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Deep underground – Coal mining in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region

May 2017

Deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, in Schuykill County, is the Borough of Ashland.  Surrounded by forests and steep hills, the borough’s southern border follows the top of Ashland Mountain, which rises 400 to 600 feet above the center of town.  Mahony Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River passes through a water gap in the mountain in the southeast part of Ashland.

Visitors to Ashland can visit the Pioneer Tunnel, a former coal mine which provides an up-close and intimate tour of life of the coal miners who harvested the natural resource that powered the Industrial Revolution.

The Pioneer Tunnel was a horizontal mining operation that tunneled into Mahanoy Mountain, owned and operated by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company from 1911 to 1931.

Gritty-faced miners used picks to break pieces of coal, which was dropped into mine-carts pulled by mules, most of whom lived their entire lives in the dank, cold mine tunnels.  Children as young as 8 years old would work in the mines, frequently as breaker boys, whose job it was to separate impurities from the coal by hand in a coal breaker.  They were under constant threat of bodily harm or death from the machinery, being crushed by the rush of coal along the conveyor, lung diseases and the sulfuric acid created by washing the coal.  Death or injury was a constant threat for all miners.

While mining operations are much safer today, especially with the modern practice of strip mining, in the first half of the 20th century, around 90, 000 coal miners were killed in mining accidents in the United States alone, with another 10, 000 losing their lives in the latter half.  More than 3200 died in just 1907.

Everything from mine collapses, gas poisoning, explosions from gas pockets or the use of dynamite or collisions with vehicles and mining carts were a constant danger to miners.  Long-term exposure to the dust in the mines brought about coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), better known as black lung disease.

Canada certainly didn’t escape the dangers of coal mining.  In Nova Scotia alone, 1773 coal miners died 1866 – 1987 in disasters in New Waterford, Springhill, Sydney Mines and Glace Bay.

The worst mining accident in Canada was the Hillcrest Mine Disaster in Hillcrest, Alberta, on 19 June 1914, where 189 miners died.

In the early days, oil torches, and later, carbide lamps flickered in the darkness of the mines, sometimes barely illuminating the walls of the mine around the miners.  Electric lights greatly improved working conditions for the miners.

Electricity also brought about mine-carts pulled by electric motors and electric pumps pumped the water out of the miner’s way.

Visitors enter the Pioneer Tunnel by riding a min motor 1800 feet into Mahanoy Mountain darkness, drops of water falling around you, with  temperatures within the mine are around a constant of 10–12 °C.  Here miners used to dig out the Anthracite coal that was buried deep under Mahanoy Mountain.

Anthracite coal is a hard, compact variety of coal that has a submetalic sheen, the highest carbon content (between 92.1% and 98%), the fewest impurities and the highest calorific content of all types of coal except for graphite, something that you will find in writing pencils.

Anthracite is difficult to light, but when it does it burns very hot with a short, blue, and smokeless flame and accounts for about 1% of global coal reserves.  The name Anthracite is derived from the Greek word “anthrakites”, literally “coal-like”.  Anthracite is also referred to as black coal, hard coal, stone coal, dark coal, coffee coal and black diamond.  Anthracite differs from ordinary bitumious coal by its greater hardness, higher relative density and the fact that compression pressure has squeezed out most of the impurities, making it a more pure coal that doesn’t blacken the fingers when rubbed.

The Anthracite region of Pennsylvania experienced more heat compression than most places in the world, forming 75% of America’s supply and 95% of the world’s supply of Anthracite coal. Total production in 2010 was 670 million tons.

From the 18th century until the 1950s, coal became an important fuel source for both domestic heating, transportation and industrial uses like smelting, alloy production and hydro generation because it had a higher amount of energy per mass over other fuels like wood.

By the late 20th century, other fuel sources like natural gas, oil, nuclear and renewable energy sources had eclipsed coal due to environmental concerns like air pollution and the destruction of landscapes from the strip mining process.  However coal remains a viable energy source in many parts of the world.  In 2010, coal represented around 25% of the world’s energy production sources and it is expected to grow to about 30%.

Sources:  Poneer Coal Mine – www.pioneertunnel.com, Lakawana County Coal Mine – www.lackawannacounty.org/index.php/attractions/coal-mine, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/coal-mining-disasters/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_mining, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaker_boy,

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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