COAL KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON. So reads the slogan—call it an industry advertisement—stamped in black letters on a steel-gray coal chute that traverses Pennsylvania Route 54 in the northeastern part of the state. This is Schuylkill County, in the center of the world’s most extensive deposits of anthracite coal. Substantial deposits, worth tens of billions of dollars at current market prices, remain in the ground even after a century and a half of mining here. The chute feeds coal refuse to a nearby electricity-cogeneration plant. Motorists can’t possibly miss the message. Near the dirt road leading to the electricity plant stands a sign placed by the Pennsylvania Anthracite Council on behalf of its mission: RECLAIMING THE PAST—FUELING THE FUTURE.
These pronouncements exhibit a note of defensiveness—and understandably so. As I made my way along Route 54 on a sunny weekday toward summer’s end, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg had recently completed her voyage westward across the Atlantic aboard a zero-carbon-emissions yacht. In a speech at the United Nations climate-action summit in New York, she castigated world leaders for their failure to rescue the planet from the devastating damage caused by fossil fuels: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth—how dare you!”
In this context, COAL KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON might sound like an embattled region’s middle-fingered rejoinder to this uncompromising message, one voiced by many Democrats vowing to enact a Green New Deal to phase out fossil fuels. Schuylkill County, with a population of about 142,000, voted 70 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, giving Hillary Clinton less than 27 percent—in part because of Trump’s embrace of coal. TRUMP DIGS COAL, the signs read back then. Yet, as I discovered in my visit to this region as a new presidential election approaches, Pennsylvania is, as ever, a battleground state: the attitudes here are more contested than commonly believed, about Trump and even about King Coal. Certainly, Trump figures to hold the county again in 2020, especially against a Democratic opponent who will likely support some form of the Green New Deal. But these communities are in flux economically, demographically, and generationally. Their political and cultural trajectory may well depart, possibly sharply, from the present. Coal is “the dirtiest fuel on the planet,” one resident in the county told me, with evident disgust.
Coal, specifically anthracite coal, is the essential author of the history of Schuylkill County, the maker of its glory—and of its heartache. Anthracite, supremely effective in the making of iron and steel, can be contrasted with bituminous coal, commonly used in power plants to generate electricity and to make metallurgical coke, a refined carbon product then used to make iron and steel. Anthracite is hard and brittle, bituminous soft and layered; and bituminous coal contains its namesake, the tar-like substance of bitumen, which has a higher sulfur content and a lower carbon or heat content than anthracite coal. Whereas bituminous coal can be plentifully found in regions from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains, anthracite is concentrated in the northeastern Pennsylvania seams, a total area of about 484 square miles.
The idea that this region’s combustible “black rocks,” upon discovery in the late eighteenth century, might be worth something prompted initial ridicule in the markets in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the value of this trove was convincingly demonstrated, in the use of the coal to smelt iron in the Pioneer Furnace in the Schuylkill County seat of Pottsville. Nicholas Biddle, the Philadelphia financier who paid for this experiment, proclaimed: “Oh, Pennsylvania, her sons like her soil, a rough outside but solid within—plenty of coal to warm her friends—plenty of iron to cool her enemies.”
The U.S. economy boomed in the decades after the Civil War, as America became a global superpower powered by Pennsylvania anthracite. The industry’s output increased from 14 million tons in 1870 to 100 million tons in 1917, with employment rising from 36,000 to 156,000 workers. Hard coal fed steel mills and railroad locomotives and heated American homes. Yet while the coal boom created the region’s wealth, the surge in mining activity methodically filled cemeteries with the bodies of boys and men killed in accidents. Over a 64-year stretch from 1879 to 1943, at least 200 miners died in such calamities in every year except two, with a high of 708 deaths in 1907. From 1870 to 1949, the total death toll from accidents was 30,068—a number with the grim reverberation of a war statistic. The stealth enemy was the explosive gases, the “damp,” produced by mining activity. “With a deafening roar,” the Record American of Mahanoy City reported on its front page of January 21, 1935, a gas blast shook the deep-shaft Gilberton Mine of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. “The body of Harry Mauger was removed from the mine shortly before four o’clock this afternoon. He . . . was recently married.” Twelve miners died in the explosion.
