Both of my grandfathers were breaker boys and coal miners. My dziadzi’s stories and the life I experienced in the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania have influenced the directions my life has taken. It is the contention of this project that the stories of breaker boys and the lives of coal miners’ families need to be told and retold often.
Lewis Hine, sociologist and photographer, took many photos of “Breaker Boys.” A breaker boy was child laborer at the coal-mine whose job it was to separate impurities such as rock, slate, wood, sulfur, ash, clay, and soil from the coal using his bare hands in the coal breaker. He did this work while seated over wooden seats and conveyer belts. The boys stopped the coal to pick out the impurities by pushing their boots into the stream of coal flowing at them as it passed to the next breaker boy.
The featured video comes from America and Lewis Hine, (1984). It shows remarkable and rare footage of breaker boys doing dangerous jobs in coal mines and features pieces of an oral history of a former breaker boy.
Nearly all coal breaking facilities were labor-intensive, with breaker boys between the ages of 8 and 12. Although breaker boys were primarily children, elderly coal miners who could no longer work in the mines because of age, disease, or accident were also employed this way.
Breaker boys were required to work without gloves so that they could better handle the coal and manually filter out its impurities. The impurities like slate were sharp and breaker boys often left work with their fingers cut and bleeding. They lost fingers from the rapidly moving conveyor belts. Others lost feet, hands, arms, and legs as they moved among the machinery and became caught under conveyor belts or in gears. Many were crushed to death, their bodies retrieved from the gears of the machinery by supervisors only at the end of the workday
The image at the top features Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Company while the first photo within the text shows breaker boys at labor. The third photo is an 18-year old boy from Wilkes-Barre named Neil Gallagher. He worked at the Pennsylvania Coal Mine starting at eleven years old. His leg was amputated twice and he received no compensation from the coal company.
In relationship to these sets of photos Hine noted, “The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrates the utmost recesses of the boy’s lungs. A kind of slave driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience.”
The Huber Breaker once stood in Ashley, PA (image courtesy of https://lattimerarchaeology.wordpress.com)
For Immediate Release
Media contact: Bode Morin, 570-963-4804
May 11, 2017
Anthracite Heritage Conference to be held Saturday, May 13, 2017, in Scranton
Scranton — On Saturday, May 13, 2017, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum will host 6th Biennial Anthracite Heritage Conference. The conference is intended to encourage public interest in, and knowledge about, the Anthracite Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Seven presenters will examine a range of topics associated with the Anthracite Region:
Richard G. Healey, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Portsmouth, England, “Where Have All the Railroaders Gone?”
Mike Korb, Board Member, Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces Associates, “The Reclamation of McDade Park, the Preservation of the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour, and the Development of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.”
Mary Kay Kimelewski, Adjunct Faculty, Misericordia University, “The 1943 Anthracite Coal Strike.”
Melissa R. Meade, Doctoral Candidate, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University and Founder and Director of the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania Digital Project, “In the Shadow of ‘King Coal’: Media and Memories of the Anthracite Coal Region.”
Shaunna Barnhart, Director, Place Studies Program, Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment, Bucknell University, “Bucknell’s Coal Region Field Station: University-Community Partnership for Anthracite Community Studies and Revitalization.”
Robert P. Wolensky, Adjunct Professor of History, King’s College, “Studying and Preserving Anthracite Heritage: Closing Comments.”
The conference fee is $25 per person and includes morning and afternoon refreshments, as well as lunch. Student and museum member discounts are available.
The Conference Planning Committee Members include Chester Kulesa, Bode Morin, F. Charles Petrillo, and Robert P. Wolensky.
The program is supported, in part, by a Lackawanna County Arts and Culture grant, a program of Lackawanna County Commissioners Patrick O’Malley, Jerry Notarianni and Laureen A. Cummings, as well as Lehigh Anthracite Coal, LLC, Richard “Rusty” Taylor, President; the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation; and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, Pennsylvania Anthracite Section.
The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum is located in McDade Park, off Keyser Avenue, in Scranton (Exits 182 or 191-B off I-81, and Exit 122, Keyser Avenue, from I-476). The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and Sunday, 12 noon to 5 pm. For more information or directions, call (570) 963-4804 or visitwww.anthracitemuseum.org
The Anthracite Heritage Museum is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in partnership with the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces Associates. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodations to visit the Museum should call the Museum at 570-963-4804, in advance to discuss their needs. Pennsylvania TDD relay service is available at (800) 654-5984.
The Anthracite Heritage Museum is one of 25 historic sites and museums administered by Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as part of the Pennsylvania Trails of History®. For more information, visit www.PATrailsofHistory.com
Bob grew up in the same coal patch town as my grandmother in Schuylkill County called Big Mine Run. We spoke about this connection when we had a chance meeting at composer Julia Wolfe’s performance of Anthracite Fields at the Weis Center at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA on Saturday, April 1. Mr. McCormick, the grandson of a coal miner and a railway man, said Ms. Wolfe’s compositions “elevated our ancestors travails to a universal height.” Mr. McCormick also exhibited seven pieces of his art at Ms. Wolfe’s more recent Rider University, Trenton, NJ performances of Anthracite Fields on April 21 and 22.
Julia Wolfe’s haunting and masterful contemporary piece indeed honors our anthracite coal-mining ancestors including those who were child laborers called “breaker boys.” Ms. Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize for this piece and has since won a MacArthur Genius Grant. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Wolfe that day in Lewisburg. The composer told me that she is particularly touched to bring the work back to Pennsylvania amongst the people to whom it means the most because at each performance she meets people with connections to the mines.
A regional observance of Mining History Month will take place between January 7-29, 2017, at programs in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Pittston, Plymouth, Dallas, Peckville, and Ashley. The annual event focuses on the anthracite industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania, including the mineworkers, their families, and communities.
The programs are sponsored by the Anthracite Heritage Museum, the Anthracite Heritage Foundation, King’s College, Wilkes University, Misericordia University, the Boy Scouts of America-Northeastern Council, the Greater Pittston Historical Society, the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, the Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Wyoming Seminary Lower School, the Anthracite Café, the Anthracite Living History Group, and the Knox Mine Disaster Memorial Committee.
The public is cordially invited to attend all events (except the first) free of charge.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS FOR MINING HISTORY MONTH–January 2017
Sat., Jan. 7, 9 am-1 pm Boy Scouts of America: “Mining in Society” Merit Badge Day, Open to Boy Scouts of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Council; (Fourth Floor, Mulligan Science Building, King’s College)
Sun., Jan 8, 7 pm Plymouth Historical Society-Public Program: Presenter: Maxim Furek, “The Sheppton Mine Disaster, August1963;” Moderator: Steve Kondrad; (Plymouth Borough Municipal Building, 162 West Shawnee Ave.), refreshments
Thurs., Jan 12, 7 pm Wyoming Seminary Lower School-Public Program: Presenters: Clark Switzer and Thomas Supey Jr., “Scratching the Surface: A Chapter in the Anthracite Mining History of Northeastern Pennsylvania;” (Cosgrove Room, Pittston Memorial Library, 47 Broad St., Pittston), refreshments
Tues., Jan. 17, 7 pm Huber Breaker Preservation Society-Public Program:Presenters: Documentary filmmakers John Welsh and Alana Mauger of Philadelphia, “Anthracite Region Mine Fires: Exploring One of the Hidden Costs of Mining;” Discussants: Chris Murley and Banks Ries, The Underground Miners; Moderator: Bill Best; (Ashley Fireman’s Park, 160 Ashley Street, Ashley); refreshments
Thurs., Jan. 19, 7 pm King’s College-Public Program, TheAnnual Msgr. John J. Curran Presentation: “For the Least of Them,” A one-act play about the life and times of Msgr. Curran, known as “the labor priest” because of his three-decades of work with the anthracite miners, written by Ken Gordon and acted by Billie Herbert; Introduction by Robert Wolensky, King’s College; (Burke Auditorium, McGowan Business School, 133 No. River Street, Wilkes-Barre), refreshments at 6:30 pm
Fri., Jan 20, 7 pm Wilkes University-Public Program: Presenter: Prof. Christine Patterson, Atlanta, Georgia, “African American Coal Miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania: A Personal Perspective;” Discussant: John Hepp, Dept. of History, Wilkes U.; Moderator: Robert Wolensky, Dept. of History, King’s College; (101 Stark Hall, Wilkes U.)
