By Tony Wesolowsky
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXII, Number 1 - Winter 1996
"Eckley is part of the puzzle, but not a unique part. There were numerous, almost identical, mining patch towns like Eckley," explains Vance Packard, site administrator of this unusual living history complex administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Eckley Miners' Village is located near Hazleton, Luzerne County, once a frenetic center of the nineteenth-century anthracite trade.
The filming in 1968 of the motion picture The Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery, Richard Harris, and Samantha Eggar, is probably the most noteworthy event ever to have occurred in Eckley, even though the nineteenth-century terrorists, the film's subject, known for their violence and murders throughout Pennsylvania's anthracite region, never targeted the village. But today, Eckley tells a story of a bygone era when anthracite—hailed as "black diamonds" and extolled as the fueled that stoked the Industrial Revolution—ruled this area. The saga of hard coal is twofold: it was known for bestowing both work and misery on those who labored extracting it, and for literally heaping great fortunes on those who owned or controlled the land.
In 1971, a group of Hazleton area businessmen organized the Anthracite Historical Site Museum, Inc., and purchased the village of Eckley, lock, stock and barrel, from the Huss Coal Company, the last of five companies that had mined the hills around Eckley for more than a century. They, in turn, deeded the patch town to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which intended to transform the quiet village, with its two hundred residents, into the country's only mining town museum. It was part of an overall legislative initiative to highlight Pennsylvania's industrial history. Over the din of trucks piled high with coal rumbling through, Eckley, officials of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marked with speeches the formal opening of the historic complex in 1972.
Today, only seventeen people reside in Eckley, a far cry from its heyday in the 1870s when the village bustled with fifteen hundred residents. But enough of the original buildings, structures, and dependencies have been retained, preserved, and interpreted by PHMC that a visitor can appreciate with hardships coal miners endured here in the past.
In History of Luzerne County, published in 1893, the county is described as "the richest dimple" in the Appalachian Mountains for its immense deposits of anthracite. Indeed, the nearly five hundred square mile stretch of land that runs from Tower City, in Schuylkill County, to Forest City, in Susquehanna County, was estimated to contain the largest concentration of low-sulfur anthracite coal in the world. The region had been instrumental in the colonialists' struggle with King George [III] during the Revolutionary War by supplying coal to an armory located to the south in Carlisle, Cumberland County. During General Robert E. Lee's 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania, it was rumored the Confederate army was planning to lay waste to the Commonwealth's coal operations because they were so vital to the Union.
The veins of coal coursing through the bedrock surrounding Hazleton were discovered by John Charles in 1826. At the time dense forest covered the ground in what would become, in thirty years, the site of Eckley. Crucial for coal's rise to preeminence was the invention of the hot blast furnace in England in 1833, which consequently led to a dramatic rise in the value of coal and intensified the search for it. It was early in 1853, when several men, prospecting for anthracite in the Hazleton area, came upon a small hamlet in the wilderness of Luzerne County, Shingleton. With only a handful of inhabitants, Shingleton derived its name from the townspeople's main enterprise: shingle making. The small wooden shingles became a currency of sorts in nearby White Haven, Carbon County, and in Hazleton where they were bartered to staples such as whiskey, port, and tobacco.
Richard Sharpe, a coal contractor for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, Francis Weiss, a surveyor, and Judge John Leisenring laid claim to the coal in Shingleton. After learning of the possibilities the venture might offer, Asa Lansford Foster, a Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) merchant, joined the three and launched the partnership of Sharpe, Leisenring and Company. Before setting to work, however, Sharpe, Leisenring and Company would have to come to terms with Judge Charles S. Coxe, a prominent Philadelphian who, as executor of the Tench Coxe Estate, controlled significant land holdings in the area.
