St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

Photograph by Nick Kupensky (2015).

The Slavic Migration

When Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires immigrated to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many settled in Central Pennsylvania where job opportunities for unskilled laborers in coal mines were plentiful. The first immigrants were often young, single men who lived economically in tightly-packed boarding houses. Some of them came with no intention of permanently staying in the United States and worked for short periods of time with the hope of saving as much money as possible with the aim of returning to Europe to buy additional land. Others came to escape difficult economic conditions, avoid service in the army, or simply for the sense of adventure, and those who settled for good gradually brought their families and friends and formed permanent communities. Among the many different Slavic, Central and Eastern European nationalities present in the Coal Region – including Belorusans, Croatians, Czechs, Hungarians, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, Romanians, Serbians, Slovaks, and Ukrainians – the Carpatho-Rusyns historically make up one of the largest and most dynamic communities in the area.

The Carpatho-Rusyns

Carpatho-Rusyns are a Central European people who speak an East Slavic language (Carpatho-Rusyn) and practice Eastern Rite Christianity (Greek Catholic and Orthodox). Their territorial homeland today exists in eastern Slovakia, southeast Poland, and western Ukraine, but they never have had a politically independent state of their own. Even though many of the towns in the Coal Region are home to churches built by Carpatho-Rusyns, have businesses and organizations founded by Carpatho-Rusyns, and published newspapers written by Carpatho-Rusyns, these institutions are paradoxically among the least studied and understood, even by those who are descendants of first-generation Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants themselves.

The difficulty in defining the Coal Region’s Rusyn-American communities begins with the problem of nomenclature, for Carpatho-Rusyns have used or been known by many names at home and abroad. Traditionally, Carpatho-Rusyns in the homeland have referred to themselves as rusyn or russnak, and these terms have been rendered in English as Rusyn, Rusin, Russnak, Ruthenian, or Russian. Oftentimes, Carpatho-Rusyns and their descendants would identify with their religion (Byzantine/Greek Catholic, Orthodox) or country or region of origin (Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Galicia, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine), which led to many Carpatho-Rusyns being subsumed within neighboring ethnic groups. Some would opt for a more general, if vague, identity and simply called themselves Slavs or Slavic. The most confused chose an even vaguer one – Slavish. And many second- or third-generation immigrants have appropriated the pejorative terms for Slavic others and go by Bo-Hunks or Hunkies.

This ethnic confusion stems from the fact that the Carpatho-Rusyns have always lived as an ethnic minority within a number of different European states. From the sixth and seventh centuries, the Carpatho-Rusyns lived under Polish and Hungarian rule. From the late eighteenth century until the end of World War I, they lived exclusively within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, either in the Austrian province of Galicia (north of the Carpathian Mountains) or in the Hungarian Kingdom (south of the Carpathian Mountains). In the interwar period, Carpatho-Rusyns were split between those living north of the slopes in Poland and south of the slopes in Czechoslovakia. After World War II, the Czechoslovak province of Subcarpathian Rus’ was annexed by the Soviet Union and became the Transcarpathian Oblast’ of Soviet Ukraine, which left the remainder of Carpatho-Rusyns in Poland and Communist Czechoslovakia.

Paul Robert Magocsi,
Paul Robert Magocsi, “Carpathian Rus’, 2000”

Since the collapse of Communism, Carpatho-Rusyns today primarily live in Ukraine (Subcarpathian Rus’), Slovakia (the Prešov Region), and Poland (the Lemko Region) with additional communities found in Serbia (Vojvodina), Croatia (Srem), Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In the absence of precise demographic information from many of these countries, most scholarly estimates place the number of Carpatho-Rusyns at approximately 1,000,000 in the European homeland with 600,000-800,000 in Ukraine, 100,000 in Slovakia, 40,000 in Poland, 30,000 in Serbia, and 20,000 in Romania (Paul Robert Magocsi 1995, 252-253).

