the once ignorant foreigner will no longer tolerate it."

Anthracite country had always drawn immigrants. By the 1890s, the coal fields were heavily populated by southern and eastern Europeans, who had come in hopes of claiming some portion of the American Dream. Pennsylvanians exhibited mixed feelings about these new arrivals. Newspapers celebrated the magnetic power of the state's industrial boom, but nativism, or anti-immigrant sentiment, was widespread against "foreigners" who refused to accept passively the low wages, dangerous work, and miserable living arrangements offered them by their employers.

In the summer of 1897, a wave of spontaneous protests, organized by foreign-born workers, rippled through area mines. On the afternoon of September 10, some 400 immigrant miners, most of them eastern Europeans, raised an American flag and marched from Harwood towards the tiny patch town of Lattimer, where they hoped to convince Italian miners there to join the strike. On the outskirts of town they were met by Luzerne County Sheriff James L. Martin and 150 recently deputized Coal and Iron Police.

Its aftershocks would echo through history.
The Lattimer Massacre was the violent deaths of 19 unarmed striking immigrant anthracite coal miners at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1897.[1][2] The miners, mostly of Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian and German ethnicity, were shot and killed by a Luzerne County sheriff's posse. Scores more workers were wounded.[3] The Lattimer massacre was a turning point in the history of the United Mine Workers (UMW).[4]
Labor unrest continued with a series of strikes, leading to the Coal Strike of 1902, notable in history for emphasis added.
The Coal Strike of 1902, also known as the Anthracite Coal Strike,[1][2] was a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania. Miners were on strike asking for higher wages, shorter workdays and the recognition of their union. The strike threatened to shut down the winter fuel supply to all major cities (homes and apartments were heated with anthracite or "hard" coal because it had higher heat value and less smoke than "soft" or bituminous coal). President Theodore Roosevelt became involved and set up a fact-finding commission that suspended the strike. The strike never resumed, as the miners received more pay for fewer hours; the owners got a higher price for coal, and did not recognize the trade union as a bargaining agent. It was the first labor episode in which the federal government intervened as a neutral arbitrator.
President Theodore Roosevelt's involvement was swift and personal.
As the strike continued into October, and the winter months rapidly approached, citizens were becoming very concerned about a possible coal shortage during the winter. President Theodore Roosevelt was also becoming concerned and decided to take unprecedented action. President Roosevelt invited representatives of the United Mine Workers and coal operators to the White House on October 3, 1902 becoming the first president to personally intervene in a labor dispute (Coal Strike Conference 1902). President Roosevelt reiterated the concerns of the American public that was being affected by the shortage in coal (Anthracite Coal Strike). The UMW President, John Mitchell, agreed to call off the strike if a tribunal of presidential representatives, UMW representatives, and coal operators could be assigned to continue to deal with the issues of the strike, like union recognition. Mitchell also asked for an immediate small increase to miners' wages until the tribunal had time to work out an agreement. The public saw the efforts of President Mitchell to be noble and fair (Coal Strike Conference 1902). The coal operators did not see this agreement as fair and once again refused to deal with the United Mine Workers Union, despite the pleas of President Roosevelt.

After the meeting with the President and the coal operators, John Mitchell called the coal miners together at a mass meeting. He discussed with the miners the concerns of the American public that President Roosevelt had raised during their discussions. Mitchell debated with the coal miners whether they should temporarily return to work in order to prevent a coal shortage during the cold winter months. The coal miners, however, voted almost unanimously to continue the strike no matter what the cost. They did not want to bow to political pressure, like during the strike of 1900, and suffer another defeat (Anthracite Coal Strike). Seeing that neither side was willing to negotiate or back down, President Roosevelt had to take serious action again. He threatened to send military forces to take over and operate the anthracite mines. If this happened, coal operators would lose money, as well as coal miners. Both sides were now willing to try to reach a compromise.

President Roosevelt appointed a commission to arbitrate the negotiations between the coal operators and the coal miners (After the Anthracite Strike 1902). Representatives from both sides of the strike met with the commission and agreed to follow their recommendations for ending the strike. On October 23, 1902 the coal miners went back to work, and the nation breathed a deep sigh of relief. The coal miners achieved a ten percent wage increase and a reduction in the hours of the work day. Once again, however, the union was not recognized in the agreement as the bargaining agent for the coal miners (After the Anthracite Strike 1902).

