Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1904, the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company began deep mining in Ernest, Pennsylvania. In 1965, the industry there came to an end. Between these two dates, people lived out their lives in this small community northwest of Indiana, where for over sixty years every facet of existence revolved around the digging of coal from the hillsides surrounding the town. But what was life like in a company-owned mining community? The best answers to this question are found in the memories of the people who lived there.

There is no one now living in Ernest who can recall the days before coal mining. But many residents of the town remember hearing their parents say that several farms once stood near the present site. Some of these first settlers left a family cemetery above Tunnel Hill Road; men who hunt in the area know where to find the granite tombstones placed on the spot in the 1860’s by John and Rhoda Frech to mark the graves of their four children.

In 1904, the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company transferred its industry to Ernest from Jefferson County. The mines of Jefferson County had been leading producers of coke for Pittsburgh iron manufacturers. The coal supply there had been depleted by 1904, but some of the veins in the new Ernest location measured six feet thick.

The R&P hastily hired carpenters to build single and double frame houses for the workers who arrived seemingly overnight. Many miners and their families followed the company from Jefferson County, but more came directly from Europe via New York. Men heard that there was money to be made in the mines and they came from England, Scotland, and Czechoslovakia, where they had already spent years of their lives under the ground mining coal. Still more arrived from Poland, Lithuania, Italy, and other countries. The “melting pot” ideal of America was truly realized in Ernest, for by 1909 thirteen different nationalities were represented in the new town.

In addition to houses, the growing population needed other buildings, and in 1905 the coal company built a two-story public school, plus a community hall furnished with complete kitchen facilities. Churches were centers of community activity dating from the same year, when Amos Cravener organized the American Sunday School Union. The group first met in a small building in a fruit orchard known as the “Black House.” Aided financially by the coal company, the congregation in 1909 built a frame structure named the Union Church to denote the fact that several Protestant denominations were included in the parish. This building burned to the ground in 1922 and was replaced by the present church.

The Roman Catholics built their church in 1911, thus adding another house of worship to the town. Unfortunately, fire destroyed this building also; it was replaced in 1919 by the brick structure presently in use.

The Catholic Church’s first priest, Father Emilio Farri, stayed until 1947 and is remembered with respect in Ernest as an authority figure who ruled his parish and the town with an iron hand. Church suppers, both Protestant and Catholic, provided a source of fellowship in the community and were attended by both faiths.

Ernest needed boarding houses during the years of heavy immigration, for after 1900 many young men arrived alone in the new country. Married men came without wives, planning to send to Europe for their families when a home had been prepared for them. The R&P opened a doctor’s office; a qualified physician and his nurse stood ready around the clock in case of illness or accident.

The coal industry itself required certain structures for its operation, and soon a tipple, power house, bee hive, coke ovens, machine shop, and company office formed part of the town. As a social nicety, the R&P built wooden sidewalks to protect pedestrians from the mud and refuse in the streets.

By 1916 Ernest was a thriving mining community with a school, two churches, a barbershop, and a company store so large that it served as a warehouse for all other such stores in Indiana County.

But men who mine coal work closely with death, and accidents and explosions are part of the history of every mining town. As early as 1905, a man lost his arm and the sight of both eyes when a spark from his “Sunshine” lamp ignited the dynamite he was carrying. In an exceptional year, no deaths occurred, but miners and their families lived in constant fear of cave-ins, explosions, and the formation of poisonous gases, which were normal hazards of their occupation.

Ernest’s worst mine disaster occurred in the winter of 1916 when gas ignited in the number two mine. The resulting explosion left black crepe hanging on the doors of nearly half the houses in Ernest.

At the time of the blast, no one on the outside heard a sound, as the explosion occurred at the end of a three-mile-long tunnel towards Indiana. Motorman Jimmy Moody first brought the news of the disaster to the surface. He had taken the men into the mine that morning in the little train of cars called the “man-trip.” Upon returning at the end of the shift to bring out the loaded cars, Jimmy found the bodies of the dead miners, most of whom had died from asphyxiation.

No whistle or siren blew to alert the town when Jimmy summoned help, for crowds could have made rescue attempts more difficult. But word spread rapidly, and most of the community waited in the freezing weather as volunteers carried twenty-seven men out of the mine, their bodies wrapped in mine burlap. Friends and relatives held funerals for the miners; some of the dead were buried in the cemetery of St. Bernard’s Church near Indiana, where their graves may still be seen. Several of the victims were boarding house boys and known only by their first names.

The R&P sealed the number two mine after the disaster, but in the manner of coal companies everywhere then, awarded little compensation to the families left without a provider. However, widows of the dead men were permitted to remain in the company houses as long as they could pay the rent. Some housewives took in washing, did wallpapering, and turned their homes into boarding houses in order to provide for their children. That the widows of the men who died in the explosion of 1916 managed to survive without their husbands’ salaries speaks eloquently of the spirit of these early Ernest residents.

