There are perhaps 100 independent anthracite miners left in Pennsylvania, mostly family operations struggling to survive in a time-honored, high-risk tradition that modern technology has passed by.
HEGINS, Pa. The scars are barely visible much of the time, hidden beneath a veil of black. Only in the evenings, when the men wash away the day’s grime, do they come to light.
They snake across the men’s hands and faces and necks thin squiggly lines and thick fat creases, and sometimes great gouges torn from their skin.
But the strangest thing about the scars is their color.
They are a deep and startling blue.
They tell a story, these odd-shaped wounds, of a dark, dangerous world that men cling to, women fear, and sons stubbornly follow their fathers into, even though there is little money, little future and very little hope.
It is a world outsiders rarely see. Like the scars, it is largely hidden from view.
There are perhaps 100 independent anthracite miners left in Pennsylvania fathers and sons, uncles and nephews who work their tiny family mines, blasting and shoveling coal by hand, the way anthracite has been mined for more than a century.
Many of their mines are no more than holes, 300- or 600-foot-deep shafts sunk next to the tunnels of abandoned collieries.
A dwindling demand
They work against all the odds. There is little market left for anthracite, a hard, clean coal that once heated most of the homes in the eastern United States. Bituminous coal, which is inferior, dirtier and easier to mine, is also cheaper. Machines do the work in big company-owned bituminous mines. And the power plants and steel mills buy the cheaper coal.
So fewer and fewer men crawl into the coal holes. And fewer and fewer carry the scars, stained blue by the coal dust that tattoos their wounds.
There are just 12 family anthracite mines left in Pennsylvania, down from 60 in 1995 and 140 a decade earlier.
“We’re dinosaurs,” cries David A. Lucas, 53, a barrel-chested miner known as David A., whose father and grandfather mined the “hard coal” before him, and whose son, David “Junior” Lucas, 29, would, too, if only he could make a living doing so. Instead, Junior has turned to welding.
Deep inside his mine, the elder Lucas’ eyes pierce the dark.
“In a couple of years,” he says, “we’ll be extinct.”
They are descendants of bootleggers, miners left jobless after the Depression and the coal strikes of the early 20th century who, in desperation, sank shafts on the abandoned workings of the big collieries. At first they were prosecuted and their mines destroyed by the “coal and iron police,” but over the years, agreements were worked out and the bootleggers became legalized.
Most started as children “picking rock” separating the coal from waste outside the mines. In their teens, they headed into the tunnels. The Lucases and the Rothermels and the Shingaras and the Snyders. Ties to family are one reason they fight for a way of life that seems doomed.
But there are more subtle reasons reasons that emerge in the cool, hissing earth, where everything is black save the beams from the miners’ headlamps.
“Listen,” David A. Lucas says, tapping with his pick, trying to gauge the thickness of the vein. Lucas is 300 feet underground in the upper level of D & D Anthracite, which he owns with his 38-year-old brother Daryl “Bimmer” Lucas. The lower level, another 300 feet down, was shut down after it flooded.
“If you listen,” Lucas says, still tapping, “the vein speaks.”
These are the things that speak to Lucas:
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The creaking of the oak beams hammered into the roof, a rudimentary protection against the weight of the Appalachian mountain that rises above them. A sudden hiss of air. A puff from the flame in the safety lamp used to detect deadly methane gas, or indicate “black damp” pockets where there is no oxygen.
The sounds tell Lucas whether it is safe to blast farther into the mountain. They tell him when he should flee.
The Lucas mine is a slope mine, a deep shaft sunk into the earth. To enter, the men crawl into a coal buggy, ducking as it is lowered into the shaft. Bimmer operates the hoist from giant levers in a shack on top. The same buggy is used to haul out 5-ton loads of coal.
David A. spends six or seven days a week in the mine with the Lucases’ one employee, their cousin, Ernie Lucas, 42, whose wild-eyed rantings above ground give way to calm workmanship below.
