Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

Wish You Were Here

Those unfamiliar with Pennsylvania’s ethnic geography might be surprised to see a 1918 postcard penned in Russian like this one sent from Hazleton, Luzerne County, which translates as, “Tomorrow we are moving to a different place. Here is the address…. Greetings and kisses.”

Following earlier immigration waves of primarily Northern and Western Europeans, the United States experienced an influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans between the 1860s and 1920s. Many of these immigrants were drawn to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mines for employment. Veins of clean-burning anthracite run from Susquehanna County in the northeast to Dauphin County in the southcentral part of the state, with high concentrations situated in Luzerne County. In 1850 Southern and Eastern Europeans had accounted for less than 1.5 percent of annual U.S. immigration. By the early 20th century that statistic reached 75 percent. In Luzerne County, the total population increased by 389,000 between 1850 and 1930.

Inexperienced Slavic laborers, mostly former peasant farmers, worked less desirable jobs for longer hours and less pay than their seasoned mining counterparts. An exception was the Russian-born M. (Michael) Shapovalov, a pathologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who sent the featured postcard of the Lehigh Valley Coal Co.’s Hazleton Shaft Colliery to his wife Mary. Located within the Eastern Middle Anthracite Field, the colliery commenced anthracite mining in 1898. (Years later, it closed after it was flooded in 1955; its breaker was demolished in the late 1990s.)

Anthracite, delivered by expanding rail lines, fueled rapidly growing industries and increasingly heated buildings in distant cities, but poor working conditions, low pay and lack of safety considerations stoked a burgeoning movement of labor organization in the anthracite region. Mining disasters were a regular occurrence; several transpired in Luzerne County, including the 1869 Avondale Mine fire (110 killed), Pittston’s 1896 Twin Shaft Colliery mine collapse (58 killed), Wilkes-Barre’s 1919 Baltimore Mine Tunnel fire and explosion (92 killed), and the 1959 Knox Mine flood (12 killed).

Slavic immigrants were divisively recruited to complicate communication among miners and stifle organization, but workers ultimately found common cause in bettering their circumstances. A number of historic strikes emanated from Luzerne County, including the 1897 protest that culminated in the Lattimer Massacre, prior to which more than 10,000 employees abandoned their posts, forcing many mines to close. During a September 10 march, 19 unarmed men of Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian descent were shot and killed by the Luzerne County sheriff and a group of deputized Coal and Iron Police; 36 other strikers were wounded.

The Great Depression saw the thriving anthracite industry begin its decline. Following World War II, the emergence and decreasing price of alternative fuels hastened its diminution. A wane in population soon followed; however, the Eastern European immigrants who fed the fires of the industrial revolution indelibly shaped the legacy of Luzerne County. Many churches, organizations, communities, descendants and traditions remain as a cultural testament to the great wave of Slavic immigration.

To experience more on Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal culture, visit PHMC’s Anthracite Heritage Museum and Eckley Miners’ Village. The Pennsylvania State Archives houses many primary resources related to the anthracite industry.

 

Josh Stahlman has been an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives since 2008.