Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Eckley Miners' Village. PHMC

Eckley Miners’ Village. PHMC

“A ghost town surrounded by strip mines.” That was how Eckley was described in the 1960s, a far cry from its heyday in the late 1800s when the coal-mining “patch town” had boasted a population of 1,500. At Eckley’s peak, more than 350 men and boys were engaged in mining nearly 144,000 tons of anthracite coal a year from local seams. By the 1960s, however, mining activities had been reduced to strip mining, and the population had declined to fewer than 90 residents, most of them former miners and their families. Yet today, Eckley stands as a cornerstone of the living history program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). How this small mining village in northeastern Pennsylvania rose from abandoned company town to modern museum is a tale of the deliberate actions of preservation-minded local and state officials and the unintentional consequences of a more unlikely partner – Hollywood.

Located in the heart of the anthracite coal region in Luzerne County, Eckley (originally known as Fillmore) was a company town that grew up around the Council Ridge Colliery. Its first mine was drilled in 1854 and the earliest houses in the village were constructed that same year. By 1855 so much coal was being mined there that a branch of the Lehigh Valley Railroad had been extended to the village. Only five years later, the enterprise had proven so profitable that the town included 150 houses, a sawmill, a hotel, a company store, several shops and three churches. By 1873 two breakers were needed to process the coal. Breakers were massive structures where workers, often young boys, separated the coal from slate and rock while large rollers broke the coal into smaller pieces.

The expanding town’s layout reflected the social hierarchy of its residents, with the village divided into four sections. The more ornate houses of the proprietors were located at the western end of the village, farthest from the more modest housing for the common miners and laborers. Housing for the boss laborers and contractors formed a kind of buffer zone between these two extremes.

As in other company towns from this period, the workers’ houses were built quickly and cheaply with little consideration for durability. Workers’ residences in Eckley were constructed using one of three standardized plans based on the occupation of the resident: Superintendents lived in single, two-story houses; first-class, or contract, miners were provided with two-and-a-half-story double houses; and second-class miners and unskilled laborers occupied one-and-a-half-story double houses. Exterior walls typically featured vertical plank construction with clapboard siding, and makeshift insulation such as newspaper filled the walls. Gable roofs topped the houses, which were painted red and trimmed with black because those colors were the least expensive. Additions to the miners’ and laborers’ dwellings, sheds and outbuildings were haphazard and constructed as needed, often in the form of unfinished lean-tos built of salvaged materials.


This map, adapted from an 1873 plan, shows three streets of Eckley with the proprietor’s house at the west end of town and breakers at east and south. PHMC

This map, adapted from an 1873 plan, shows three streets of Eckley with the proprietor’s house at the west end of town and breakers at east and south. PHMC

Throughout the 1880s, the mining field was extended and new slopes continued to open. The town in turn expanded to include three streets of houses. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, strip mining was introduced at Eckley, ringing in a new era of more efficient and less labor-intensive mining. Instead of drilling shafts and tunneling to extract the coal, steam shovels were used to remove earth (the overburden), exposing coal seams so that the anthracite could be mined from above. While this method of obtaining coal was more expedient for the company, it marked the beginning of the village’s decline as the new operations required fewer workers. Consequently many miners left Eckley for other communities.

Despite having increased production to 300,000 tons of coal per year by the 1920s, the population dwindled, falling below 600 residents. Many vacant houses were razed by the coal company, which was common company policy. Over time the original sawmill operation, the first company store, the hotel, the railroad station and two churches also disappeared. The breaker that loomed over the town became a washery in 1911, and all coal was trucked to Hazelton to be broken there. The backstreets on either side of Main Street fell victim to the expanding strip mining operations, and their remaining buildings were demolished.

In 1963 Coxe Brothers, the company that had owned the mine since 1886, finally went out of business. As part of the liquidation of their estate, George Huss (later Huss Contracting Co.), a local mine operator in Ringtown who had been strip mining in the area since the 1940s, purchased the town to expand the company’s operations. Under Huss, a few former miners and their families continued to occupy some of the remaining houses. Eckley seemed on the verge of extinction.


