The federal government killed the Anthracite Coal industry of Northeastern Pennsylvania in the aftermath of WWII by environmental regulations, which prevented pumping water from the mines into the already thoroughy polluted regional watercourses. Minewater would continue to flow from abandoned collieries, the Shenandoah and Mahanoy Creeks and the Big Catawissa would still flow orange, but the collieries on which the region’s economy depended could no longer work below the water table, and thus could no longer profitably mine coal. Maple Hill, my hometown’s last colliery, closed down in 1954.
A few irredentists including one uncle of mine, having no other options, continued to mine coal in bootleg operations.
Bootleg mining started during the depression. Anthracite coal was so ubiquitous, and so near the surface in some places, that in those days a man could go just up on the mountain with a pick and shovel and dig coal. The land and mineral rights belonged to the Girard Estate or the Reading Coal Company, which had little ability to do anything about it, and these informal and illegal operations were called “coalholes” or “bootleg mines.”
In the modern era, bootleg miners commonly paid a small fee to the Company or Estate, and had permission to dig coal. Typically, they were “robbing the pillars,” i.e. taking coal left to support the roof of mines long ago mined out and abandoned. If they were careless, too greedy, or merely unlucky, as in the case of three bootleg coal miners near Shepton in the early 1970s, they could wind up buried by a cave-in.
These days, hard coal is back in fashion, being widely used for electrical generaton, and the small number of surviving bootleg miners are making a few bucks, but the government is closing them down, enforcing more new regulations with an iron hand.
Marc Brodzic, a native of New Jersey (probably having roots in the Region), has made a documentary titled: Hard Coal: Last of the Bootleg Miners about the near-pending extinction of the last dozen surviving bootleg mining operations.