“Down here there are no problems,” Ernie says, as he crouches in the gangway. “Down here, it’s peaceful.”
As he speaks, a machine called a mucker tears furiously down the gangway like a gigantic, out-of-control shovel, eventually halting in a pile of coal. Clambering atop the pile, Ernie shovels a load into the mucker. It trundles out again. At the other end of the tunnel, David A. will load the buggy and Bimmer will hoist it to the surface.
The dank tunnel reeks of danger, with its ever-changing sounds, screaming machines and thin wires stretching along its sides firing lines for dynamite. But the miners rarely speak of danger.
“Fear,” says David A., “has no place underground.”
Their scars tell another story: the day Lucas barely escaped with his father after the roof collapsed; the day Ernie staggered out of a methane explosion, so delirious he thought dragons had been breathing fire.
In this particular week the Lucases mine about 75 tons of coal, which they sell to a local processing plant for $35 or $40 a ton. After expenses, they each take home about $75. Some weeks are better, some not.
The Lucas’ have lost count of times they have been temporarily closed or cited for violations of safety, health and other regulations citations they claim are often frivolous. It’s a common refrain among the miners, some of whom boast about chasing state and federal inspectors off with guns.
They argue that they are unfairly penalized by mining laws that favor the big mines. Ventilation systems, for example, are very different in bituminous and anthracite mines, yet the same rules apply to both.
“We’re not thieves or bums,” Bimmer cries. “We shouldn’t be penalized for doing an honest day’s work.”
The inspectors say they are just doing their job.
Black Diamond, the miners call anthracite, with its lustrous glow and smokeless burn. Pennsylvania has the country’s only deposits, thick veins that, on a map, look like four fingers extending 1,400 miles across the northeastern part of the state.
Boom to bust
One hundred years ago, more than 100 million tons of anthracite was being mined from this region. Towns like Coaldale, Carbondale, Minersville, and Shamokin sprang up beside the collieries. Huge processing plants, called breakers, towered over the land.
Today, the neat row houses of the miners cling to the hills, while the ruins of old collieries sink, ghostlike, into the mountains.
Anthracite production is down to about 2 million tons a year, much of it from a few large strip mines. The independent deep mines produce about 200,000 tons.
“Ten years ago I thought there was a future,” says Cindy Rothermel, sitting in a shanty by the entrance to the Pottsville mine she owns with her husband, Randy. “No longer,” she says.
The shanty is black as the mine itself, a dark hut where the miners don their working gear and hard hats, and smoke cigarettes over the embers of a coal stove.
Just a few years ago, there would have been 10 miners bustling about. Today the Rothermels employ just four, including their 28-year-old son Randy “Boo” Rothermel Jr.
History and heartache
Cindy Rothermel has spent her life in the mines. She picked rock to pay her way through college. When she was nine months pregnant, she shoveled sludge from the gangway. At 49, she knows the history of the mines and the heartache as well as anyone.
She lost her father in an explosion when she was 12. Several years ago, she almost lost her son when a stick of dynamite exploded in his face. Coal dust stanched the wound for eight hours while Boo waited, refusing painkillers, for a doctor to stitch him up.
It was the worst day of Cindy’s life. Images of her father flooded back. She remembered how calm he looked in the morgue, his face still covered in coal. She remembered how much she hated coal.
And yet, she understands its pull.
She has felt it herself, sitting alone in the cold, quiet earth, when she has turned off her headlamp and just listened. She has written poems about its spell, the fossil fish and shells she has found, the mushrooms that spring from the beams.
She has written poems about the foolishness of miners, too. One hangs in the bedroom of her son, John. At 17, all he wants to do is follow his father and brother into the mines. His mother prays he will go to college.
These days the Rothermels are lucky to sell 25,000 tons of coal a year. Last year, after expenses, they made about $24,000.
The Rothermels have started a small farm: tomatoes, pigs, some corn. It is in their sons’ names. That way, Cindy says, “it can’t be taken from us if we lose everything in the mine.”