With the outbreak of the First World War, munitions factories needed great quantities of coal and coke, and miners all over the country did their share by keeping the mines open seven days a the week instead of the usual five or six.

In the waning days of the War, Spanish flu struck the town. Like some other Indiana County coal mining communities, Ernest suffered many deaths from the mysterious disease, and at the height of the epidemic volunteer crews converted the community hall into a 200-bed field hospital.

Prosperity marked the mining industry in Ernest in the years following the war. In 1931, twelve hundred men worked in the Ernest mines and coke ovens. A foreman announced the day’s work schedule at three o’clock on the previous evening by a code of whistle blasts from the company office. One whistle blast meant that there would be work the next day, while three indicated that the mines would be closed. There were many single whistle blasts in the early twenties, when men sometimes worked twenty-two hour days. One woman remembers seeing her father drop down behind the kitchen stove to sleep, exhausted and fully clothed, until he was called out to work again two hours later.

In 1920, a miner worked hard for his money and sometimes had little to show for his labors. In those days men dug coal with a pick and shovel and hand-loaded it, and a miner received pay only for the coal he mined himself. The company in 1920 paid thirty-eight cents a ton; on a productive day a man might mine ten tons. At the end of each shift a supervisor, at the tipple, weighed the coal and each miner knew exactly how much money he had earned.

Many deductions were taken out of the pay envelopes before miner took it home. In 1925, when a miner earned an average of twenty dollars a week, six dollars each month went for rent on the company house, and a dollar and twenty-five cents for house coal. Three dollars a month was deducted for medical care; this ensured that the miner and his family could see the company doctor as often as necessary. Most of the remainder of the miner’s income remained with the company store, often before he had earned it.

Popular folklore may preserve a mental image of the company store taking unfair advantage of coal town residents, but in Ernest, memories are different. People who lived in Ernest in the twenties and thirties recall that better shoes, clothing, household items, and groceries could not be found elsewhere. Ernest citizens were not forced to buy at the company store, but with only the hourly streetcar to Indiana for transportation, trading in their home town seemed practical.

In the spring and fall a tailor set up shop in the store, taking orders and measurements for Sunday suits. Many older people living in Ernest remember that on the evening before the Fourth of July, the store sent around a clerk to take special orders for a once-a-year treat – ice cream, which arrived early on the holiday morning packed in dry ice.

In addition to food and clothing, each miner bought his own dynamite and headlamp carbon at the same place. In its heyday the Ernest company store employed two butchers and six clerks. With a post office as part of its services, the store made a fine place for neighbors to meet and discuss events.

Then as now, certain families ran into debt through reckless spending. When this happened at the company store, the head clerk placed a fifty-cent limit on the amount a particular family could spend, or removed what she considered to be unnecessary items from its grocery list.

Sometimes, a man’s deductions equaled or exceeded his weekly pay. In the instance, a wiggly black line known as a “snake” was the only notation beside his name on the payroll. The paymaster then notified the company store and that miner’s family would find its spending severely limited.

Often the more enterprising citizens of Ernest supplemented their company store order with other methods of filling the family larder. Horsedrawn fruit and vegetable wagons frequently made the trip from local farms to Ernest, and a baker also came around town hawking his wares. Most early Ernest residents kept a few chickens, geese, or pigs. Neighbors celebrated when a hog met its end and families gathered together to make sausage, bacon, and scrapple. Housewives served lard as a spread on bread, and to seal crocks of preserved meat in the days before refrigeration.

Huge vegetable patches filled every available inch of space around the houses; one longtime dweller in Ernest remembers that when she and her family moved in the town in the early 1900’s, there was not a blade of grass to be seen. For many years the R&P held garden contests with cash prizes offered for the best display in each Indiana County coal town. When strikes or layoffs exhausted all these means of survival, the company store could usually be counted on to give away bags of less than perfect flour and produce to families in obvious need.

Amusements in the coal town before the advent of the automobile were, like miners’ underwear, homemade. Naturally, many entertainments were ethnic in origin. “Ducking Day,” for example, may have come to Ernest with the Poles, although no one knows for sure. Practiced on the first Monday and Tuesday after Easter, this harmless spring ritual consisted of men and women, on alternate days, attempting to douse each other with pails of water. The religious meaning of this sport, if any, has been lost in time; but many in Ernest fondly remember “Ducking Day” as part of the town’s past.

For years, the Scottish contingent in Ernest had their day on January 25, the birthday of their beloved poet Robert Burns. Each year on this date the Scots held a festive celebration at the community hall. A small dance orchestra, composed of members of the community, played to a full house of Italians, Russians, Lithuanians, Czechs, and representatives of several other nationalities joined together to commemorate the birth of the great Scottish literary figure.

