Back to exhibits
Entering the twenty-first century in a heavily urbanized nation, few things seem more foreign than the lives of the nineteenth century coal miners of northeastern Pennsylvania. In rough hewn small towns scattered among the rolling hills, these miners labored to excavate a substance as vital to their daily lives as electricity is today, yet today these miners have become little more than the vague images of old photographs: largely overlooked by history books and remembered, if at all, primarily by their descendants. But the experiences of life in the coal district is part of a much larger story.
Workers and superintendent, Eagle Colliery
During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the miners of northeastern Pennsylvania witnessed the seething transformation of their region from an economy dependent upon farming to one fueled by coal and stoked by industry. The rich, high-grade anthracite veins of northeastern Pennsylvania fed the explosive industrialization of the nineteenth century and drew thousands of migrants to the coal fields of the northeast. Burning hotter and cleaner than other coals, anthracite was the coal of choice for Victorian industries, but it came at a high cost. Although the mining meant profits for some operators, disaster was a frequent partner of the anthracite industry. In the St. Clair region, accidents, fires, floods, and explosions brought physical peril to miners' lives, and the failure to implement or heed safety measures or the warning of mining engineers equally often resulted in financial disaster.
Miners at Kohinoor colliery, 1885
Yet the history of the Pennsylvania coal region is not simply the history of the coal mining industry; it is also the history of the people who owned, managed, and worked in the mines. Most of these people emigrated to the United States from England, Ireland, Wales, and Germany in search of new lives, but their old country experiences significantly shaped their perspectives, their choice of employment, and their ways of life in their new homes. To commemorate the arrival of the papers of Paul A. W. Wallace and Anthony Wallace, the American Philosophical Society offers this exhibit based on one many projects undertaken by Anthony Wallace's during his career as an ethnohistorian at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout his professional life, Wallace has been interested in the process of culture change, and on several occasions he has revisited change associated with the Industrial Revolution. In St. Clair: A Nineteenth Century Coal Town's Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry, he turned his attention to the small mining community of St. Clair (Schuylkill County), exploring the interactions between immigrant and native-born Americans along with the social and cultural effects associated with technological change.
In St. Clair, Wallace examined the working conditions associated with mining, the roles played by various immigrant groups, the extended family, churches, and fraternal organizations in the community, and described life in the town of St. Clair and in the patches, or outlying mining villages. Throughout his study of St. Clair, Wallace analyzed the technological and social changes wrought by the rise of the coal industry during the mid- to late nineteenth century, and he also devoted considerable attention to the sensational murders, investigation, trials, and executions associated with the Molly Maguires, the episode for which the region is perhaps best known.
This exhibit features images of people and places in the Schuylkill County coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. Some were taken by Anthony F.C. Wallace during his research for St. Clair, others are reproductions of nineteenth century images held in the collections of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.