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Enter Martin Ritt (1914-90), a successful Hollywood producer and director, perhaps best known at the time for Hud and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. By 1968 Ritt and colleague Walter Bernstein (1919-) were in the developing stages with Paramount Studios for a movie about the Molly Maguires, the secret 19th-century organization of coal miners who purportedly directed violent confrontations with mine operators in the late 1880s in their struggle for better working conditions. Bernstein first learned about the organization in his studies at Dartmouth in the 1930s and had initially approached Ritt in the 1950s about turning the story into a film. It was not until the mid-1960s, however, that they had the script and studio backing to make it.

Bernstein, a self-professed communist, and Ritt, a one-time member of the Communist Party, had both been blacklisted by the entertainment industry in the 1950s for their political views. The story of The Molly Maguires, with its theme of betrayal set against a backdrop of class conflict and rapacious capitalists, became a labor of love for both of them. Bernstein viewed his script as a response to film director Elia Kazan, who had served as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), identifying alleged communists in Hollywood, and whose hero in On the Waterfront turns informer against unscrupulous union bosses.

Despite their ideological attachments, Ritt and Bernstein were committed to providing an accurate historical portrait of the events. This commitment would prove to be expensive. The initial $8 million budget included the salaries of an all-star cast featuring Sean Connery, coming off a hugely popular run as James Bond; Richard Harris, most recently starring in Camelot; and Samantha Eggar, who had been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for the 1965 film The Collector. The Pocono Record reported the price tag rose even higher to $11 million because of “Hollywood’s perennial devotion to authenticity down to the color, size and texture of the high button shoe era in which the film takes place.”

In his script, for which he conducted extensive research in the Library of Congress, university archives and Pennsylvania newspapers, Bernstein strove for accuracy, both factually and visually. Ritt, who would later refer to The Molly Maguires as his favorite film, was dedicated to its authenticity and “wanted his actors totally immersed in the atmosphere of a bleak coal mining town.” That it would be filmed on location, a practice that was gaining in popularity after World War II, was without question. The difficulty was where to film it, especially given the region’s physical changes since the time in which the film was set.


Lobby card for The Molly Maguires of a scene featuring Sean Connery as John Kehoe and Bethel Leslie as his wife, with Eckley buildings in the background. Eckley Miners' Village

Lobby card for The Molly Maguires of a scene featuring Sean Connery as John Kehoe and Bethel Leslie as his wife, with Eckley buildings in the background. Eckley Miners’ Village

The film’s art director, Tambi Larsen (1914-2001), began scouring Pennsylvania for possible locations. According to the Huntingdon Daily News, Larsen selected Eckley and “its one street lined with dreary buildings” after having toured 700 miles of Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties between April 1967 and February 1968. “Eckley was the only town he found that still looked 100 years old.” David Golden, a location scout and production manager, described Eckley as “the closest to an old company town that we saw in the area … very little change has been made in the buildings since they were built.”

The town had another more practical aspect to recommend it as a film location. Still operated as a company town, a single owner, George Huss, held title to all the land in Eckley; therefore only one lease had to be negotiated for filming. Paramount met the terms required by the company, and the town’s 86 residents were compensated. In exchange for the inconvenience during filming as well as additional fees for house cleaning, the tenants received six months’ rent. As an added incentive, studio officials promised each head of household, or their children, some part in the movie.

With the lease of the town negotiated, Larsen and his team began making minor modifications to fully restore Eckley to its late 19th-century appearance. The team pored over old photographs of the town to ensure a realistic depiction. Utility poles were removed and telephone and electrical lines were run underground. Nonhistoric elements were eliminated: electric meters covered, television aerials taken down, hedges removed, and fake brick siding covered with weatherboards. The houses were painted slate green, and paved streets were covered with earth and a layer of coal dust. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which had not been used for the previous six years, was renovated inside and out, and tombstones were added to the graveyard. Three new structures were erected for the film: a mule barn, a company store, and a wooden coal breaker. While the store and barn were proper buildings, the 96-foot breaker was truly a prop, essentially a large empty box created of telephone poles clad in boards and constructed at 2/3 scale. The studio’s props department also built a simulated mine entrance and railroad tracks for trains.

