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

One of Pennsylvania’s most significant resources was once considered useless. Although anthracite was distinguished as a natural resource as early as 1770, the sale of “stone coal” – as it was then called – was outlawed in some places. Many believed that anthracite (or “hard” coal) was little better than slate and would not burn. Eventually, however, a succession of venturesome entrepreneurs modified furnace and stove designs and touted anthracite’s advantages, propelling its use in various fields of production and, later, in the heating of both residential and commercial buildings.

In Pennsylvania, from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, nearly every mill and factory, every steam locomotive, and most home furnaces burned coal. Anthracite was preferred instead of bituminous because it burns cleaner, producing less smoke and leaving less ash – and is more efficient in terms of units of heat produced per unit of weight.

Thirty-three states possess deposits of bituminous (or “soft”) coal, including Pennsylvania, but the preponderance of the world’s anthracite is found only in its eastern and northeastern regions of the Keystone state. The anthracite ranges cover four hundred and eighty-four square miles in just nine counties: Dauphin, Schuylkill, Northumberland, Columbia, Carbon, Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wayne, and Susquehanna. Sullivan County has deposits of what is considered semi-anthracite because its percentage of carbon falls between the limits of bituminous coal and those of true anthracite.

The centuries-old saga of Pennsylvania anthracite was given a forum when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) created, in 1971, the Anthracite Museum Complex. This complex is made up of three museums and one historical site located in there communities: the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum and the Scranton Iron Furnaces, both in Scranton, Lackawanna County (see “Who Are These Anthracite People? Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum” by Valerie A. Zehl, Winter 1997); Eckley Miners’ Village near Weatherly, Luzerne County (see “A Jewel in the Crown of Old King Coal: Eckley Miners’ Village,” by Tony Wesolowsky, Winter 1996); and the Museum of Anthracite Mining overlooking the community of Ashland in Schuylkill County. Few places help visitors better understand why Pennsylvania anthracite is so unique, how it was created, and how it was discovered, extracted, processed, and moved to market, than the Museum of Anthracite Mining.

The exhibits and installations of the Museum of Anthracite Mining contain informative, easy to read labels and storyboards and, in some cases, feature interactive multimedia presentations, comprehensive array of artifacts, specialized tools, and equipment is on view surrounded by vintage photographic windows that illuminate the enormity and complexity of the sprawling mine and processing operations called collieries, as well as the despair of hardworking miners living in small villages surrounding these colliers known throughout the coal region as “patches.” Images include views of trains loaded with thousands of tons of processed coal; rare underground scenes of miners at work far below the earth’s surface; and portraits of both men and boys, their faces and hair covered with suffocating black coal dust – each telling a story of a hard life in the hard coal region.

Anthracite reached its apex in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1914, the industry set an employment record when nearly one hundred and eighty thousand men were employed in the mining operations in the Keystone State. Three years later, in 1917, however, employment in the industry sank by twenty-six thousand jobs, to one hundred and fifty-four thousand, but production reached a record level of one hundred million tons of coal. While production, steadily decreased during peacetime, World War I and World War II stimulated temporary surges in demand. After these brief booms ended, coal’s decline resumed. World energy markets, a series of unfortunate mine accidents, and the changing needs of America contributed to the downward spiral of anthracite might.

By 1970, just about six thousand workers extracted only ten million tons of coal a year. Steven Ling, director of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Museum Complex, believes about twenty-five hundred people – including not only miners but support and administrative staff as well – remain unemployed mining hard coal in Pennsylvania. Although anthracite is still used for residential heating, today’s largest customers are power plants. Increasing interest in coal-fueled energy is being stimulated by soaring oil and natural gas prices, but the actual impact remains to be seen.

