Photographer of the Mines: Pottsville’s George Bretz

First in a series about the photographer and his work

1884: Arnaux Electric Company dynamo inside Shenandoah’s Kohinoor mine. This produced electricity to illuminate the lamps needed for George Bretz’s photography experiment.

The George Bretz Gallery on the southwest corner of Center & Market Streets in Pottsville, PA.

We have shared a number of heartbreaking photographs of breaker boys taken by visitors to the Anthracite Region on our Facebook page and we even did an initial blog post on such an image. Binding to our cultural memory, these images have been valuable to understanding what the lives of mining families were like.

Photos taken by another photographer, more local in origin, have contributed to the visual history of the Anthracite Region: George M. Bretz, (1842-1895) had his studio in Pottsville, PA and he specialized in photography mining scenes.

Approached by the Smithsonian Institution to photograph anthracite miners at work inside the mines, Bretz knew that long camera shutter speeds required above ground in normal light needed to be longer in the darkness of a coal mine. Therefore, he decided to bring more light with him. Traveling to Shenandoah, PA in 1884, with a temporary electrical set-up (see photo at top), he brought a dynamo to generate the electricity needed to power lights that had never before been used underground. Unsure of whether this technique would work or of associated dangers, Bretz took the lights inside the Kohinoor Colliery mine.

The anticipation must have been great as Bretz developed the photo plates. The end results were reviewed  in the 1885 edition of the Annual Report of the Secretary of Internal Affairs of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: “[T]he experiment was a perfect success, and marks a new era in the history of photographing mining views.”

Shown below are nine of the photos taken at the Kohinoor mine, and from a visit to the Indian Ridge Colliery. Even the slightest body movement resulted in some blurring.

Face of breast, three miners at work.

Indian Ridge Colliery, breast No.1.

Coal breaker, Kohinoor.

Gangway from breast No.39.

Lift Operator, Kohinoor Mine.

Car lift attended by two miners.

Car lift and miners.

Interior of Kohinoor mine.

Face of breast with miner using patent drill.

Sadly, the George M. Bretz Photography Studio burned on November 13, 1892, (article below), and thousands of his negatives were destroyed. Luckily, the Smithsonian copies of the Shenandoah underground photographs have survived.

November 14, 1892 article from the Shenandoah PA Evening Herald.

It was front page news, (article below), when Bretz passed away on the 12th of April, 1895 at age 53. The Shenandoah Evening Herald called him “one of the leading photographers of the state.”

George M. Bretz obituary from the Shenandoah PA Evening Herald. April 13, 1895

Photographer George Bretz in 1875.



Geller, Kathryn. “Anthracite Museum Displays Work of Molly Maguires Photographer.” The Titusville Herald [Titusville, PA] 23 March 1992: Page 7. Print.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Digital Collection.


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