Sat., Jan. 21, 2 pm Anthracite Heritage Museum-Public Program: “The Knox Mine Disaster Commemoration;” Special tribute for William A. Hastie, the last living Knox Coal Company employee; Bill Hastie video tribute by documentary filmmaker David Brocca of Los Angeles, CA; Erika Funke and Frank Tartella will read Knox disaster-related poetry; (at the Museum, 22 Bald Mt. Road, Scranton); refreshments
Sun., Jan. 22, 10 am St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Pittston: Annual Knox Mine Disaster Memorial Service,10 am, (35 Williams St., Pittston)
Sun., Jan. 22, 11:30 am Public Commemoration of the Knox Mine Disaster: (PHMC Historical Marker on Main Street, Pittston, in front of Baloga Funeral Home)
Sun., Jan. 22, 12 noon Walk to Knox Mine Disaster Site, weather permitting; (gather at Baloga Funeral Home following the Commemoration)
Wed., Jan. 25, 7 pm Misericordia University-Public Program: “Oral History Projects in Northeastern Pennsylvania: The Importance of Stories;” Presenters: Lucia Daley, Ron Faraday, Melissa Meade, Temple University; Noreen O’Connor, Kings College; F. Charles Petrillo, and Mary Policare; Moderator: Jennifer Black, Dept. of History & Government, Misericordia U.; (McGowan Room of the Bevevino Library), refreshments
Thurs., Jan. 26, 7 pm Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania & SIAMO-Italian American Heritage Society-Public Program: Presenter: Robert Wolensky, King’s College, “Italian American Mineworkers in the Northern Anthracite Field, 1896-1936;” Moderators: Stephanie Longo and Maureen Gray; (at the Society’s headquarters, 1100 Main Street, Peckville, PA), refreshments
Sat., Jan. 28, 7 pm Greater Pittston Historical Society-Public Program: “Pittston-area Mining Disasters: A Panel Discussion;” Presenters: Ron Faraday, Eagle Shaft (1871); Robert Wolensky, Knight Shaft (1871); Richard Fitzsimmons, Twin Shaft (1896); and Bryan Glahn, Knox (1959); Moderator: Ed Philbin; (St. John the Evangelist Church basement, 35 Williams St., Pittston), refreshments
Sun., Jan 29, 5 pm The Anthracite CaféMiner’s Dinner: Special Benefit Dinner on behalf of “The Knox Mine Disaster” documentary directed by David Brocca of Los Angeles, CA; Chef/owner Mike Prushinski will serve an authentic Coal Miner’s Dinner; excerpts from the Knox documentary will be shown; tickets for the evening are $22 are available at https://knoxmine.eventbrite.com or at the Café
As many of you know, from time to time I find, read, and record poetry written by local poets about their experiences living in and experiencing the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania for all of us to appreciate. For our last Friday in August 2016, I am including a “Poetry Round Up” of these recordings. Going forward, you can find these poems by searching our page. So far, I have recorded three poems: “Nanticoke: First Day,” by Anton Piotrowski and translated by Edward Sowa; “Playing in the Mines,” by Jay Parini; and “The Piece from Daddy’s Can: Dedicated to Miners’ Children Everywhere,” author unknown.
Do any of these poems speak to your experiences or to those experiences of your family? If so, how?
Steve writes, “I have been doing some additional research on Plymouth’s Gaylord Mine Disaster, that occurred on February 13, 1894. I was aware that six of the thirteen victims were buried at Plymouth’s Shawnee Cemetery and was interested in finding the burial locations of the remaining seven men. I found all of them, after a creative search for their obituaries. Also … the assistant foreman, Thomas H. Picton’s grandfather and three of his sons had perished in an 1844 mine disaster, in Wales. Joseph Picton age 43, James 15, Mark 13 and Joseph 11, were among the 40 men who perished in the Garden Pit Disaster, Landshipping, Pembrokeshire, Wales … I would appreciate it, if you could re-post the February 13, 2015 post with the additional information. I’ve attached a few other images that are relevant to the disaster. Thank you, for all that you do to preserve our anthracite coal-mining heritage!”
The original post back on Friday, February 13th, 2015 read as follows. To that story, we added a newspaper article from The Scranton Tribune of February 14, 1894 along with Steve’s picture (shown at the top).
