Here to return to
A VALE OF ANTHRACITE
IT was with some misgivings that I journeyed to the Lackawanna Valley. I feared the coal country would prove wholly black and forbidding, and the towns dubiously monotonous, and labor conditions sordid and depressing. My first pause was at Scranton, but that is a great business center, and though coal is being mined under and all about it, I preferred to get away to some smaller and more comprehensible places to the northward.
Through the midst of the valley runs the Lackawanna River, a swift, inky stream, whose waters, in this mountain region, are no doubt naturally crystal pure, but are now so stained with coal washings that it might be a veritable stream of Hades. Where there should be yellow sandbars are dubious deposits of black, and the midstream rocks have caught unsightly masses of rotting railroad ties and other rubbish that is due to the presence of a busy and rather irresponsible hive of human industry along the banks. The sky, too, even when it is cloudless, nearly always has a murky, threatening aspect due to the smoke that fills the atmosphere. This smoke comes in part from the numerous breakers at the mouth of the mines, and in part from the engines on the railroad tracks that crisscross the valley in an intricate network. The trains of heavy coal cars, and the lighter trains on the narrow gauge roads from the mines moved hither and thither in apparently hopeless confusion, and wherever I went, the thunder of iron wheels on the tracks was always sounding in my ears.
Very few trees are found in the valley, yet the great stumps that are still to be seen in places where the surface has not been torn up show that the land was heavily wooded at no very remote time. If a chestnut tree or a beech has by any chance been spared it is a treasure trove to the youngsters, and when the nuts ripen they assail it with sticks, and climb up and shake the branches. They feast on the nuts as they gather them, for the trees are too few, and the boys too many to allow the nut-gatherers to fill their pockets.
The coal deposits are tapped along the sides of the valley, somewhat back from the stream, and there stand the giant breakers — lofty, sinister-looking structures, with a wide-spreading base, but terracing upward to a small peak. The trestled tracks from the mines run to the very top, and a cable drags the loaded cars up the steep incline. Close beside each dingy, towering breaker is a pigmy engine-house with a row of stout metal smokestacks sticking up through the roof, and this is the center of an inferno of smoke and steam and gas.
The loaded cars are dumped far up aloft, their contents are crushed, and the slate and sulphur-stained pieces are picked out by the breaker boys. A series of chutes carries all the material down to the ground level, and delivers the good coal into cars on the railroad tracks, and the refuse into much smaller narrow-gauge cars to be dragged by cable to the top of a vast black heap of culm, as it is called. Once on the crest of the culm pile, a mule is attached to the car, and it is dragged away to the farthest verge, and there its contents are released and slide down the declivity.
These culm dumps are the most conspicuous feature of the valley landscapes. They loom huge and somber above everything else, and dwarf the loftiest breaker and the highest of the village church spires. It is surprising how small the men and mules on top appear as you look up at them from below. Some of these gloomy, steep-sided, barren mountains of coal waste are four or five hundred feet high, but they are not destined to be permanent. Most of the material in their soaring heights is burnable in the modern furnaces. A few of the piles have already been entirely worked over, and probably nine-tenths of what was in them was shipped away.
On the lower edges of the dumps one often sees women at work rescuing some of the better coal that is mingled with the stony refuse. Most of these gleaners are elderly, but there are comely, vigorous young women, too, and occasional little girls. Now and then a woman will climb far up the slippery slides, with her skirts fluttering in the wind. Some carry a hammer, and some delve and claw among the fragments with a short-handled hoe or hook. In their opinion the pieces they hammer free from the slate, and the other fragments they glean, are just as good coal as they could buy from a dealer. They carry it to near-by homes in pails, and to the more distant ones in bags. Ordinarily, the bags are trundled away on wheelbarrows, yet frequently an old woman will get a full, heavy bag on her back and stagger off with it.
The dumps and the coal mine vicinity were by no means so desolute and lacking in human cheer as I had expected. Perhaps the oddest source of pleasure that I observed was the use of a dump as a sliding place. The material just there was finely broken, and two small negro boys with a sled would start at the top, one sitting and the other standing behind and clinging to the sitter’s shoulders, and down they would come with a startling rush. It looked like a wild and reckless ride, but evidently their nerves were not at all shaken. They lived just beyond the farthermost outthrusting ridge of the irregular culm pile, and their little cabin home was quite a curiosity — a makeshift dwelling to which odds and ends picked up by chance had contributed largely. If one could judge by the number of children playing about the porch, it was thickly inhabited. With the brushy woods close around, the house was not without a rude charm that was suggestive of the sunny South.