Across the valley in Good Spring, Mike Rothermel, Randy’s brother, runs a breaker, a labyrinth of chutes and troughs through which the coal is washed and sorted by size. Summit Anthracite processes about 75,000 tons of anthracite a year, buying the raw coal for $30 to $40 a ton, and selling the processed version for about $90. Rothermel says his customers have included industrial plants in Florida, Venezuela and Germany, and lately U.S. steel plants hurt by the shortage of (bituminous) coke.
As the price of steel rises, Rothermel hopes to tap more of that market. But he has bigger plans plans that are considered revolutionary in these parts.
Mike Rothermel wants to open a new anthracite mine.
Rothermel’s hope is that he can build a machine, similar to those used in bituminous mines, that will dig out the coal safely and speedily. With anthracite, the problem has always been to design a machine that could tackle the steep pitch of the veins. Last year, Rothermel learned of such a machine in Europe, and he has spent months researching it and designing his own.
Rothermel, 42, has a reputation as someone whose brains and hard work got him far in the mining world. And he has a personal reason for wanting his new mine to work.
Once, he owned a 600-foot-deep shaft mine built with his own hands. It was the showpiece of the state. Officials pointed to it as an example of clean, safe mining. They used it to make training videos. Today Rothermel’s mine lies idle, the shaft crumbling into the ground beside the breaker.
The mine has a ghost, one Mike Rothermel sees and hears and feels all the time.
In 1998, his nephew Gary “Chirp” Laundslanger died in an explosion here. Chirp was 23, married with a baby and another on the way. He was like a son to Mike.
After Chirp’s death, Mike closed the mine for good and swore he wouldn’t mine again unless he could find a safer way.
A door slams in his breaker, and there is a sudden gust of air.
“Chirp,” Rothermel says, smiling as if he can see his nephew’s grin.
At the club
The bar at the Valley View Gun Club off Route 25 is a cozy place where the Yuengling beer costs 50 cents a glass and the jukebox plays Loretta Lynn.
David A. Lucas barrels through the door, black from head to foot. He claims his corner stool the one no one else dares to sit on and orders a beer.
It’s late Friday afternoon and everyone here is a miner, or son of a miner, or daughter or mother of a miner. Randy and Boo Rothermel sit next to David A. Beside him is Pete Warwick, who mines for the Rothermels and cuts timber for Lucas. Next to him is 75-year-old Anna Hoffman, who lost her husband to black lung and who is terrified of the mines; her five sons all followed their father into them. One son, Harry, sits beside her. The men start trading stories about coal.
In the club’s kitchen, Lucas’ wife, 52-year-old LaRae, prepares pizzas for a fund-raiser to be held the next day for a miner down on his luck.
The Lucas pizzas are famous in these parts, and the next morning 400 people will flock to buy the $7 special, piled high with sausage, ham, onion and mushrooms.
LaRae talks about coal, too, but with more weariness than passion.
“It’s all such a fight,” LaRae says. “A fight for the coal, a fight against the inspectors, a fight against black lung … “
“It’s sad,” she goes on, “that it comes to this after a lifetime of work.”
This year, for the first time, the Lucases held a pizza fund-raiser for themselves.
The ever-present dust
Deep inside the earth, the two men crawl through the tunnel.
Their eyes shine, green and luminous, like cats in the night.
Carefully one man checks the timber. The other places a half-dozen sticks of dynamite in small holes drilled into the rock.
They crawl back about 100 feet and crouch.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
Outside, the mountain shudders and a dull thud, thud, thud echoes through the valley.
Underground, silvery-black chunks of anthracite tumble through the dust.
The smell of coal is everywhere, and the dust seeps into everything. It is in the faces of the miners, in their fingernails and nostrils, even in the rims of their eyes.
It is in their hearts and in their lungs and in their scars.
“Beautiful,” David A. says, clambering onto the pile and caressing the coal.