“This Friday, February 13th will mark the 121st Anniversary of Plymouth’s Gaylord Mine Disaster. On February 13, 1894, thirteen men perished in the Gaylord Mine, near Cherry Street, in Plymouth. The cause of the disaster was a rapid cave in of a portion of the mine. Problems with the stability of the mine roof was known prior to the disaster, but, no one anticipated the extent of a cave in. At the time, the roof (ceiling) of the mine chambers was showing signs of a “squeeze” which means the roof was being pushed down, by the pressure of the ground above. Mine timbering, called props, were being bent and snapping under the incredible pressure. This was an extremely dangerous situation. At that point, the mine company had two choices, halt all work in the mine or continue to work at supporting the roof. After examination, they felt confident that the squeeze could be stabilized, by setting additional, larger props in place.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 13th, Assistant Foreman Thomas Picton and twelve men were busy working deep underground, on supporting the mine roof. Suddenly, without warning, the ground above the mine collapsed. The cave in was so fast, that it was impossible for the men to escape. All thirteen men perished in the violent cave in, which contained an area of over 600 square yards.
During the recovery of the miners bodies, some men were found entombed, standing up, in a running position. On April 6th, the body of the last victim was brought out of the mine, it was Thomas Picton. Thomas and five fellow victims were buried at Plymouth’s Shawnee Cemetery. Their names are: Thomas Leyshon, Thomas Merriman, Thomas Cole, John D. Morris and Daniel W. Morgan. Victims buried at other local cemeteries are: Peter McLaughlin, Michael Welch, Thomas Jones, Richard Davis, James Kingdom, John Hammer and James Olds.
Today, other than some culm and a few stone blocks, little remains of the Gaylord Mine, where these brave men met their fate. Some of you who read this, may be related to those who perished at the Gaylord and many of you had relatives who worked in the mines.”
Did you have relatives that worked in the Gaylord Mine? Does your family have other experiences with mining disasters or accidents that you are willing to share?
We continue to collect and add voices to the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania project to help shape understanding of the history, culture, and media representations of the Greater Anthracite Region. Please make sure your town/area is represented. We invite you to share a picture/pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. You may post them directly to our page at https://www.facebook.com/AnthraciteCoalRegion/ or use the hashtag #MyCoalRegion and your materials will be reposted to our blog and to our Facebook page.
What kind of picture(s) should you post? Well that’s up to you: We want to build a collection of images that tell residents’ stories—past and present of the Anthracite Region. Photos of family, streets, mining, factories, both past and present-day streetscapes, buildings, coal-operations (past and present), churches and synagogues, religious activity, mining equipment, co-generation zones and culm, everyday life, ethnic activities, industry, deindustrialization, and anything else that tells YOUR story of the region.
Our current post is from local artist Robert McCormick. He writes to us the following:
“Hello, out there! I am an artist living and working in the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The first piece shown here – ‘Almost Touching’ – drew inspiration from Girardville-born poet, Harry Humes’ beautiful tribute, ‘My Mother at Evening.’ The second piece, ‘Rust,’ pays homage to the harsh beauty that once characterized our ‘hard-coal’ heritage. I’m currently working on a monograph of my paintings that depict growing up in the region during the 1950’s – 60’s. Look for a release date in the spring of 2017.” #MyCoalRegion
Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. John Mitchell, President of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America), arriving in the coal town. His open four-horse carriage is surrounded by a crowd of breaker boys. The driver of the high front seat is wearing a derby hat. Credit: Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Background Leading Up to the Coal Strike
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) became prominent in the late 1890s after a series of immigrant-led protests. One such protest, the 1897 walkout of adolescent mule drivers, culminated in the Lattimer Massacre in September of 1897. Subsequent strikes in 1898 and 1899 asked for the abolition of company stores, the ability to check scales, and recognition of the union. Yet by 1900 the coal operators still refused to speak with the leader of UMWA, John Mitchell. After 100,000 miners walked out for more than a month, coal operators eventually agreed to a wage increase.
The 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike
Reluctant to have another strike and finally able to meet with coal company leadership, Mitchell was not able to negotiate any more of the miners’ initiatives throughout the remainder of 1901. Apprehensively, he agreed to a temporary suspension of work on May 12, 1902. From Mitchell’s letter to Mother Jones, he writes:
“I have every reason to believe that the strike will be made general and permanent. I am of the opinion that this will be the fiercest struggle in which we have yet engaged. It will be a fight to the end, and our organization will either achieve a great triumph or it will be completely annihilated. Personally I am not quite satisfied with the outlook, as the movement for a strike is strongly antagonized by the [union] officers of the lower District, and of course the success of the strike depends entirely upon all working in harmony and unison.” (Quoted from Miller and Sharpless 1985: 256-257)
The 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike would last six months wherein miners went on strike for better wages, union recognition, and shorter workdays. The strike had a stark economic effect on the region as 140,000 men and boys were not taking part in the economy. Businesses suffered. Banks did not receive deposits. Local society was divided amongst the majority who were workers and supported the strike and the 5,000 mine bosses and clerks who sided with the coal operators. Single men of Slavic origins headed back to their homelands. Others headed to the bituminous fields. The oldest children left the family to try to offer support by heading to the big cities.
