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Outside the Back Mountain

It still lays in layers on the entire floor of Wyoming Valley underneath the Susquehanna River and climbs up the mountainsides, wrapping the whole like a bathtub. With Lackawanna Valley added, it is the Northern Anthracite Coal Field, one of the richest deposits of anthracite on the entire planet! It fueled the American Industrial Revolution, impacting not only communities in Wyoming Valley and InSide the Back Mountain, but communities nationwide and around the globe. 

Coal is formed from many layers of vegetation squeezed under great pressure. On a hardness scale of 1-100, diamond is 100. Coal is 95. With just a little more pressure, there would have been Wyoming Valley diamond mines! But the geologic forces which produced coal also created a buried valley carved by glaciers, filled with water and quicksand as well as stone, coal, and dirt, all hidden underneath Wyoming Valley. This buried valley posed immediate danger to the miners while they tunneled. Once, about 70,000 feet of quicksand rushed into an inner chamber of the Pittston, or 11 Foot vein underneath the town of Wyoming. Fortunately, no miners were present and no lives were lost. Underneath Nanticoke, a similar event did not end so well. 

At the height of the coal industry, around 1917, there were well over 400 coal breakers dotting the landscape of the Northern Coal Field. No coal was formed Inside the Back Mountain, so there was no coal mining nor coal breakers here. However, many breakers were perched on the Valley-side flanks of mountains that create our Back Mountain plateau.  Coal breakers were processing plants. After coal was removed from the mines, it was transported via an inclined plane to the top of a breaker in mine cars. Each coal car was tipped in order to be emptied, and the coal then moved gradually downward as it was crushed, cleaned, screened, sorted into various sizes, and readied for market. A breaker was the largest, most visible building at a colliery, a term referring to the entire coal mining campus including the mine and related outbuildings.

Just beyond the hills of the Back Mountain area of Carverton, where Abram’s Creek flowed into flatter land, the Westmoreland Coal Breaker was located in West Wyoming. Formerly known as the Griffith, it was constructed in 1898 by the Wyoming Coal and Land Company. In June of 1905, it was sold to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company. It was located on the Back Road from West Wyoming to Swoyersville across from the old Moonlight Drive-in Theater. It was razed in December of 1950.

In Luzerne, where the falls of Toby’s Creek met the more level land of Wyoming Valley, the old Black Diamond breaker was constructed in 1854 in the early days of coal mining. The village was still called Mill Hollow back then. The Black Diamond was destroyed by fire around 1897.

Also in Luzerne was Waddell's Mill Hollow Breaker. The mine shaft was sunk in 1885 and the breaker was constructed just below the line of Courtdale Avenue but on the east side of Toby’s Creek. The Lehigh Valley RailRoad had a Mill Hollow Branch that ran up to the area of the breaker where Luzerne Lumber is now located. 

Although no coal mining took place InSide the Back Mountain, it greatly impacted our area. Many men worked in the mines. Even in my own childhood, it was considered one of the few ways for a person with no education past 8th grade and no inherited land or wealth to earn “real” money. 

For much of the past several decades, even as I paint our gorgeous landscapes InSide the Back Mountain and beyond, much of my art has centered around the world of anthracite. I am especially attracted to coal breakers! The working breakers I knew decades ago were loud, clanging, banging, grinding, shrieking, menacing structures! All are gone. With my brushes, paint, paper, and historical photos, using thin layers of acrylics, I attempt to portray the silent memories, the essence of coal miners, families, and communities. I am especially attracted to older wooden breakers of a century or more ago, like blackened castles, dark silhouettes in the landscape, strange architecture featuring rooms added here and there, even balconies of sorts. I add clouds of people, relatives of friends and acquaintances appropriate for place and time, as dusty, whispering, faded images. I admit my anthracite “addiction.” Some of my teen students laughingly suggest I need an intervention!

January is Anthracite Mining History month in NEPA. Whether you have any coal miners in your family, community, memory, or not, January is the perfect month to honor this part of our local history!


This article originally appeared in the January 2024 publication of InSide the Back Mountain.

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