anthracite mining in Pennsylvania (USA)
In Eastern Pennsylvania, a type of industrialization has survived until today, which contrasts a common cliché about the USA: the image of large-scale industrial installations and high tech. The small anthracite mines, still active, especially in Schuylkill County and Northumberland. The following description of a visit to the mines in 1992 is dedicated to the men and women running the mines, the so called 'bootleg miners'.
Similar mines existed in Germany in the years following World War II. Small mines called "Zeche Eimerweise" or "bucket-by-bucket pits" supplied the urgent demand of the locals. With the closure of the "Egbert" pit in the mid-seventies, this era came to an end.
After a visit to the Pennsylvania steel belt, I decide to document the small mines in the Eastern Pennsylvania.
It is raining cats and dogs when I arrive and realize that taking photographs is out of question that day.
I decide to stretch my legs at a flea market in the parish hall of a small village. Soon, the booth of an old man attracts me, and the sight of an old mine lamp makes my heart leap.
"Fifteen dollars" is his answer to my question about the lamp's price. I learn, that he is an old miner, who has spent his entire life working in the mines of this area.
He tells the story of the closure of the big deep-mines, which could no longer compete with the huge opencast mines during the economic crisis of the twenties. The unemployed miners began to run small mines on their own, without a license, and with only very basic equipment. There is a kind of pride in his voice, as he explains that all efforts of the big mining companies to stop these activities failed, due to the fierce resistance of the "bootleg miners". In 1953, an agreement eventually secured the future of the small mines.
He wonders why I am interested in mining, and when I tell him, that my grandfather once mined copper and iron ore, the price of the lamp quickly drops to ten dollars.
Hunt for Mines
The search for mines begins based on a list of locations taken from Bernd and Hilla Becher's excellent book, 'Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples'.
Will I find anything? I am expectant!
Equipped with a poor map, I begin to comb the area. Initially, I find the scars left by huge opencast mines in the countryside. I finally find the track of a railway in the village of Goodspring, leading me to a loading point, which is obviously still in operation. Scattered lumps of coal speak for themselves. Lorry tracks soon guide me to the first operating anthracite mines.
'Private!' and 'Danger!' is written on the plates protecting the mines against trespassers. I feel a bit insecure. How will they react to a crazy foreigner invading their private property with heavy photographic equipment? Fortunately, my apprehensions are groundless. In all cases, people give me a warm welcome and willingly answer my questions.
When I try to search all of the area around Bear Valley for mines, I finally get lost in a labyrinth of dirt roads. In the course of the search, the bright white of my rented car turns into a pale gray. If I only had a better map or even a cross-country car!
My savior approaches in the form of an old but sturdy car, navigated around countless pot-holes by a bearded miner. I explain my problem to him and he invites me to come aboard. He will give me a guided tour around the mines of Bear Valley. While I take my photographs, he spontaneously helps one of his co-miners classify and load coal.
I am invited to have a beer with him in a local pub after the work is done. The motel, where I intend to stay for the night, is 'much too expensive' in his opinion, so he arranges a guest-bedroom in the pub. The agreed price is five dollars. He says goodbye and I occupy my five- dollar room. I realize with some horror, that no clean sheets have been put on the bed for weeks, regardless of it's frequent use, to say nothing about the state of the bathroom. Just to be on the safe side, I get my sleeping bag and soon fall asleep after a day filled with new impressions.
With Simple Equipment
What is the reason for the specific fascination with the Pennsylvania mines?
Certainly part of it is the location in the beautiful countryside of the Appalachian Mountains. But there must be more.
What makes the mines so different are the primitive looking headframes, sometimes constructed of wood, and the old machinery made of partly converted scrap.
In most cases, the mine owners can't afford to invest in modern installations. But their ingenuity and improvisational talent enables them to mine valuable anthracite coal through simple means. They convert abandoned lorries or excavators into winding machines, old car motors power screen riddles, and a compressor constructed back in the twenties still does its job.
Centralia: The Earth On Fire
In 1960, a garbage dump, which was the starting point of a fire, quickly spread throughout an abandoned mine close to Centralia, a small village in Columbia County. The authorities first believed that the fire would soon extinguish, but it spread further and further underground. The smoke escaping from the ground has destroyed the surrounding vegetation, making Centralia virtually uninhabitable.
Descending Into The Mine
A small road, deeply grooved by lorry tires, strikes me on my way from Goodspring to Keffer. I decide to follow the track. After a few hundred yards, I find myself between stacks of timber, piles of coal, and machinery, just in front of a relatively modern looking mine.
The worker, who is just bulldozing waste material, turns out to be the owner of the pit, which employs 20 miners and can be regarded as one of the 'bigger' mines in the area.
"Would you like to go underground?" he wants to know. Sure, I do! My concerns regarding security are quickly dispelled, as the installation looks reliable. The headframe is made of steel and the winder has been converted from a ship winch. Coal is hauled by means of a skip-like 'box', whose contents are dumped into a silo at the top of the headframe. This type of skip is also known as 'tipping device', from which the term 'tipple' is derived, denoting the small headframes, which are typical for the area.
We enter the skip and smoothly glide down the inclined shaft. The ride ends at a depth of approximately 100 m and I am surprised at the size of the underground workspace. A two-track railway station has been set up here. The rails can hardly be seen however, as the roadway is flooded up to my ankles. Fortunately, I am equipped with rubber boots, so that I feel like a real 'bootlegger' and my feet stay dry.
I am told that water is a severe problem in this pit. On the other hand, the risk of firedamp is relatively low. It is rumored that the miners even smoke in some of the mines, which is strictly prohibited, of course.
The miners seem to have their own way to interpret regulations. They prefer to rely on their experience and common sense.
"The seams are up to 20 feet thick here, and the coal is of extraordinary good quality," he tells me, while we are following the roadway. My guide can hardly believe that coal mining is a losing business in Europe.
After a while we climb upwards through narrow shafts, and I have to take care of projecting props. Occasionally small pieces of rock fall down, and I soon understand why the cumbersome helmet is a real lifesaver down here.
Although work is finished for today, the air is still filled with the fumes of dynamite. Lumps of coal glitter in the light of our lamps. The hiss of compressed air is one of the few signs indicating mechanization.
I am led across a labyrinth of shafts and roadways, and after the ascent via the main shaft, we return to daylight.
I get rid of my clothes in a shed, which serves as the pit bath, which would almost be considered luxurious for 'bootleg miners'. This is the time for a chat in the company of the miners. They tell me that the work is hard and sometimes dangerous, but working in an office day by day? No, that's something unimaginable.
"Tomorrow morning at six?" are the words of farewell, and I wonder how seriously this was meant.
After a week, the time to say goodbye has come. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit more than a dozen anthracite-mines and meet friendly and free-minded people doing a tough job with courage, power and a certain kind of self-will.
Most of the description given above is based on personal communication with the miners and locals. Thus I can not exclude errors, and I am grateful for corrections and additional information. I would like to express my gratitude to Donna for converting my original 'German to humbling English translation' into something readable :-)