The story of anthracite in the Keystone State began more than two hundred and seventy million years ago, during the Carboniferous period. Hot, steamy air and geological activity were conducive to forming coal from the millions of years of accumulated plant growth. The amount of water and carbon left behind in the coal and the amount of heat and pressure placed upon it within the earth helped determine the hardness and type of coal, not simply the geological age of the coal bed. (Small amounts of coal are being formed even today.) The Keystone State’s anthracite veins are generally tilted at angles as a result of unique pressures from the folding and cracking of the earth during the formation of mountains and hills. Anthracite contains the highest level of fixed carbon, generally between ninety-two and ninety-eight percent. Bituminous coal has less than eighty-six percent fixed carbon and higher contents of sulfur and volatile compounds, although it possesses qualities important to the production of iron.

The first uses of any type of coal dates back to at least the Bronze Age. Coal was in common use during the Middle Ages, with monks using coal to make some of their famous ironwork, but England’s King Edward I (reigned 1239-1307) imposed the death penalty upon anyone caught using coal because it was believed to give off “poisonous odours.” This bias against coal continued for two centuries, into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1533-1603).

Once the brick fireplace had been perfected, helping to prevent the escape of heavy smoke and fumes into dwellings, it was possible to burn coal for warmth and cooking. The first discovery of coal in this country, in 1673 near present-day Utica, Illinois, was credited to explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette. For more than a century after William Penn established his colony, in 1681, soft coal was imported into Pennsylvania, first from England, and later, after 1745, from Virginia.

Once investors and entrepreneurs believed in the potential of anthracite, they hired professional prospectors and geologists who used hand augers to drill as deep as sixty feet for core samples. Percussion drills and steam-powered drills later gave companies a picture of the coal seams below. By the 1880s, diamond bit drills were used and in the early 1900s, the Calyx Drill, using steel teeth, or thousands of tiny steel shot, enhanced the ability to cut through rock in search of coal. Examples of this equipment, descriptions of how it worked, and actual core samples are on display at the Museum of Anthracite Mining.

Marketing efforts by a few tireless visionaries helped create demand for hard coal and opened the way for the speculators and many mine owners who followed. The War of 1812, unwittingly, was a significant factor in making the public receptive to using anthracite. The war caused a fuel shortage in industrial centers such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York when the import of coal from Great Britain ceased and the British naval blockade halted the normal shipments from Virginia. Most of Philadelphia’s two hundred blacksmiths had already been using bituminous coal, as were businesses manufacturing kilns, guns, nails, soap, candles, beer, liquor, lead, glass, and iron.

Conversion to hard coal seemed to be Philadelphia’s solution, but the iron furnaces designed to handle bituminous, which burned easily, could not burn anthracite as efficiently. Even when they succeeded in igniting anthracite, it did not produce the correct flame for specific manufacturing processes. Because of the simple science of their forges, blacksmiths were among the first to find that anthracite could easily be adapted to their shops. They were satisfied that anthracite produced little smoke, burned longer than a comparable amount of bituminous, and that their hearths required far fewer cleanings. Their success challenged other bituminous coal users to seek conversion. By the end of the wartime blockade, anthracite’s advantages had been successfully demonstrated.

Benjamin Franklin converted a fireplace he had invented in 1741 to coal and subsequently invented two stoves that could burn both anthracite and bituminous coal. Inventor and steam engine manufacturer Oliver Evans (1755-1819) studied how to burn seemingly incombustible materials and received a patent in 1800 for his design of an anthracite stove. Early entrepreneur Jacob Cist (1782-1825) also produced a stove, but with less success. He was more successful in promoting the use of anthracite and made an impact in expanding its market. It wasn’t until the 1830s that truly efficient ignition and combustion devices began to emerge. A watershed year, 1833, two clergymen, Eliphalet Nott and Frederick W. Geissenhainer, unveiled inventions that made it easy to use anthracite in home heating and iron manufacture. Nott patented his home stove and Geissenhainer developed his hot blast device at the Valley Furnace, near Pottsville, Schuylkill County. (The PHMC erected a state historical marker near the site of the Valley Furnace, just east of New Philadelphia, in 1948.)