In time, various coal operators would wrest control of the coal-laden lands to create their own kingdoms. The type of control varied from region to region, but primarily hinged upon the concentration of the coal deposits. In regions, where anthracite basins were scattered, coal companies cast their nets wide, buying or leasing expensive tracts to secure all available coal pickets. One of the results was the complete domination of real estate and, consequently, all aspects of economic life. Even in the early years the twentieth century, Freeland and Hazleton stood out as the only large communities in one region in which a miner and his family could actually purchase property. Freeland, which would become a nexus of commerce and trade in the late nineteenth century, derived its name from the simple fact that no coal company held sway over the land. Outside of the company-run general store, Eckley, like other links in the ragged string of patch towns, was devoid of free enterprise.
The roots of the Coxe family tree ran wide and deep in Pennsylvania, Judge Charles S. Coxe was the son of Tench Coxe (1755–1824), a prominent thinker whom many called the "Father of American Manufactures" for his philosophy on the burgeoning American economy. Widespread respect for Tench Coxe earned him the position of assistant Secretary of the treasure under President George Washington. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison frequently mentioned him in their correspondence. An astute entrepreneur, he acquired extensive tracts of land in the anthracite region as early as 1787.
Sharpe, Leisenring and Company negotiated a lease with Judge Coxe in 1854 for the rights to mine, transport, and market coal excavated from a fifteen hundred acre tract owned by the heirs of Tench Coxe. The company immediately began developing mining operations at Shingleton, and the partners christened their enterprise Council Ridge Colliery and selected for their letterhead a woodcut depicting several Native American encircling a council fire, a scene which may possible have occurred on the eve of the bloody Wyoming Massacre of 1778. Council Ridge, located near the leased lands of the Tench Coxe Estate, experienced a construction boom as houses were built for the company's laborers, miners, superintendents, and owners.
As operations grew, housing was built and located according to one's position in the coal company. Eckley was divided into four sections, or divisions, and carefully planned and laid out, as were many nineteenth century mining and industrial villages. The houses of the proprietors, assiduously built and relatively ornate, were situated at the western end of the village, set off from other dwellings. Richard Sharpe's gothic revival house was the last—and largest—residence erected in Eckley. The houses of the boss laborers and contractors, second on the socio-economic rung, buttressed the proprietors' zone. The miners and the second-class miners and laborers inhabited the third and fourth zones, with all housing flowing eastward, away for the mine owners' residences.
Painted red and trimmed with black because they were two of the cheapest pigments available, Eckley's dwellings, with their projecting eaves, gables, and uniform appearance, were striking in appearance. In 1863, a write for Harper's New Monthly Magazine described the patch town as "a vast collection of shanties—its uppermost social strata are yet to be formed; it is a good example of the sort of town which will grow up about a colliery." Three years later another writer characterized Eckley as "one of the most handsome, attractive, and orderly mining villages in the coal regions."
Notwithstanding occasional compliments, poverty permeated the average mining community. According to one writer, a "patch was a cluster of a few dozen company houses along a crooked, unpaved street, built within the shadow of the towering colliery." Living conditions were generally bleak. Houses and, in many cases, entire villages were crowded, sordid, and disease-ridden. Children played in yards strewn with rubbish and where open sewage ditches and a filthy jumble of inadequate outhouses only added to the squalor.
In Eckley, the attractive facade of neatly painted rows of houses belied what often lay beyond front doors. The walls in a common miner's home were open board and batten. Crumpled newspapers were stuffed between the walls' wooden planks as makeshift insulation, and wall calendars were used to "decorate" the otherwise drab interiors. In most cases, floors were either left bare or covered with burlap bags. Until 1924, when individual plumbing lines and septic tanks were installed, water had be fetched from communal pumps, and rickety outhouses and open sewage ditches, often the source of disease and illness, served the villagers' needs.
