In 1894, author Stephen Crane strode through the booming city of Scranton on his way to one of the anthracite mining operations dotting the Lackawanna County landscape. He was on assignment for the progressive publication McClure’s Magazine to discuss the realities facing mineworkers in the coal fields of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The resulting article is a riveting journey into the depths of the Coal Region’s deep mine workings at the height of the anthracite industry. Crane had just finished his most famous work when he descended into a mine shaft near Scranton in 1894; his Civil War novel Red Badge of Courage would be published the following year. The article was accompanied by illustrations that provide a clear view of the world Crane briefly glimpsed during his visit to an anthracite mine.
This is one to read in its entirety – Crane was a brilliant writer and brings this long-gone, grimy, dangerous world to life. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
The “breakers” squatted upon the hillsides and in the valley like enormous preying monsters, eating of the sunshine, the grass, the green leaves. The smoke from their nostrils had ravaged the air of coolness and fragrance. All that remained of vegetation looked dark, miserable, half-strangled. Along the summit line of the mountain a few unhappy trees were etched upon the clouds. Overhead stretched a sky of imperial blue, incredibly far away from the sombre land.
We approached the colliery over paths of coal dust that wound among the switches. A “breaker” loomed above us, a huge and towering frame of blackened wood. It ended in a little curious peak, and upon its sides there was a profusion of windows appearing at strange and unexpected points. Through occasional doors one could see the flash of whirring machinery. Men with wondrously blackened faces and garments came forth from it. The sole glitter upon their persons was at their hats, where the little tin lamps were carried. They went stolidly along, some swinging lunch-pails carelessly; but the marks upon them of their forbidding and mystic calling fascinated our new eyes until they passed from sight. They were symbols of a grim, strange war that was being waged in the sunless depths of the earth.
Around a huge central building clustered other and lower ones, sheds, engine-houses, machine-shops, offices. Railroad tracks extended in web-like ways. Upon them stood files of begrimed coal cars. Other huge structures similar to the one near us, appeared their uncouth heads upon the hills of the surrounding country. From each a mighty hill of culm extended. Upon these tremendous heaps of waste from the mines, mules and cars appeared like toys. Down in the valley, upon the railroads, long trains crawled painfully southward, where a low-hanging gray cloud, with a few projecting spires and chimneys, indicated a town.
Car after car came from a shed beneath which lay hidden the mouth of the shaft. They were dragged, creaking, up an inclined cable road to the top of the “breaker.”
At the top of the ” breaker,” laborers were dumping the coal into chutes. The huge lumps slid slowly on their journey down through the building, from which they were to emerge in classified fragments. Great teeth on revolving cylinders caught them and chewed them. At places there were grates that bid each size go into its proper chute. The dust lay inches deep on every motionless thing, and clouds of it made the air dark as from a violent tempest. A mighty gnashing sound filled the ears. With terrible appetite this huge and hideous monster sat imperturbably munching coal, grinding its mammoth jaws with unearthly and monotonous uproar.
In a large room sat the little slate-pickers. The floor slanted at an angle of forty-five degrees, and the coal, having been masticated by the great teeth, was streaming sluggishly in long iron troughs. The boys sat straddling these troughs, and as the mass mover slowly, they grabbed deftly at the pieces of slate therein. There were five or six of them, one above another, over each trough. The coal is expected to be fairly pure after it passes the final boy. The howling machinery was above them. High up, dim figures moved about in the dust clouds.
These little men were a terrifically dirty band. They resembled the New York gamins in some ways, but they laughed more, and when they laughed their faces were a wonder and a terror. They had an air of supreme independence, and seemed proud of their kind of villainy. They swore long oaths with skill.
Through their ragged shirts we could get occasional glimpses of shoulders black as stoves. They looked precisely like imps as they scrambled to get a view of us. Work ceased while they tried to ascertain if we were willing to give away any tobacco. The man who perhaps believes that he controls them came and harangued the crowd. He talked to the air.
The slate-pickers all through this region are yet at the spanking period. One continually wonders about their mothers, and if there are any schoolhouses. But as for them, they are not concerned. When they get time off, they go out on the culm heap and play baseball, or fight with boys from other ” breakers ” or among themselves, according to the opportunities. And before them always is the hope of one day getting to be door-boys down in the mines; and, later, mule-boys; and yet later, laborers and helpers. Finally, when they have grown to be great big men, they may become miners, real miners, and go down and get “squeezed,” or perhaps escape to a shattered old man’s estate with a mere “miner’s asthma.” They are very ambitious.