Exciting reports and enthusiastic testimonials by satisfied users added to the credibility of the promoters, helping them convince merchants and manufacturers to begin using anthracite mined in the Keystone State. The coal trade soon drew many investors, spawned an industrial infrastructure, and developed machinery to perpetuate a new industry. These developments were accompanied by the appearance of many new mines, the settlement of mining towns, and the arrival of hard-working miners, many of them newly-arrived immigrants, eager for an opportunity to make a decent livelihood.

Much later in the century, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad launched one of the most imaginative promotions of anthracite with its fictional character, Phoebe Snow. The rail line was advertised as “The Route of Phoebe Snow.” With a series of catchy rhymes, the popular advertisements depicted Phoebe Snow dressed in white to promote the idea that riding an anthracite coal train was, essentially, a clean experience. The bituminous coal steam locomotives were indeed dirty. Passengers would rarely wear white because their clothing would soon be covered in soot. Even though the anthracite train was a cleaner experience than bituminous, if the windows on the hard coal train were left open, passengers also were likely to find a layer of ash on their clothing.

While the U.S. Bureau of Mines keeps track of the statistics concerning millions of tons of coal and numbers of employees, mining accidents, public consumption, and similar figures, the Museum of Anthracite Mining has not forgotten the hundreds of thousands of men and boys who labored for mining companies. The lives of the miners are recalled at the museum through the tools, implements, and other day-to-day equipment that were once part of their wardrobe, their productivity and, as time passed, became critical to their safety. Each item on display helps visitors imagine what it was like to be a miner.

The museum recognized the contribution of miners and the danger they faced, noting that more than thirty thousand men and boys were killed in accidents. Anthracite mines were inherently more perilous than bituminous mines because they were generally deeper, required more explosives, and contained more gases.

Much has been written about the harsh, life-threatening working conditions, the emergence of the Mollie Maguires, the formation of the United Mine Workers of America, the murders of striking miners, the fight for child labor laws, and the victories of thousands of impoverished miners struggling desperately to feed their families. In some areas of the Commonwealth, working in the mines was the only hope for employment for generation after generation. Early twentieth-century miners’ wages and hours are reflected in a payroll book of the Potts Mine of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, near Ashland, dated November 1918. Miners usually worked eight to ten hours each day, but working up to sixteen hours daily was not unusual. Weekly wages ranged from $10.52 to $11.82. Skilled laborers, such as timbermen, earned $15.77 weekly. By comparison, a general foreman earned one hundred and forty dollars a week.

Another component of mining is represented at the museum – the timbers supporting the mineshaft. Most commonly used were round logs, six to twenty-four inches in diameter, that were stronger and cheaper than cut lumber. Laborers were constantly busy erecting new supports and replacing old or damaged timber. An outright collapse in the mine did not necessarily mean faulty timbering. The best timbering job could not withstand being overcome by powerful geological forces – as well as the earth’s above it. The main purpose of timbering was to prevent loose pieces of the roof or wall from falling inside the mine.

Above the mine tunnels and shafts, breaker buildings dominated the landscape of anthracite towns. “The breakers squatted upon the hillsides and in the valley like enormous preying monsters, eating of the sunshine, the grass, the green leaves,” wrote novelist Stephen Crane of his visit to a Scranton colliery in 1894. “The smoke from the nostrils had ravaged the air of coolness and fragrance.” Gideon Bast, of the Wolf Creek Colliery, near Minersville, Schuylkill County, built the first breaker structure in 1844. Companies had invested millions of dollars in breakers and by 1876, three hundred and fifty breakers stood throughout the region. The buildings were tall – one hundred feet was not uncommon – because the coal had to be lifted high so that gravity would propel it down chutes through several processing areas.