Although work in the mines commenced in 1854, the grueling task of cutting through two hundred feet of earth and slate meant the first load of coal was not hauled to the surface until more that a year later, on October 27, 1855. In the meantime, more buildings, including a sawmill, were being erected by the company. Timber from the immense pine and hemlock forest was fashioned into boards and singles for the buildings. Two churches were also erected. A hotel and company store opened for business in 1857. The village also boasted a butcher shop, doctor's office shoe shop, tailor shop, and icehouse
The year 1857 brought changes in the names of both the company and the community. John Leisenring withdrew from the venture and the remaining partners renamed it Sharpe, Weiss and Company. As Singleton's prospects began to look promising, a change in the community's name seemed in order. The company decided on Fillmore, in honor of President Millard Fillmore who left office in 1853, but when townspeople tried to secure a post office in 1857, they were disappointed to learn the name had already been claimed by a settlement in Centre County. Postal regulations stipulated that no more then one town could bear the same name in Pennsylvania, so a new name had to be found. The company chose the name of Eckley, in honor of Eckley B. Coxe (1839–1895), the well-liked and respected son of Judge Coxe.
Born in Philadelphia, Eckley Brinton Coxe was educated with the intention that he would develop the great parcels of land acquired by his grandfather. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent summers in the anthracite region and assisted with surveying the family's holdings in 1859. The following year he traveled to Paris to study mining and engineering for two years. He devoted two more years to analyzing mining operations in Great Britain and on the Continent. Coxe returned to the United States in 1864 to begin developing the family's coal lands. Organized in 1856, Coxe Brothers and Company controlled thirty-five thousand acres! In addition to actively managing his family's business interests in northeastern Pennsylvania, Eckley B. Coxe served in the state senate, helped establish the American Institute of Mining Engineers, and acted as president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He was also a trustee of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, founded by railroad magnate and philanthropist Asa Packer. To all concerned, the naming of the village as Eckley seemed appropriate and would prove to be auspicious.
By the time miners struck the coal vein, the company had erected a breaker, engine house, oil house, blacksmith shop, and structures necessary for the operation of the colliery, both above and below the earth's surface. The backbreaking work in the deep mines was done by hand, and a pick, shovel, and hand drill were the tools of the trade. Suffocating coal dust clouded the air as miners worked in shafts and tunnels lighted dimly by gal lamps. The dust settled in workers' lungs, causing "black lung" or miner's asthma, which invariable led to a slow, painful death. The threat of rock falls, premature dynamite blasts, gas explosions, and flooding worried the miners and their families.
Although the first settlers of Shingleton were mainly German and Welsh, Irish immigrants were prominent among the first wave of workers, accounting for twenty-three percent of the population, according to 1860 census. With Ireland racked by poverty and oppression, as well as the Potato Famine of 1845, the Irish fled to the United States. In the late 1870's, Southern and Eastern Europeans sought work in the mines, and, by 1910, much of the work force consisted of Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Lithuanians, and Russians.
Not only did men work at the colliery, but children—in many instances no more than seven years old—also toiled for the coal company. This practice is documented by a young boy's pay sheet on exhibit at the visitors center at Eckley Miners' Village. With virtually no child labor laws, more than sixty-four hundred boys, fourteen years or younger, worked in and around the mines of the Hazleton area in 1901. They usually started off as "breaker boys," sitting on splintery benches positions across the chutes running from the top of the breaker to the pockets at the bottom As the mixture of coal, rock, and slated whirled beneath the bench, the boys picked out the worthless rock and slate. By the age of twelve they were promoted to door boys, manning mine tunnel doors, which controlled the flow of air in the mine tunnels, and stopping coal cars by spragging, or throwing a hardwood billet into the wheel spokes. By fourteen they followed their fathers' footsteps working full-time
While men worked extracting coal, their wives labored hard tending to household chores. By focusing on the home life of the worker and his family, the Eckley Miners' Village visitors center takes the tourist through the day-by-day routine of the miners' wives. And every day had its specified chores.
The Lau-Dry-Ette, the cumbersome predecessor of the modern washing machine, was mused by many women on washing day, Monday. Tuesday was spent ironing. On Wednesday, they baked as many as eight loaves of bread, or enough to last the week. Thursday was dedicated to sewing and mending tattered clothes. Friday was cleaning day. Saturday was spent shopping and bathing in a big metal tub. The shelves of Eckley's company store were lined, with everything imaginable—from mining lamps to laundry soap. Peddlers occasionally trekked from nearby Freeland, but miners and laborers were still required to purchase their powder, lamps, tools, and other equipment from the store. On Sunday, church services offered some solace and a respite from their regimented lives, although the women still took care of the children and prepared the Sunday meal.
