A View from Pittston: The End of Anthracite in the Wyoming Valley
By: Rebecca Schnable (2015)
The anthracite industry in the Wyoming Valley reached its peak production while the wartime economy created by World War I was still booming. At this peak of production in 1917, it is estimated that the industry produced a record 100 million tons of coal. Even at this peak of production following World War I, it quickly became evident that the anthracite industry was in decline, especially in the Wyoming Valley. There were many reasons for this decline including the rising price of anthracite, the development of alternative fuel sources, and the cost effectiveness of new home heating options. Perhaps the most significant reason for the decline of the anthracite industry in the Wyoming Valley, though, were problems within the industry itself. Plagued by mine subsidence, explosions, and other disasters, the anthracite industry was not only accident ridden but it was becoming increasingly corrupt. After years of these mining disasters and increased competition, the Wyoming Valley anthracite industry was on its last leg by 1959. The final nail in its proverbial coffin however, came with the Knox Mine disaster in January of 1959. The Knox Mine disaster officially ended the anthracite era in the Wyoming Valley and is the most significant mining disaster in the history of the region. Through the study of multiple local history texts, newspaper articles, and oral histories, it becomes clear that the Knox Mine disaster not only ended the anthracite industry, but continues to affect northeastern Pennsylvania almost sixty years later.
The first evidence of the ailing anthracite industry was the constant mining accidents. Most specifically, in the years leading up to the Knox Mine disaster, the Wyoming Valley and cities like Pittston and Port Griffith saw increased incidences of mine subsidence. Mine subsidence, according to an article titled “Caves Caused by Robbing Coal Pillars” which appeared in the Pittston Gazette, was caused by the robbing of coal pillars in older mine tunnels. According to the article, “when coal miners started on a new working, they dug out the rock to get at the coal… they built brattice work to hold up the roof and they bypassed certain layers of coal to help in supporting the roof to prevent caves.” The article goes on to say, though, that “coal operators became greedy, and if coal production was low, would tell miners to rob some of the pillars.” By robbing the pillars, which were made of coal, the companies were able to make a profit, but at the expense of the safety of the miners and the town. These poor mining practices caused frequent cave-ins throughout the Wyoming Valley, especially in towns like Pittston. This process of robbing coal pillars is extremely dangerous because it can generate small earthquakes. Holes can open up in the ground that are wide enough to fit an automobile and hundreds of feet deep. The robbing of coal pillars caused numerous incidences of mine subsidence in the early and middle 1900s and the issue still plagues the Wyoming Valley even to this day.
In an oral history with Mr. James Kozloski of Pittston, he describes one instance in 1943, when a cave-in actually caused the destruction of the Pittston High School. Mr. Kozloski described his experience as a student attending the high school at the time saying, “I went to Pittston High School…[and] when I was going to high school it had a cave in, so I had to go up to the Junction to school, which was about two or three miles away.” Later in the interview, when Mr. Kozloski was asked why the school had caved in he simply stated, “The mines.” Subsidence was, unfortunately, common place during this period and frequently affected both public buildings and private residences because of the coal mine tunnels that ran under most of the city and many homes. Though there were protective laws in place that were supposed to prevent mining companies from digging under certain protected buildings, these laws went largely unheeded and unenforced, which allowed for the cave-in of a working school building, as Mr. Kozloski described. Following the cave-in at the Pittston High School, the Pittston Gazette published an article titled “Mine Cave in 1943 Hits 500 Homes.” In the article, the Gazette explains that Pittston High School was not the only building affected, but also numerous public buildings and residences including the newly constructed Mt. Carmel Church. Further, the Gazette article goes on to say that classes in the damaged building were suspended until further notice, just as Mr. Kozloski described. The article says, “There were 1,800 students in the senior, junior, sophomore, freshman and grade classes of the school. Students had to be sent to other school buildings of the district and had to use other public buildings.”
