It was raining slightly when the old man in the carefully polished brogues he had bought years before at the Dry stepped out of his house. Though he was only going a few blocks up the hill to the church for 8:15 Mass, he fumbled through his key ring for the skeleton key and locked the front door with its peeling green paint behind him (though he knew he needn’t have bothered since there wasn’t much inside worth stealing). He slipped the keys under the mat and pulled the brim of his battered but brushed hat down over his eyes to shield him from the rain. If he were to have caught a drop on his tongue it would have had a tang like the bite of the last draw of a pipe full of Half and Half.
A mist, tinged yellow and stinking of sulfur and soot, rolled up from a creek with no name, a rivulet choked with iron and running red that coated the rounded stones in it with a thick barnacled crust the color of dried blood. It crawled stiffly over the masterfully chiseled bluestone walls the Italian stonemasons had built when the old man’s father was still a young man to keep that creek in its place. And then it paused to catch its stinking breath on the broken slates of a sidewalk heaved this way as the old coal pits settled wearily deep beneath it.
With every sloshing step on that sidewalk, the old man could feel the contours of the world underground, the chambers and the shafts and the groaning old timbers that he and his father and his brothers and an army of boys and men just like them had hewn by hand and placed there a generation before.
Back then, this dying Pennsylvania town named for the coal baron who built it was a juggernaut of the industry. At the turn of the last century, in cities and coal patch towns just like this place, nearly 200,000 men and boys tramped each day to the mines all across the Commonwealth, prying out of the earth the pitch-black stone that would fuel America’s growth. On their backs, a nation was built. Their coal, measured out by the daily ton, fueled the steel mills and the factories, and the railroads that tied them all together in a gleaming steel knot.
So hungry was this industry for labor that the bosses bought workers by the boatload, Welsh miners, Cornish men, and the Irish peat diggers like the old man’s father who had never seen the inside of a mine until he arrived in America. And after them, the Poles and the Ukrainians and the Lithuanians and the Italians.
Back then, deep down in the dark below the surface, the men and boys worked together to tear down the walls that nature had erected bit by bit over millions of years, and there were no walls between them. By the time he was seven and entered the mines for the first time, the old man who had no formal schooling to speak of could converse casually with other boys in six languages. On the surface, of course, it was a different world – a world of impenetrable walls and silence, a maze of separate nations, each of them lorded over by the church of their nativity, the Irish in their parishes, the Poles in theirs and the Welsh in theirs.
In a way, it was only in the darkness that they could be a single person.
There were flashes of unity at times. Life above ground had not been easy in those early days, and life below was harder still, and often brutally short. A lot of families in those days had a version of the same story – an accident underground, a miner caught between coal cars and crushed to death, a misplaced beam dropping suddenly and bashing a man’s skull in. The whistle would blow, the work would stop, and the dead or dying man’s mates would carry him home and stretch him out on his bed or kitchen table and summon the priest. Sometimes the deaths came in the dozens. In 1904, the year the old man first entered the mines, 100 men were killed in a mine explosion in Cheswick, just a few miles from Pittsburgh.
Three years later, in Westmoreland County, 239 men and boys were killed when a miner’s lamp ignited the gas that had gathered in the Darr Mine. It was the worst single mining disaster in Pennsylvania history, though no one, certainly not the mine bosses, was ever held accountable. But those catastrophic mass casualty events – and there were others– masked a grim reality. Death in the mines was part of life in the mines, and it happened with soul crushing regularity. State records from time dryly note hundreds of accidents, many fatal, some not, all devastating. Most often, they came one or two at a time.
The next day, or a day later, the dead man’s wife and children would be dispossessed. As tragic as a death in the mines could be, a crippling injury could sometimes be worse. Not only would the man’s family have to feed themselves, they’d have to care for him as well. There’s no knowing how many were cast out on the street to fend for themselves. The churches would help if they could. Neighbors would scrape together what they had to help them get on their feet, or at least keep them from toppling into the abyss. There was no social safety net in those days.
The old man had himself narrowly escaped death below ground when a mine collapse trapped him for hours in a small coal black chamber. Years later, if he was very quiet, he could still hear the rasping and clinking of the picks as his fellows burrowed down to reach him. “Dig down a little deeper and you’ll find me.” It was out of that darkness that much of the American labor movement was forged. Pensions, fairer wages, and a ban at least on child labor so the old man’s children would not have to follow him underground before their First Communion. They weren’t given freely. They were fought for. Blood was spilled. And for a time, things got better, if only marginally. Indeed, in the early part of the twentieth century, there were periods of seeming prosperity. World War I was a boom time for the mines and mills of Pennsylvania and for those who worked in them. So was World War II. It was perhaps a cruel trick of fate that the cost of the brief flashes of prosperity for the workers in Pennsylvania was the suffering of their old friends and families in the countries from which many of them had fled.
It might been easy to lose sight of the suffering of those an ocean away in the rising tide of those moments of prosperity. When the mines and mills were working overtime, filling even the smallest bankbook with penciled in notations about this week’s deposit, so were all those businesses, many of them immigrant-owned, who served the mines and mills and miners. The corner bars did land-office business on weekends, and before Easter or in June when the weddings were held, the corner dress shops – many of them displaying dresses adorned with the intricate silk work made in local silk mills – bustled. But in valleys like these, lean times are never far off.