Samuel Gompers would write of the 1902 strike:
Samuel Gompers, AFL-CIO president 1886-1894 and 1895-1924
Several times I have been asked what in my opinion was the most important single incident in the labor movement in the United States and I have invariably replied: the strike of the anthracite miners in Pennsylvania ... from then on the miners became not merely human machines to produce coal but men and citizens.... The strike was evidence of the effectiveness of trade unions ....54
The victory in the anthracite coalfields breathed new life into the American labor movement.55 It strengthened moderate labor leaders and progressive businessmen who championed negotiations as a way to labor peace. It enhanced the reputation of President Theodore Roosevelt. Sometimes overlooked, however, is the change the conflict made in the role of the Federal Government in important national strikes.
The Anthracite Coal Commission, toward the end of its report, summarized in a cautious way the responsibility of the National Government in "cases where great public interests are at stake." The people had "the right . . . to know the facts, and so be able to fix the responsibility. In order to do this, power must be given the authorized representatives of the people to act for them by conducting a thorough investigation."56
The settlement of the 1902 strike, though far from ideal, was hailed as a step forward in mining industry labor relations.
The Commission's findings seemed to split the differences between mineworkers and mine owners. The miners asked for 20-percent wage increases, and most were given a 10-percent increase. The miners had asked for an 8-hour day and were awarded a 9-hour day instead of the standard 10 hours then prevailing.52 The operators refused to recognize the United Mine Workers union. But Mitchell believed that he had won de facto recognition and wrote that the "most important feature of the award" was the creation of a six-man arbitration board to settle disputes that could not be worked out with mine officials. The employees selected three members and the employers three members.
The aftermath of the strike was seen as a victory for organized labor.
This strike was successfully mediated through the intervention of the federal government, which strove to provide a "Square Deal"—which Roosevelt took as the motto for his administration—to both sides. The settlement was an important step in the Progressive era reforms of the decade that followed. There were no more major coal strikes until the 1920s.[16]
My ancestors arrived at Ellis Island from 1909-11 and settled in Lansford, which is adjacent to Summit Hill. In 1914, employment in the anthracite coal fields peaked at 180,000 workers. 1917 marked the maximum annual production of anthracite coal at over 100 million tons. That same year, my grandfather was born. His generation would see the gradual decline of the anthracite industry and the coal region economy, which is where I will pick up with the next installment.

I hope this has been interesting and informative -- I hadn't planned on it being such an opus, but it was fun to write! I'll leave you with my favorite coal region nostalgia site, Until next time ...

Originally posted to SteelerGrrl on Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 05:02 PM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

     I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine.     -- Kurt Vonnegut

    by SteelerGrrl on Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 05:02:06 PM PDT

  •  this was also fun to read (4+ / 0-)

    thank you very much.

  •  There are tours (5+ / 0-)

    of the jail where the Molly MaGuires were held, and of a mine. My brother has done both and said they are well worth the time. Our grandfather was a coal miner from that area. (He died as the result of an accident in the mine when our mother was an infant.) Very nice diary, thanks.

    Oh for crying out loud!

    by 4mygirls on Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 05:51:12 PM PDT

    •  I've done the jail tour (0+ / 0-)

      and this mine tour and museum in Lansford. Very moving experience.

      Also worth the trip is a tour of the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville. I've done that one more (hic) times than I can count :D Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes! No viewing windows here, you'll be getting up close and personal with the beer. Also bring ID for samples at the end -- IIRC they card everyone.

       I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine.     -- Kurt Vonnegut

      by SteelerGrrl on Mon Sep 23, 2013 at 01:55:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This reminded me of my own family (6+ / 0-)

    Who settled in Indiana County Pa.  My great grandfather was a principal technical person in the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company.  My grandfather was the general manager for the same company.  

    It was a nasty and dirty business and many of the coal towns in Indiana County and the surrounding counties were owned by the R & P Coal Company.  My father was born in the company town of Yatesboro, Pa. and the company town of Margaret was named after my great grandmother.  Both towns are simply places that no longer exist on the maps

    As a child, I remember my grandfather driving us through some of those towns and along the back roads of the area.  He was very proud of the R & P Coal Company, but what I saw were the grey towns in the coal country that all looked alike. That was because they were originally company towns.  And I was shocked even at a young age to see areas of extreme poverty in some of the back woods areas.  I can remember seeing poor people who lived in abandoned coke ovens and wondering how this could be.

    Bituminous coal is a part of my family's heritage, but I am glad that no one in my family has been associated with coal in over two generations.  

    "I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~ Dr. Cornel West speaking to Occupy Tallahassee on January 18, 2012

    by gulfgal98 on Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 06:11:38 PM PDT

  •  well done. (3+ / 0-)

    from start to finish.
    you put me right there.
    we manage to continue being reliant on 'stuff' for 'fuel,' and wrong each time on our choice. makes for somber reflection. (unless we return mules to their rightful place... and ensure their admiration.)

    @Hugh: There is no Article II power which says the Executive can violate the Constitution. * Addington's perpwalk? TRAILHEAD of accountability for Bush-2 Crimes.

    by greenbird on Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 09:26:01 PM PDT

    •  Thanks so much (0+ / 0-)

      for reading and commenting. Just pulling all this info together was a reflective experience for me. I learned a lot too!

       I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine.     -- Kurt Vonnegut

      by SteelerGrrl on Mon Sep 23, 2013 at 02:15:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Yuengling.... (0+ / 0-)

    We shouldn't go without noting that there is an informal boycott of Yuengling beer because of the current owner's union busting of the Teamsters and his financial and rhetorical support for Penn, Republicans who want to bring a Right to Work (for less) law to the state.

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