The largest wave of Carpatho-Rusyn immigration occurred between the 1870s and 1914 and saw approximately 225,000 arrive to the United States, and many of them first settled in the mining communities of Central and Eastern Pennsylvania – including Mahanoy City.

Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania

The demand for coal during the American Civil War brought prospectors to the Mahanoy Valley in the 1860s in search of anthracite to be sold for military purposes, and the town rapidly grew in size as more and more companies began to set up mining operations. After the town was incorporated in 1863, the population rose to its peak in the early twentieth century with nearly 16,000 residents in 1910. When other sources of energy began to replace coal in the 1950s, however, Mahanoy City fell on hard times and now has slightly more than 4,000 residents today (Mahanoy Area 2004, 7-8).

The St. Nicholas Colliery

St. Nicholas Colliery (1912). Photo courtesy of the Mahanoy Area Historical Society.
St. Nicholas Colliery (1912). Photo courtesy of the Mahanoy Area Historical Society.

As you travel east on PA Route 54, you are welcomed to Mahanoy City by the sublime ruins of the abandoned St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, whose history tells the story of the rise and decline of the anthracite industry. Henry Cake and Henry Geist began to mine coal on this site, known as the St. Nicholas Colliery, which was was active from 1860 to 1928. In 1905, at the height of its production, it employed 863 men and produced 345,106 tons of coal (Mahanoy Area Historical Society).

The early days of mining were the most treacherous, and the Reverend Peter Roberts, one of the first scholars of the Coal Region, estimates that there were over 28,000 injuries and 12,000 fatalities in the area during the latter part of the nineteenth century. These human tragedies affected the entire community, for “every family which derives its subsistence from the mining industry has its record of dark days. […] A husband, or son, or father, leaves home in the morning in perfect health, and in a few hours is brought home a corpse” (Roberts 1901, 152). For this reason, Roberts praises the bravery of coal miners but laments that their sacrifices have not been memorialized in art:

The soldier on the battlefield, amid the blare of trumpets and a wave of patriotic enthusiasm, has wrought deeds which have been immortalized in song and poetry: but miners have exhibited equal bravery and self-abnegation without the sound of trumpets or the excitement of patriotic ardor; they acted from motives of pure humanity, and most of their deeds are buried with their bones. (Roberts 1901, 152-153)

The Coal Region, however, was not without its bards. In 1904, a few years after Roberts completed his first study of the anthracite industry, Emil Kubek arrived in Mahanoy City, and among his earliest works of literature is the heart-wrenching poem “Lullaby to a Miner’s Child” (1908), which dramatizes the life cycle of the mines. This lullaby, sung by a mother to her child, takes an unexpected turn, which brings about a double interpretation of the poem’s refrain, spoken by both the mother and the father. We’re left unsettled, wondering when the poem begins and ends.

“Lullaby to a Miner’s Child”
By Emil Kubek

Oh sleep, my sweet child!…
Underneath the ground bursts…
Do you hear the terrible noise of the earth?…
Your father is working in the mines oh so deep,
When the earth shakes, that’s him who rocks you to sleep.

Oh sleep, my sweet child!
That noise, it’s your dad,
From under the earth he’s bringing home bread;
Deep in the mines he works as hard as he can,
While peacefully dreams his young little man!

Oh you haven’t yet tasted of life’s bitterness,
My dove, my sweet child:
Right now your life’s blessed.
Someday you’ll encounter
Old age and sadness –
You’ll go to mine coal –
Amidst darkness and rubble,
You’ll fight death and will struggle…
But now sweetly sleep,
Like in heaven, my child!
God will make things all right!
Sleep my dear baby, good night!

From the depths of the night some people appear,
Mother answers the door and trembles with fear…

“Don’t cry, poor lady,” they comforted her,
“Your husband’s breathed his last breath.
In the depths of the earth he valiantly worked,
In the depths of the earth he met a quick death!

Oh what a terror! The mine suddenly shook,
A flame blazed in a terrible shock,
In a deafening blast, the walls then collapsed,
And they all were buried in piles of rocks.

