Photographs from 1938 document the damage done to homes by mine subsidence in Schuylkill County

Despite the smiles, these photographs show significant damage done by mine subsidence to the properties of Coal Region home owners. They show lives uprooted as the foundations of homes crumbled into the depths of mine workings below. 

We’ve previously documented the work of Sheldon Dick in the Coal Region, the photographs he took which now reside in the collections of the Library of Congress. Until recently, however, we hadn’t realize the significance of a handful of the photographs taken in Gilberton, Schuylkill County. The images show the insides of homes which appeared to be in horrendous condition and include several people as well. 

Coal Region Mine Subsidence 1938
A Sheldon Dick photograph of a home on props due to mine subsidence – 1938. This photograph is dubiously identified as Shenandoah, but may be one of the homes in Gilberton.

But a clue in one of the images led to the importance of the images and the reason they were taken. One of the photograph shows an unidentified man and a woman named Marcella Urban. 

Marcella Urban Smile

In tracking down the story of Marcella Urban, we learned why these photographs were captured and what they show. 

From the Pottsville Republican, September 21, 1938:

Gilberton Houses Subside 18 Inches, School is Affected; Inspection Shows Conditions

The temporary U.S. Army metal knockdown houses that re to be erected by the Federal Housing Authority at Gilberton to house families whose residences are sinking rapidly into old mine workings along the main street, will be erected on the back street of that borough, where they will rest on a solid foundation of rock.

The long rows of houses on this street have not been affected, in the least by the subsidence of the earth and no fear is expressed that there will be any trouble of this kind.

All of the buildings along the main street are not affected but there is uneasiness felt by all residents for fear their properties will be next to be ruined through the gradual subsidence that is occurring in so many spots.

One of the chief sources of alarm is the large frame lower grade school building. It is warped and twisted out of shape by gradual subsidence of the foundations and is considered as unsafe to house the several hundred children who attend classrooms here daily.

Miners who occupy many of these homes find their skill at propping up mine workings in good stead in making their homes livable under the existing conditions. They have porches propped up, foundations propped, the rooms inside their homes to prevent collapse from the ceiling or the walls and have used bricks and blocks to keep stoves and ranges, tables, beds, and other furniture on an even keel.

At the Laurasavage home large jacks have been placed between the foundation and the sills of the building. The foundations have been gradually going down until they are now 18 inches below the natural level. Each morning a turn is given to each jack to compensate for the subsidence of the preceding 24 hours.

Many residents have bought jacks for this purpose while others, who find themselves unable to buy, rent jacks and pay for them by the week.

Francis Ploppert during the past year borrowed $300 to repair the foundations of his home from time to time, but the repairs have been for naught as they continually tear away from the building structure. He says he is paying off the loan but has nothing to show for the improvements or repairs he made. He says the foundation has gone down about 18 inches at some points.

Ploppert House 1
Gilberton, Pennsylvania. Corner of a room in Francis Ploppert’s house (LOC)

Ploppert House 2
Gilberton, Pennsylvania. A bedroom in Francis Ploppert’s home (LOC)

At the Baruskie home the rear kitchen foundation rests on solid ground but the rest of the house has been going down and down. The front foundation is about 18 inches out of line. Blocks have been inserted between the sills and the foundation to try to keep the house from inclining too precariously. The house is gradually cracking in two, so that soon the back and front will be entirely separate sections.

At the home of M. Thomas, the rooms pitch 18 inches in a ten-foot space and it is necessary to put bricks under one side of the kitchen range and to level off the furniture in the same way. The range upset recently and caused a slight fire.

At the Stein property the superstructure has slipped away from the foundation and a corner of the building the framework has been pulled apart so that it is necessary to stuff with paper and rags to fill the void created.

John Kegolis has the walls and ceilings of his house supported with props as in a gangway to prevent them collapsing.

The roof on the Frank Kegolis home has a separation of two feet through which the rain has been pouring the past several days.

The foundations of the porch of the Rendecavage property collapsed and the porch and roof are held up by struts. The walls are commencing to buckle.

In the room in which the children of Marcella Urban sleep, the bed has to be propped up five inches on one side. There is a gap in the floor two feet wide near the bed where one may look down into the cellar. It is necessary for the children to step over this gap to get into bed.

Marcella Urban House 2
Photograph from a bed room in the Urban household showing the plaster falling and the wall tipping.

Marcella Urban House 1
Another room in the Urban house showing the wall caving in due to mine subsidence

Marcella Urban House 3
Another photograph from the Urban house showing damage along with two unidentified men, presumably man on right had some connection to Marcella Urban.

John Matthews says the plaster is constantly falling from ceiling and walls of his dining room and living room.

George Derbes, head of the Housing Commission in Schuylkill Co., says that something is to be done about this to bring about a permanent solution but it has not been definitely determined what procedure will be taken. Many of these families own their own homes. Many of them will be willing to build on the back street, it is believed. It is expected the school fund recently passed by the legislature will find its way to Gilberton to replace the present school building.

The wishes of the residents of the affected properties will be ascertained when a housing board is appointed for the county…

Mine subsidence had become a major problem in the Coal Region by the 1930s, but had been an issue for decades. One of the more famous and macabre incidences of mine subsidence occurred just outside Hazleton in December 1869. 

Political negotiations surrounding Gilberton’s subsidence and what do about it dragged on into 1939. Gradually, some of the homes were leveled and their occupants moved elsewhere in Gilberton, including some along back streets in homes built upon firmer ground. Others stayed and found ways to continue propping their homes against further collapse. 

A little more about Marcella Urban

Marcella Urban Social

From her obituary in the Shenandoah Evening Herald, January 5, 1962:

Mrs. Marcella (Chercovich) Urban, of 207 Main Street, Gilberton, died yesterday in the Ashland State Hospital.

Born in Lithuania, she settled in Gilberton early in life and made her home there ever since. Mrs. Urban was one of the oldest residents in the community.

A member of the St. Louis Church at Maizeville, the aged woman was active in parish programs until she became ill.

Married twice, she survived both husbands. Her first husband, Isadore Chercovich, died in 1920, and the second husband, Walter Urban, passed away in 1928.

Surviving are one daughter, Helen Chercovich, Philadelphia; three sons, Vincent Chercovich, Philadelphia; Anthony Chercovich and Joseph Chercovich, both in New York City. One grandson also survives.

Her remains were interred at St. George’s Cemetery in Shenandoah. 


Featured Image: A Sheldon Dick photograph of Marcella Urban inside her subsidence-damaged home in Gilberton, 1938 – Library of Congress


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