Meanwhile they live in a place of infernal dins. The crash and thunder of the machinery is like the roar of an immense cataract. The room shrieks and blares and bellows. Clouds of dust blur the air until the windows shine pallidly afar off. All the structure is a-tremble from the heavy sweep and circle of the ponderous mechanism. Down in the midst of it sit these tiny urchins, where they earn fifty-five cents a day each. They breathe this atmosphere until their lungs grow heavy and sick with it. They have this clamor in their ears until it is wonderful that they have any hoodlum valor remaining. But they are uncowed; they continue to swagger. And at the top of the “breaker’ laborers can always be seen dumping the roaring coal down the wide, voracious maw of the creature.
Over in front of a little tool-house a man smoking a pipe sat on a bench. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll take yeh down if yeh like. ” He led us by little cinder paths to the shed over the shaft of the mine. A gigantic fan-wheel near by was twirling swiftly. It created cool air for the miners, who on the lowest vein of this mine were some eleven hundred and fifty feet below the surface. As we stood silently waiting for the elevator we had opportunity to gaze at the mouth of the shaft. The walls were of granite blocks, slimy, moss-grown, dripping with water. Below was a curtain of ink-like blackness. It was like the opening of an old well, sinister from tales of crimes.
The black, greasy cables began to run swiftly. We stood staring at them and wondering. Then of a sudden the elevator appeared and stopped with a crash. It was a plain wooden platform. Upon two sides iron bars ran up to support a stout metal roof. The men upon it, as it came into view, were like apparitions from the center of the earth.
A moment later we marched aboard, armed with little lights, feeble and gasping in the daylight. There was an instant’s creak of machinery, and then the landscape, that had been framed for us by the door-posts of the shed, disappeared in a flash. We were dropping with extraordinary swiftness straight into the earth. It was a plunge, a fall. The flames of the little lamps fluttered and flew and struggled like tied birds to release themselves from the wicks. “Hang on,” bawled our guide above the tumult.
The dead black walls slid swiftly by. They were a swirling dark chaos on which the mind tried vainly to locate some coherent thing, some intelligible spot. One could only hold fast to the iron bars and listen to the roar of this implacable descent. When the faculty of balance is lost, the mind becomes a confusion. The will fought a great battle to comprehend something during this fall, but one might as well have been tumbling among the stars. The only thing was to await revelation.
It was a journey that held a threat of endlessness.
Then suddenly the dropping platform slackened its speed. It began to descend slowly and with caution. At last, with a crash and a jar, it stopped. Before us stretched an inscrutable darkness, a soundless place of tangible loneliness. Into the nostrils came a subtly strong odor of powder-smoke, oil, wet earth. The alarmed lungs began to lengthen their respirations.
Our guide strode abruptly into the gloom. His lamp flared shades of yellow and orange upon the walls of a tunnel that led away from the foot of the shaft. Little points of coal caught the light and shone like diamonds. Before us there was always the curtain of an impenetrable night. We walked on with no sound save the crunch of our feet upon the coal-dust of the floor. The sense of an abiding danger in the roof was always upon our foreheads. It expressed to us all the unmeasured, deadly tons above us, as if the roof were a superlative might that regarded with the supreme calmness of almighty power the little men at its mercy. Sometimes we were obliged to bend low to avoid it. Always our hands rebelled vaguely from touching it, refusing to affront this gigantic mass.
All at once, far ahead, shone a little flame, blurred and difficult of location. It was a tiny, indefinite twig, like a wisp-light. We seemed to be looking at it through a great fog. Presently there were two of them. They began to move to and fro and dance before us.
After a time we came upon two men crouching where the roof of the passage came near to meeting the floor. If the picture could have been brought to where it would leave had the opposition arid the contrast of the glorious summer-time earth, it would have been a grim and ghastly thing. The garments of the men were no more sable than their faces, and when they turned their heads to regard our tramping party, their eyeballs and teeth shone white as bleached bones. It was like the grinning of two skulls there in the shadows. The tiny lamps in their hats node a trembling light that left weirdly shrouded the movements of their limbs and bodies’. We might have been confronting terrible spectres.
But they said, ” Hello, Jim,” to our conductor. Their mouths expanded in smiles—wide and startling smiles.
In a moment they turned again to their work. When the lights of our party reinforced their two lamps, we could see that one was busily drilling into the coal with a long thin bar. The low roof ominously pressed his shoulders as he bent at his toil. The other knelt behind him on the loose lumps of coal.
