Mining History Association

16th Annual Conference, June 16-20, 2005

Lackawanna Heritage Valley Center

Scranton, Pennsylvania



History of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region

The Anthracite Mining Region of northeastern Pennsylvania extends over 485 square miles of nine counties.  It is divided into four fields.  Each field is further subdivided into basins.  The coal deposits are Pennsylvanian in age (325 million years).  Extensive folding and faulting of the strata made anthracite harder than bituminous coal, lower in volatile matter, and higher in carbon.


The Southern Field is the largest of the four, covering 180 square miles.  It is located near the cities of Pottsville and Tamaqua. The Northern Field is just slightly smaller than the Southern Field, covering 175 square miles.  Its major cities are Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.  The Western Middle Field covers 95 square miles.  Shamokin is its largest city.  The Eastern Middle Field is the smallest, covering 35 square miles. Hazleton is its major city.


Discovering Pennsylvania Anthracite 

Native Americans used crushed anthracite as a black paint stone.  Moravian missionaries, hunters, woodsmen, and farmers undoubtedly also knew of the existence of “stone coal” as it was called.  Around 1769, Obadiah Gore, a blacksmith in the Wilkes-Barre area, discovered that anthracite could be used in his forge.  Other blacksmiths adopted the practice.  In 1791, Philip Ginter, a farmer and miller, discovered the anthracite deposit on Sharp Mountain (now called Mauch Chunk Mountain) in Summit Hill, Carbon County.  He is generally regarded as the “Father of the Anthracite Industry.”


Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania (Courtesy USBM).  CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO DISPLAY A LARGER MAP.

Finding Uses for Anthracite

Finding the deposits was easier than finding commercial uses for anthracite.  Philip Ginter gave a piece of the anthracite he had discovered to Col. Jacob Weiss at Fort Allen (now Weissport).  Weiss took it to Philadelphia and confirmed it was coal.  Then Weiss, Charles Cist, John Nicholas, and Michael Hillegar formed the Lehigh Coal Mining Company, the first anthracite company.  In 1803 they shipped two boatloads down the dangerous Lehigh River to Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, the coal was difficult to ignite and therefore could not be sold.


In 1808, Judge Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre successfully burned anthracite on a grate in his fireplace.  Stoking the fire by adding more coal kept the fire going.  Gradually anthracite became accepted as a premium, clean burning, and “smokeless” home heating fuel.  Philadelphia was the first market outside the anthracite region.  During the War of 1812, shipments of British coal were cut off and anthracite gained new markets including New York.  Well-to-do customers paid $25 per ton for the fuel.


In 1838, David Thomas used anthracite in iron furnaces at the Lehigh Crane Iron Company in Catasauqua.  The successful use of anthracite for iron making sounded the death knell for many of the small charcoal furnaces dotting the Eastern Seaboard.



Transportation Was Key

Getting the coal to markets was a difficult and costly challenge but by 1829 there were four canals transporting anthracite.  The Schuylkill Canal and Union (Pennsylvania) Canal served the Philadelphia and Baltimore markets.  The Lehigh Canal (in conjunction with the Morris Canal in New Jersey) and the Delaware and Hudson Canal served New York.  Most of the canals also incorporated inclined planes and gravity railroads to raise coal boats, called arks, over the high ridges between canal segments.  By 1842 the first railroad reached the anthracite region.  Rail transportation was a game-changer.  By 1853 annual production had risen to 11 million tons.  By 1873 it had reached 21 million tons.  The canals experienced a steady decline after railroads had arrived.

Loading anthracite into boats at Honesdale, the transfer point from the gravity railroad and the Delaware and Hudson Canal.  The coal was destined for the New York market.

Mining Anthracite

Anthracite was first quarried from outcrops.  When quarrying became impractical, the miners went underground.  When the geology and topography would permit, access to the coal beds was obtained through horizontal tunnels (adits, drifts) which also provided drainage.  Inclined shafts driven in the coal were used when the dip of the beds would permit.  Vertical shafts were used when the coal was deep.  Many of the early mines had only one entry/exit point.  Vertical shafts frequently used a furnace at the bottom of the shaft to create a flow of air to ventilate the mine.  These practices increased the risk to the miners.  In the working areas, the coal was loaded into mine cars and pulled by mules to the tipple or to the bottom of the shaft or incline for hoisting.


Underground, the dip of the coal beds dictated the mining method to be used.  In generally flat-lying beds, variations of room and pillar mining were used.  In some cases, the pillars were “robbed” (removed) when the miners moved to a new part of the mine.  Many mined areas were allowed to cave once most of the coal was removed.  This caused subsidence which became a problem, particularly in urban areas.


In much of the region the coal beds are pitched on an angle from a few degrees to nearly vertical.  Gangways (haulage drifts) were driven on the strike of the coal beds.  Breasts (rooms, stopes) were driven from the sides of gangways.  Coal pillars on the sides of the breasts and timbers provided support.  In shallow dipping beds, coal was moved from the breast to the gangway by hand shoveling, scraping, loading on small buggies, or, later, by electric shaking conveyors.  As the dip got steeper, the mining methods more closely resembled those used in hard rock mining, with gravity playing a greater role in moving the broken coal from the face to the loading points along the gangway.


Anthracite was sold by size.  Larger sizes commanded a higher price.  Because the miners were paid only for the coal and penalized if they loaded rock, they tended to leave less desirable coal underground.  This led to a great deal of waste and eventually coal breakers were built on the surface to separate coal from rock.  Young “breaker boys” were used to pick slate and other impurities from the coal which was then crushed and screened to size.  The first breaker was built in 1852 at the Diamond Mine near Scranton.  As technology improved, jigs and other specific gravity-based devices were added to the breaker flowsheets to further clean the coal.  Some culm banks (waste dumps) were reprocessed to recover coal lost in early mining and processing.


