Category Archive 'Anthracite Region'
01 Nov 2019

“We Took Our DNA, and Left Town”

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A view of my hometown, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, from the southwest, in the vicinity of the West Shenandoah Colliery, overlooking the culm banks, circa 1910. The writing says in Lithuanian: “Ar ne grazios apylenkis?” (sarcastically) “Are not the surroundings beautiful?” The location of the Lithuanian church is also marked by hand.

The Economist quotes a British DNA study contending that it wasn’t brains or character or superior family culture that caused the lucky ones who got out to leave. No, it was deterministic genes.

To establish baselines for their work, Dr Abdellaoui, Dr Visscher and their colleagues turned first to 33 published studies that used a technique called genome-wide association study. This is intended to discern the contributions to a trait of large numbers of genetic differences that each have a small effect. It concentrates on so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)—places in the DNA where an individual genetic “letter” routinely varies from person to person. There are, for example, about 100,000 SNPs that affect height. On average, each makes a contribution, either positive or negative, of 0.14mm to someone’s adult stature. This is in contrast to Mendelian variations, where a single difference between individuals has a pronounced effect—such as the difference between brown and blue eyes.

Each of the 33 baseline studies identified large numbers of SNPs that had positive or negative effects on a particular trait: extroversion, heart disease, height, body fat, age at menopause, recreational drug use and so on. The researchers then applied these SNP patterns to the records of 450,000 UK Biobank participants, and asked various questions. One thing they looked for was geographical clustering of SNPS related to individual traits. This, they discovered in abundance. Of the 33 traits under consideration, 21 showed evidence of SNP-related geographical clustering.

The most strongly clustered of all, they found were SNPS for educational attainment (ie, how many years an individual had spent at school and college). SNPs lowering educational attainment were particularly clustered in former coal-mining areas. These are places that have seen a lot of internal migration, both inward, when the mines were developed during the late 18th and 19th centuries, and outward, after the second world war, as mining shrank from being one of Britain’s biggest employers to its current state of near non-existence.

Dr Abdellaoui and Dr Visscher were able, from their studies of the biobank’s records, to chart the effects of the more recent, outward migration. They divided participants into four groups: those born in mining areas who had subsequently left; those born in mining areas who had stayed; those born outside mining areas who had moved into one; and those who had never lived in a mining area. The results were stark. People in the first group, outward migrants from mining areas, had significantly more educational-attainment-promoting SNPS, and fewer damaging ones, than any of the other groups, while people in the second group, stay-at-homes in mining areas, had the opposite.

Though not quite so sharply as with educational achievement, this pattern was also reflected in all but one of the other 20 SNP-related traits the researchers looked at. With the exception of bipolar disorder, the best outcomes were found in outward migrants from coalfields and the worst in stay-at-homes. The healthy, in other words, depart. The less healthy remain.

The upshot is a vicious spiral. That young, ambitious, healthy people tend to leave economically deprived areas is hardly news. But to see that written clearly in their DNA, which they take with them when they leave, while the converse is written in the DNA of those who stay behind, raises questions of nature and nurture that society is ill-equipped to answer, and possibly unwilling to confront.


23 Apr 2016

St. George’s Day

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Hans von Aachen, St. George Slaying the Dragon, c. 1600, Private Collection, London

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Butler, the historian of the Romish calendar, repudiates George of Cappadocia, and will have it that the famous saint was born of noble Christian parents, that he entered the army, and rose to a high grade in its ranks, until the persecution of his co-religionists by Diocletian compelled him to throw up his commission, and upbraid the emperor for his cruelty, by which bold conduct he lost his head and won his saintship. Whatever the real character of St. George might have been, he was held in great honour in England from a very early period. While in the calendars of the Greek and Latin churches he shared the twenty-third of April with other saints, a Saxon Martyrology declares the day dedicated to him alone; and after the Conquest his festival was celebrated after the approved fashion of Englishmen.

In 1344, this feast was made memorable by the creation of the noble Order of St. George, or the Blue Garter, the institution being inaugurated by a grand joust, in which forty of England’s best and bravest knights held the lists against the foreign chivalry attracted by the proclamation of the challenge through France, Burgundy, Hainault, Brabant, Flanders, and Germany. In the first year of the reign of Henry V, a council held at London decreed, at the instance of the king himself, that henceforth the feast of St. George should be observed by a double service; and for many years the festival was kept with great splendour at Windsor and other towns. Shakspeare, in Henry VI, makes the Regent Bedford say, on receiving the news of disasters in France:

Bonfires in France I am forthwith to make
To keep our great St. George’s feast withal!’

Edward VI promulgated certain statutes severing the connection between the ‘noble order’ and the saint; but on his death, Mary at once abrogated them as ‘impertinent, and tending to novelty.’ The festival continued to be observed until 1567, when, the ceremonies being thought incompatible with the reformed religion, Elizabeth ordered its discontinuance. James I, however, kept the 23rd of April to some extent, and the revival of the feast in all its glories was only prevented by the Civil War. So late as 1614, it was the custom for fashionable gentlemen to wear blue coats on St. George’s day, probably in imitation of the blue mantle worn by the Knights of the Garter.

In olden times, the standard of St. George was borne before our English kings in battle, and his name was the rallying cry of English warriors. According to Shakspeare, Henry V led the attack on Harfleur to the battle-cry of ‘God for Harry! England! and St. George!’ and ‘God and St. George’ was Talbot’s slogan on the fatal field of Patay. Edward of Wales exhorts his peace-loving parents to

‘Cheer these noble lords,
And hearten those that fight in your defence;
Unsheath your sword, good father, cry St. George!’

The fiery Richard invokes the same saint, and his rival can think of no better name to excite the ardour of his adherents:

‘Advance our standards, set upon our foes,
Our ancient word of courage, fair St. George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons.’

England was not the only nation that fought under the banner of St. George, nor was the Order of the Garter the only chivalric institution in his honour. Sicily, Arragon, Valencia, Genoa, Malta, Barcelona, looked up to him as their guardian saint; and as to knightly orders bearing his name, a Venetian Order of St. George was created in 1200, a Spanish in 1317, an Austrian in 1470, a Genoese in 1472, and a Roman in 1492, to say nothing of the more modern ones of Bavaria (1729), Russia (1767), and Hanover (1839).

Legendarily the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George was founded by the Emperor Constantine (312-337 A.D.). On the factual level, the Constantinian Order is known to have functioned militarily in the Balkans in the 15th century against the Turk under the authority of descendants of the twelfth-century Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus Comnenus.

We Lithuanians liked St. George as well. When I was a boy I attended St. George Lithuanian Parish Elementary School, and served mass at St. George Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

St. George Church, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Christmas, 1979. This church, built by immigrant coal miners in 1891, was torn down by the Diocese of Allentown in 2010.

21 Jan 2016

“Just a Couple of Beers at the Firehouse”

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I grew up in Shenandoah, so I know McAdoo.

I came across a classic Coal Region survival story yesterday, out of McAdoo, just south of Hazleton.


Justin Smith, 26, of McAdoo is what doctors are calling a medical miracle.

He was found nearly frozen to death on the side of the road about one year ago.

On Monday, he got the opportunity to thank everyone who helped him survive after spending nearly 12 hours out in the cold.

“I got done with work that day and we were going to the fire hall to hang out, having a couple drinks with some people, and I wanted to go home around 10 o’clock,” said Smith.

On that cold night last February, Justin Smith walked out of the Treskow fire hall, but never made it home.

His father Don found him the next day on the side of Treskow Road.

“I looked over and there was Justin laying there and he was laying face up there like this,” said Don Smith. ” He was blue. His face he was lifeless. I checked for a pulse. I checked for a heartbeat. There was nothing.”

“The coroner was on scene. The state police were on scene. They were doing essentially a death investigation,” said Dr. Gerald Coleman.

But Dr. Coleman, an emergency department physician at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Hazleton, refused to pronounce Justin dead when his body was that cold.

“Our mind is supposed to run the show, not our hearts because if your heart runs the show, you can run into some problems. I just kind of threw that to the wind and said, ‘No, not today,’” said Dr. Coleman.

A team in Hazleton performed CPR on Justin for two hours.

He was then transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest near Allentown where doctors used what’s called an ECMO machine to warm up Justin’s blood.

Doctors say flying Justin to Lehigh Valley’s Hospital near Allentown was a miracle in itself. They had to beat a snowstorm and do compressions on him the entire way.

“We knew we needed a big, big miracle,” Justin’s mom Sissy Smith said.

“When you have very low temperature, it can preserve the brain and other organ functions,” said Dr. James Wu of the Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Doctors said as Justin warmed up, his heart started beating.

Weeks went by before he actually woke up and realized where he was.

“It’s like I woke up from a dream, but it wasn’t a dream,” Justin said.

“When you look at the science of what happened to Justin, it was really hard to imagine that anyone on Earth could survive this,” said Dr. John Castaldo of the Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Now he’s back to his family he loves, golf, and school.

Justin lost his pinkies and all of his toes, but doctors call him a medical miracle.

25 Dec 2015

Christmas at St. George Church, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania

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St. George Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, Shenandoah, PA, decorated for Christmas in 1979. I served as an altar boy at Christmas mass here many decades ago.

The Diocese of Allentown had this church, the grandest and most architecturally distinguished in its town, demolished in 2010.

17 May 2015

Coal Region Ghost Towns

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An elderly woman walks past the ruins of the former high school in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

WNEP 16 reports that several once-thriving communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, including my own boyhood hometown, all one-time mining boom towns, are discovering that, after their economic raison d’être has disappeared, the population vanishes as well.

[S]ome communities in our region are fast becoming virtual ghost towns.

The proof comes from the 2010 U.S. Census which found in three area communities more than 25 percent of the homes and businesses sit vacant.

The three communities are in the heart of the coal region. All experienced population and employment losses in recent years that left hundreds of vacant houses and storefronts.

In Mahanoy City, Schuykill County, according to the U.S. Census, 26.3 percent of its homes sit vacant.

Just a block from the main street a home is selling for less than a price of a used car.

Shamokin, Northumberland County also has a vacancy rate of 26.3 percent. Afternoon traffic rarely stops on downtown blocks that increasingly see buildings for rent or for sale.

Shenandoah has the region’s highest vacancy rate at 28.9 percent. …

Empty lots. Empty businesses that closed years ago.

“It’s a great little town, but it has an image problem,” said realtor Erica Ramus. She has a hard time selling property in Shenandoah. “I’ve brought people up here to show them downtown properties as far as commercial, and the comment I’ve heard is, ‘Why would I want to move my business to a dying old coal town?'”

A typical Shenandoah block consists of an empty building, another vacant storefront, a doctor’s office, another vacant storefront, then a bank branch. People downtown said the neighborhoods are even bleaker. …

A drive through Shenandoah’s east side finds abandoned, unlivable homes. Others sit vacant for years, with little hope of finding a buyer.

A rowhome for sale is covered with newspapers from the year 2000.

“They’re not dead, but they’re certainly ill,” said Wilkes University economics professor Tony Liuzzo. He said the communities spiraling downward where jobs and people leave and vacant homes stay vacant.

“There’s an increase in pressure on the individuals who are remaining there and, of course, you don’t want to be the last one left holding the bag, so to speak,” Liuzzo added.

John Dopkin calls his east side Shenandoah block the loneliest place imaginable.

“I have no friends, all my friends are gone. I just lost my wife a year ago, and I’m waiting to go myself,” Dopkin added.


29 Apr 2015

Baltimore Versus Shenandoah

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There were many mean streets in the Pennsylvania small town where I grew up.

I grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a major place of settlement for turn-of-the-last-century Lithuanian immigrants to the United States. Shenandoah was, even in my youth, a former mining boom-town, well along in the processes of decline and decay.

Shenandoah was a kind of miniature city. It had, everyone said, in its heyday, more barrooms than Philadelphia. Protestants, English, German, and Welsh, constituted a small, and shrinking, minority. The town’s population was overwhelming composed of recent Roman Catholic immigrants. Lithuanians were nearly a plurality, but there were also plenty of Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Irish, and Italians. Main Street commerce was dominated by Jews, who lived on Oak Street in the grandest houses in town.

By my 1950s boyhood, once homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods were dispersed. My father bought two houses (he rented one) on the West side of town, in what had, long ago, been the Italian neighborhood. We got along well with our Italian neighbors, who were always stopping us to press fresh tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the backyards on us. When I was a bit older, I was especially popular with the old Italian men because I had grown into a tough guy and protected the Italian kids (Lithuanians like me looked upon Italians, like Jews, as helpless non-combatants) from the juvenile gangs who lay in wait to waylay smaller children to steal their money and to torment and sexually abuse them.

Lithuanians tended to get along with the Italians and the Pennsylvania Dutch, who usually voted Republican. We tended not to get along with the Irish and the Poles, who usually voted democrat.

Shenandoah was a basically working-class mining town (where the mines had just closed down forever), with a significant welfare-and-criminal underclass.

The Internet keeps me in touch today with friends I went to school with and with whom I served mass and who were in the same boy scout troop. One friend, now retired from the Air Force and teaching Systems Theory as an adjunct at several Southern colleges, was reminiscing not long ago, and reflected how his family and mine were “the nice families,” largely surrounded at the end of town by gangsters and scum.

Like most people born into working class families, I was brought up with a contempt for the welfare class and knew first-hand the profound fear that parents like mine had of sinking to the point of “going on relief.” With the mines closing, men were being everywhere thrown out of work, and times were hard in the Anthracite region. Everyone knew people who were up against it and who were proud enough that they would go hungry before they would take relief, and though we pitied their condition, we felt strongly that they were perfectly right.

As you may imagine, I’ve been hearing now, for more than 50 years, sob stories about the plight of the “disenfranchised” (who do actually have the vote) and the “impoverished” (by whom?) in the inner cities. Not surprisingly, I am entirely lacking in sympathy.

We were corresponding on Facebook yesterday about the rioting in Baltimore, and I said the kind of hard-core, unsympathetic things that elderly, white, redneck racists like myself are prone to say. The thread belonged to a bouzhy, female, liberal attorney friend from Yale, and I would have been slightly more diplomatic in my remarks had I realized that one of the readers and participants in the thread was a young, black female recent Yale graduate.

The young lady took offense at my comments, which has caused me to reflect on the peculiarities of racial politics. My preceding remarks were intended to make the point that, in Lithuanian immigrant society, the respectable people may have gone so far as to feel some pity for the welfare/criminal scum residing nearby, but we did not side with them against the police. We also did not tolerate their criminal activities. I personally used to walk to and from school deliberately taking different routes, patrolling to prevent two different well-known juvenile gangs from molesting younger kids.

No one could have set up a drug dealing station in any residential neighborhood in our town. Nor could any adult criminal gangs take over neighborhoods. If any had tried, and the police not intervened, there were plenty of male adult veterans of WWII would have taken care of them immediately.

So, why is it, I often wonder how it is that decent & respectable African-American people have to live in such bad neighborhoods, dominated by drug dealers and gangbangers? Are there no tough and law-abiding African-Americans? And how come the better black people all come a-running to stick-up on racial solidarity grounds for the thug Leroy when the cops beat up on Leroy’s ass? Back where I grew up, if the Lithuanian criminal elements “Hopper” or “Cutha” were seen getting belathered by Shakey the cop with his hickory nightstick, their respectable fellow-Lithuanians would have smiled with warm approval and defended Shakey’s conduct all day long.

In our town’s high school, there was a 350 lb.+ football coach, nicknamed “Moose.” Moose, Mr. R., was not the sharpest pencil in the faculty box, and his academic role was to be homeroom teacher to the General section, the section of academically-hopeless criminals and mental defectives. Moose kept order with a heavy hand. One day, one of the leading bad hats sassed Mr. R., who responded by picking up the large console television set in the front of the room and hurling it at the offender. The bad boy went to the hospital with a broken arm and other injuries, and the whole town told and retold the story, grinning and gloating. Moose was admired, and no disciplinary proceedings whatsoever occurred.

25 Dec 2014

Christmas at St. George Church, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania

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St. George Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, Shenandoah, PA, decorated for Christmas in 1979. I served mass at Christmas there many decades ago. The Diocese of Allentown had this church, the grandest and most architecturally distinguished in town, torn down in 2010.

03 Aug 2013

A Neighbor’s Photo From Shorpy’s

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1938. “Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Joe Gladski, wife of a coal miner at Maple Hill.” Photo by Sheldon Dick, Resettlement Administration.

Shorpy’s, the great historical photo site, yesterday put up a photo from my old hometown.

Commenter Solo adds details:

Per the 1940 Federal census, the Gladsky family (Joseph and Sophia, their three children, and Joe’s father, born in what became Poland but was then the Russian Empire) occupied 422 West Lloyd Street in said town, Shenandoah Borough, Schuylkill Co, PA. Sophia is about 31 in this photo. … Joe died in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1961, age about 57. His son, Joe Jr., died at 73 in New Jersey. Sophia herself died in New Jersey in 1996, aged 89 years.

Some interesting touches in this shot are the rather worn armchair with faint shadow of an antimacassar on the back and the apparently new widow casings and baseboard.

I was born ten years later on a farm my father bought after the war in Locust Valley, but around 1953 my mother forced him to give up the farm and move back into town. In those days, working class families were lucky to own a single automobile, and most women (including my mother) never learned to drive. Living out in the country without transportation was naturally unpleasant for her.

We wound up living across the street and one block west from Mr. & Mrs. Gladski (with whom we were not acquainted as far as I know), at 515-517 West Lloyd. My father also worked as a coal miner at Maple Hill (the last of the collieries to shut down). Maple Hill ended mining operations in 1954. While working there, my father was once (briefly) buried by a cave-in of coal. He was able to dig himself out, but the fall had knocked his miner’s helmet off and one rock split open his scalp. He had to go to the hospital to have the wound stitched up. When he was an old man, you could see blue particles of coal embedded in the skin on top of his head.

Needless to say, I am old enough to remember this style of domestic furnishings. Mrs. Gladski was a good looking woman with the kind of aquiline nose which has always seemed to me to be a distinctly Polish feature.

Small world, isn’t it?

24 Jul 2013

Hometown Neighbor of Mine Makes the News

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I grew up in Shenandoah, which is only a couple of miles north of Gilberton.

I did not know that Gilberton (with its whopping population of 867, as of 2000) was actually a borough. I would have said that it was a patch settlement in Mahanoy Township, but what do I know?

I guess they must have incorporated it as a borough back in 1873 in order to gain some kind of political advantage pertaining to access to the Anthracite coal under the ground nearby.

Anyway, Gilberton is a borough and apparently even has its own police force (which I never knew). And the current police chief, Mark Kessler, has been posting some profanity-laced videos on YouTube, which have the kind of people he refers to as “libtards” at Raw Story decidedly upset.


Example 1:


Example 2, in response to libtard reaction to number 1:


I’m willing to grant that Mr. Kessler’s political commentary seems to fall a little short of Edmund Burke’s, but I am naturally amused, and even a little proud, to find that the political views of a resident of today’s Schuylkill County, which I left over 40 years ago, still when you come right down to it so much resemble my own.

I do think that Police Chief Kessler is additionally a walking advertisement for Radley Balko’s new book on the Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. That is some expensive ordinance that Police Chief Kessler is playing with in the second video. It was undoubtedly paid for by somebody’s tax dollars. And that kind of firepower, though obviously terrific fun to play with, is absolutely preposterous in relation to the character and levels of crime in as poor and little-populated a settlement as Gilberton.

22 Jun 2013

Upper Mauch Chunk, 1940

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August 1940. “Old house in Upper Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. In the background is East Mauch Chunk.” Photo by Jack Delano.

Mauch Chunk, renamed as Jim Thorpe in 1953 in an outrageous feat of Babbitry, is the county seat of Carbon County. Described as “the Switzerland of Pennsylvania,” the town lies at the eastern edge of the Anthracite Mining region. Four Molly Maguire terrorists were hanged there in 1876.

Upper Mauch Chunk is distinguished by its proximity to a mountain ridge where rock hounds can find carnotite, a radioactive mineral containing uranium. Guess how I know that.

I’ve always had a personal weakness for old, decayed houses, and for the gingerbread Victorian ornamentation found on small town Pennsylvania houses.

From Shorpy’s.

07 Nov 2012

Pennsylvania Voted For Obama

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Schuylkill County, and doubtless Orwigsburg, voted for Romney, but it didn’t save them.

I couldn’t turn off the autoplay, so here’s a link instead:

2:28 video

20 Oct 2012

Our Town

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Shenandoah, Pennsylvania: South Main Street in the 1940s, a bit before my time.

My high school and elementary school classmate Norman Gregas posted on Facebook this Iris Dement nostalgic tribute to a vanished small town, particularly applicable in the case of our hometown whose treatment at the hands of time and economic change was exceptionally destructive and cruel.

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