These funerals, of course, were always held for the Harry Maugers, not for the coal barons, who lived in the mansions along Mahantongo Street in Pottsville. Miners organized into unions—the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, founded in 1868, was a precursor to the United Mine Workers of America—but the carnage continued. Workers were killed, too, by what came to be known as black lung disease, caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust. In a paper presented to the Schuylkill County Medical Society in 1869, a Pottsville physician described the “characteristic black sputa” (a mixture of saliva with mucus from the respiratory passages)—a substance, he noted, “often streaked with blood”—expelled by his patients and “observed for years after ceasing work in mines.” He pointed out the “great excess of old women over old men” in mining towns and mordantly concluded: “I could not conscientiously advise any life insurance company to do business among miners”—at least, not those planning to stick with this line of work over the long haul.
The stratification of life in hard-coal land—the intricate divisions and collisions of class and religion and ethnic heritage, the country club and the Cadillac and the plush hotel-room affair for one set, and the flophouse and grimy saloon for another—afforded material for the novels and short stories of John O’Hara, born in 1905 in Pottsville (which became, in his fiction, Gibbsville). The son of a prominent physician, O’Hara portrayed a pitiless world of “accident and coincidence and luck,” as said of a character in his tale “The Bucket of Blood,” named for a tavern—a description familiar to anyone with experience of life and work in the dingy “patch” towns of coal-mining country. O’Hara’s fiction suggested that this precarious mode of life was a static fixture of American civilization, but this was mistaken. The twentieth century brought heating oil and natural gas into the mix for the home furnace, and the motor vehicle, of course, used gasoline. Anthracite coal production in the United States reached its peak in 1917.
Schuylkill County was slow to grasp the message. The coal flame has fanned “a gigantic industrial empire,” declared a county history prepared by the Pottsville School District and published in 1950. “It is an empire that—thanks to benevolent Mother Nature—faces no danger of extinction for many generations to come.” Karl Marx would have understood the lag between a changing reality and its apprehension, habits of mind outlasting, phantom-like, those material conditions that gave birth to the patterns of thinking. Pennsylvania hard-coal land seemed trapped by indifferent fate in a ghostly mode of existence.
“After the Civil War, America became a global superpower powered by Pennsylvania anthracite.”
Nowadays, to drive along the winding roads of Schuylkill County can be, for long stretches, to experience a pristine country scene—cornfields, glimpses of deer, green mountains in the distance. But then, there it is, just behind a grove of trees along the highway—a gaping black gash in the earth, the site of a coal mine no longer in use. Paces from the Mahanoy Area public school grounds, a shallow creek has an odd-looking orange hue—the result of iron runoff from coal mines. Many waters emit the rotten-egg odor of sulfur, another mining legacy. The strangest homage, surely, to the impact of anthracite coal mining on human settlement in these parts is the coal-seam blaze that started in the borough of Centralia in 1962 and forced its abandonment by residents in the 1980s. The fire smolders to this day, the site a kind of Halloween theme park, though one with dangerous sinkholes. Visitors can park near a cemetery, walk past a no-trespassing sign posted on a tree—STAY OUT, STAY ALIVE—and stroll along an abandoned highway spray-painted over with colorful graffiti. The highway is now bordered by forest on either side; there is no sign that humans ever inhabited this area.
What stands out to first-time visitors to Schuylkill County, though, is the ravage to the man-made settlements that remain. The motorist exiting Interstate 81 for Mahanoy City is greeted, at the end of a long sloping descent, by a tableau of small soot-stained row houses, a fair number boarded up, with trash in boxes set on rotting wooden porches shaded by tattered awnings. “Our biggest problem is blight,” Thom Maziekas, borough council president of Mahanoy City, 68 years old and a lifelong resident, acknowledged of his town. We were chatting on his front porch, a pack of Kools by his side, an abandoned store facing us across the street. The town’s population, at its height a robust 16,000, is down to 4,000. These depressed conditions owe, not simply to the steep decline in the coal industry, but also to the closure of several local shirt- and dressmaking factories. Maziekas, an unwavering Trump Democrat (he voted for Barack Obama but felt let down by the president), blames the demise of these businesses on the North American Free Trade Agreement, against which Trump campaigned.