Crushing and sizing is more important for anthracite than it is for bituminous coal. Paired, inward tuning cylinders were the standard crushing devices, and an 1895 model of a “bull crusher” is on display in the museum. Next in the processing of the coal was separating it by size, removing unwanted matter (such as slate), and cleaning with water. Separating into fairly exact sizes is more important for anthracite than bituminous because each lump size is tailored for specific energy needs. Included among thirteen sizes on display at the museum are “steamboat” coal, ranging from four and three-eighths to six inches in diameter; “stove” coal, four and three-eighths to six inches; and “buckwheat” coal, no bigger than seven-sixteenths inch. This exact segregation was achieved with sizing screens, or metal mesh shakers, vibrating at rates ranging from ninety to two hundred and eighty shakes per minute. To those unfamiliar with the coal preparation, cleaning it may seem a superfluous process, but this was an important marketing step in competing with bituminous coal. Promotional literature for a water spray nozzle, on display at the museum patented in 1910 by Isaac Beaver of Wilburton, Columbia County, extols the benefits of coal that is “clean and shiny.” Dust was reduced in the breakers, non-combustible residue was removed and, more important to sellers, the coal’s appearance achieved a metallic look from the spray washing to help convince buyers that hard coal was superior to soft coal.

Among the more gripping photographs on display at the museum are those of the breaker boys, or slate pickers, who sat astride breaker chutes, through which the coal roared, and picked out slate and other debris by hand. Boys as young as eight, working ten-hour days, began their coal careers in the breakers. They were paid less than the adults who performed the same work and faced the hazard of hand injuries or even falling into the chutes. Some breaker boys were the sons of miners who had been killed or disabled, often the only remaining source of income for their families. In 1900, boys accounted for one-sixth of anthracite’s work force. Fifteen years earlier the Commonwealth outlawed surface mine work for boys under age twelve and in 1903 extended it to age fourteen, although these early child labor laws were seldom enforced. The boys who could not escape this way of life entered the mines as adults until they retired, died, or were permanently disabled. Impoverished elderly men and disabled miners often returned to the stations where they had begun – on the chutes in the breakers.

One significant change regulating breakers came after the worst disaster in the history of anthracite mining. Unscrupulous mine owners constructed breakers directly above the mine entrance to minimize the distance that coal had to be moved for processing. At the Avondale Colliery, near Plymouth, Luzerne County, on September 6, 1869, a fire broke out inside the breaker. The deep mine’s air ventilation system, linked directly to the breaker building, allowed the fire to spread directly into the mine entrance. The remaining breathable air was drawn swiftly from the mine to the fire, suffocating those trapped below. One hundred and ten miners and breakers boys lost their lives in the disaster. As a result, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania enacted legislation, in 1870, forbidding the construction of breakers directly above or near mine entrances.

When men first began to tunnel into the earth to remove coal, open flame lamps or candles were the only devices to light one’s way. If a miner opened a pocket of lethal gas, the lack of oxygen could not only snuff out his open flame light – a warning too late – but the lives of miners also could be snuffed out. This is why miners often carried caged live canaries into the tunnels. Canaries are more sensitive than humans to diminished oxygen and poisonous gases and provided an early warning to miners. Even more obvious, an open flame could trigger an explosion or fire. One of the significant collections on display at the Museum of Anthracite Mining is a series of safety lamps. After an explosion in England killed ninety-two miners a society formed to study and prevent mine explosions approached Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) for his help. In 1816, Davy invented a safety lamp with a wick surrounded by cylindrical netting. The Davy lamp was designed so the flame was quickly extinguished in the presence of dangerous gases, giving the miner enough warning to escape. On the other hand, the lamp did not give off much light and could be extinguished by drafts of harmless air.