Despite these hardships, journalists who came to anthracite towns to observe the strike were surprised at how peaceful the region was. Mitchell and UMWA officials urged the strikers to remain peaceful with Mitchell traveling to each anthracite town to deliver speeches. Donald Miller and Richard Sharpless write: “Mitchell’s passage through the region took on the aspect of a triumphal march. In Shenandoah [PA], he rode with ‘Big John’ Fahy in an open barouche pulled by black horses … escorted by a guard of honor of well-scrubbed breaker boys and led by a brass band. [See image at the top of this article.] Overhead, stretched across Main Street, was a huge banner: ‘Welcome to Our National Pres., Jno. Mitchell.’ Another banner read, ‘We are slaves now but Mitchell will set us free.'”
Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. A scene in the coal mining town on the occasion of a visit by John Mitchell, labor leader. He is shown riding in a four-horse carriage, the driver of which is wearing a derby hat. Two-horse carriages follow. Above the street is a banner reading “Welcome to our National Pres. Jno. Mitchell” Credit: Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Mounting Pressures and Tensions Around “Scabs”
The coal companies guarded the waste piles even more during the strike. Families sent their children to far away banks to try to avoid standoffs with the coal and iron police. Some miners, under the pressures of starvation from the family’s inability to cook without coal, returned to work. These miners faced the wrath of the community either through the threat of violence or public censure for breaking the strike. The label of “scab” was one that no one wanted.
By July 30, 1902 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, the pressures came to a head when a deputy sheriff was escorting two nonunion men to a breaker and they were attacked by 5,000 strikers. The sheriff took shelter in the Reading Railroad where his brother tried to bring him arms. The strikers beat his brother to death. The sheriff got word out to Governor Stone and subsequently, the town was occupied by Pennsylvania National Guard and Philadelphia City Cavalry troops. The order came from Brigadier General Gobin to shoot to kill and investigate afterwards.
Second Troop Calvary Philadelphia City Cavalry marching into Shenandoah, PA. Credit: A Trooper’s Narrative of Service in the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. By Stewart Culin. Published by George W. Jacobs & Company, Philadelphia, PA 1903
Gobin’s entourage didn’t kill anyone, but the presence of the National Guard, along with thousands of coal and iron police—which allegedly included recruits from the lowest members of Philadelphia society—inflamed already existing resentment in the region. These forces were present in addition to at least 1,000 private detectives deployed in the region.
National Guard encampment at Shenandoah, PA. Credit: Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
By fall, President Theodore Roosevelt formed the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission to investigate the problem and hold hearings representing the first time that the federal government would be involved in labor disputes as a neutral arbitrator. When settled by March 1903, the miners received a 10 percent pay increase, yet the union was not recognized as a bargaining agent.
Nowadays, Commonwealth historical markers detailing the strike are dedicated in both Shenandoah and Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Dublin, Thomas and Licht, Walter. 2005. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Miller, Donald L. and Sharpless, Richard E. 1985. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
In previous posts we shared with you two sets of aerial images: the borough of St. Clair, PA and a coal mine at Raven Run, PA. Today we we provide several close-ups showing how Pottsville, PA looked in the 1930s. We enlarged these images from a single aerial photo of Pottsville, PA taken during a 1936 fly-over.
On the left is one of the large cameras used to take these kinds of photos by the Dallin Aerial Survey Company.
This Pottsville, PA photo was taken on May 5th, 1936 looking south over the town. The shadows seem to confirm the time shown on the courthouse clock—it was 1:23pm in Pottsville.
May 5th, 1936. Pottsville, PA
The Courthouse clock shows the early afternoon time. View is from Sanderson Street side of building.
County jail, next to the Courthouse.
The Philadelphia & Reading passenger train station.
Industry along the rails.
N. Centre Street, the wide street on the left half of the image, has midday traffic.
A building foundation under construction can be seen at center left.