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[ Credits ][ Anthony F.C Wallace and Paul A. W. Wallace ]

Living Conditions-Life in the Patches

Originally a two-family home, this miner's cottage
in John's Patch had been converted to a single family
dwelling by the early 1980s
The typical miner and his family lived in a one- or two-story frame house, often owned by the mining company. Although many miners lived in coal towns such as Saint Clair, others lived in the "patches," or small villages surrounding town. The patches consisted of from a few dozen to a hundred frame houses, with a company store and perhaps a chapel.

When they arrived in the patch, residents typically had few or no possessions, whether coming from another area of the coal region or after disembarking from an immigrant ship. Family members and neighbors already residing in the patch would cobble together extra beds, chairs, and tables for the new arrivals, often obtained from vacant dwellings in or near the patch. The welcome given to new arrivals in the patches near Saint Clair is described in an excerpt from the Reminiscences of John Maguire, included in the Wallace collection.1

The houses at Gold Mine Gap were built and furnished by the mine owners, two houses in a block, each with one room on the ground floor and two rooms upstairs. Each was equipped with a coal stove, being a step stove, also a bedstead made of square timber, by the colliery carpenter, a deal table, also a few benches. These being furnished by the operators, the new arrivals could move into a house with scarcely any furniture of their town and manage to get along pretty comfortably. They paid $4 a month for the houses and got their coal "thrown in." When a number of emigrants had been secured by the agent of the mine owners in New York or Philadelphia, a passenger car would be attached to a coal train to bring them along to the region. Sometimes a new family would arrive and take possession of a bare, empty house. In the evening, after the men came from work, the older residents would call upon the new comers. When some of the coal patches had been abandoned, the neighbors would make a trip to the houses not then being used as dwellings and take from them the stoves and ready-made furniture and carry them to the one just occupied by the new arrivals. Tom Rutledge, one of the miners would go there with his fiddle and they would have a dance in the newly occupied house the same night. This was their method of welcoming the stranger in their midst.
The coal region had many two-story twin houses
like these at the Eckley Miners' Village near Hazleton, PA
Anthony Wallace notes that the remoteness of the patches "gave to these hamlets a rural quality that has appealed to some twentieth-century romantics, who have seen in the life of the mine patch a kind of communal virtue denied the denizens of towns" (p. 138). As most nineteenth century residents of the anthracite region were emigrants or children of emigrants, patch life did retain a certain communal quality. Women baked bread in communal ovens, washed clothing in communal washtubs, and cared for one another's children and for those in need among neighbors and the extended family. Women and children worked together to harvest food from backyard vegetable gardens, which provided an important source of additional food.

Residents often gathered informally for singing and storytelling, often characterized by ribald humor or a touch of the supernatural. Unlike the more overtly political songs associated with the West Virginia and Kentucky coal regions, the songs of the northeastern Pennsylvania coal region were more often characterized by a black humor ridiculing mine bosses, working conditions, and careless miners. Not all songs focused on mining, however; many celebrated the drinking of alcohol or the physical attributes of attractive women. Excerpts from some of the songs have been preserved by George Korson in his Minstrels of the Mine Patch. Tales often involved spirits, banshees, and fairies, reflecting the western Irish origins of the storytellers.

Gatherings often included a high degree of alcohol consumption, particularly among the men. A common bane of coal miners, heavy alcohol consumption produced both physical and financial harm. Nineteenth century newspapers provide numerous accounts of alcohol-fueled brawls ignited during evening gatherings in the patches, and many men spent a good deal of their pay on alcohol. One observation at the time was that men patronized the bars and women patronized the churches, where they prayed for two things: that their husbands would not be killed in the mines, and that if they weren't killed in the mines, that they wouldn't spend their pay on drinking. Churches were closely associated with temperance efforts, and even those churches that refused to condemn alcohol decried its abuse.

View in John's Patch, ca.1970

Yet while some twentieth century observers view life in the mine patches as quaint and carefree, it also had its grimmer aspects. The rural isolation that may appear charming at the brink of the twenty-first century presented obstacles in the nineteenth, limiting residents' opportunities for employment, purchases, education, socializing, and church attendance. For the most part, patch residents lived in company-owned housing and worked at the nearest colliery, enforcing a dependency upon the mine. Workers could purchase food and other goods only at the company store -- often from necessity, as the company deducted existing debts from miners' pay.

The isolation of patch life also influenced religious life. Out of necessity or choice, many mine workers attended religious services only on special occasions, though the clergy sometimes visited the patches. Even in the larger town of Saint Clair itself, Irish Catholics existed in a kind of limbo for several years prior to the founding of St. Mary's in 1864, although a small number apparently attended St. Bonifacius, the German Catholic church.

Despite these obstacles, many patch residents discovered a sense of community among their fellow immigrants that helped to sustain them through the hardships of coal mining life.


1 Patterson, Joseph F., "Reminiscences of John Maguire After Fifty Years of Mining." Publications of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County 4 (1912), p. 308.