Few of the miners’ homes that I saw were exactly squalid, yet a careless disregard for appearances seemed to be general. Little attention was given to securing shade trees, or to beautifying the premises with flowers and vines. Often there was unkemptness, yet not such a degree of it as would prove especially unhealthy. The people seemed hardy, and the children as a rule apparently had sound bodies and were attractively intelligent. The miners themselves, going homeward from work with their blackened hands, faces, and clothing, looked almost demoniac, but when the grime had been removed and they had changed their garments they were much like other men.
Workers recently from Europe are apt to hive together unreasonably, not because they receive starvation wages, but because they have been used to that sort of crowding, or because they want to save every last penny in order to bring over their families. As soon as they get a thrifty start in the world they adopt a more generous mode of living. The laborers certainly have money to spend, for they are among the best patrons of the cheap shows, and they support an excessive number of dubious saloons. Lawlessness often manifests itself in the mining towns, but it is seldom the recent arrivals who are the mischief-makers. No, most of the “deviltry” is attributed to young fellows of American birth.
In the part of the valley where I spent the larger portion of my time the mountains to right and left were near and steep. Their raggedly wooded slopes were very stony, and even the land along the river had the same thin-soiled, rocky character. It never could have offered much encouragement to agriculture. Over the heights, however, in either direction is fertility. Nevertheless, because of the coal, here is wealth and a dense population, while over there is comparative poverty and only scattered dwellers. The coal valley is the market for the latter, and there is much toilsome teaming over the rugged ridges. One day I walked with a sturdy farmer who was on his way homeward trudging up the hill beside his team and stopping often to rest his horses.
“This is a hard old mountain to go over,” he said, “but the steepest, roughest part of the road in the whole seven miles that I have to go is right here as we’re leaving the town. Do you see the cracks in the sidewalk by this house we’re passin’? That’s caused by the ground settling. The railroad company that owns the coal mines had been robbing the pillars that were left to support the roof above the coal vein. They don’t care nothin’ if they let the whole thing drop. When they sell any land they only sell surface rights so they can do as they please underground, and a man puts up a house at his own risk. Often the house settles and racks, and one corner’s up and another down so the doors won’t shut. Oh! it warps ‘em up in great shape. Every day or two you see in the paper that some house has settled. Last summer the ground caved under a man who was workin’ in his garden and let him right down into a mine. In some places I’ve noticed houses tipped right sideways. They were so bad that the people in ‘em had to leave. One night a house went down about twenty feet, and a stove inside was capsized, and the whole thing burned up. There’s trouble from buildings settling on some of the best streets in Scranton.
“Of course, the closter a vein is to the top of the surface and the thicker it is the more chance there is for trouble after the coal has been taken out. Even where big enough pillars are left, and they are not robbed, you are only safe for a while. The exposure to the air, and the action of water that finds its way down from the surface make the coal crumble, and pieces of the roof are always falling. But if the vein is down as deep as seventy-five or a hundred feet the vacant space fills up roughly without making a disturbance at the surface.
“Now we’re up the worst of the hill on more level ground, and just ahead is a place where the whole road has settled five feet. You can see cracks and ragged holes on either side there in the brush. The ground settles most in the spring when everything is soft. I’ll take you down into a hollow near here to show you better what’s happening.”
He turned off onto a grassy woodroad and left his horses standing under a tree. We were on a wild upland where the scrubby forest growth showed the ravages of recent fires, and where the ground was nearly hidden by the crimson autumn glory of tangles of huckleberry bushes. Soon we reached the ravine, and my guide pointed out to me the effects of the work underground in shattering the bordering cliffs, making holes in the earth, and slanting the trees out of the perpendicular. In the depths of the glen was a stream dropping over the ledges and worrying along its boulder-strewn channel with much fume and clamor. At one place it flowed over an outcropping of virgin coal that showed distinctly on either side of the hollow. Probably it was just such a dark crumbling mass that first gave a hint of the fuel riches of this wilderness.
When I was again back in the town descending the precipitous hill I stopped to speak with a corpulent old Irish woman who sat in the corner of her yard, just inside of the fence, hammering away at a heap of coal. She was reducing the big lumps to stove size. “This is the way it comes from the mine,” she said. “It’s awful dear if you buy it after it’s made ready for your fire. I break a little every day, but the work is too hard for me.”
She pulled the old shawl she had on her shoulders closer about her, heaved a sigh, and looked out at me over her spectacles with exaggerated pathos from under the cowl-like brown cloth she wore wound around her head. After a moment’s pause she asked, “Are you an agent, or are you a boss up at the tunnel?”
I satisfied her as to that and mentioned that my home was in New England.