Another after-Easter event took place annually when the Greek Catholics decorated their front porches with branches of evergreen, creating for a brief time colorful accents among the otherwise uniformly grey houses. Dances were held, usually weekly, at the community hall, with spirited polkas provided by local talent.

In 1931 a group of musicians formed the Ernest Band, which still exists today although town residents no longer make up the majority of its members.

In winter months, the R&P sponsored sleigh rides for the whole community, and created a skating pond by damming up the creek behind the store. The distinctly American sport of baseball caught on early in Ernest as it did in all the other coal towns, increasing in popularity until in 1930 the R&P Coal Company had its own league.

Some Ernest citizens remember excitement of a less harmless variety. One woman will never forget a night in 1920 when she witnessed two housewives in the backyard above her engaged in a pitched battle with breadknives. A man who has lived in Ernest for fifty years relates the tale of a miner found shot to death near the coke ovens; authorities never solved the apparent murder. One Fourth of July, two men journeyed out to Ernest by streetcar for a picnic and ended up drawing pistols on each other when a basket containing beer could not be located.

During the long, arduous unionization process, many strikes occurred, and the infamous Coal and Iron Police patrolled the town for a time to prevent public gatherings of more than two or three persons. In the early twenties the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the hill behind the Catholic church, providing an eerie sight for Ernest residents watching from their windows.

Children formed a large part of the population of Ernest during the years between the world wars, but in the early days of the town childhood itself was often short as youngsters quickly assumed adult responsibilities. Children frequently looked after themselves, for fathers were absent for long periods of time and mothers were preoccupied with an endless round of housework.

Before the thirties, when federal legislation banned child labor, boys could enter the mines at fourteen, and some did. Girls, and young men who did not want to be miners, found work in Indiana factories such as the Diamond Glass Works, now the site of the Indiana University stadium parking lot. Glass company employees traveled “uptown” on the trolley to jobs, which in 1925 paid seventeen cents an hour for a day’s work lasting from seven in the morning until five-fifteen. Other girls went into Indiana to do housework for families who paid an average of three dollars a day.

Younger as well as older residents of Ernest remember the public school which remained in use until the early sixties. Grades one through eight were taught in Ernest; students travelled to Indiana for the remaining years of their education.

In 1936, Father Farri directed the building of a parochial school as well as a convent to house the nuns who came there to teach. The R&P supplied free coal to both schools as well as to all other public facilities; many alumni of the Ernest school system remember filling the coal scuttles on frosty mornings.

Parents who could afford it supplemented their children’s education with private piano lessons given by a music teacher who came out once a week from Marion Center.

Many of the town’s sons and daughters have gone on to college; Ernest has produced fourteen teachers, eleven registered nurses, eight clergymen and three physicians. Several families are proud to say that their boys have gone into the mines, happily with safer working conditions than those experienced by their fathers and grandfathers.

Children in coal towns, like their parents, made their own fun. In 1918 Ernest boasted a nickelodeon, where for five cents one could see silent movies and newsreels. For those without the necessary nickel, the nickelodeon had a long porch in front of it with holes in the walls strategically placed for peeping at the activity inside.

Both boys and girls enjoyed run-sheep-run, sometimes under the stern Father Farri’s back windows. Boys liked a game called “caddy,” which resembled baseball. They also played mumblypeg with penknives, and carried their “commies,” (marbles) to school in case rain forced an indoor recess.

In 1920, the Boy Scouts of America issued a charter to the Ernest troop. Some rules and regulations of the group included the prohibition of smoking, chewing, and spitting on the floor; “cussing and swearing” was an offense punishable by being made to run to Creekside and back.

Girls played with paper dolls made from old Sears, Roebuck catalogs. Many women who grew up in Ernest remember that when they reached their teens and began to “court,” a walk to the ice cream parlor in Creekside constituted their first date.

The Ernest mines continued to produce a good grade of bituminous coal through the fifties, but by the sixties, it proved too expensive to transport coal the nearly fourteen miles to the surface. The R&P began to taper off its Ernest operation until the mine finally closed in 1965.

The company attempted to mitigate the economic shock to the community by relocating as many jobless miners as possible. Some men found employment in other mines, while some went to the University, or to Syntron. Others were ready for retirement and took their pensions. As the company houses came up for sale, residents were able to buy the homes they had lived in for thirty or forty years.

The public school and the company store are gone, and the community hall is now a ruin. But large deposits of coal, presently inaccessible, still lie underneath the site, and some hope that the mines will open again, and Ernest will be again in reality the active coal town that now exists only in memory.

 

Eileen Cooper recently completed her M.A. in history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is presently working on a history of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company. Her research was supported by a grant from the Public Committee for the Humanities in Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Humanities.