Twenty temporary buildings were constructed to house the production studios’ various units, including wardrobe, makeup and the production office. Mimicking the town dwellings in outward appearance, the units were built on the old backstreets to create an illusion of a full-size village. Even Eckley’s trees were modified to heighten the bleak atmosphere. Birches had dotted the town in the 1870s, so most of the existing trees were felled and new birches were planted. Some larger trees were allowed to remain but were sprayed with a coal-dust color to reduce their vibrancy. When filming began in May 1968, a dozen locals were hired to remove buds from the trees to maintain the dreary ambiance.


Richard Harris, far left, and Sean Connery, far right, relax on location at Eckley during the filming of The Molly Maguires. Eckley Miners' Village

Richard Harris, far left, and Sean Connery, far right, relax on location at Eckley during the filming of The Molly Maguires. Eckley Miners’ Village

Most importantly, Bernstein and Ritt’s script put forth a revisionist narrative that recast the legacy of the Molly Maguires, not as terrorists or outlaws, but as working-class heroes who resorted to violence to achieve equality. The reinterpretation was consistent with the liberalizing politics of the era and anticipated the rise of the new ethnic nationalism of the 1970s. (This trend would continue throughout the 1970s, culminating in Schuylkill County’s official recognition of the Molly Maguires as advocates for the working class and an official statement from Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp in 1978 recognizing “these martyred men of labor.” The following year, John Kehoe, the leading figure in the movie, received a posthumous pardon from Shapp for his alleged role in the Molly Maguires.)

In addition to this trend of revisionist history at the time of filming, a drive for historic preservation was sweeping the nation. Writers like Jane Jacobs were raising the country’s awareness about the built environment, and the public was becoming more conscious of the loss of historic buildings. This coincided with a national interest in heritage tourism, beyond the static shrines to the Founding Fathers and the memorial-strewn Civil War battlefields. An appreciation for vernacular architecture was taking hold, and open-air “folk” and industrial museums with artifacts of everyday life were on the rise. Nostalgia for preindustrial America reflected the disenchantment with postwar modernism.

In Pennsylvania, this interest was exhibited in PHMC’s Operation Heritage. The 1959 initiative, spearheaded by longtime director S.K. Stevens (1904-74), proposed using heritage tourism to drive economic development and in turn expand and modernize PHMC’s infrastructure of historic sites. The first sites proposed included themed preindustrial museums: The Pennsylvania Farm Museum (Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum); Drake Well Memorial Park, which aimed to create an oil village of the 1860s; and the Museum of the Pennsylvania Pioneer (Daniel Boone Homestead). A more loosely defined theme related to coal mining was also proposed: an anthracite museum complex to celebrate the northeastern coal region that extended across Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzern, Northumberland and Columbia counties.


Bird’s-eye view of Eckley, with the movie prop breaker in the lower right corner, c. 1970. PHMC/Department of Architecture and Preservation

Bird’s-eye view of Eckley, with the movie prop breaker in the lower right corner, c. 1970. PHMC/Department of Architecture and Preservation

Across the nation, living history museums were becoming increasingly popular. In the 1950s there had been a proliferation of outdoor history museums that featured, preserved or recreated communities, often complete with costumed interpreters and craft demonstrations. The practice of living history became even more popular when a new social history – a democratized approach to the past that celebrated the history of ordinary Americans – took hold in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce saw the opportunity to be part of this story and capitalize on the rising interest in the history of the working class and the experience of other underdocumented minorities. By early 1967 reports of PHMC’s intention to create an anthracite museum complex and its active search for a representative site were circulating in local newspapers. In response, the chamber created the Anthracite Museum Committee, a group dedicated to bringing a portion of the proposed anthracite heritage museum to the Hazleton area.

At the time the committee was formed, Eckley was not a shoo-in for the mining community of choice. Minutes from one of the committee’s meetings in 1967 noted that other patch towns such as Audenried in Carbon County were also being considered. The Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce, already involved in bringing Paramount to Eckley for the filming of The Molly Maguires, saw an opportunity to further benefit from the town’s role in the film. Members of their Anthracite Museum Committee, devoted to preserving the intact 19th-century site and bringing revenue associated with heritage tourism to the area, contacted Stevens at PHMC to request that Eckley be considered for the honor.

