“Life in the Coal Villages” – 1888

This dismal story about the mining patch towns of Pennsylvania’s anthracite Coal Region appeared in Harper’s Weekly Magazine on June 23, 1888. Such villages could be found in isolated rural pockets around eastern Pennsylvania, from the village of Kalmia in southwestern Schuylkill County to the northeast tip of the Wyoming Valley.


The collection of huts about the average coal mine hardly deserves the name of village. In the anthracite regions coal is dug in some of the most beautiful valleys of the country, but nature is not permitted to smile in the immediate vicinity of the homes of the miners.

At the mouth of the pit rises a great coal-breaker, tall, ugly, black with dust, filled with clattering machinery. Its hard bare walls are broken by a few windows, so dirty that only a little dismal light struggles in to those who work at breaking the coal into the sizes of commerce.

Mauch Chunk Sketch
A mining patch near Mauch Chunk, in Carbon County. (LOC)

Near the breaker is the culm heap, a mountain of coal dust. The culm heaps intrude themselves into the landscape everywhere. They fill up all the low spaces in the mountains, and stretch themselves out over the valleys, obscuring views, and sending their begriming dust whirling with every wind that crosses them. In the villages they block up the streets. Even in so large and important a place as Scranton they lie directly in the roadway.

Where the beauties of the country are not blotted out by the unsightly edifices of this prosperous business, or by its still more unsightly refuse, the owners of the mines reside. The average coal village is like nothing in the purely agricultural regions.

Occasionally a New England manufacturing settlement gives strong evidence of the dire poverty of the people. But there is there something to break the monotony of the signs of distress. The mill-owner or his superintendent lives in the village, and the roads are taken care of by the select-men of the town.

As a rule, there is no street in the coal village. There is only a road which straggles along between the houses. It is red with iron dust generally, for iron ore and coal do not lie far apart. Into its rough ditches the untidy people shovel the filth that has accumulated in their houses until it becomes an almost impassable mass of nastiness.

Pigs and cattle stray over the way at pleasure, but there is no verdure along its sides. Trees do not shade it. The air is thick with the odor of garbage. Sanitary devices are unheard of. There are, indeed, one or two model villages in the whole State, but they would not excite the admiration of those who are familiar with the work of the Cheneys, the Willimantic Thread Company, and Mr. Pullman.

The miners live apart. Their employers are great railroad and coal companies. There is no one in their neighborhood to look after their interests. The company builds some huts big enough to give a shelter to the necessary number of people. The rent is very high, and the accommodations are squalid. Occasionally a thrifty and tidy Irish or Welsh woman will try to brighten her home by keeping it clean, but neither cleanliness nor godliness prospers under the blighting influence of the coal mines.

The degraded Poles and Hungarians make their neighborhood so completely wretched that all desire for a better state of things seems to be destroyed. The beer-shop is the only place for recreation that is found in most of the villages. Sometimes the presence of an unusually large number of Irish miners will result in the establishment of a Catholic chapel in a deserted store, or a rude building may be put up for the purpose. It is very rare, however, even where the chapel exists, to find a priest in a mining camp. The services of the Church are performed by someone from the nearest large village or city. There is very little of the restraining influence which is exerted by the priests in more favored communities.

There is no town-hall, no library, no news-room, no evidence whatever of the existence of any intellectual activity. There is usually no school, although sometimes, at a distance from the mines, there is one of the little red school-houses which are found everywhere in agricultural communities. The children must do something to add to the family’s income.

It is illegal in Pennsylvania to employ children in the mines; but the law is constantly broken, and boys of very tender years open and shut the heavy doors in the galleries when the cars pass in and out. The occupation is dangerous, and many of the boys lose their lives. The girls are sent to distant places to work in the mills. There is no time to devote to education.

There is no human existence more purely animal than that which moves on from the cradle to the grave in the coal villages of Pennsylvania. Early in the morning the men and boys go to their work in the mines. The women wait all day anxiously for their return, prepared to hear at any moment of a dreadful catastrophe from the explosion of fire-damp or a cave in. Accidents are very common, much more common than they would be if the laws for the protection of life and prohibiting the employment of minors were enforced.

The men and boys are at their work all day, and when they come out of the earth in the evening they are black with coal dust. The dust works its way everywhere, under their clothes and into the very pores of the skin, gradually changing the complexion. It is a blackness that settles down upon everything. It darkens the foliage of the trees and defiles the waters of the running brooks. When the miners and their helpers get home there are household duties to attend to.

The boys must milk the goats. The cow, which Mr. Rogers has put into his picture, is a rare luxury, for a miner must generally be content with goat’s milk.

The day is passed between working, sleeping, and eating, but the allowance of food to the individual is so small that very little time is devoted to meals. The only diversion is the beer-shop or the strike, and strikes in the coal mines have been growing fewer and less effective for twelve years or more.

From day’s end to day’s end, year in and year out, the miners and their families plod along on their hard, toilsome, brutalizing, grimy path to the grave, joyless and hopeless, their wretched homes in keeping with their still more wretched lives.

H.L. Nelson.

Featured Image: The illustration that accompanied this story in Harper’s Weekly – Library of Congress

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