In the late 1830s, a writer and poet named Elizabeth F. Ellet made a brief journey to the still wild lands of the Coal Region.
In 1840, Ellet published Rambles About the Country, a log of her travels across America and around the world. One chapter, “A Visit to the Coal Region,” documented a visit to Pottsville and other less settled parts of Schuylkill County.
Her account offers a vivid panorama of a region that was only just being tamed. Her visit included the natural beauty of the county, interspersed with hellish views of mine fires and a trek into one of the drift mines that had sprung up on the hillsides of the southern anthracite coal field.
A VISIT TO THE COAL REGION.
I know nothing that strikes one, travelling from the South, northward, so forcibly, as the vivid green of the meadows. In many parts of the southern country, the eye rests upon a brown or sandy expanse, bare of verdure, relieved, only here and there, by a field of grain or cotton. The short, thin grass, that comes up in early Spring, is speedily dried up, by the burning sun. The rich and extensive clover meadows, so refreshing to the eye, so deliciously fragrant, and yielding such abundance of hay, are there unknown. How delightful, to one resident among the pine uplands of the Carolinas, is the luxuriant vegetation of the interior counties of Pennsylvania? The mineral products of the soil enrich it, and the most exquisite scenery, too, charms the eye. You look, with a feeling of delight, upon the broad, fertile fields, interspersed with patches of forest, and bordered by sloping hills or towering mountains, wooded to their summits. And there are smiling valleys, sprinkled with villages, and glens, dark with foliage, or enlivened by the gleam of some thread-like waterfall, or the dashing of some sportive stream.
If you go up the Schuylkill, the landscape, as you proceed, becomes more varied and bold. Abrupt precipices rise above you, or sink at your feet. Now, you are on the verge, overhanging the waters foaming among broken rocks, and looking down on the roofs of a quiet group of dwellings. Now, you climb a steep acclivity, and yet see the craggy eminence frowning above you. The “wizard Schuylkill,” pursues its devious way, alongside of you. You trace its windings, till it is little more than a rivulet, and you are in a spot belonging to the coal region. Some unpoetical associations may be connected with this name; but they will vanish, as you look around you. The wood-crowned mountains are on every side; before you, is a populous village, bordered by the infant river. The dusky treasures that are, in time, to diffuse light and warmth in many human dwellings, lie hid in the bosom of those hills. How much, that is valuable in this world, is only yielded to research and toil!
Ascend the mountain, on the left, by a winding path, through the forest. A number of small rills are running down, upon every side, scattering drops on the leaves and grass, that shine, like diamonds, in the morning sun. You clamber over the gray fragments of rock, assisted by shrubs rooted in the crevices. The summit is at length reached, surmounted by a low battlement of rock, which gives this the name of the Sharp Mountain. How splendid is the view thence! The morning mist has melted away, and the clear, mellow sunshine, like a flood of glory, rests on the whole landscape. Beyond the enclosing circle of hills, stretch, in the distance, valleys, forests, and mountains, bounded by a blue, indistinct line, which blends with the far horizon. The meanderings of the river, a silvery thread, may be traced, till it is lost in distance. On the right, are two small artificial lakes, sleeping, like gems, in the embrace of girdling hills. Beside them, a petty torrent rushes wildly down the declivity, and lashes itself into foam, before it is merged in the mill-stream, below. The village is just at your feet, with its gardens, its churches, and a rural burial ground, picturesquely situated on the slope of a hill broken with rocks. The Gothic church and large white cross mark it, as belonging to the Roman Catholics. A neat parsonage, on the opposite hill, will attract your attention, even amidst a number of other tasteful dwellings, half covered with green.
The woods are dressed in the imperial garniture of Autumn, and nowhere could we find a greater variety of foliage. In contrast to the solemn verdure of the cedar and hemlock, here is the vivid green of the silver pine ; and the deep yellow of the American poplar ; and the glowing red of the oak and the beech is intermingled with a countless variety of shades, of every intermediate hue.
One of the mountains, some miles distant, sends forth volumes of smoke. We might fancy it a volcano, on a small scale; but it is only the burning of the coal, within, which has been set on fire by some accident. It will not, in all probability, be extinguished, till the vast store of combustible material is consumed. On one side, the ground is already crumbling, and the footing is very precarious. On the other, when the wind blows away the smoke, you may walk to the edge of the crater, and, looking down, see the slow, smouldering flame, within.
A large share of the population pass the greater portion of their days, under ground. You may be interested enough, to enter one of the mines. You step into a rail-car, and leave the light of day behind, rumbling along the narrow way, till surrounded by intense and impenetrable darkness, only relieved by the lamp, carried by the guide, and the starlike glimmer of the lights, fixed in the caps of the miners. They are enabled, by this contrivance, to see perfectly well, while their hands are left free, for work. The air is chilly, and filled with damp exhalations. In Winter, however, the temperature is nearly the same as in Summer; consequently, a mine is a comparatively warm place, while the ground, without, is covered with snow.
There is a continual dropping of black water, from above, and the slippery walls elude your grasp. You alight from the car, and, walking along a narrow path, explore the branches of the mine, following the veins of coal. Some of these branches ascend. The miners are at work, far above you, hammering the coal from its receptacle, and rolling it down, in blocks of various sizes, with a noise like the crash of thunder, to be picked up, and carried out by the cars. Sometimes, the cars themselves descend by machinery, as it were, into the depths of the earth, and are drawn up, laden with coal.
When tired of exploring the secrets of the mine, you may be lifted up, by machinery, to the top. There comes a faint, sickly light, from above ; it grows stronger; the fresh air rushes through the opening; and you stand, at length, safe on the outside of the mountain, among the trees, and in the warm sunshine.
I do not think, that any view, under the open sky, can fill the bosom with such strange awe, as a subterranean visit. We feel, more deeply, our utter insignificance and helplessness, when shut from the bright world, within the bosom of the solid, everlasting hills. The cold gloom around us, never enlivened by a single ray of sunlight, appears sacred. I do not wonder that vaults and caves have been used, as receptacles for the dead. Yet, surely, the custom of laying our lost friends, where the dew and the sunshine may visit their graves, where grass may grow, and flowers may bloom, is more gentle and soothing to the feelings…
The coal miners, though black and begrimed, seem tolerably well pleased with their business. They scarce behold the sun, or breathe fresh air, for six days in the week; but, when Sunday comes, the miner, whom you would hardly recognise in clean apparel, sits in his hut, with his family around him. In some of their homes, the Bible is their companion ; or religious tracts, distributed by charitable hands, instruct their leisure hours.
Have you never been struck with a feeling of reverence, on entering the cottages of the poor, to see the family Bible, neatly covered, reposing upon the stand, or the shelf?. Does it not seem to say, that, however neglected and toil-worn, however poor in this world’s goods, may be the inmate of that dwelling, he has here a pledge, an assurance, of an immortal inheritance. Does it not assert his dignity, as an heir of the life to come, more eloquently,than could the tongues of angels “From the meanest hovel, you may have a sight of Heaven;” and the poorest man, who looks thither with humble hope, grounded on the merits of a Redeemer, is lord of a possession, in comparison with which, all the kingdoms of earth are as the dust under his feet.
Elizabeth Ellet watched her writing career take off in the years after published Rambles about country. She wrote numerous book and poems, began a scandalous flirtation with Edgar Allan Poe, and went on to write a three-part historical narrative, Women of the American Revolution.
Featured Image: Pottsville in 1833 (Library of Congress)