Labor Unrest

Working conditions in the early anthracite mines were poor and wages were low.  Dissatisfaction among the miners led to the creation of the Workers' Benevolent Association (WBA) in 1868.  Initially, it had a cooperative relationship with the mine owners and operators.  In a few years, however, that relationship soured and the WBA disappeared.  The 1869 Avondale mine disaster in which 110 miners were killed focused public attention on the unsafe conditions in the mines and caused Pennsylvania to enact the first mine safety laws.  In 1870, the first year of statistics, a total of 211 miners were killed while producing 14 million tons of anthracite.


Other worker’s associations formed, but bargaining was met with increasing resistance.  In the 1870’s, a number of murders and other violent acts against the mining companies were blamed on the Irish-American secret society, the Molly Maguires.  Pinkerton detectives hired by railroad and coal interests were able to infiltrate the organization.  Vigilante attacks were carried out on suspected members.   Many members were arrested and 20 were convicted of murder and hanged in 1877-1879. 


The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) was formed in 1890 and became a powerful force in the anthracite coal fields.  In 1899, in Nanticoke, the union won a strike against a coal subsidiary of a powerful railroad company.  Union support grew as a result.  In October of 1902, a major strike shut down the industry for 5 months idling 100,000 miners.  After government intervention, the strike was settled with significant union gains.

Mining in the flat-lying coal beds near Scranton (Courtesy USBM).  Coal pillars, timbers, and waste rock provided roof support.


Cross-section through anthracite beds in the Southern Field (After Whilden, 1915).  Folding and faulting of the coal bearing formations made it necessary to use a variety of mining methods.  CLICK ON THE IMAGE VIEW LARGER IMAGE.


Plan and section views of a working breast in a shallow dipping coal bed (Coal Miners Pocketbook, 1916).  CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO DISPLAY OTHER MINING METHODS USEDIN SHALOW AND STEEPLY DIPPING BEDS.


“Breaker Boys” as young as 6 picked slate from the coal in the early breakers (Courtesy USBM).

Peak Production Year, 1917

Production continued to rise through World War I.  In 1917 it reached a peak of 100 million tons with 156,000 workers employed in the industry.  Most of the production came from mines owned by railroad companies.  Seven hundred and seventy-six mines were in operation.  Although the fatality rate had been cut by two thirds since the Avondale Disaster, production had increased five-fold and there were 581 fatalities.  Anthracite mining was still a very dangerous occupation.  While population centers like Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Pottsville, and Hazleton were growing fast, most miners still lived in “patch towns” close to the mines and breakers.  Immigrants comprised 61% of the workforce (Polish 13%, Austrian 8%, Italian 8%, Lithuanian 7%, Russian 7%, Slovenian 6%, Irish 3%, Welsh 2% and English 2%).  The U. S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) published safety and first aid booklets for miners in several foreign languages.  Child labor was now prohibited, with 14 being the youngest age for outside work and 16 for underground work.

Decline of the Industry

The anthracite industry went into steady decline after World War I.  The primary reason was competition from abundant supplies of lower cost oil and gas.  A large drop in anthracite production occurred during the Depression with only a small bounce-back during World War II.  The earlier downward trend continued after the War.  In 1959, The Knox Mine near Wilkes-Barre broke through the bottom of the Susquehanna River, flooding the underground mines and ending production in the area.  Total anthracite production in 2010 was 7 million short tons with only 207,000 tons from underground mines.  The remaining production was split between surface mining and reprocessing of refuse.

The Future of Anthracite 

Over 5 billion short tons of anthracite have been produced over the region’s 200 year mining history.  In 1974, during an energy crisis, a USBM study estimated that the remaining resources totaled 17.4 billion short tons with 12.2 in the Southern Field, 3.0 in the Western Middle Field, 1.9 in the Northern Field, and 0.3 in the Eastern Middle Field.  When the crisis subsided, so did interest in anthracite.

Chart of anthracite production showing the decline after World War II (Courtesy USBM).






Increased use of oil and gas caused anthracite to lose markets (Courtesy USBM).

Written by L. Michael Kaas


J. Price Wetherill, “An Outline of Anthracite Coal Mining in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania,” Transaction of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 5 (New York: AIME, 1877) 402-422.


Charles A. Ashburner, “The Anthracite Coal Fields of Pennsylvania,” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 11 (New York: AIME,1883) 136-159.


Samuel Thomas, “Reminisces of the Early Anthracite Iron Industry,” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 30 (New York: AIME, 1900) 901-928.


George W. Harris, “Anthracite Washeries,” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 36 (New York AIME, 1906) 610-625.


Andrew Roy, “A History of the Coal Miners of the United States from the Development of the Mines to the Close of the Anthracite Strike of 1902,” (Columbus, OH: J. L. Trauger Printing Company, 1907).


W. G. Whilden, “Steep Pitch Mining of Thick Coal Veins,” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 49 (New York: AIME, 1915), 698-722.


“Coal Miners Pocketbook,” Eleventh Edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1916.


“Report of the Pennsylvania Department of Mines: Part I – Anthracite, 1917,” (Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1919).

Carl Corlsen, “Buried Black Treasure, The Story of Pennsylvania Anthracite,” (Bethlehem, PA: Self-Published by Carl Corlsen, 1954).

Berger Associates and A. B. Riedel Associates, “Evaluation of Mining Constraints of the Revitalization of Pennsylvania Anthracite (Contract No. S0241039),” U. S. Bureau of Mines, Open File Report 75-47, (Washington: U. S. Bureau of Mines, 1975).



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