“Assaults upon the senses” – The sights and sounds of the Coal Region in the 19th century

I am currently reading Anthony F.C. Wallace’s encyclopedic St. Clair: A Nineteenth Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-prone Industry and came across this vivid passage (page 129). In it, Wallace describes the scene in the Schuylkill County community in 1850. In just a few short years, St. Clair went from wilderness with a few hearty souls to a boom town with more than 2,000 residents. Wallace captures the ever-present noise that overwhelmed the senses in a way that vividly brings the time period to life.

St Clair

To an outsider riding into St. Clair on the Mill Creek and Mine Hill Railroad and disembarking at the depot on the north end of town, the first impression must have been one of noise.

There were at least ten steam engines huffing and puffing at the five major collieries that loomed over the town on all sides, none more than a quarter of a mile from the center; five steam breaker whistles summoned and dismissed employees, morning and evening.

There was the sound of coal being smashed in great cast-iron rollers in five breakers, bouncing through wire screens, sliding down chutes, and finally being dumped into coal cars. Iron wheels squealed on iron rails as coal cars negotiated turns on five sidings.

When in blast, the Patterson furnace roared night and day. The scream of circular saws rose from two sawmills, and carpenters’ hammers resounded from new construction. Half a dozen blacksmiths pounded away on their anvils. And another impression must have been one of dust, as wind blew cinders from stream engines, coal dust from culm banks, and powdered clay from unpaved streets.

Now and then the ground vibrated from the firing of gunpowder charges down in the mines. Dogs barked, chickens cackled, and roosters crowed, pigs ran in the streets and grunted, and cows mooed (46 were kept by householders).

But within a few weeks, the newcomer would no longer notice these assaults upon the senses and instead would attend with pride to the wide streets, the rows of new houses neatly whitewashed, the taverns and streets and churches along the wide main streets.

Along with the sound and the dust came the dangers in this anthracite mining community. The banging from the colliery reminded of the boys inside separating coal and slate in the dark, dusty, fire-prone breaker. The explosions from below ground reminded that mine subsidence could swallow up homes and people at anytime. And the dust that forever blew into town and people’s homes also filled the workers’ lungs.


Featured Image: Pine Forest Colliery in 1863, above the town of St. Clair (Library of Congress) 

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