A later model that provided brighter light used gasoline instead of oil, but burned hotter, especially in gassy atmospheres, and the glass cylinder that surrounded the light source broke easily from the heat. The light went out frequently, requiring the miner to relight it, risking an explosion. Replacing thick glass with thinner glass helped prevent the lamp from breaking caused by heat expansion, but did nothing, of course, to prevent the lamp from being accidentally dropped or knocked over. The development of the carbide lamp in the 1890s – using as its energy source a combination of calcium carbide and water to produce a jet of acetylene gas lit by a flint sparker – provided bright, easy to ignite lights, but did not solve all safety issues. The U.S. Bureau of Mines reported, in 1906, that fifty-three percent of mine explosions were caused by miners’ lamps and six years later, two major mine disasters were attributed to safety lamps.

It was the invention of the battery lamp that revolutionized safe light for miners. Once tungsten replaced carbon filaments, which uses less current, it became possible for portable batteries to be carried by miners. Thomas Edison is lauded for his design in 1913 that provided the miner with a lightweight storage battery, clipped to the trouser belt and connected by a wire to a lamp backed by a parabolic reflector that was fastened to the miner’s hat. The wire was locked in place to help prevent a miner from disconnecting it, possibly sparking an explosion.

Inevitably, rapid advances in twentieth-century technology resulted in increasing coal extraction but caused the employment of fewer workers. What was perhaps the ultimate technological change, strip mining, gave coal operators the advantages of a smaller work force, fewer accidents, and removal of a much greater percentage of a coal deposit than tunnel (or deep) mining. For environmentalists, however, strip mining meant the destruction of the surface landscape. The museum represents strip mining by a large, hand built scale model of a Bucyrus Erie shovel, once a common sight in northeastern Pennsylvania. The shovel has a two hundred twenty-five-foot boom and a thirty-five-cubic-yard bucket. Each shovel full could strip away forty-two tons of rock and, once finding a vein, quickly scoop up twenty-five tons of coal.

Other museum exhibits include wedging tools; hand and power drills; displays on blasting techniques ranging from the use of black powder to dynamite; compression, seam, and electric equipment; water removal to reduce flood hazards; and the development of ventilation systems. The museum also touches upon the way the textile industry became an extraordinarily significant component of the anthracite region’s economy (see “Born to Organize” by Kenneth C. Wolensky and Robert P. Wolensky, summer 1999). When, in the mid-twentieth century, many of the region’s mines closed, textile companies found a willing work force among miners’ wives, daughters, even mothers, who otherwise faced poverty (see Life after the Mines Closed” by Thomas Dublin, with photographs by George Harvan, spring 1999).

Of the twenty-three billion tons of anthracite in Pennsylvania when mining began, approximately twelve billion tons remain. On the other hand, fifty-eight billion tons of bituminous coal remain-three-fourths of this resource untouched – out of an original seventy-five billion tons. Power plants continue to be the largest consumer of coal, and many utilities are working to promote greater use of coal-fired plants and install technologies to reduce or eliminate pollution. While fluctuating prices of the principal alternative fuel groups, petroleum and natural gas are stimulating greater interest in coal, both anthracite and bituminous, it’s highly unlikely that the world will ever again be so dependent on it as a fuel source.


Note: Since publication of this article, in 2006, the Museum of Anthracite Mining was turned over to the Borough of Ashland, Schuylkill County, for operation. The PHMC no longer operates this museum.


Schuylkill County Attractions

Located adjacent to the museum, in Ashland’s Higher Up Park, is an attraction that will surely enhance a museum-goer’s visit to the anthracite region. Rated one of the top ten attractions in the Commonwealth, the Pioneer Tunnel Mine Tour is a former drift mine, last worked in 1931, that extends eighteen hundred feet horizontally into the side of Mahanoy Mountain. Vintage mine cars take visitors deep inside the mine with guides – many of them former miners – who explains how coal was mined. Another attraction is a narrow-gauge steam locomotive – called a lokie because of its diminutive size – that pulls passenger mine cars three thousand feet along the side of the mountain. Built in 1920, the Henry Clay is a steam saddle tank engine of thirty tons originally used to haul coal cars.