“Yes,” she said, “I know about New England. That was the first settled part of this counthry. I like to read in history about thim Pilgrims comin’ across the ocean and of the hard times they had. It’s intherestin’. I have fri’nds out in Boston. That is in New England. I’ve often heard tell of Boston, and I think I was near it once. My daughter had married, and I went to live with her in Connecticut at a place called Derby. But it was not nice there. Oh! I did n’t like it at all. The wather was bad, and that made drunkards of ‘em, you know. I could n’t drink that Derby wather. But we have the grandest wather here. It tastes good, and it’s soft and all right for washing.
“This is a healthy place, too. We have pure air. But at Derby, Connecticut, I’d see so many complainin’ of ager and malaria. They have two big rivers there, and a great many people were drowned. The people could get a living all right, but I’d see the women go off workin’ and the men idle at home. I did n’t like that. House rent was awful dear there, and so was other things. I paid three dollars and a quarter for half a ton of coal, and you could put it all in three bags, and I had to pay twenty-five cents for a couple of little bundles of wood.
“Well, I came back here after a while, and here I’ll stay the rest of my days; but this is no cheap place either for buying most things. Pork is expensive, and so is other kinds of food. That’s what they call the high cost of living. I like pork and cabbage. You bile the pork a little while; then you put the cabbage in the pot. Yes, that’s what I like. Are potatoes dear where you live? They are here. Potatoes don’t grow so productive in our gardens as they used to. The ground is too old or something. I think the mines soak away all the good from the land. But the Eyetalians here does have grand gardens; and they are not a bad sort of people. They fight a good deal among themselves, but they don’t bother the rest of us.
“That’s my old man just goin’ in the gate. He’s finished his day’s work in the mines. He can’t do heavy work any more, but they don’t discharge him. He’s been workin’ for the company so long they think a lot of him, you know. They don’t give him no special job, but just tell him to find something to do. So he opens doors for the mule cars to go through, and picks coal off the tracks, and such things. He’s a very industrious old man. He says he’d be cold if he did n’t keep goin’.
“It’s dirty work. You see how black they get. I s’pose it must be good for the soap factories. They wash up as soon as they get home, and change their clothes — what they call shifting ‘em. Every week they have clean mine clothes, except the coat. That don’t get very dirty because they don’t keep it on while they’re workin’. Their clothes are not so hard to wash as those of men who are in mills. The coal dust comes right out unless they’ve got ile on their clothes. They wear a lamp on the front of their caps, and sometimes they carry ile for it in one of their pockets and very likely a little of the ile leaks out or they spill it on themselves.
“I went into the mine once with my man long ago, but not so far that I could n’t look back and see a little glimpse of daylight. He worked away, and by and by he says, ‘Now I’ll put off a little blast and let you hear it;’ and bang it went.
“I was scared. I thought I was gone. Everything shook and shook and shook. It shook so heavy and shook so hard it seemed like the whole earth was comin’ down. I thought it was the last of me, and the world was at an end, and I says to myself, ‘If I was a man I would n’t be workin’ in a mine.’
“But the men who are used to it would n’t work anywhere else. They can earn more than at most other jobs. We have silk mills around here, but they don’t pay any wages at all. One good thing about mining is that it don’t wear the men out. Generally their health is pretty good, but sometimes the dust gets down on their lungs and they take the miner’s asthma and are short of wind, you know. When they have it bad they have to stop. They may take medicine to kind of ease them, but there’s no cure for it.
“Then, too, we have accidents in the mines. Yes, indeed. My son-in-law came in kilt to me, and my brother was kilt dead, and only five months between ‘em. But it’s very seldom we have bad accidents now. Of course, they can’t be helped once in a while. Accidents happen in every place — in the mines, and on the railroads, and around the water. There’s no safe place to work unless it is in the stores, and I’ve heard that people get kilt there with the elevators.”
The old woman now got on her feet with considerable effort, shook the wrinkles and the dust out of her skirts and remarked that it was getting cold and she must go in, but she paused to ask me if I had seen the Forty Foot Falls up on the mountain. “People come clear from Philadelphia to see those falls,” she said. “Philadelphia, that’s a city — did n’t you ever hear of it?
“There’s an Indian cave up on the mountain, too, but people are afraid to go in it. The Indians used to say that there was more gold around here than out West. They must have meant the coal. That cave is only three miles away, but we have great wild mountains here — oh dear! acres and acres of woods; I would n’t care to go there.”
