Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – A Three-Part Series on the State of Pennsylvania Anthracite

Part One: A Look Back

250 years ago, anthracite was discovered in Eastern Pennsylvania. Since then, this valuable natural resource has been the material that fueled the industrial revolution in America, two World Wars, and was the driving force in growing a prosperous regional economy in Schuylkill, Luzerne, Lackawanna, Northumberland, Columbia and Carbon counties.

100 years ago, the Pennsylvania anthracite industry reached what would turn out to be peak production, mining and delivering 100 million tons that were used to heat homes and businesses and power the industrial machines providing steel for bridges, buildings and infrastructure and the ships, guns and armaments for World War I. In generating that production, this peak employed nearly 200,000 miners. At that time, the future looked bright and no one knew or believed that this would be the high production point of Pennsylvania anthracite.

While that growth was impressive and helpful on many fronts, it was not without cost. Safety standards and employment practices were not what they are today. The rapid growth of the industry led to labor issues that were a driving force in the development of the Union Labor movement in the United States. The pace of growth also limited interest in and accomplishment of any kind of restoration of the disturbed lands. Today, we see all too easily the results of that lack of environmental stewardship of the early days of mining. Abandoned mine sites, open slopes, shafts and drifts, surface subsidence, acid mine drainage, and hundreds of millions of tons of refuse piles are an all too evident legacy of the first 150+ years of anthracite mining in Pennsylvania.

By 1950, due to the discovery and development of other fuels and the transition to a post-war economy, anthracite demand in the United States had fallen by more than 50 percent. Converting from underground mining to surface mining and efficiency improvements caused anthracite mining employment to fall by almost 70 percent in the same period, generating significant local economic challenges in the region.

All in all, the “Golden Age” of anthracite had positives and negatives. It drove the development of the existing rail infrastructure in the region (still a critical contributor to industrial activity) and played a big part in encouraging European immigration to the country building the strong ethnically diverse cultures that are regularly celebrated today.

Posted on 10/10/18