Subsidence in the mines caused not only property damage, but also took the lives of many local residents. In an oral history done with Ms. Sally Scott of Pittston, she describes one incident when she remembers a young girl, around her age, losing her life because of a cave-in. Ms. Scott says, “A little girl about my age, her name was Jule Ann Fulmer, and she was walking along the sidewalk and the sidewalk caved in and she went down in the mines, never to be found. They never, ever found her, and she was about my age.” Though Sally is not entirely correct, and the body of little Jule Ann Fulmer was eventually found, this memory proves that subsidence was a very real threat to the lives and property of people throughout the Wyoming Valley anthracite region. On the day after this tragedy, the Pittston correspondent for the Times Leader Evening News, stated “Little Jule Ann Fulmer, 2 years old, died yesterday in what should be the safest place in the world today—the streets of an American city.” This memory of Ms. Sally Scott’s only serves to solidify the detrimental impact poor, dangerous mining practices have had on the local region. Based on this information, it is no wonder that the anthracite region, with all of its dangerous practices and greed, was in decline throughout the Wyoming Valley by the 1950s.
Even with the constant threat of mine subsidence and the loss of human life associated with the anthracite industry, it continued to chug along until one fateful day: January 22nd, 1959. On that day, the anthracite mining industry in the Wyoming Valley took its last breath as a giant hole opened up in the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope mine shaft, releasing the swollen, ice laden Susquehanna River into the mines below. Eighty-one men had reported to work that morning, and were down in the mines when the river crashed through. The mine was fully evacuated, but twelve men never made it out. After more than a day of the water continuing to flow into the mine, it became clear that there would be no miracle to save these men, and they had been the victims of another terrible mining accident.
Even through the mourning of these men, the local community still had a very real problem on their hands. They needed to find a way to plug the giant hole which was even now creating a whirlpool in the torrent Susquehanna River. According to the Wolensky siblings conjoined work “Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959”, during the very peak of the disaster, “an estimated 2.7 million gallons of water per minute streamed underground” and “in total, 10.37 billion gallons coursed into the River Slope and surrounding mines.” The magnitude of these numbers surpasses every other mining disaster in the history of the era, making it the worst mining disaster Wyoming Valley anthracite had ever seen.
In an oral history done with Mrs. Gayle Gromala of Pittston, she elaborated on her experience and memories of the Knox Mine Disaster from the perspective of a child. Gayle described her experience saying:
We were right… If you walked across the street from our house, and if you went through the neighbor’s yard, and went straight, you were right on top of the mine. You could look down. And I was a year old, about a year old. And my mom… They all congregated up there, cause they all looked down and watched what happened. They were throwing railroad cars in the hole. Just like… The whole river… They wouldn’t… The supervisors wouldn’t listen to the miners when they said that they were too close to the river, and the engineers, and they kept having to dig right there. You know with the pick axes. You could actually hear them in our basement, our cellar. You could hear the pick axes… My mother said that when that river just went through it was a huge hole. It was like a whirlwind. Like a whirlpool. And they started throwing railroad cars in to fill it. It was amazing.
Even as a child at the time, Gayle understood the magnitude of this disaster and its effects. She explained that the workers were ordered to dig far too close to the river bed. Ultimately, the thin layer of rock between the river and the mine was too weak to hold back the swollen Susquehanna. The robbing of coal pillars in the area over the decades compromised the already fragile integrity of the mine shaft, only further weakening the ceiling. Gayle also very succinctly describes some of the measures the responders to the disaster used to attempt to fill the cave-in and deal with the swollen Susquehanna River. A railroad track ran parallel to the river and workers “cut and bent the railroad track toward the river and used a railroad engine to push about sixty coal hopper cars—fifty-ton behemoths called gondolas—into the void.” Then, with the assistance of cranes and dump trucks they added another “four hundred one-ton coal cars as well as some 25,000 cubic yards of dirt, rock, and boulders.” Their temporary patch worked to stop the whirlpool, but they knew it was temporary and could not stop the water from seeping underground.
Though the Knox Mine disaster caused the loss of twelve human lives and a large whirlpool in the middle of the Susquehanna River, its less immediate consequences are what make it the greatest and costliest mining disaster in Wyoming Valley history. As mentioned previously, the water from the Susquehanna River flowed into the River Slope mine shaft and spread throughout the surrounding mines. The spreading was not limited to the immediate surrounding area, though. As Ellis Roberts explains in his book The Breaker Whistle Blows, “most of the underground mines were interconnected by drainage tunnels. There were few barriers to halt the surging waters from running mine to mine throughout the entire valley.” That is exactly what happened and the Wolensky siblings describe this phenomenon in their writing:
As water flowed out of the River Slope into adjoining workings, mine after mine closed down. The Pennsylvania Coal Company and the Lehigh Valley Coal Company owned most of the mines in the areas and decided to permanently close all operations, most of which has been leased out. Within a matter of months, all mines in the middle portion of the northern field, around the city of Pittston, were permanently idled.