During its early years, the colliery could produce up to one hundred and twenty-five thousand tons of coal per year, but several seemingly insurmountable obstacles kept production much lower at first. The first problem was determining a safe and affordable way to transport coal from the colliery to markets on the Cast Coast. Anthracite was initially shipped by wagon and bobsled over the mountain to Lumber Yard, the nearest railroad connection. Soon afterward, a switchback railroad was built to traverse the mountain. The first coal train to take this route departed on October 27, 1955. This solution proved to be expensive, dangerous, slow, and inefficient, as only a handful of cars could scale the mountain, be loaded, and then dispatched for the return journey. John Leisenring, while a partner in Sharpe, Leisenring and Company, was also a director of the Lehigh and Luzerne Railroad and lobbied successfully for the boring of a tunnel through Buck Mountain. The tunnel was completed in 1859, and tracks were laid to Eckley. On August 27, Richard Sharpe made a telling entry in his diary. "The Union—first locomotive came through the C.R. [Council Ridge] tunnel and up the new grade to our Colliery." The tunnel, reducing both time and labor, would facilitate greatly coal shipments from the Council Ridge Colliery.
In addition to the high cost of transportation, poor markets, low prices, and meager profits plagued the company that year. An early winter slashed production and made matters even worse. As prospects began to grow dim, the emergence of the steamboat trade breathed new life into Sharpe, Weiss and Company. Renowned for its clean burning, coal mined in Eckley was soon coveted by steamboat operators. It would take the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, however, to spur greater profit for the nation's nascent coal mining industry. The nations military looked to the anthracite region to supply its armories with coal. The Union Navy favored Eckley's coal, and it was burned by the ironclad Monitor in its famous battle with the South's Merrimack in March 1862. Only one year earlier, a ton of coal was selling for $2.10; by 1864, a ton fetched $6.25, a threefold increase. So critical to the war effort was Pennsylvania's anthracite that a Richmond newspaper contended that Confederate General Lee had concocted a plan to destroy its coast mining operations during his 1863 invasion of the Keystone State.
Not only was Eckley's coal so integral to the Union effort, but scores of villagers distinguished themselves on the battlefield. The men who served in the Union army were mainly laborers; the licensed miners apparently were inducted to remain at work lest production slip. In 1861, thirty-three Eckley residents jointed Company K, 81st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The regiment, as part of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, fought in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia; the Battles of South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancelorsville, and Gettysburg; Grant's Virginia Campaign of 1864; the Siege of Petersburg; and, finally, in the Battle of Farmville, Virginia, on April 7, 1865.
The interlude of calm enjoyed by Eckley following the Civil War was to be shattered by labor unrest that swept the country, culminating in the great upheavals and riots of 1877. In Eckley, Sharpe, Weiss and Company had been able to maintain peace with its work force by offering competitive wages, paying cash (rather than in troublesome, often worthless scrip), and providing plots of land for raising gardens or livestock. These token gestures, however, were not able to stem the growing tide of labor unrest. And the reasons for such unrest were many.
The Coxe Estate demanded hard currency for rent payment on the land at a time when it was scare among miners. The railroad companies were charging higher shipping rates. The rash of small companies, engaged in a fierce battle of price slashing, drove down the value of coal while prices of other commodities steadily rose. Shrinking profits led to a winnowing of competitors, and within several years only a few individuals—among them the Hazleton coal barons Ariovistus Pardee and George Markle, and Eckley B. Coxe—dominated the market. As prices began to fluctuate wildly, so did the workers' wages. A strike over wages in spring 1870 was settled in a matter of weeks, but company owners, through work cutbacks and by increasing the price of blasting powder, literally wiped out any gain the miners had achieved. Later, in 1900, John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), was instrumental in brokering an agreement between miners and operators that ended a month-old strike. The date the strike ended, October 19, is still commemorated in Hazleton as "Mitchell Day."