Farther down the hill was a rude little building that served as a grocer’s storehouse. A man was busy inside putting things in order and mending some flour bags. I sat down in the doorway, and while he worked we talked. At first we commented on some little boys who were playing ball in the street watched by a bunch of smaller children that included a baby in a baby carriage. They had a ragged old ball, and some nondescript sticks served for bats. One of the liveliest players was a poor fellow who had lost a leg. He used one of his crutches for a bat, and when he hit the ball or had struck at it three times he put the crutch to its intended use, and away he hobbled to the base with astonishing celerity.
A drunken man staggered past, and the grocer’s clerk exclaimed: “My! this would be a rich country if it was n’t for the saloons; and if all the men were like me the saloon-keepers would have to go to work for a living. The saloons have a harvest time every day and every night, and if a customer don’t have money they’ll trust him, for it’s well known that a man will pay his whiskey bill before he will any other. He’ll buy drink whether work is slack or not and he’ll generally keep good-natured while he’s in the saloon half drunk, but when he comes home, if everything ain’t just so he’s ugly.
“The people here are well off in one way — they don’t any of ‘em need to pay a cent for their fuel. Those that ain’t lazy get it from the culm heaps. Some who can afford to buy picks all their coal. Yes, people with a pretty good bank account will go to the culm bank for their fuel supply. The more wealth they have the more they economize and try to make. There’s cellars where you’d find enough coal to do ‘em a couple of years. We used to be allowed to go to the dumps with wagons to bring away coal, but men got to make a business of it, so the company put a stop to that. These foreign women is great people to pick coal, and they back it home for the most part.
“The culm piles are valuable, and a good share of what’s in ‘em can be broken up and sold. Nearly all coal has got more or less slate in it, but this boney coal, as we call it, that’s in the dumps can be mixed with good coal, and one will sell the other. In the early days there was no sale for the finer coal, and they’d throw it away. This big dump on the edge of the town has been growing for forty years, and I dare say that in the bottom you’d find pea coal and chestnut — lots of it. Now they use down to buckwheat and birdseye sizes.
“Besides getting fine coal, there’s a chance to make a good bit here pickin’ huckleberries. If there’s a slack time in the mines during the berry season, the men go right out with the women and children. I’ve known a big family to make five dollars in a day. They’ll be goin’ up along the mountains at three o’clock in the mornin’. Late in the day you’ll see ‘em comin’ back. Often a woman will have her berries in a pan such as is used to wash dishes in, and she’ll carry that pan balanced on her head with a little cloth underneath to keep it from hurtin’. She has to come down some awful steep places, but she’ll walk right along with her two hands folded. They sell the berries to a man here who’s a flowerist — has a flower house you understand — and he ships ‘em to the cities. He buys ‘em by the quart, and sells ‘em by weight. I guess he gets a little more measure that way. A quart will maybe make a quart and a half. Our mountains have been so cut off and burned over that huckleberries is about all they’re good for, though once in a while someone brings down a backload of dead sticks for to kindle the fire.”
The work in the storehouse was now finished, the dusk of evening was thickening, and the squad of ballplayers in the street had dispersed. I went with the grocer’s clerk to the adjacent store where the lights had been lit. Just inside, only a few feet from the entrance, sat the proprietor, a heavy elderly man with his hat on his head and a cane in his hand. I thought he looked rather grim and crusty, but I presently observed that his face could light up with a pleasant smile, and I had no further doubts as to his being good-humored and kindly at heart. People were constantly dropping in to get groceries. Most of them were children sent by their mothers. The youngsters invariably came to an awed stop in front of the old man, and he called them by name and demanded what they wanted, and then he repeated the items of their requests to an alert young woman behind the counter. She served them and entered the charges in the little passbooks the children brought, and in a large store account book. The customers seemed never to pay cash, and I asked the grocer the reason.
“It’s the habit,” he said. “The men get their wages twice a month, and the majority of ‘em will hand most of the money to their women, who will come in and pay me. But mind you, they won’t kill themselves hurrying to get here with it, or by the size of the load they bring. Many a one don’t square up. I’ve been selling on credit for the last thirty-two years, and if I tell the slow ones that they must pay they are quick to give me a rap, and that’s the thanks I get for trusting ‘em. They’d crush my bones in the grave. Ah, yes! if I dun them they tell me to go where I don’t want to go — tell me to go to the last place where I would want to go; and they name the place whether they know anything about it or not. Some move away and leave a dirty book behind them, and there are others I can’t collect from unless I give the case to a lawyer; and if I do that there’s very little comin’ to me after he gets through.”
Just then a small redheaded boy came from outside and held the door half open while he looked in. The grocer ordered him to go away, and the boy paid no attention to this command. The old man shook his cane at the lad with no better result. “You’d better stand there yet awhile!” the storekeeper exclaimed, getting onto his feet and lurching belligerently toward the door. The boy vanished.
