For generations, Coal Region children grew up in the shadow of the breakers that dotted the hills and valleys of northeastern Pennsylvania. These buildings rocked and roared all day, the machinery, shakers, and rollers making an unholy racket. And as these children grew up, many of them knew that the first step toward adulthood for many of them would begin inside those drab, dark monoliths.
In the summer of 1897, a resident and former breaker boy from Plymouth, Pennsylvania took up the pen and drafted a brief poem remembering his time inside the breakers of the Coal Region. The poem is drenched in golden-tinged nostalgia, but hints at the fond memories, the frustrations, the pain, and the strain put on boys as young as 9 and 10 who were tasked with separating rock from valuable coal. We’ve written about these boys before, but this primary source gives a simple, yet rich window into the past.
The Breaker Boy
Many years have passed away
Since I was a breaker boy.
But now that I am feeble, old and gray;
I never shall forget
The noble boys I met,
While working in the breaker day by day.
Those happy coal black faces,
And teeth so shining white,
The ragged clothes and shoes we used to wear;
How my old eyes fill with tears,
When I think of bygone years,
And the breakers boys who never knew a care.
And through winter’s chilling blast
You’ll find the breaker boys
With smiling faces, spirits light and gay, –
Though with fingers cold and sore,
They never growled or swore,
But cheered each other on from day to day.
Those cranky breaker bosses,
How we longed to punch their heads,
Or send them where Bob Ingersoll belongs;
For though they sat at ease,
We found them hard to please,
And nothing ever righted all the wrongs.
But when manhood’s goal is reached
Just watch the breaker boy,
Ambition still leads on just as before;
To the legislative halls,
Or to battle, where he falls,
This little ragged breaker boy so poor.
The brightest in our country
Were once those breaker boys;
For intellectual thought they lead the way;
As when picking bone and slate,
With no limit to the rate.
You’ll find them picking honor’s bays to-day.
The poem was published in the July 27, 1897 edition of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. It was published by a social commentator named Van Twiller who had a regular column in the Luzerne County newspaper. This is the brief note, rather condescending indeed, that accompanies the poem:
I have received a rather too-flattering letter and a poem from a gentleman in Plymouth. The letter praises this column, while the poem seeks to praise the breaker boy.
To the learned critic the poem may not deserve the name. But to the breaker boy, who is not a learned critic, but who understands human nature perhaps as well as you or I, it has its peculiar meaning. The breaker boy does not read the classic poets. He would not understand them if he did. But he can understand, appreciate and enjoy a rhyme like this.
Therefore, my learned friends, don’t turn up your noses, please, and wonder why I allow such a thing to be printed in this column. For let me tell you that this column is not alone for the literateur, the student or the philosopher; it is for the entire people in this community, and included therein is the breaker boy. It is for him, God bless him, that this rhyme is printed, and if my learned friend don’t like it, they need not read it. But the breaker boy will.
This poem and this note don’t address the elephant in the room: that many a breaker boy failed to learn to read and write when going to work in the mines at such a young age. Many a young mind missed out on the opportunity to read and learn the meaning of the classic poets because child labor was widely used across the Coal Region. There was a growing movement, however, across the nation to put an end to child labor. And the Coal Region’s breaker boys became the poster children for that movement within a decade of this poem being written and published in 1897.
Featured Image: Breaker boys in Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1911. These images became a powerful inducement to end child labor in Pennsylvania and across the United States. (Library of Congress)