The lease granted to Sharpe, Weiss and Company by Judge Charles S. Coxe for a period of twenty years was scheduled to expire in 1874. Company officials did not accept the Coxe family's new terms, and John Leisenring, one of the four original partners, assumed the lease. Leisenring operated the Council Ridge operations until 1886, when the Coxe family took over. Under Eckley B. Coxe, there was a flurry of expansion and excitement: a new slope was opened and a new breaker erected.
In an effort to bolster flagging hopes and boost profits, strip mining was introduced around Eckley in 1890. Villages that had been located upon valuable veins of coal gradually disappeared, swallowed up by mammoth steam shovels. The introduction of new technology required fewer hands, and as a result, Eckley's population began to decline. From a high of fifteen hundred residents in 1870, population dropped to less than six hundred by 1920.
In the 1900s, the Coxe Estate no longer actively limed the land but leased it to the Jeddo-Highland Coal Company, George Huss's Buckley Coal Company, and Gatti Engineering. As the anthracite industry began to flicker in the 1950s and 1960s, Gatti Engineering found itself operating the last deep mine around Eckley. Coxe Brothers and Company entirely abandoned the venture in 1963 as George Huss purchased the property, including Eckley, of the Tench Coxe Estate, severing the prosperous Philadelphia family's connection, once and for all, with the area. Coal operator George Huss engaged in strip mining around Eckley and in 1968 leased the village for one year to Paramount Pictures for the filming of The Molly Macguires. Paramount Pictures made several changes to capture the feel and character of a nineteenth century patch mining town; shabby buildings and structures were erected in the shadow of a towering breaker, the most conspicuous of Hollywood's props, which still loom over the village. According to Vance Packard, the filming was, in some ways, responsible for launching the museum project.
"Some people became so enthused by the whole filming of the movie they began to look at Eckley—and perhaps their general culture—in a different way. A number of people got together and, working through an army of the Chamber of Commerce, were able to negotiate a deal to buy the Council Ridge Colliery business from the owner," Packard explains.
Today, a visit to Eckley Miners' Village begins with an orientation slide show and a tour of enlightening exhibits in the visitors center that graphically illustrate the lives of the workers, their wives, and their children—at home, at work, and at play. Visitors can walk among two dozen restored buildings, stopping to chat with village residents like George Gera. “I've lived in Washington, and other cities, and I came back to Eckley, so that tells you something,” said Gera, age sixty-eight, who was busily sprinkling coal ash on ice that covered his walk on an ashen gray winter afternoon.
A stop at the Church of Immaculate Conception, opposite the visitors center, begins the actual walking tour of Eckley Miners' Village. Built in 1861, this simple wooden church building served the village's first Roman Catholics, primarily Irish. Adjacent to the church, the rectory—a fine example of Gothic Revival-style architecture—housed several parish priests from 1862 until 1902, when it became a private residence. Walking westward, visitors encounter a series of laborers' double dwellings lining the street. One house, built in 1854, is slightly larger than the laborers' dwelling at the village's eastern end and most likely housed first class or contract miners. Furnishings typical of many newly-arrived immigrants in mining towns in the 1890s are displayed in one half of the building while comfortable furnishings of an established miner and his family on the other side provide a poignant contrast
A mule barn, company store, and coal breaker, all built by Paramount Pictures in the late sixties for the filming of The Molly Macguires, are located throughout Eckley. The breaker stands near the site of the three earlier Council Ridge breakers. This breaker, a replica of wooden breakers once common throughout the anthracite region, cleaned and sized coal. Larger rollers with sharp projecting teeth broke the large lumps into uniform sizes, each for a different use. Sized anthracite chunks tumbled down chutes to the breaker boys who sorted out the slate and rock. Prepared coal was than loaded into railroad cars at the bottom of the breaker.