He who worked at the drill engaged in conversation with our guide. He looked back over his shoulder, continuing to poke away. “When are yeh goin’ t’ measure this up, Jim ?” he demanded. “Do yeh wanta git me killed ? “
“Well, I’d measure it up t’-day, only I ain’t got me tape,” replied the other.
“Well, when will yeh ? Yeh wanta hurry up,” said the miner. ” I don’t wanta git killed.”
“Oh, I’ll be down on Monday.”
“Humph ! “
They engaged in a sort of an altercation in which they made jests.
“You’ll be carried out o’ there feet first before long.”
“Will I ?”
Yet one had to look closely to understand that they were not about to spring at each other’s throats. The vague illumination created all the effect of the snarling of two wolves.
We came upon other little low-roofed chambers, each containing two men, a ” miner,” who makes the blasts, and his ” laborer,” who loads the coal upon the cars and assists the miner generally. And at each place there was this same effect of strangely satanic smiles and eyeballs wild and glittering in the pale glow of the lamps.
Sometimes the scenes in their weird strength were absolutely infernal. Once, when we were traversing a silent tunnel in another mine, we came suddenly upon a wide place where some miners were lying down in a group. As they upreared to gaze at us, it resembled a resurrection. They slowly uprose with ghoul-like movements, mysterious figures robed in enormous shadows. The swift flashes of the steel-gleaming eyes were upon our faces.
At another time, when my companion, struggling against difficulties, was trying to get a sketch of the mule, “Molly Maguire,” a large group of miners gathered about us intent upon the pencil of the artist. ” Molly,” indifferent to the demands of art, changed her position after a moment and calmly settled into a new one. The men all laughed, and this laugh created the most astonishing and supernatural effect. In an instant the gloom was filled with luminous smiles. Shining forth all about us were eyes glittering as with cold blue flame. ” Whoa, Molly,” the men began to shout. Five or six of them clutched ” Molly” by her tail, her head, her legs. They were going to hold her motionless until the portrait was finished. ” He’s a good feller,” they had said of the artist, and it would be a small thing to hold a mule for him. Upon the roof were vague dancing reflections of red and yellow.
From this tunnel of our first mine we went with our guide to the foot of the main shaft. Here we were in the most important passage of a mine, the main gangway. The wonder of these avenues is the noise—the crash and clatter of machinery as the elevator speeds upward with the loaded cars and drops thunderingly with the empty ones. The place resounds with the shouts of mule-boys, and there can always be heard the noise of approaching coal-cars, beginning in mild rumbles and then swelling down upon one in a tempest of sound. In the air is the slow painful throb of the pumps working at the water which collects in the depths. There is booming and banging and crashing, until one wonders why the tremendous walls are not wrenched by the force of this uproar.
And up and down the tunnel there is a riot of lights, little orange points flickering and flashing. Miners stride in swift and sombre procession. But the meaning of it all is in the deep bass rattle of a blast in some hidden part of the mine. It is war. It is the most savage part of all in the endless battle between man and nature. These miners are grimly in the van. They have carried the war into places where nature has the strength of a million giants. Sometimes their enemy becomes exasperated and snuffs out ten twenty, thirty lives. Usually she remains calm, and takes one at a time with method and precision. She need not hurry. She possesses eternity. After a blast, the smoke, faintly luminous, silvery, floats silently through the adjacent tunnels.
In our first mine we speedily lost all ideas of time, direction, distance. The whole thing was an extraordinary, black puzzle. We were impelled to admire the guide because he knew all the tangled passages. He led us through little tunnels three and four feet wide and with roofs that sometimes made us crawl. At other times we were in avenues twenty feet wide, where double rows of tracks extended. There were stretches of great darkness, majestic silences. The three hundred miners were distributed into all sorts of crevices and corners of the labyrinth, toiling in this city of endless night. At different points one could hear the roar of traffic about the foot of the main shaft, to which flowed all the commerce of the place.
We were made aware of distances later by our guide, who would occasionally stop to tell us our position by naming a point of the familiar geography of the surface. ” Do you remember that rolling-mill yeh passed coming up? Well, you’re right under it.” “You’re under th’ depot now.” The length of these distances struck us with amazement when we reached the surface. Near Scranton one can really proceed for miles, in the black streets of the mines.
Over in a wide and lightless room we found the mule-stables. There we discovered a number of these animals standing with an air of calmness and self-possession that was somehow amazing to find in a mine. A little dark urchin came and belabored his mule “China” until he stood broadside to us that we might admire his innumerable fine qualities. The stable was like a dungeon. The mules were arranged in solemn rows. They turned their heads toward our lamps. The glare made their eyes shine wondrously like lenses. They resembled enormous rats.