As much as 30 percent of the family housing in Mahanoy City, Maziekas said, is classified Section 8—the provision of federal housing law that provides qualifying low-income families with substantial taxpayer subsidies for private rental housing. Numerous residents in Mahanoy City and other towns in the region told me about how Section 8 works in their communities. To start with, a row house, generally unencumbered by a mortgage, is abandoned by the local owner, its property taxes left unpaid. After several years, an “investor” buyer—a speculator from outside the area—steps in with an offer, via a local middleman, of $1,000 or so for the property, with the county forgiving the back taxes. The investor puts a few thousand dollars of work into the unit for basic repairs, enough to win the prized Section 8 classification. Low-income renters move in, and soon enough, the stream of rent payments is generating a profit for the investor on the sunk cost of acquiring and upgrading the place. Typically, the absentee owner thereafter does little to keep up the property. The Section 8 classification, once won, is seldom revoked, as public authorities, perhaps overwhelmed with other duties, do little or nothing to prevent the housing stock from becoming dilapidated. Such is the unhappy pattern, locals say, of the distant “slumlord” in their towns.
The lure of cheap housing is partly behind a demographic change. Families with roots in such places as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico are moving into a region long dominated by people tracing their ethnic heritages to Ireland, Wales, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Italy, and other parts of Europe. In Shenandoah, about five miles from Mahanoy City, once a thriving community of coal and garment workers, nearly half the 1,000 or so students in the K–12 public school system are from groups, mostly Hispanic, other than white Caucasian. A principal described the Latino families as “very transient”—apt to enroll their children in the schools for a year or two and then pull them out. Work in town might be found at Mrs. T’s Pierogies, a mass-market producer of Polish-style dumplings. Jobs are also available at warehouses operated by Amazon and others 15 miles away—on the outskirts of Hazleton, in neighboring Luzerne County—and a second warehouse hub in the central part of Schuylkill County. (See “Chain Migration Comes to Hazleton,” Spring 2018.)
Resentment of the Latino presence—especially among older white voters—probably contributed to Trump’s support in 2016, with his vow to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants from streaming across America’s southern border. In 2008, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico was beaten to death in Shenandoah by several white high school football players, with the town’s police chief later convicted by federal prosecutors for falsifying a report related to the attack. The incident drew national press coverage, with Shenandoah rendered as a bubbling cauldron of antagonisms. This one-dimensional portrait omitted a long history of sectarian strife, in time largely overcome, in the region. After all, this is the land of the Molly Maguires, the secret band of Catholic Irish-American hooligans—or, in some eyes, martyrs—who, back in the nineteenth century, rose up against coal operators, predominantly Protestants of Welsh heritage. A monument in Mahanoy City shows the statue of a hooded Molly on a gallows, his feet bound by rope.
Maziekas retains an abiding belief that the hard-coal business can and should be revived in Schuylkill County. On first hearing this, as we spoke on his front porch, I thought it sounded like a last choked gasp of support for an industry long past its prime. His constituents, I had already discovered, were not uniformly in agreement with their borough president. “I don’t want my kids to suffer from global warming,” one resident, in his mid-forties, told me the day before. As for Trump, “I hate the bastard,” he said. A middle-aged woman told me that she had voted for Trump but now, notwithstanding continued support for the president from her husband and voting-age children, she would back any Democratic challenger, including “a monkey,” because she is so fed up with his “bad policies,” not least his refusal to acknowledge global warming.
I came across a similar sentiment in Ashland, ten miles west of Mahanoy City. Trump “sold people a bill of goods here,” a retired police officer told me over sandwiches at a Subway outlet. His father, he said, died of black lung disease from working in the coal mines; so did his neighbor, a hunting buddy. So far as he is concerned, coal should be bid good riddance. Some young people seem to agree. At the Mahanoy Area High School, students in an environmental science class participated in September’s Global Climate Strike—a weeklong series of actions to “end the age of fossil fuels”—by creating posters such as one depicting the planet in the shape of an electric lightbulb and asking: HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE THE GLOBE? Another declared: I FIGHT FOR WHAT WE STAND ON.