In May 1968 the committee presented a brochure to PHMC advocating for Eckley’s inclusion in the anthracite museum complex. The brief extolled “the advantageous location of Hazleton as the ‘capital’ of the Middle Coal Field and its modern day location as Crossroads of the East on the interstate highway system.” It emphasized the role Eckley was to play in the filming of The Molly Maguires and pointed out nearby tourist attractions, such as the reservoir in the Poconos, and historic highlights of the region, including famous mine disasters and labor disputes.

The committee found a sympathetic audience with Stevens, undoubtedly because its plans for the mining village conformed so well to the vision set forth in PHMC’s Operation Heritage. Eckley, on the verge of becoming a ghost town, had all the ingredients to be a successful living history museum: historic buildings, a story of local industry with regional and even national implications, and a narrative highlighting the experiences of ordinary people. This was all amplified by Eckley’s forthcoming visibility as the backdrop to a Hollywood movie.

With PHMC on board for the inclusion of Eckley in the planned anthracite complex, the committee began to mobilize for the purchase of the mining village and its subsequent transfer to the state. On July 12, 1968, the museum committee was incorporated as the Anthracite Historic Site and Museum Corporation, a nonprofit that could fundraise and work to make the committee’s vision for preserving the historic town a reality.

Three buildings at Eckley show the social status of Eckley residents: from top, the mine owner's house, a miners' double dwelling, and a laborers' double dwelling. PHMC

Three buildings at Eckley show the social status of Eckley residents: from top, the mine owner’s house, a miners’ double dwelling, and a laborers’ double dwelling. PHMC/Photos by Bode Morin (top) and Craig A. Benner (middle and bottom)

Interestingly, the idea to preserve Eckley coincided with a national grass roots preservation movement, capped by passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966. While the law focused on protecting historic resources from being negatively affected by federally funded projects, it had other effects on the way preservation was practiced. Prior to the passage of the act, most preservation activities focused on commemoration of established national heroes. With NHPA, sites with statewide or local significance were also recognized as worthy of preservation. It was an appreciation for the importance of preserving this patch town that allowed the corporation to garner the support, both financial and political, of the local community.

Under Senate Bill 260, introduced on February 25, 1969, by Sen. Martin L. Murray, the state legislature authorized PHMC to take over the village. The purpose was to “relate the story of the role of ethnic groups in the coal region and of labor in the anthracite coal industry.”

With no time to lose, the corporation quickly began fundraising for the purchase of Eckley and opened negotiations with owner George Huss. In 1969 the corporation announced that it had arranged to buy the 73-acre town and its buildings from the strip mine operator for $100,000. The corporation raised $61,000 from local residents’ donations and another $25,000 from Paramount. The studio also provided the final $14,000 based on anticipated profits from the film. The corporation received, one additional, nonmonetary gift from the movie studio. On December 3, 1969, Paramount agreed to leave some of its movie sets for inclusion in the “living museum,” including the slope opening, the breaker and the store. On December 31, 1969, the Hazleton Standard-Speaker announced that the title to Eckley had been acquired by the corporation, with the intention of handing the site over to the state once the paperwork was complete.

PHMC’s vision to turn Eckley into a living history museum dedicated to the stories of everyday miners relied in part on having the village’s remaining residents continue to occupy the buildings. At the time of the sale, Huss had been renting the existing houses to some 62 families for $11 a month. The rent was considered less important than the benefit the site would receive from real residents who could add vibrancy and authenticity to the patch town. Stevens felt it important to retain the existing tenants and proposed that new tenants be recruited “as soon as suitable living space becomes available” to contribute to the sense of the historic site as an active village.

On April 8, 1970, two months after The Molly Maguires premiered, the corporation presented Eckley to the state in exchange for a token payment of $1. In a public ceremony held on the porch of the recreated company store, Governor Raymond Shafer accepted the deed and spoke: “Eckley, as restored by Paramount, will be preserved as the only outdoor village museum devoted to the story of anthracite. . . . In portraying the economy of a yesterday we are stimulating a phase of our economy today.”

Also on hand for the ceremony was Joe Falatko, an Eckley native whose father was killed in 1934 in the No. 2 slope coal mine. “It isn’t real,” Falatko admitted. “But it does bring back memories of the real thing, the real, dirty, clanking breaker back of the No. 2 slope and the colliery buildings, the ‘lokies’ and coal cars we hitched rides on.”