About the room stood bales of hay, and straw. The commonplace air worn by the long-eared slaves made it all infinitely usual. One had to wait to see the tragedy of it. It was not until we had grown familiar with the life and the traditions of the mines that we were capable of understanding the story told by these beasts standing, in calm array, with spread legs.
It is a common affair for mules to be imprisoned for years in the limitless night of the mines. Our acquaintance, “China,” had been four years buried. Upon the surface there had been the march of the seasons; the white splendor of snows had changed again-and again to the glories of green springs. l our times had the earth been ablaze with the decorations of brilliant autumns. But “China” and his friends had remained in these dungeons from which daylight, if one could get a view up a shaft, would appear a tiny circle, a silver star aglow in a sable sky.
Usually when brought to the surface, the mules tremble at the earth radiant in the sun-shine. Later, they go almost mad with fantastic joy. The frill splendor of the heavens, the grass, the trees, the breezes, breaks upon them suddenly. They caper and career with extravagant mulish glee. A miner told me of a mule that had spent some delirious months upon the surface after years of labor in the mines. Finally the time came when he was to be taken back. But the memory of a black existence was upon him; he knew that gaping mouth that threatened to swallow him. No cudgellings could induce him. The men held conventions and discussed plans to budge that mule. The celebrated quality of obstinacy in him won him liberty to gambol clumsily about on the surface.
After being long in the mines, the mules are apt to duck and dodge at the close glare of lamps, but some of them have been known to have piteous fears of being left in the dead darkness. We met a boy who said that sometimes the only way he could get his team to move was to run ahead of them with the light. Afraid of the darkness, they would follow. To those who have known the sunlight there may come the fragrant dream of a lost paradise. Perhaps this is what they brood over as they stand solemnly flapping their ears. Perhaps they despair and thirst for this bloomland that lies in an unknown direction and at impossible distances.
In wet mines, gruesome fungi grow upon the wooden props that support tile uncertain looking ceiling. The walls are dripping and dank. Upon them, too, frequently grows a mosslike fungus, white as a druid’s beard, that thrives in these deep dens, but shrivels and dies at contact with the sunlight.
Great and mystically dreadful is the earth from a mine’s depth. Man is in the implacable grasp of nature. It has only to tighten slightly, and he is crushed like a bug. His loudest shriek of agony would be as impotent as his final moan to bring help from that fair land that lies, like Heaven, over his head. There is an insidious, silent enemy in the gas.
If the huge fanwheel on the top of the earth should stop for a brief period, there is certain death. If a man escape the gas, the floods, the “squeezes” of falling rock, the cars shooting through little tunnels, the precarious elevators, the hundred perils, there usually comes to him an attack of ” miner’s asthma ” that slowly racks and shakes him into the grave. Meanwhile he gets three dollars per day, and his laborer one dollar and a quarter.
In the chamber at the foot of the shaft, as we were departing, a group of the men were resting. They lay about in careless poses. When we climbed aboard the elevator, we had a moment in which to turn and regard them. Then suddenly the study in black faces and crimson and orange lights vanished. We were on our swift way to the surface. Far above us in the engine-room, the engineer sat with his hand on a lever and his eye on the little model of the shaft wherein a miniature elevator was making the ascent even as our elevator was making it. Down one of those tremendous holes, one thinks naturally of the engineer.
Of a sudden the fleeting walls became flecked with light. It increased to a downpour of sunbeams. The high sun was afloat in a splendor of spotless blue. The distant hills were arrayed in purple and stood like monarchs. A glory of gold was upon the near-by earth. The cool fresh air was wine.
Of that sinister struggle far below there came no sound, no suggestion save the loaded cars that emerged one after another in eternal procession and went creaking up the incline that their contents might be fed into the mouth of the “breaker,” imperturbably cruel and insatiate, black emblem of greed, and of the gods of this labor.
Featured Image: McClure’s Magazine, 1894
3 thoughts on ““In the Depths of a Coal Mine” – Stephen Crane’s 1894 visit to Pennsylvania’s Coal Region”
Masterful description of this other-worldly realm below. All I could do was think of my ancestors in the mines at that same time period in PA. Stephen Crane is one of America’s most underrated writers. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jake.
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Really enjoyed this and the vivid descriptions and pictures. Next best thing to being there.
One question so far unanswered is how the engineer communicated so he know when to bring the lift up, and how to take it down. I see notches on the handle that would identified the levels. I imagine there were multiple levels.
I did notice what looked like a tube there, maybe for calls?