“Children of the mine” – The Coal Region’s breaker boys at work

“The breaker boy of the anthracite coal regions is in a class by himself,” wrote a reporter for The Times of Philadelphia on July 28, 1902 in a story entitled, “Boy Life in the Coal Mines.”

“In no other part of the world are there found boys at work at so tender an age, earning so much or laboring so hard as they do in the great, black, dust-clouded breakers.”

The story was written as the Coal Strike of 1902 entered into its third month. The public wanted to know: who were these people in the mountains and valleys of northeastern Pennsylvania and why were they intent on better working conditions? The Times sought to answer those questions.

Their story focused on the breaker boys, the young children who cleaned and separated anthracite coal from the rock blasted out of mines deep below ground. These boys became the dust-smeared faces of the Coal Region. More than 13,000 breaker boys worked in Pennsylvania in 1902. The labor they performed was vital to the colliery; separating valuable coal from worthless rock and aiding in the screening of coal into sizes for sale.

It was back-breaking and dangerous drudgery. Fingers and hands were cut up by sharp, jagged rock. Incessant roaring from the passing coal and machinery caused hearing loss. And one wrong move could send a breaker boy on a fatal plunge through the breakers hungry screens and rollers.

Breaker Boys Shenandoah
Breaker boys in Schuylkill County in the 19th century. (Library of Congress)

The Times story vividly describes their work in the mountainous breakers of the Coal Region and the breaker boys’ place in Pennsylvania’s industrial culture:

The boys sit on little wooden seats across the chutes [in the breaker], their legs in the moving coal, ready to stay the slide when the slate is thick, or to kick the coal along when it is clean and moving slowly. The rollers grind ceaselessly, with a roar which shakes the structure. To this is added the crunch of the crushers and the steady shuffle of the many streams of coal down the iron chutes. The black dust rises in clouds and hangs thickly about the boys.

From 7 o’clock in the morning till 4 or 5 in the afternoon, with an hour for luncheon, the breaker boy works in the midst of this coal dust and coal. Children of the mine are they, born in the shadow of the culm heaps with the roar of the breakers ever in their ears, with mines beneath their feet. The waters of the creeks they know are black with culm dirt, or red with sulphur from the mines; the streets they tramp are black with the soft culm; the fields they play in are pock-marked with cave holes, and bare of all save course grass and weeds; the air they breathe has the smell of the mine in it; the house where they sleep are red or unpainted, in dingy rows along a dingy street.

Their whole life is lived with the mine. Is it any wonder that it is their ambition to go into the breaker as soon as they are big enough to pass for 12 years and strong enough to stand the strain of bended back and benumbed fingers through the long hours of the day? Far better is it to their mind to go to the chutes and earn money than to go to school.

Indeed, many would be sent to work whether they liked it or not, for the 50 cents a day is much to the average miner’s brood, and the only “schooling” considered necessary by most families is the schooling of the pick and shovel and drill, the alphabet of the mines, the geography of the workings, and the chief problem that of daily bread…

Featured Image: “Boys picking slate from coal.” by George Bretz, ca. 1880s (UMBC)



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