Because of the Knox Mine Disaster, the main industry of the Wyoming Valley was devastated. The true damage came not from the disaster itself, but from the economic consequences for the entire valley.
The economy of the Wyoming Valley was in peril because it relied almost entirely on the coal industry and, largely as a result of the Knox Mine disaster, the coal industry was no longer functioning. According to Wyoming Valley historian Sheldon Spear, “Population in Luzerne County had fallen from 441,518 in 1940 to 391,226 in 1950, a drop of 11.4 percent (during the same period the population of the state had risen by six percent).” This startling statistic only serves to prove that the Wyoming Valley was the only one suffering from this economic depression, unlike the rest of the state which was seeing a steady growth in population. For the rest of the 1950s and 1960s the area had to deal with depression and rampant unemployment. In Luzerne County alone, mining employment plunged from “10,200 in 1958 to 2,100 in 1970” eliminating over four-fifths of its workers and causing unemployment to skyrocket caused the anthracite region to become known as a “depressed area.” The regional depression caused hundreds of residents to move to other states and regions to secure permanent employment. According to Sheldon Spear’s work Wyoming Valley History Revisited, “In spite of the stimulus of the Korean War, Wilkes-Barre remained one of two areas in the nation with an unemployment rate exceeding twelve percent (Scranton remained the other).” Though the rest of the country was seeing the economic boom that accompanies wartime, the Wyoming Valley and Scranton area were in a severe depression brought on by the loss of the anthracite industry. The significance of the Knox Mine disaster cannot be found in the loss of human life or the cost to fill in a mine subsidence. The significance of the Knox Mine disaster is that it killed the economy of the Wyoming Valley and officially ended the anthracite era.
In the years leading up to the Knox Mine Disaster, the anthracite region of the Wyoming Valley had to deal with constant mining accidents and subsidence was rampant. This was caused by neglectful, greedy mine owners and managers, who ignored safety conditions and regulatory laws in order to get the most possible profit. These problems were further exacerbated because of the ailing infrastructure that made up the mining tunnels and the dangerous practice of robbing coal pillars. Because of these practices, the anthracite industry was already in decline by 1959 when the Knox Mine Disaster struck the final blow, ending the anthracite era. The significance of this disaster was not the loss of human life, though those 12 men will always be remembered.
The Knox Mine Disaster is significant because it caused the destruction of the entire economy of the Wyoming Valley which, during the period, was still entirely dependent on coal. This disaster is also just one example of what can happen to a region when its main economic industry is destroyed.
Further, local Pennsylvanians are still dealing with the ramifications of the anthracite industry. Disasters like the Knox Mine disaster have scarred the local collective memory and made it difficult for residents to welcome new energy industries into the Wyoming Valley. This can be seen most directly in the resistance of locals to the Marcellus Shale and gas industry over 50 years later. Many of the arguments against the Marcellus Shale industry are based on the very negative and traumatizing experience the Wyoming Valley had with the rise and fall of anthracite. Local residents do not want a repeat of the economic and environmental detriments caused by the greed of energy officials. Further, residents are reticent to dig underneath their houses and public buildings, because they have already experienced just how destructive underground mining can be.
Through the information about local anthracite history including oral histories, memories, and writings of people who actually lived through it, we can better understand our current economic environment, especially in respect to the Marcellus Shale industry. If it was not for the oral histories and primary newspaper articles written during the Knox Mine disaster, historians would have a much more limited understanding of what exactly happened at the River Slope mine and how it affected the local community. This traumatizing experience is still influencing the local community and the country as a whole. The collective memory of the mining industry is forever scarred by terrible incidents such as the Knox Mine disaster. If it was not for the Knox Mine Disaster, the Wyoming Valley of today and the United States mining industry as a whole, would most likely be vastly different.
 Zbiek, Paul. 1988. Luzerne County: History of the People and Culture. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wyoming Historical and Geological Society.
