“Due for a comeback?” – An address on the Coal Region on eve of Great Depression

On October 29, 1929, American stock markets began a plunge that sent the world reeling into the Great Depression. “Black Tuesday” as it became known saw the billions of dollars wiped out in a single day, starting a long slide that ended in economic ruin. Few places were hit harder in the United States than the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania.

Black Tuesday - NYC
A crowd of investors gather outside the New York Stock Exchange on “Black Tuesday”—October 29, when the stock market plummeted and the U.S. plunged into the Great Depression. (LOC)

But ironically, on the night before the crash, a mining official for the Susquehanna Collieries Company spoke before a Rotary Club meeting in Shamokin, Pennsylvania predicted a bright future for the anthracite industry. He couldn’t have known it, but Max Fredericks was speaking on the eve of the Coal Region’s economic apocalypse.

Here is a description of the October 28, 1929 speech from the Shamokin News-Dispatch 

Expert says region is due for comeback

Max Fredericks, expert mining engineer, paints bright picture for future of coal fields in talk to Rotary Club

A bright way of hope for prosperity for the anthracite regions was brought to light at the weekly meeting of the Shamokin Rotary club last evening when Max Fredericks, formerly of Ensley, Alabama, but now an efficiency engineer in the interests of the Susquehanna Collieries Company, spoke to the club on “Relativity.”

The speaker has a wide experience in industrial activity, having spent quite a period studying the bituminous fields of the south and also in Virginia and West Virginia, is well versed in coal mining and recently came to this city to assist in stabilizing the coal operations in this section.

He stated in his address last evening that the law of demand and supply rules in the coal industry as in any other industry and stated that in his opinion that Shamokin and other anthracite producing towns are rapidly regaining the footing which they once held and that the time will be short until they are again back on the pedestal of prosperity and full working time that they once enjoyed.

The meeting was held in the social room of the First Presbyterian church and was featured by a splendid dinner served by the Presbyterian ladies. William Giese, superintendent of the Susquehanna Collieries company, presided in the capacity of toastmaster during the evening and very fittingly introduced the speaker of the evening.

The Coal Region had already seen a significant decrease in business as the markets turned away from anthracite and toward other forms of heating and power. At the same time, the cost of mining ever increased as coal veins hefty enough to support large-scale mining operations required companies to bore deeper and deeper underground driving costs ever higher. Meanwhile, as demand slackened, the price of anthracite began to droop. As a result, the number of work stoppages across the Coal Region increased as the 1920s progressed.

But with Black Tuesday and the onset of the Great Depression, the anthracite industry faced utter ruin. Across the Coal Region, mass layoffs began within a few years and many of the largest collieries shut down operations altogether. By the outbreak of World War II, the industry was a tiny fraction of what it had been two decades earlier.

Max Fredericks couldn’t have known it while speaking before the Shamokin Rotary Club at the rostrum of the First Presbyterian Church, but he was speaking on the precipice of his industry’s economic destruction. Instead of seeing vibrancy return to the Coal Region, the subsequent decades saw a continuing decline into stagnation and despondency.

Featured Image: “A Modern Breaker” – The Burnside Colliery near Shamokin (NYPL)

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