Big field trip news this week: I got to go to Scranton, Pa. and learn all about coal. It was amazing and I can't wait to go back.
Central Pennsylvania is the world capitol of anthracite coal. Before this trip I thought there was just "coal" and "things that steal jobs from coal." Turns out there are two kinds—hang with me for a minute: Anthracite is also known as "hard coal," 98 percent carbon, and relatively clean-burning because of it. Eighty percent of the world's anthracite coal comes from Pennsylvania's coal fields. Bituminous coal is the other kind, and the kind we're talking about these days. It's only 62 percent carbon, and the rest is trash that pollutes as it burns. Pennsylvania's anthracite coal mines closed for good in 1966, and 50 years on, coal is a museum, not a way to get votes. I spent a weekend visiting this museum.
I started at the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in Scranton's McDade Park. I pulled up early in my rental car, bought my ticket, and settled in for the welcome film while I waited for the next tour to start. My mind was quickly blown as I learned about the United Mine Workers Coal Strike of 1902. Miners hadn't gotten a pay increase in twenty years—TWENTY YEARS—and went on strike, knowing that withdrawing their labor meant shutting down the main source of fuel for households in major cities all over the United States. That's not going to work. Coal mine owners refused to bargain, arguing that the "rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country."
Ah, yes, that old "capitalist knows best" saw. It didn't work, and eventually President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to suspend the strike and force concessions from the mine owners. Well, sort of. J.P. Morgan structured a compromise—he'd chair a commission to resolve the conflict, and workers and owners would both communicate with the commission and not each other, letting the owners continue to insist they were not bargaining with the union. For the first time, the state intervened in a labor struggle on behalf of labor, not capital. Workers got a 10 percent raise, a nine-hour workday, and arbitration—less than they demanded, but more than the owners ever wanted to give up.
The other big story was about the closing of the mines. Surprise, surprise, mine owners weren't always the most scrupulous when it came to protecting workers or the environment. In 1955, after miners mined too close to the Susquehanna River, the wall gave way and the river flooded many interconnected mining tunnels underground, trapping 81 miners. The video showed footage of giant train cars being dropped into the swirling mouth of the mines to block it, but they were like doll cars going down the drain. It took three days to stop the flood, and 12 miners died, entombed with the coal they risked their lives to bring up every day.
The Knox Mine disaster was credited with shutting down the anthracite mining business altogether; it was just too dangerous. I was suspicious that 12 people dying was enough to shut down an industry that killed over 30,000 in the previous decades. My later visit to the Anthracite Heritage Museum confirmed my suspicions: Demand for anthracite coal had been falling for years as the convenience and relatively clean-burning nature of oil and natural gas made them the new go-to fuels.
It was finally time to leave the film and head down into the mines. I picked up a hairnet and hardhat and headed to the mine car for a trip 250 feet underground. Tony, our tour guide, loaded us in and then we were on our way. It was very quickly dark and cold—the mines stay around 54 degrees year round. Tony called it "nature's air conditioning," though I'm not sure cutting through layer after layer of the earth is exactly what nature was going for. And then I heard the water trickling, and then saw small streams flooding in. Turns out there's water everywhere in the earth, and when you cut it away, it fills up the spaces left behind.
We came to an abrupt stop at the floor of the mine and climbed out of the car. Tony explained where coal seams come from, how miners used dynamite to create "rooms" where mine workers extracted coal from the "walls," leaving pedestals to hold up the "ceilings" as they blasted their way through more layers of earth. He showed us "monkey seams," 18-inch slices where mine workers would tuck themselves in on hands and knees in 12-hour shifts to cut away more coal. We learned about the mules who hauled cars of coal through the mine to the pulleys that would pull them to the surface. Mules are unpredictable; one wrong move and you could get kicked in the chest. "That's how my grandfather's brother died, just 12 years old."
Tony told us the life expectancy of an anthracite miner was just 42. "Beyond that," he said, "they were living on borrowed time." The dust from the coal, this 98 percent pure energy clean coal, would coat their lungs and they'd slowly suffocate to death. Those who survived long enough to be too old to work in the mine would end their lives like they started them at as young as 5 years old: sorting coal in breaker rooms just outside the mines. You could indeed count on coal for a lifetime of work.
After an hour we were back on the surface, but now I understood that under my feet anywhere in this region were old mines like the Lackawanna. Subsidences still occur as mines collapse, sucking the surface down with them. Fires start underground with no way to put them out. The one under Centralia, Pa. has been burning since 1962. There's a 26-mile lake underground that's growing as water continues to fill the open spaces left behind. What do we bring back when we bring back coal, and in what ways has it never left?