A Williamstown coal miner demands steel from abandoned mines be recycled for Second World War

In February 1942, the United States found itself suddenly embroiled in the conflict raging across the globe following the Japanese attack on American installations in Hawaii and the the South Pacific.

On the home front in Central Pennsylvania, a town at the northern tip of Dauphin County willed itself onto a war footing despite the desperation caused by the closing of the town’s chief industry. The once renowned Williamstown Colliery, an anthracite mining operation that in the 1870s produced more coal than anywhere else in the world, had been shuttered in January 1942. Business there had sputtered and coughed throughout the 1930s, but costs in removing water and accessing new veins of coal had finally overwhelmed the operators.

Once the driver of American industry, anthracite coal simply could not match the much more efficient petroleum products used to fuel American warplanes and warships.

An out-of-work miner fumed that the bankrupt mining companies in Williams Valley had missed an important opportunity to help the American war effort following the industry’s collapse. Why not send the hundreds of tons of abandoned steel inside the Williamstown Colliery to make weapons of war?

A poster from the Second World War (American Legion)

His letter was published by the Harrisburg Telegraph in February 23, 1942.

Miner’s Query


Editor of the Telegraph:

Dear Sir:

After hearing on the radio and reading in the paper of real shortage in steel, I cannot understand why the coal company known as Susquehanna Collieries Company, of Williamstown may abandon the mines here and allow to remain hundreds of tons of steel rails in mines to be buried underwater to remain their forever.

If our government needs steel so much why may such companies do such a thing when our sons are crying for weapons made from such steel. I do not know if this will do any good, but as you are an honest paper are the only place I can think of, I hope you can do something.

I remain a father with two sons in the United States Army and a Telegraph reader for years.


Scrap drives became a part of culture in these former industrial towns and villages in Northern Dauphin County. Deep inside the workings, where tunnels stretched for miles in all directions, there lay an impressive amount of steel that held up millions of tons of rock. Now that the Williamstown Colliery had been shuttered with no hope of ever reopening, why not rob the steel beams holding up the roof for tunnels that housed nothing but water and the forlorn hopes of a small industrial community.

The “breaker” at Williamstown Colliery in the 1930s

In the end, much of that steel remain forever entombed hundreds of feet below ground. But the towering hulk known as the “breaker” and other buildings that were closed in January were destined for the wrecking ball and were likely to be found in the bombs, planes, ships, and equipment used by American GIs in the global fight against fascism.

Featured Image: A mineworker lifts scrap from a mining operation in Northeastern Pennsylvania during World War II (Library of Congress) 

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