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Breaker Boys: Breaking Childhoods

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

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

breaker boys; lewis hine

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.”

Anthracite Heritage Conference to be held Saturday, May 13, 2017, in Scranton

Huber Breaker, Ashley

The Huber Breaker once stood in Ashley, PA (image courtesy of

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?”
  •  Janet Blaum, Attorney-at-Law, “Black Lung: Legal Perspectives.”
  •  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

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

Anthracite Coal Region linked to in New York Times

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by Melissa R. Meade

New York Times reporter Michael Cooper linked to our Anthracite Coal Region webpage on which we reported about the work of local Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania artist Bob McCormick. The article is in the Arts section of the April 5  New York Times.

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.

Mining History Month

1-2-47d-25-explorepahistory-a0b6x8-a_349A group of anthracite miners before their work day begins. (Source:

Schedule of Events, January 2017

Contact Name: Prof. Bob Wolensky, Anthracite Heritage Foundation and King’s College

Contact Phone: 715 252 6742; email:

 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.


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, August 1963;” 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 ProgramThe Annual 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 ProgramPresenter: 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 Café Miner’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 or at the Café

Plymouth’s Gaylord Mine Disaster

We thank Steve Konrad for sharing this story and photo with us.
Gaylord Breaker, Plymouth Meeting

Recently, Steve Konrad from the Plymouth Historical Society in the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania submitted some new photos to add to a previous post he submitted.

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!”

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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.”

Gaylord site now

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?

Coal Region: A Local Artist

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 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

Robert shared the following images of his work: