Category Archive 'Anthracite Region'
03 Sep 2006

Hard Coal: Last of the Bootleg Miners

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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.

The film was exhibited at the Philadelphia Film Festival and at the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan.

15 Jul 2006

Pennsylvania Coal Town Leads the Way on Nativist Legislation

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The Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania: (in red, clockwise from 9 o’clock, Northumberland County, (Montour County is not included, and is white) then Columbia County, Luzerne County, Lackawanna County, Carbon County, and Schuylkill County.

The community of fashion is largely unaware that a mere two and a quarter hours (111 miles) from midtown Manhattan, one may enter a startlingly different universe, a hardscrabble countryside dotted with working-class towns, falling into ruin after eight decades of decline.

Anthracite coal mining was the Region’s sole economic engine, and cheaper and more convenient forms of energy began challenging hard coal’s position in the American economy as early as 1920. The mineworker’s union unpatriotically broke its pledge to refrain from striking during WWII, and when the miners came back from the war, they found those war-time strikes had very effectively promoted large-scale domestic conversion to heating oil.

Modern environmental regulation in the 1950s was the final straw. By that time, the easy coal in veins close to the surface had been mined out, and it was necessary to dig deep for coal. Available remaining deposits lay below the water table, and the Federal Government would no longer permit collieries simply to pump mine water (thoroughly laden with sulphuric acid) out into local streams and rivers, heading for the Susquehanna and ultimately Chesapeake Bay. Maple Hill, the last colliery operating in my hometown, closed in 1954.

Populations have steadily declined for decades, and the only countervailing trend has been the arrival in the Region in the course of the last two decades of a rapidly increasing new population of Hispanics.

Welfare recipients from New York and Philadelphia first migrated outward in search of a cheaper cost of living (where a welfare income would go farther) to the Lehigh Valley cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. But prisons, constructed during the prison-building boom of the War on Drugs atop the mountains of the Region as a sop to the regional economy persuaded the same element to cross the Blue Mountain. In some cases, they wanted to be able to visit relatives inside serving time.

The Anthracite Region is a backwater, preserving, as in amber, the culture, values, perspectives, and racial attitudes of a couple of generations back. Only the fact that a very substantial proportion of the local population is over 80 years old significantly diminishes the combustability of the mixture of a newly immigrated Hispanic population (often of less than ideal respectability) with a witches’ brew of belligerent white ethnics.

Even half a century ago, when I was a boy, life in the Region drifted along at its own pace, safely removed from the mainstream currents of news and fashion. But, this time, a part of the Region is at the forefront of national political developments.

The city of Hazleton, in Luzerne County, has responded to a one third growth in population by newly-arrived Hispanics post-2000 with drastic steps aimed at illegal immigrants, taking advantage of recent headlines to fuel radical political action in much the way Berkeley, California would. Even worse, Hazleton’s outbreak of Nativism is attracting press coverage, and inspiring the local Solons of other municipalities to emulation.

The LA Times reports:

Under the new law — which is a modified version of a ballot initiative proposed in San Bernardino — anyone seeking to rent a dwelling in the city will have to apply to the city for a residency license, and submit to an investigation of citizenship status. Landlords found renting to people without licenses will be fined $1,000 a day. Business owners found hiring, renting property to, or providing goods and services to illegal immigrants will lose their business permit for five years on a first offense and 10 years on a second.

There is a certain irony in the descendants of the Central European miners, shot down by nativist sheriff’s deputies in 1897 at Lattimer, keeping the old Luzerne County spirit of hospitality alive, just the same as it has always been. I really wonder who it’s going to be that the grandchildren of today’s Mexicans and Dominicans are going to be trying to kick out a hundred years hence.

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UPDATE

Well, Hazleton’s moment as Immigration policy vanguard will soon be over.

A leftwing coalition of rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, is suing Hazleton.

There isn’t going to be a contest. I’m not really sure whether the ACLU’s latte budget exceeds the real estate tax revenues of the city of Hazleton, but you get the idea. Financially speaking, Coal Region communities are definite non-starters in modern litigation battles. The mayor of Hazleton will be waxing the Pennsylvania ACLU head guy’s car on Saturdays henceforward, if that’s what he requires. Experiments in Draconian local policy on illegal immigration will need to be conducted in places like California and Arizona, where cities have the wherewithal to fight.

03 Apr 2006

Who Do You Think You Are?

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On the back page of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Bathsheba Monk goes back home to Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region (where this blog’s author also grew up), to teach a course at the community college in Tamaqua, hoping she can help others to escape. Her message of hope is not well received.

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