Scientist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler traveled through Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields during the summer of 1873 and described what he experienced in a story published in “The Atlantic” magazine.
Shaler, a renowned paleontologist and geologist, did not particularly enjoy what he witnessed in the valley between Tamaqua and Pottsville.
“At Tamaqua we suddenly enter the long coal basin which stretches all the way to Pottsville and beyond. A mile or two of distance here gives us a marvellous contrast. The wealth of soil disappears; in its place comes the underground richness of the ancient coal-period forests.
The endless fields of grain give place to scanty forests robbed of every tree which could be used in shoring up the galleries of the mines. The gnarled and worthless pines spread their ragged limbs against the sky line of the hills. The brooks are turbid with the waters pumped from the innumerable shafts, and wander deviously through and around the enormous piles of black waste which is dumped into their valleys.
Squalid little wooden hamlets are clustered below each of the files of grimy sheds which show the entrances of the rivers on the sides of the mountains. On every hand run the coal railways, down which pour unending trains of coal. The change in the people is even more painful than the change in the face of the land.
The men seem mostly Cornish or other British miners, — shapeless, hulking fellows, shuffling over the ground with something of the uncertain tread of sailors on shore, their clothing sordid, their faces blear-eyed and dull with the monotonous toil in darkness to which their race has been subjected for generations. Whiskey has made its mark on nearly every face, — visible even through the soot which hides almost every other expression of their sinister countenances.
The women are in far better condition. Many of them are pictures of rude health and vigor, well fed, not overworked, for there are no æsthetic cares here; living in the open air, — for their dens are too small for tenements, — they have a better chance for growth than most lower-class women.
The children, too, are sturdy little urchins until the black mine draws them in, when they seem at once to leave their youth for the old age of hopeless, sunless toil.
It was late in the afternoon when we got well into this melancholy region, and though we drove fast, no camp-ground could be found between the villages. The woods seemed wild enough, but they were everywhere cut by paths which are traversed by the mine people on their way to and fro.
We recoiled at the prospect of camping among these unpleasant-looking neighbors; moreover, the springs were all dry. Poor at best in this region, they are here cut by the underground channels, and come up a putrid torrent from the pumps. So we journeyed on, hoping to get the unaccustomed shelter of a hotel at Pottsville…”
(Image: A 19th century view from Sharp Mountain looking east over the Schuylkill River and Schuylkill Canal toward Palo Alto and the valley stretching east that’s described by N.S. Shaler – NYPL)