BY MARTIN KICH
Today, Donald Trump spoke in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and promised to restore the jobs of coal miners.
I grew up in Scranton, and he might just as well have promised to restore the jobs of telegraph operators or those in typewriter factories.
The population of Scranton peaked at more than 140,000 in 1930. By 1960, the population had decreased to just over 110,000, and today it is between 75,000 and 80,000. The population decline mirrored the decline of the coal industry, though the production of coal ultimately fell more dramatically than the population.
Scranton remains the largest city in what is known as Pennsylvania’s “Coal Region.” Four substantial deposits of anthracite coal extend throughout a spur of the Appalachians in east central and northeastern Pennsylvania.
From the late nineteenth century through World War II, anthracite coal became the primary heating fuel for homes in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. Production peaked in 1917 at more than 100 million tons annually.
By 1950, annual production had dropped to 46 million tons. By 1970, it had dropped to 9.2 million tons, and by 1987, to 5.2 million tons.
Today, 7.9 million tons are produced annually. But that increase is very misleading if one believes that it can be equated with employment.
Through World War II, anthracite mining was a labor-intensive and dangerous enterprise and almost all of the anthracite produced was deep-mined. These conditions combined to produce much labor unrest, most famously in the violence perpetrated by the Molly Maguires, and by the 1930s, the “Coal Region” was a union stronghold.
But today, only about 235,000 tons of anthracite are produced by deep mining, about 2,316,000 by open-pit mining, and, most notably, about 5,444,000 tons by processing coal refuse.
Coal refuse accumulated near coal “breakers,” where the anthracite was separated from slate, slag, and other materials and then separated by size for use in various types of furnaces. The piles of coal refuse were known as culm dumps, and when I was a boy, Scranton tried to lure tourists by inviting them to come and witness the “”burning mountains.” In the summer, the coal in the culm dumps would ignite in orange bands that sometimes resembled lava. The sulphurous smell was just God-awful.
These culm dumps were often hundreds of feet high, and when Interstate 81 was constructed between Scranton and Binghampton, New York, several dozen of these “burning mountains” still stood along the southbound lanes of the new interstate. Most of the material in those and other culm dumps would be trucked to Scranton’s east and west sides, where the culm was flushed into mine tunnels that were starting to collapse under streets and homes.
In any case, the decline of the anthracite coal industry can be attributed to four factors: (1) the shift to oil and natural gas as home heating fuels following World War II; (2) the increased attention to the environmental damage produced both by mining and by burning coal (illustrated not just by the culm dumps but also by the Centralia mine fire, which is still burning decades after the town was largely abandoned); (3) the increased concern about on-the-job fatalities and disabling injuries and conditions, most notably “black lung”; and (4) the fact that the anthracite mines, especially in the northern part of the “Coal Region,” had reached the water table, making the coal much more expensive to extract.
In 1959, 16 miners died in the Knox Mine Disaster. The mine was located near Port Griffith, between Scranton and Wilkes Barre. The Susquehanna River broke through the ceiling of a mine shaft and eventually flooded most of the anthracite mine tunnels in Luzerne County. Historians find it a convenient marker for the demise of anthracite mining as a major industry, but they generally acknowledge that the industry suffered a long and sometimes agonizing death, rather than succumbing to a sudden catastrophe.
I have not been able to find out how many people are still employed in anthracite mining, but in 2010, only 8,724 people were employed directly in coal mining in Pennsylvania, which is still the nation’s sixth most populous state. Indeed, about four times that number of people in the state–32,853–are employed in manufacturing mining equipment. That number likely reflects not only the increased automation of coal mining but also the rapid growth of the natural-gas fracking industry in Pennsylvania.