The political crosscurrents in Schuylkill County undermine the notion that America is sorted by geography into pure red and blue sections, a neat division between the heartland interior and the seacoasts, the camps isolated from each other in “information bubbles.” The division, it was evident from my conversations, isn’t so neat. The Trump base is not homogenous; neither is the Trump opposition. Our nation’s culture wars are waged not only between sections but also within communities, and sometimes even within families.
But whose vision of the future is winning? As Maziekas happily pointed out to me, the long flatbed trucks rumbling down the street outside his home were hauling bags of hard coal. He was right: there remains an active anthracite industry in the county, extending well beyond the refuse used for the cogeneration plant that I had come across. Skytop Fuels, on the outskirts of Mahanoy City, is a long-running family business that is rooted in coal mining; it is now in the hands of Ettore DiCasimirro, successor to his father—an immigrant from Italy who started out as a miner. A pro-Trump bumper sticker, MINERS MATTER, adorned the office refrigerator. Unlit cigar butt in mouth, DiCasimirro gave me a tour of his operation. Hard coal, he said, remains a profitable business, and the Trump administration has helped by making the permitting process easier. As for global warming, he asked, “Is there any proof to that?” In his mind, the assault on coal is part of a wider campaign against a traditional way of life. He spoke with incredulity of a recently passed California law that banned the trapping of animals for the sale of their pelts.
Visitors to Blaschak Coal, a few miles away, are greeted by a sign depicting Saint Nicholas in Santa Claus regalia, his right hand raised in greeting, a bag of black coal slung over his back. Without an appointment, I dropped in on J. Greg Driscoll, president and CEO, who welcomed me into his modest office. On his desk was a book, The Story of Anthracite, published by the Hudson Coal Company in 1932. “The anthracite industry is not decadent,” the company president stated in the foreword. “New and improved methods of mining and preparation are being constantly evolved.” Blaschak Coal, once a local family property, nowadays has a remote owner, Milestone Partners, a private-equity firm with a wide range of holdings in various industries. Driscoll commutes to Blaschak from outside Schuylkill County and manages Milestone’s interest in hard coal. The Pennsylvania anthracite industry’s annual output, he told me, has risen to between 2 million and 3 million tons, up from a low of 1 million in 2007. Asked whether he credited Trump for the boost in industry fortunes, he answered crisply: “No.” Still, he’s a Trump supporter: asked if he could support Joe Biden, a native of Scranton, in Pennsylvania hard-coal country, he replied: “I’m pro-life.” He just wishes Trump “wouldn’t talk so much.”
I joined Driscoll the next morning for a short drive out to an active Blaschak coal-mining project, at the site of a surface mine at which work had ceased under a previous operator. We donned hard hats and bright yellow safety vests and stood perched at the lip of an enormous open pit worked by a team operating heavy machinery. From an 80-foot-thick seam of hard coal, Blaschak aims to produce as much as 300,000 tons of anthracite annually, over 20 years’ time. A $1 million grant from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program is helping to fund the work. Once mining is complete, the pit will be filled in and the land reclaimed, so it will “look like it was never touched,” Driscoll told me. Birch trees are known to grow in the acidic soil of former mining sites.
Out of earshot from the boss, I spoke with a senior worker at the site. Charles Gasperetti, 44, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, told me that he has been mining coal since the age of 20. His wage earnings, including overtime, approach $70,000 annually, plus health-insurance benefits. These are very good jobs for this area, he noted, providing enough for a worker to own a home and support a family. As for his thinking about politics, his rule of thumb is that hard-coal miners have steady work when Republicans have control of the executive branch in Washington. He voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again—and as far as he knows, his coworkers are of the same mind. Their political mind-set is not solely determined by coal, though. Democrats are perceived as hostile to gun rights—a posture viewed with unease in a region that cherishes hunting. For Gasperetti and his fellow workers, the first day of hunting season, by their union contract, is a paid holiday.
The anthracite industry certainly has room to expand. Annual production could be increased to 10 million tons, Driscoll told me. At the slower rate, say, of 6 million tons per year, he estimates that active mining of the resource could continue for at least another 100 years before exhausting the supply. At this rate, he calculates that the “present value” of the mined coal would exceed $74 billion. He also noted that with the Pennsylvania industry now largely focused on surface mining and no longer on deep-shaft underground mining, anthracite mining is less accident-prone than before. Over the last ten years, the industry has suffered two fatalities.