And it wasn’t long after the end of World War II that the world beyond the coal valleys moved on and left these people on their own. The rich men in far-off New York and Philadelphia found cheaper workers, first in other parts of the country – deeper down in Appalachia, out west in Wyoming – where the unions these people had fought for were still weak. Soon enough, they found cheaper forms of energy to fuel their factories, and then they found cheaper workers to man them overseas and the whole bright and glorious future that the men and boys of the valleys chiseled out a ton at a time in the pits slowly faded and vanished altogether. What work remained could be done faster and cheaper by machines that needed no neighborhoods or churches.
By the 1970s, in all the anthracite coal fields, only about 2,000 workers were needed. And even those few jobs were disappearing. And with them went the silk mills, and the corner stores and the dress shops. Only the bars with their 25 cent beers and the state stores that sold liquor remained.
Many in these little towns, like the old man, watched sadly as their children – the ones who could – moved away, and as those who couldn’t settled into a rhythm of just holding on.
Above ground, the old divisions still remained. The walls between peoples of different faiths with different holidays to celebrate remained as tall and as rigid as ever, and in time new walls were erected, between the old-timers and the newcomers: African Americans who fled the oppression of the American South in the great migration of the 1950s, Latinos who had come searching for the American Dream and somehow wound up here instead. A few still try to find a spark of economic security, setting up shop in the old storefronts that used to house the dress shop, or the old Italian grocery, selling the few comforts and necessities that people passed by can still afford.
Even now, if you pause in front of the dusty windows of some of those struggling shops, and peer deep, you can almost see the reflection of a more prosperous past.
It’s easier to summon up the old divisions.
Even now – maybe especially now – there are those who, for quick political advantage, would point to the newcomers, the immigrant shopkeepers, their children, and blame them for the ills of these valleys. And there are those among the old-timers who are willing to believe them because, after all, someone has to be to blame.
In recent years there have been those, a handful of them, who had the vision and the grit to reimagine the valleys in the world after king coal had been deposed. The city of Bethlehem, which had forged the steel that built New York, using coal mined in these valleys, had fallen on hard times by the 1990s, but managed to rise from its own coke ash as a mecca for gamblers and boutique shoppers. By the beginning of this century, Pittsburgh, a place where once the sky was so choked with ash that it looked like midnight at noon, had begun to emerge as one of the Commonwealth’s greenest cities. Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton, all took halting steps toward rebuilding themselves after the fall of coal.
What prosperity there was, though, was not shared across the Commonwealth.
Johnstown, Altoona, Bradford, Erie, cities that rose proudly with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America, found themselves in a steep and steady decline, even many of the glistening railroads that once linked them are now just rust-red scars across a landscape nobody travels anymore.
These places and hundreds of other small coal patch and steel mill towns, the little nowheres that had made the modern age possible, These places and hundreds of other small coal patch and steel mill towns, the little nowheres that had made the modern age possible, the people whose sweat created the enormous wealth of America, had been bypassed, literally, by interstate highways. The sorrowful hiss and labored moan of the railroad engines had been replaced by the distant hum of eighteen tires at a time carrying things made by people in distant lands to other people who had the money to buy them.
But if you were to pull off that interstate and wander down some old U.S. highway or frost-heaved state road across all but two remaining prosperous corners of the Commonwealth, you can still find the fossilized remains of these coal patch and mill towns, places that still bear the names of the barons who owned them, though never the names of the men who actually built them.
The names of those men are on weathered stones in churchyards and cemeteries, marking the graves of those buried as much by the passing of time and the short memories of Americans as they are by the ground in which they struggled and upon which they lived, and died.
Those people, the ones who built America, and who in fact helped build the world we all live in today, are not gone. They haven’t vanished. They still live in those fading towns and villages. They still put brittle plastic vases filled with artificial flowers on the graves of their fathers and mothers every May on what many of them still call “Decoration Day.” They still get up before dawn, trundle their children off to school and then, those who are lucky enough, go off to the few jobs that remain here. The rest still wait. They still struggle. Now that the coal they dug and the steel they milled is no longer needed for America’s wars overseas, these towns still provide the nation’s most precious military resource – the young people who bleed and die on far away battlefields.
Indeed, only about one percent of all Americans ever serve in the military, and disproportionately, they come from places like this. And when they come home, and once again vanish into vanishing communities, they are, like all their neighbors still by turns ignored and exploited, forgotten much of the time, and then trotted out as background characters in some politician’s ego-driven and cynical farce about making America great again, played out without the slightest understanding of what America meant to these people back then, or what it really cost them to build it. And then they’re pushed back into the coal-black shadows.
You can see them in the pages of this book. You can feel the weight of loss and isolation, you can see how the pain of generations has weathered them, just as years of sulfur-tinged rains weathered the old stone wall that the Italian stonemasons had built all those many lifetimes ago. But if you peer a little deeper, you can also see the resilience that gave them the strength to survive and, at times, even prosper.
There’s pride in these photographs. There’s a sense of purpose and of place, even if you have to burrow through the sadness that surrounds them.
If you linger for a while over each of these portraits of a forgotten America, and then close your eyes, you can almost feel as if you’re walking along with the old man, a man I buried thirty years ago, along uncertain slate sidewalks up the hill toward morning Mass. You can almost feel the contours of the world beneath it, a world of dead-end tunnels and deep shafts, a world that’s shifting beneath your feet.
And if you’re very still and listen very hard, you can almost hear the sound that haunted the old man, the sound of your pick scraping and hacking away at the fallen rock. “Dig down a little deeper and you’ll find me.”
By all means. Dig down. You’ll find him.
By Seamus McGraw
Seamus McGraw is the author of a few books, including the critically acclaimed The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone and From a Taller Tower, The Rise of the American Mass Shooter, and a regular contributor to publications, including The New York Times, Huffington Post, Playboy, or Reader’s Digest.
His book is available here.