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Coal Lands

In March 2021, Library Commission member and former Lawrence Township Historian, Dennis Waters, did a virtual talk on the role of coal in powering the Cunard Line of ships at the turn of the century.  His talk involved coal from Appalachia but coal can also be found not far away from our area in Pennsylvania.

Two types of coal are mined in Pennsylvania – bituminous (“soft” coal) and anthracite (“hard” coal).  Soft and hard describe the structure of the coal – each coal is a different type of rock which have different levels of hardness, although both would feel hard to us.  Bituminous coal is used in electricity generation and metal production; anthracite for heating and metal production.  Bituminous coal is found in the Western part of the state; the anthracite fields are closer to us in the northeastern area of Pennsylvania.  Anthracite coal is mainly located in the counties of Schuylkill, Northumberland, and Luzerne. 

I didn’t start out being interested in coal, but have learned quite a bit while traveling to hiking locations in Pennsylvania.  The first hike I went on that involved the coal region was in the second edition of 50 Hikes in Eastern Pennsylvania by Carolyn Hoffman (hike number 19, “Coal Lands”).  I can’t say I fell in love with coal, but it did pique my interest in coal mining itself.  Coal mining is hard on the workers and the land; I wanted to know more about both.

Lucky for me, many coal-related spots coincide with places I wanted to visit for hiking or general interest. 

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania comes to mind first with the switchback trail.  I wish I could say I’ve hiked the trail.  Long ago, I thought it would be a great place to try out snowshoeing (after only having done it once).  One, they get a lot more snow up there and two, snowshoeing is a much harder than it seemed in my backyard.  Learn the bizarre story of why the town is named what it is and take a small side trip to view Jim Thorpe’s grave. 

The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum was very interesting and gave a good overview of what mining was and is like - Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum | Serving the Educational Needs of the Public (

A few other tours include the Lackawanna Coal Mine in Scranton, the No. 9 Coal & Mine and Museumin Lansford, and Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland.

It is very worth it to visit SteelStacks in Bethlehem – a music and entertainment venue that has an excellent walking path along the giant blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel - Hoover-Mason Trestle — SteelStacks.  Here you can see where coal ended up fueling the steel industry.

One of the most otherworldly places to visit is Centralia.  In 1962, a fire started in the coal seams under the town.  As it burned, the area got more unstable and now the town has essentially disappeared.  I have been to Centralia a few times over the years – in the beginning, there were still some buildings. ; now, they’re almost all gone.  The first time I was there, it was in the winter.  It was awesome to be on old Route 61 (since covered over) seeing the heat rise up like smoke through the cracked roadway.

Not coal, but another close mine is in Ogdensburg, New Jersey – the Sterling Hill mine and museum.  When I went, a former mine worker did the tour.  I still remember the “rainbow tunnel” area of the mine, with minerals that fluoresce under ultraviolet light.

If you are interested in more about coal, try:

An unprecedented and riveting account of the nation’s worst mine fire, beginning on Valentine’s Day, 1981, when twelve-year-old Todd Domboski plunged through the earth in his grandmother’s backyard in Centralia, Pennsylvania. In astonishing detail, award-winning journalist Joan Quigley, the granddaughter of Centralia miners, ushers readers into the dramatic world of the underground blaze—from the media circus and back-room deal-making spawned in the wake of Todd’s sudden disappearance, to the inner lives of every day Centralians who fought a government that wouldn’t listen. Drawing on interviews with key participants and exclusive new research, Quigley paints unforgettable portraits of Centralia and its residents, from Tom Larkin, the short-order cook and ex-hippie who rallied the activists, to Helen Womer, a bank teller who galvanized the opposition, denying the fire’s existence even as toxic fumes invaded her home.

Centralia by Deryl B. Johnson

The saga of a Pennsylvania community consumed by an underground mine fire. The town, founded in 1866, has often been embroiled in tragedy and controversy. Beginning with the infamous Molly Maguires, Centralia was confronted with the murder of its founder and an assault upon its Catholic priest, who cursed the town, saying, "One day this town will be erased from the face of the earth." Almost one hundred years later, a vein of coal that ran underneath the town caught fire and has burned since 1962. In the 1990s, the state of Pennsylvania declared eminent domain and forced most of the town's sixteen hundred residents to leave. Ten people remain in Centralia today.

Coal: A Human Historyby Barbara Freese

The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock has altered the course of history. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and helped the northern states win the American Civil War. 

The Molly Maguires- DVD (fiction)

James McParlan is an operative working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who is hired by a major coal company to infiltrate and expose an underground terrorist organization, the "Molly Maguires". The Mollies operate within the impoverished mining communities of Pennsylvania and are mostly Irish emigrants. McParlan is selected to infiltrate the organization to pose as a new member, but it quickly becomes apparent that the working conditions are truly wretched. The lawman's loyalties become divided between the law and his fellow countrymen.

Long dismissed as a relic of a bygone era, coal is back -- with a vengeance. Coal is one of the nation's biggest and most influential industries -- Big Coal provides more than half the electricity consumed by Americans today -- and its dominance is growing, driven by rising oil prices and calls for energy independence. Is coal the solution to America's energy problems?

Half our electricity still comes from coal. Dirty business reveals the true social and environmental costs of coal power and tells the stories of innovators who are pointing the way to an alternative energy future. Guided by Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell, the film examines what it means to remain dependent on a 19th century technology that is the largest single source of greenhouse gases. Can coal really be made clean? Can renewables be produced on a scale large enough to replace coal? The film seeks answers in a series of stories shot in China, Saskatchewan, Kansas, West Virginia, Nevada and New York.

In a devastating and urgent work of investigative journalism, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hamby uncovers the tragic resurgence of black lung disease in Appalachia, its Big Coal cover-up, and the resilient mining communities who refuse to back down.

- by Andrea, Hopewell Branch

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