“Miners at work” – Harper’s Weekly illustrations of the Coal Region from 1869

In the summer of 1869, artist Theodore R. Davis traveled into the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania to sketch scenes for Harper’s Weekly. Davis traveled to the outskirts of Hazleton to document the work of mineworkers in the borderlands of Carbon, Luzerne, and Schuylkill counties.

His artwork documents work inside and outside the Honey Brook Colliery #2 that stood just outside the town of McAdoo, Schuylkill County.

“It would seem best,” wrote Davis in his story that accompanied the sketches, “to describe a visit to the mines by showing the coal first in its native state, and then following it from the ‘basin’ to the car in which it is shipped to market.” Below, you’ll find excerpts from the article accompanying the artwork that appeared in Harper’s Weekly on September 11, 1869. 

… We step into a coal car and are lowered down an inclined plane of 35° for a distance of 1,500 feet, when we are at the bottom of the “basin,” where but for the flaring lamps attached to the miners’ hats the darkness would be impenetrable. There is activity everywhere; loaded cars going up, emptied ones descending, and cars moving hither and yon, drawn by quick-stepping mules; miners and laborers hastening to and fro; the boom and reverberation of the “shots” that are displacing coal, the quick clip of the miner’s drill, and the thud of his pick; and above all this the cries of the miner who has lighted his match and is fleeing to a place of safety, crying “fire! fire!” to warn those near of the danger. It takes but a few moments to become used to these noises…

Tamping a Charge
“Tamping a Charge”

“On all sides the miners are at work drilling with their sharp crowbars, or ramming home the powder which to blast out tons of coal if the charge has been ‘well placed.’”

The Miners Chest
“A miner’s chest”

“At another point is the miner arranging his cartridge of brown paper, the edges of which he soaps to keep the powder dry after the charge is placed. His mining chest has a keg of powder in it, with oil, wick, tools, fuses, and other blasting barrels, not to mention various other articles necessary to his operations.”

Miners at Work
“Mining and loading coal”

“Near at hand you see the miners at work in a great cave leading from the gangway in which the tracks are laid for the transit of the coal cars which are being quickly loaded by the miners’ laborers.”

Stable in the Mines
“Stable in the mines”
Bottom of the Slope
“Bottom of the slope”

“[F]inally after a long walk, [you] will reach the slope where the coal cars are ascending and descending, and the same bustle is going on that you noted on your first arrival from above. Jumping into a coal car, up you go again to the dazzling glare of daylight.”

Honey Brook Breaker No. 2
“Honey Brook Colliery #2”

“‘The breaker,’ as the huge structure in which the coals are prepared for market is designated, is better described the illustration than is possible by the pen. To the top of the breaker you make your way by means of stairs much worn by the tread of many feet; and here you may see the cars arriving from the mine hundreds of feet below, drawn up by means of a stationery engine and windlass.”

Dumping Mine Cars
“Dumping mine cars”

“The cars are dumped by mechanical means, and the coal commences its descent toward its market. Before the car starts on its return to the mine a wooden tag is removed, and hung upon a nail corresponding in number to that on the tag. This is the miner’s mark, and the number collected indicates that of car-loads of coal sent up with the miner’s name.”

Separating Different Sizes of Coal
“Separating the different sizes of coal”

“The coal dumped from the car passes down an inclined plane, which at one point has a flooring of iron bars placed a sufficient distance apart to permit quite large lumps to drop through; the rest passes on down the slope to the cars which are to convey it to market. Such lumps as may be deemed too large are broken with hammers in the hands of men who are stationed at a point just below the bars, and at this place the incline is less precipitous.”

Slate Pickers
“Slate pickers”

“The smaller lumps – those which have dropped through the bars – pass into a huge cylinder, in which revolve great iron plates; and this is, properly speaking, the breaker. From thence the coal passes into a cylindrical screen, which is placed at an inclination of about ten degrees, and revolves slowly through this affair. The coal is passed and washed, different sizes of coal falling through the apertures of the screen into inclined troughs beneath.
It is there that the coal is handled, nearly every piece being inspected by the smutty young blackbirds that perch on the sides of the slides of the wooden boxes through which the coal descends. You will see the urchins throw away what you take to be coal. This is simply slate, and these are the slate-pickers who are throwing away about one ton of slate for every ten of coal that passes them.”


Featured Image: Mineworkers loading a coal car in the Honey Brook Colliery in Schuylkill County in 1869. 



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