Upon receiving the property, the commonwealth immediately listed it in the National Register of Historic Places, the list of significant historic sites across the country developed under NHPA. The listing reflected a new approach to historic preservation, as the inclusion of this mining town denoted a revised conception of which places were considered important. In addition, the act ushered in a greater understanding of what constituted historic districts, with assemblages of buildings like the town of Eckley being designated. Within the boundary of Eckley Historic District, 54 primary buildings, including houses, a church and a doctor’s office, were considered to contribute to the historic significance of the town. Although under PHMC’s plan the buildings left by Paramount were to be preserved as part of the village and interpreted as modern structures, they were not deemed historically significant under the nomination.

Eckley Miners' Village today. PHMC/Photo by Bode Morin

Eckley Miners’ Village today. PHMC/Photo by Bode Morin

Of course, once the property was turned over to the commonwealth, the question became, How to restore it? A master plan, undertaken in 1972, determined that the houses should be restored to about 1857, the proposed period of significance. In order to support the commonwealth’s development of the town as a living history museum, the report recommended conducting a comprehensive evaluation of existing infrastructure and providing a centralized sanitary system. It called out the need to accommodate the vehicles not only of residents but also of visitors, with new access routes and parking. With the town’s new role as a museum, the plan recommended the construction of a new visitor center with exhibits and the inclusion of the modern Paramount-erected features in the site’s programming. It acknowledged that the goal of turning the mining town into an exciting living history museum would depend heavily on the interpretation of the village and its surroundings “involving the imaginative use of ideas and devices that will interest and encourage response by the visitor.”

The restoration of the village received a boost from the burgeoning environmental movement. The practice of strip mining, which had been on the rise since World War II, was beginning to face political opposition from local communities in the 1960s. Although active resistance in the form of militant actions against mining operations was isolated, the damage caused by strip mining received much public attention and concern. In coal-heavy Pennsylvania, grass roots protest over the environmental impacts of strip mining culminated with the passage of the Land and Water Conservation and Reclamation Act (also known as Act 443) in 1968. Among other provisions, Act 443 provided funds by means of a $500 million bond approved by voters in May 1967 to convert abandoned mines into state parks and forests for conservation and recreational use. Known as Operation Scarlift, or Project 500, the improvements made under this act repaired environmental damage caused by abandoned mines, acid mine drainage and other issues associated with mine operations, while providing recreation-based improvements.

Eckley’s location on reclaimed, strip-mined land made it eligible to receive Project 500 funding. State officials used this money to restore eight houses for public visitation and to construct a visitor center. In addition to restoring the historic structures, however, stabilization was needed for the nonhistoric improvements that had been intended only as movie props. In 1970 PHMC director Stevens reported on the less-than-ideal state of the movie props turned museum pieces: The wooden breaker “consists only of three sides of the full structure. The rear is completely open, contains no restrictive walls or fences and is completely vulnerable to any visitor who might choose to enter. This presents a safety hazard as well as a serious fire hazard.” This created a question of balancing improvement projects between real historic structures and those recreations that helped complete the image of the company town.

PHMC has continued to maintain this balance throughout its ownership of the patch town. Today, 40 years after Eckley Miners’ Village first opened to visitors, infrastructure improvements continue to be made. Historic houses are restored with ongoing maintenance. Movie props have also been maintained, with repairs to the breaker made on multiple occasions over the last four decades. Today, the site remains a full-scale living exhibit of the anthracite coal company town and its inhabitants during the 19th century, as well as a memorial to the mid-20th-century ideal made possible by the environmental and preservation movements of a new democratized social history that recognizes the importance of the ordinary man.


For more information on tours, events and programs at Eckley Miners’ Village, call 570-636-2070 or visit the Eckley Miners’ Village website.


The author and editor acknowledge Bode Morin, site administrator at Eckley Miners’ Village, for his assistance on this article.


Andrea W. Lowery, R.A., is an architect and architectural historian. She specializes in historic preservation for PHMC’s Division of Architecture and Preservation, which maintains the agency’s statewide collection of historic buildings. Her previous articles for Pennsylvania Heritage include “Reimagining William Penn: Janet de Coux and the Creation of a Pennsylvania Icon” (Summer 2015) and “Louis Kahn and Midcentury Modern Philadelphia” (Winter 2015).