Everyone died!…Only we survived
Amongst the smoke and the cries and the strife…
We found your husband just barely alive.
With sadness he quietly asked for his wife:

‘Help me, my dear, my life’s almost done’
And the last words he whispered were meant for his son,
‘Sweetly sleep,
Like in heaven, my child!
God will make things all right!
Sleep my dear orphan, good night!'”

Margaret Bourke-White,
Margaret Bourke-White, “[Coal Miners]” in “Hard Coal,” Fortune 2 (1931): 75.

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

By the time the child in Kubek’s poem would have been old enough to work in the mines himself, he would have entered an industry that was beginning to change. As the anthracite industry developed more efficient – and less hazardous – methods for producing coal, the St. Nicholas Colliery was dismantled to make way for a coal breaker capable of processing large chunks of anthracite into smaller pieces better suited for home heating. The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker was built in 1930 on the site of the former colliery. When it became operational in 1932, it was the largest of its kind in the world and seemed to signify the promise of a better, safer future for an industry that exacted extraordinary human costs.

St. Nicholas Coal Breaker (c. 1933). Photo courtesy of the Mahanoy Area Historical Society.
St. Nicholas Coal Breaker (c. 1933). Photo courtesy of the Mahanoy Area Historical Society.

When the talented industrial photographer Margaret Bourke-White visited the Coal Region in 1930, she was particularly impressed by the efficiency and speed with which these new, massive coal breakers accomplished their tasks. She describes the building that houses the hoisting engine, which brings the coal out of the mine before sending it to the breaker, as a “huge symmetrical monster” tamed by the calm, precise control of a rational human agent:

There could be no better dramatization of man enthroned over the machine. The monster has no articulate voice; it makes its meaning clear by sign language, by an arrow turning on a disc on which are marked the different levels of the mine. A bell rings, the man makes a slight motion with his hand, drawing a lever toward him. The monster snorts and begins to churn, the arrow moves. Fifteen seconds pass, and again the man moves his hand. The monster chokes and slowly subsides into inactivity. The arrow pauses exactly at one of the marks on the dial. A loaded mine car has appeared upon the surface, and an empty has sunk like a plummet into the entrails of the earth. The blue-shirted engineer sitting in this throne room remains commanding and impassive. (80)

Her emphasis on the engineer’s command over the hoisting engine suggests that the days when men were swallowed up by the anthracite industry’s “monsters” are soon to be a distant memory, and she illustrated this transition by juxtaposing photographs of “An Old Miner” (right) and “A Young Miner” (left). Her photographs of two nameless individuals symbolically represent in human terms these technological changes. The old miner has been forced to contend with the unknown, unpredictable natural and human elements (“dark isolation underground,” “mine fires,” “rock-falls,” “strikes,” and “the foreman”). The young miner, however, “sees modernity coming to the mines.” He relies not only on his body but also benefits from the advancements in modern engineering: “brawn he has and, more, machinery to help him” (77).

Bourke-White, Young and Old Miners - Cropped
Margaret Bourke-White, “A Young Miner” (left) and “An Old Miner” (right), in “Hard Coal,” Fortune (February 1931).

Indeed, Bourke-White saw the beauty in the might, magnitude, and modernity of the newly mechanized anthracite industry, but this vision of the bright future for the region never came to be. The St. Nicholas breaker ceased operations in 1972 and was left abandoned and unmaintained. In the summer of 2015, the Reading Anthracite Company began to tear down the last of these giants from the Coal Region’s past. In its coverage of the demolition, the New York Times expressed hope that “the site might one day give birth to something more productive,” for “not far away, the company that owns St. Nicholas transformed a defunct mining operation into a successful shopping center” (May 28, 2015). While we wait to see what the future holds for the site, the skeleton of the St. Nicholas breaker serves as a gateway to Mahanoy City’s dynamic, exciting, but often tragic history.

Drive to:
St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church
620 W Pine St, Mahanoy City, PA 17948

Map of Walking Tour - Nicholas

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