St. James' Protestant Episcopal Church was built in 1859 at the behest of mine operators Richard Sharpe and Francis Weiss. Sharpe's brother-in-law, the Reverend Peter Russell, was the first rector. The congregation slowly declined in the twentieth century and the building was removed in 1938. St. Paul's Protestant Episcopal Church of White Haven, almost identical to this building, was moved to this site by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1974. Erected in 1859, a Presbyterian Church served Eckley until its congregation dwindled, and the small church building was removed about 1925.
With huge banks of culm—an anthracite by-product now valuable to cogeneration plants—as a glistening black backdrop, the fashionable residence of the Sharpe family stands majestic, yet isolated, on the western edge of Eckley. Ironically, this handsome building culminates this unique trip through what was once just another ordinary coal town, full of ordinary people who did not, could not, envision that the time and, especially, the place in which they lived and worked were nothing less that extraordinary.
Eckley Miners' Village is open throughout the year. Visiting hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.; and Sunday, Noon to 5 P.M. Admission is charged and hours are subject to change. For additional information, write: Eckley Miners' Village, 2 Eckley Main St., Weatherly, PA 18255; or telephone (570) 636-2070. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the historic site in advance to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.
In addition to Eckley Miners' Village, the PHMC administers the Museum of Anthracite Mining in Ashland, Schuylkill County, which explores the work and danger of mining the coal that fueled American's factories and furnaces through a diverse collection of tools, machinery, equipment, documents, and photographs. The nearby Pioneer Tunnel Mine Tour enables visitors to experience what work was like deep underground for an anthracite miner in northeastern Pennsylvania, Located in Scranton's McDade Park, the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, administered by the PHMC, chronicles the story of life and work in the Keystone State's coal region. The museum's extensive regional collections—highlighting the history of coal operations, canals, railroads, mills, and factories—represent every facet of the work, life, and values of the area's ethnic communities. Also administered by the PHMC, the Scranton Iron Furnaces, once ranked as the second largest producer of iron in the United States, are the focal point of a park-like setting in downtown Scranton. The four massive stone blast furnace stacks, built between 1848 and 1857, are within walking distance of Steamtown National Historic Site, administered by the Nation Park Service.
Luzerne County is home to a number of attractions of interest to visitors fascinated by history. In addition to Eckley Miners' Village, the county features the 1790 Nathan Denison House in Forty-Fort, the home of the American commander in the ill-fated Battle of Wyoming in 1778, who negotiated the surrender of Forty-Fort, after which the community was named. The Swetland Homestead in Wyoming is an 1803 house built by one of the first Connecticut families to settle in the county. Founded in 1858 as the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, the Luzerne County Historical Society, located in Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, is one of the Commonwealth's oldest historical societies. The Sordoni Art Gallery of Wilkes University is also located in center-city Wilkes-Barre.For more information on attractions in Luzerne County, visit www.tournepa.com or phone toll free (888) 905-2872.
Tony Wesolowsky is a news editor for Radio Free Europe in Prague, Czech Republic. Of two years in Moscow, Russia, he spent one working for the English language daily newspaper, The Moscow Tribune. A freelance journalist, the author has covered a diverse array of topics, from soccer to illegal whaling practices in the former Soviet Union. His articles have appeared in several publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Phoenix.
The editor wished to acknowledge the assistance of Vance Packard, historic site administrator of Eckley Miners' Village, for his review and critique of this article. His recommendations were invaluable.
A Patch of Land Owned by the Company, written by Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission staff archaeologist Steven G. Warfel, is an in-depth study of Eckley Miners' Village through oral histories, documentary research, and archaeological excavations and evidence. Published in 1993, the book tells the story of ordinary families who worked in the anthracite industry and who lived in Eckley, one of the last surviving patch towns in northeastern Pennsylvania's hard coal region.
For Further Reading
Aurand, Harold. From the Molly Macguires to the United Mine Workers: The Social Ecology of an Industrial Union, 1869-1897. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971.
Bodnar, John. Anthracite People: Families, Unions and Work, 1900-1940. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1983.
Davies, Edward J. The Anthracite Aristocracy: Leadership and Social Change in the Hard Coal Regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1800-1930. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Miller, Donald L., and Richard E. Sharpless. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.