So what’s keeping the hard-coal industry from substantially raising its output? The first factor, Driscoll told me, is foreign competition from coal producers in Ukraine and Russia, subsidized by their respective governments. The second is the structure of the hard-coal industry in the U.S.: “multiple small producers individually unable to meet needs” for coal from overseas buyers.
The configuration of the U.S. industry could change, though. Just as China, hungry for copper, has acquired copper mines in Chile, economic logic suggests a similar rationale for Chinese investment in Pennsylvania anthracite—the forging of a link between the top steelmaker in the world, by far, and a prime source of coal. Therein lies a potential irony—a means to coal’s revival, as promised by Trump as part of his project to Make America Great Again, supplied by the nation against which the president has waged a trade war. On behalf of Blaschak, whose private-equity owners are open to being bought out, Driscoll has been to Hong Kong several times in search of potential investors.
Even a best-case scenario for anthracite’s resurgence needs to be put into perspective. Only about 1,000 miners currently work in the industry. Even a tripling of the current rate of coal production probably would only double that number. Anthracite may bring in more profit for mine owners, but it will never again be the dominant economic influence in this region. Those days are over.
“Ultimately, the region’s fate will lie with the young—whether they’re defending fossil fuels or protesting them.”
Pessimism is a plentiful commodity in Schuylkill County, the veins as deeply etched as the coal seams. “These communities are done,” the retired police officer in Ashland told me. The county’s population has declined by 4 percent since 2010 and by 12 percent since 1980. Still, as Stanley Sabol, principal of Mahanoy Area High School, countered, coal mining also has a positive legacy. The region’s “work ethic is unbelievable,” he said, and “it comes from the coal industry.” The county’s unemployment rate, at 4.7 percent in September 2019, was down from 12.5 percent in February 2010.
In fact, signs of revitalization suggest a future for the region beyond the coal era. For Shenandoah, a project known as the Center for Education, Business & Arts is well under way, with land purchased and Penn State University a committed tenant. The goal is to advance careers in the trades—to assist those aiming to start their own businesses as electricians, plumbers, woodworkers, bakers, jewelry makers, and other vocations not requiring a college degree. “These communities are done? No,” said Mary Luscavage, executive director of Downtown Shenandoah, a group of business and property owners and others in town. “There are people here with a heart, people here with dreams, and there are people who want to make it happen,” she told me. She noted, as did others with whom I spoke, that tensions between Latinos and residents with deeper roots in the area are diminishing. A declining share of Latino children in the schools in Shenandoah need to take courses in English as a second language, and businesses started by Latinos are gaining a foothold. At La Casita de Familia, a Mexican restaurant in Shenandoah, a flyer flagged the establishment as a sponsor of the Shenandoah Coal Cracker 10k race. A white professional who works for the county told me that he lived near a Hispanic family that was fixing up a run-down house—exactly the sort of personal initiative, he noted, needed to help the area rebound.
Health care already is an expanding line of work here: in 2018, ground was broken for a three-story, 120,000-square-foot acute-care hospital—to be “built with American steel,” the project’s commissioners noted—southeast of Pottsville, near Orwigsburg. With nearly 800 farms in the county, greater potential exists for work in agriculture and related industries like food processing. South of Pottsville, Norsk Hydro (the Norwegian-headquartered and partly state-owned global conglomerate) operates one of the world’s largest plants for the fabrication of aluminum products. There is the prospect, too, of a growing industry built around the generation of electricity from a renewable resource: atop Shenandoah heights, on the hills overlooking the town, spindly turbines are at work, their giant white blades rotated by the wind.
A more diversified economic base, with coal as one element among others, could make for a different political disposition in Schuylkill County. An industry like health care, after all, doesn’t polarize as one like coal does, and it is not threatened in the same way that the region’s textile business was threatened by foreign competition. Ultimately, though, the region’s fate will lie in the hands of the young—whether they’re defending fossil fuels or among those protesting them. Will this land of hard times and hard luck prove economically capable of keeping them here, to build adult lives? The defining vote in these parts will be with the feet—whether staying put or moving on.
Top Photo: Donald Trump carried 70 percent of the vote in Schuylkill County in 2016. (CRAIG HUDSON/CHARLESTON GAZETTE-MAIL/AP PHOTO)