“Give me some tobacco,” the old man said to his clerk as he settled back into his chair.
A miner and an above-ground friend
He filled and lit his pipe, and after a few puffs regained his equanimity. Then he turned to me and remarked: “When I came here in 1854 the valley was all woods and laurel. There were big trees everywhere — hemlock, pine, and ash — and you could build a house out of one of them trees they were so large and so long. You’d be under the shade wherever you went, and you did n’t need an umbrella in the hardest rain that come, for the thick leaves overhead would keep the water off from you. We’d let our hogs run in the woods from April to November, and they’d take care of themselves — they would, sir. Our cows, too, could go where they pleased and be in no danger from the railroads. Now, good gracious! it’s all railroads, you might say, here in the valley. The best of the trees was carried away to the sawmills, and afterward you could get no income from the land it was so poor, and a good deal of it was sold for taxes.
“At first I worked for sixty-three cents a day — ten hours, too — ten long hours, but when the Civil War broke out wages boomed up. I’ll tell you what miners get now. Two men work together — a miner and a laborer. The miner blasts the coal loose, and the other fellow loads it. If they are in a good place the miner will perhaps knock enough down in a couple of hours for the other to handle, and he’s earned three and a half or four dollars. He used to go off home then, but now, for fear of accidents to the laborer, he has to stay till the loading is done. The laborer will earn close to three dollars, but there’s times when they’re working where the place is not so good, or they can’t get cars to load. Then you may hear a man say he has n’t made but a dollar that day.
“One advantage of the job is that you are your own master. There’s no boss standing over you. Besides, you are away from the cold in winter time, and away from the heat in summer time. But you have the discomfort of wet clothing. The water is dripping from the roof all the time onto your back. Maybe you would n’t be in there ten minutes until you’d be like they’d kept puttin’ the hose on you all day, but you don’t mind that while you’re busy. In winter, when a man comes out, his pants often freeze to his legs before he gets home. Very likely he’ll stop in at a saloon and stay awhile by the stove, and drink a couple of glasses of beer. Then he’s hot inside and out. When it’s very warm in summer, and he comes up from the cool mine he has to sit down in the shade and get used to the change a little or he’d be sunstruck.
“A miner is a miner all his life, and as a general thing he brings up his boys to do the same work. First the boys are put into the breakers, and from those they go into the mines. They are brought up to that one thing, and they think they could n’t do anything else, and often they won’t try. If a man can’t get his special kind of a job he’ll tramp the country through.
“On the whole the people here are prosperous, and there’s five times as many own their homes as there are renters; but when a miner has to support a big family he’s got all he wants to do to keep his head above water with prices as they are nowadays.”
So I gathered from what the old grocer and others said, and from my own observation, that life among the anthracite workers is a mixture of cloud and sunshine just as it is elsewhere. They are not satisfied, yet nevertheless there are no other workers with whom they would willingly change places.
NOTES. — Historically, the most interesting portion of the anthracite coal district is the Wyoming Valley. The largest town in the valley is Wilkes-Barre, named in honor of the two chief upholders of American liberty in Parliament. The name of the valley is derived from an Indian word that means “large plains.” It applies to an expansion of the Susquehanna basin about 20 miles long and 4 or 5 broad. Were it not for the coal this gentle valley would have a good deal of pastoral charm.
Near Wilkes-Barre, in July, 1778, occurred one of the most harrowing of Indian massacres. A force of British troops and Indians entered the valley, defeated the settlers, and the massacre followed. The British officers could not restrain their savage allies, who butchered some 300 men, women and children. A monument, four miles north of the town, on the opposite side of the river, marks the scene of the battle. Three miles farther on is Queen Esther’s Rock, where the half-breed queen of the Senecas tomahawked 14 defenceless prisoners.
The original fireplace in which anthracite coal was first burned in 1808 is preserved at the old Fall House on Washington Street in Wilkes-Barre. Many relics of local Indian and pioneer life can be seen at the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society rooms. The height known as Giant’s Despair, east of the city, is the scene of the annual hill-climb of the Wilkes-Barre Automobile Club. The valley has paved roads from end to end.
A particularly fine scenic route is that from Wilkes-Barre to Elmira, N. Y., 109 miles. There are good dirt roads much of the way, but with some steep hills that require great care on the part of the motorist when the roadway is wet.
The route to Scranton, 18 miles north, by way of Pittston, is through the heart of the Anthracite region and abounds in collieries and villages of foreign laborers. For much of the way the road is rough and poor. The town streets are narrow, and are crowded with children and animals, and there are frequent dangerous railroad crossings.