Schuylkill County boasts a number of attractions of interest to individuals interested in history and heritage. In the county seat of Pottsville, the Historical Society of Schuylkill County preserves and interprets county and regional history with a wide-ranging collection of artifacts, objects, documents, ephemera, and photographs. Also located in Pottsville is the Jewish Museum of Eastern Pennsylvania which hosts two traveling exhibitions each year, in addition to exhibiting its permanent collection, and features a Biblical Garden planted with bulbs, trees, shrubs, grains, and herbs mentioned in the Old Testament. The nearby Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, headquartered in the Frank D. Yuengling Mansion, entered in the National Register of Historic Places, offers several changing exhibits and a number of cultural activities and events each year.

The Orwigsburg Historical Society gives visitors a glimpse at the history of the county’s first seat of government, from 1811, when the courthouse was moved to Pottsville. The society also traces Orwigsburg’s cultural and economic development from its beginnings, in 1795, to the present through documents, maps, drawings, photographs, artifacts, and objects.

At the county’s eastern end, the former edifice of the Miners National Bank houses the museum and office of the Tamaqua Historical Society. In addition to administering a museum of community and regional history, the society operates the 1848 Hegarty Blacksmith Shop, owned continuously by three generations of a blacksmithing family from 1848-1873; the Burkhardt Moser Log House, built in 1901 by the borough’s founder as a residence, state coach stop, tavern, and house of worship; and a nineteenth-century church building in the village of Tuscarora, west of Tamaqua. Tamaqua SOS (“Save Our Station”) is currently restoring a handsome 1874 passenger station that served the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a twenty-four-hundred-acre wilderness retreat straddling Schuylkill and Berks Counties, attracts birders and naturalists from throughout the world. Founded in 1938 by conservationist Rosalie Barrow Edge (1877-1962) to halt the wholesale slaughter of migratory raptors along the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the sanctuary was designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The grounds feature a visitor’s center, lookouts, trails, habitat garden, amphitheater, information pavilion and a nineteenth-century tavern building that has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. Several miles north of Hawk Mountain in an agricultural section of the county, Stonehedge is an unusual modern-day interpretation of a nineteenth-century pleasure garden complete with vistas, pools, gardens, walks, fountains, terraces, and a small, intimate performance used for poetry readings, plays and chamber music recitals. For the outdoors enthusiast, Schuylkill County offers Locust Lake State Park and Tuscarora State Park. Each summer the Schuylkill County Fair Grounds in Summit Station is the site of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, formerly held in Kutztown, Berks County.

To obtain additional information regarding local attractions, write: Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, 92 South Progress Avenue, Pottsville, PA 17901; telephone (570) 622-7700 or (800) 765-7282 or visit the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau website


For Further Reading

Bodnar, John. Anthracite Peoples: Families, Unions and Work, 1900-1940. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1983.

Hoffman, John N. Anthracite in the Lehigh Region of Pennsylvania, 1820-1845. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.

____. Girard Estate Coal Lands in Pennsylvania 1801-1884. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.

Percival, Gwendoline E. and Chester J. Kulesa. Illustrating an Anthracite Era: The Photographic Legacy of John Horgan Jr. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Anthracite Heritage Museum, and Iron Furnaces Associates, 1995.

Powell, H. Benjamin. Philadelphia’s First Fuel Crisis: Jacob Cist and the Developing Market for Pennsylvania Anthracite. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Miller, Donald L., and Richard E. Sharpless. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Easton, Pa.: Canal History and Technology Press, 1998.

Wolensky, Robert P., Kenneth C. Wolensky, and Nicole H. Wolensky. The Knox Mine Disaster, January 22, 1959: The Final Years of the Northern anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Regional Economy. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.


The author and editor extend many thanks to Steve Ling, director, and Chester Kulesa, curator, of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Museum Complex, who provided invaluable information about the mining, processing, and marketing of hard coal.


Fred J. Lauver is assistant editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.