 Bassacco, Jim, ed. 1995. A History of Pittston’s Coal Mining Era. Pittston, Pennsylvania. p. 174
 James Kozloski, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
 Bassacco, Jim, ed. 1995. A History of Pittston’s Coal Mining Era. Pittston, Pennsylvania. p. 223.
Bassacco, Jim, ed. 1995. A History of Pittston’s Coal Mining Era. Pittston, Pennsylvania. p. 224.
 Sally Scott, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
 Following Jule Ann’s fall into the hole, the fire department was called but when they descended into the hole, they could not find the child. They eventually decided to use a steam shovel to remove over 550 tons of rock, coal, sand, and dirt. After this material was removed the small hand of Jule Ann appeared along the side of the excavation. The child’s body was nearly 20 feet below the surface and took searchers nearly 30 hours to unearth. Jule Ann Fulmer was only two years old when mine subsidence claimed her life. This information came from Roberts, Ellis. 1984. The Breaker Whistle Blows. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Anthracite Museum Press. p.134
 Ibid, p.134
 Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. 2005. Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historial & Museum Commission. p. 3.
 There were rescue operations in place to save these last 12 miners, and hope did remain alive. “Fr. Edmund Langan of St. John’s Church in Pittston even arrived to bless the mine and lead prayers” for the safety of those miners still trapped inside. But, by January 23, methane gas began to rise from the mine. It was clear that the miners, even if they were still alive, would soon run out of air, if they hadn’t already. Because of this, government officials decided to halt all rescue operations, in an attempt to protect the lives of the rescue teams. Ibid, p. 5
 Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. 2005. Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historial & Museum Commission.
 Gayle Gromala, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
 State mine inspectors had “red-lined” a point on the mine maps beyond which mining was prohibited. They were originally supposed to stay at least 50 feet from the river bed, but this number was eventually lowered to 35 feet. It is estimated that by the time of the Knox Disaster, there was only 19 inches between the miners and the river. Roberts, Ellis. 1984. The Breaker Whistle Blows. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Anthracite Museum Press. p. 145
 Ibid, p. 145-146
 Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. 2005. Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historial & Museum Commission. p. 8-9
 In the spring of 1959, construction crews began the process of permanently sealing the hole created by the Knox Mine subsidence. In order to do this, they diverted the river and built “an earthen cofferdam around the hole.” They then “drained the dam to expose the river bottom” and “drilled several boreholes into the mine through which they poured 1,200 cubic yards of concrete and 26,000 cubic yards of sand.” This permanently fixed the hole so that water from the river could no longer flow from the river into the mine. It did not remove the water that had already seeped into the mine, though. Ibid, p. 9-10
 Roberts, Ellis. 1984. The Breaker Whistle Blows. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Anthracite Museum Press. p. 146.
 Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. 2005. Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historial & Museum Commission. p. 10
 Spear, Sheldon. 1994. Wyoming Valley History Revisited. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Haddon Craftsmen. p. 225
 Ibid, p. 17
 Ibid, p. 225
 Perry, Simona L. “Development, Land Use, and Collective Trauma: The Marcellus Shale Gas Boom in Rural Pennsylvania.” Culture, Agriculture, Food & Environment 34, no. 1 (June 2012): 81-92. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2015).
Bassacco, Jim, ed. 1995. A History of Pittston’s Coal Mining Era. Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Bassacco, Jim, ed. 1995. A History of the City of Pittston. Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Gayle Gromala, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
James Kozloski, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
Perry, Simona L. “Development, Land Use, and Collective Trauma: The Marcellus Shale Gas Boom in Rural Pennsylvania.” Culture, Agriculture, Food & Environment 34, no. 1 (June 2012): 81-92. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2015).
Roberts, Ellis. 1984. The Breaker Whistle Blows. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Anthracite Museum Press.
Sally Scott, Oral history interview (9/27/15), Collections of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
Spear, Sheldon. 1994. Wyoming Valley History Revisited. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Haddon Craftsmen.
Wolensky, Robert. 2010. “The Pennsylvania Coal Company and the Anthracite Leasing System: Development and Resistance.” Canal History and Technology Proceedings.
Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. 2005. Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster: Stories, Remembrances, and Reflections on the Anthracite Coal Industry’s Last Major Catastrophe: January 22, 1959. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historial & Museum Commission.
Zbiek, Paul. 1988. Luzerne County: History of the People and Culture. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wyoming Historical and Geological Society.