You are here

Anthracite Region

-A A +A

From Picturesque To Utility and Back

The northeastern section of Pennsylvania known as the “anthracite region” contains the world's largest concentration of anthracite coal, a high-carbon coal that burns cleanly and at high temperature. Anthracite is, therefore, highly desirable as a fuel, and since the 1820s these deposits have been intensely exploited. Within the span of a few decades, coal mining turned a thinly settled agricultural region into one of the state's most densely populated industrial centers. and while mining ravaged the landscape, it gave rise to a vigorous industrial economy: mine works, the tightly packed workers’ communities that grew up to serve them, and the railroad and canal lines that connected production and markets. The architectural legacy, although sadly battered by the collapse of the coal economy, is rich and varied and there remains much to be seen.

The richest anthracite deposits are found in Luzerne, Lackawanna, Carbon, and Schuylkill counties. The region is bounded on the north and west by the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, and on the east by the Lehigh River, which joins the Delaware River at Easton. The southern boundary was more significant for here the ridge of the Blue Mountain, one of the great continuous arcs of the Appalachian chain, formed a nearly insurmountable barrier to commerce. Shipping needed to detour to the east or to the west, where the Lehigh and Schuylkill rivers, respectively, cut passages through the mountain. The harnessing of these arteries for transportation was necessary for the rise of the coal industry.

Before large-scale extraction of coal began, northeastern Pennsylvania was chiefly known for its natural beauty, described in the Connecticut Couranton September 29, 1772, as “the best, and the pleasantest land we ever saw.” Its picturesque terrain and great rivers, and its proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, made it a favorite subject for romantic poets and painters. One of the first was Jacob Cist of Wilkes-Barre, whose engraving Upper and Lower Falls of Solomon's Creek, which appeared in The Portfolioin 1809, documented the natural scenery of the Wyoming Valley according to the pictorial conventions of the eighteenth century. Other artists, including Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Karl Bodmer, found the valley of the Susquehanna a picturesque pendant to the more sublime vistas of the Hudson River. By the time William Henry Bartlett's drawings and watercolors were engraved for American Scenery (1840), the landscape of northeastern Pennsylvania was internationally renowned.

The terrain that underlay the scenic character hindered the industrial development of the region, and tremendous effort was required to bring goods to the port of Philadelphia. The Easton and Wilkes-Barre Turnpike (roughly corresponding to today's PA 115) was chartered in 1802, and was so profitable that it led to a veritable “turnpike mania”; by 1831, 2,500 miles of roads had been created in northeastern Pennsylvania. While this was happening, coal was becoming increasingly important. As early as 1769, two Connecticut blacksmiths, Obadiah and Daniel Gore, had used anthracite—then a novelty—in their forge at Wilkes-Barre. The first underground mine followed in 1807 when two other Connecticut settlers, Abijah and John Smith, opened one in Plymouth (Luzerne County) from which they shipped coal down the Susquehanna River. The following year Wilkes-Barre's Jesse Fell discovered that anthracite coal could be burned on a simple raised fireplace grate and used as a domestic fuel. The timing was propitious. When the War of 1812 cut off ship-borne supplies of bituminous coal along the eastern seaboard, anthracite became the fuel of choice. In response to demand, the Schuylkill Navigation Company was chartered in 1815 to extend the northward reach of the poorly navigable Schuylkill River. By 1827, a 108-mile waterway had been completed, linking Port Carbon in the anthracite coalfields above Pottsville to Philadelphia.

At the same time, other entrepreneurs were striking out to the east and to New York. Two Philadelphia merchants, William and Maurice Wurts, had begun purchasing coal lands in the Lackawanna Valley in 1814. Too far north to compete with the cheap coal of the Schuylkill and Lehigh valleys, they turned instead to the New York market, where prices were higher. In 1823, they formed the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. To carry coal to the canal at Honesdale, a sixteen-mile gravity and inclined-plane railroad was built, one of the first in the nation. The canal itself negotiated a 972-foot difference in elevation between Honesdale and Kingston, New York, requiring the construction of 109 locks. Finally, four large aqueducts capable of carrying coalladen barges were built and carried over innovative iron-wire suspension bridges designed by John A. Roebling; one, the Delaware Aqueduct ( PI13), survives. Thrust swiftly to completion, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was shipping coal to New York City by 1828. Another waterway that linked the region to the east was Josiah White's Lehigh Navigation System (see MN11). Constructed between 1818 and 1829 it connected the Upper Lehigh and Wyoming valleys to the Delaware Canal at Easton. The last great waterway was the North Branch Canal, which followed the course of the Susquehanna River between Nanticoke and Northumberland. Opened in 1830, it carried coal and timber to Baltimore; in 1834, it was extended northward to Pittston and linked Luzerne County with markets in central New York. A few remnants survive, including a stone lock in West Nanticoke near U.S. 11.

The heyday of waterways was brief, as the railroad supplanted them almost immediately. The first steam-powered railroad in Pennsylvania was in the anthracite region, the Switch Back Gravity Railroad at Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe); completed in 1827, it was soon adapted as a weekend amusement ride and was the antecedent to the roller coaster. By the end of the nineteenth century, six major lines served the region. Their names attest to the markets that they served: the Central Railroad of New Jersey; the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad; the Lehigh Valley Railroad; the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad; the Lehigh and New England; the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad; and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Each had a substantial architectural presence; their tracks, depots, and roundhouses were as important a component of the industrial landscape of the region as the collieries they served.

The architecture of the coal region is more than the mushroom growth of an industrial boom; it overlays older building cultures of radically different characters. This was pure historical accident, the consequence of sloppiness on the part of the British crown in the chartering of colonies. What is now the coal region coincided with the southern border of the Connecticut territorial claim. Wilkes-Barre's plan and Forty Fort's buildings still reveal the impact that Connecticut settlers had on Pennsylvania. Their early frame dwellings ( LU44, LU43) and meetinghouses ( LU42) followed New England tradition, as did their urbanism, with its strong focus on a town commons.

Onto these rather genteel agrarian and mercantile settlements fell the shock of the coal boom, with its own specialized industrial vernacular. In addition to the mines below ground, mining operations required specialized support facilities on the surface: the collieries. These facilities for cleaning, sizing, and transporting coal could sprawl to enormous sizes. A typical colliery included a breaker, boiler houses, hoisting houses, ventilating fans for the mines, offices, powder houses, lamp houses, washhouses, and refuse dumps, all linked by narrow-gauge railroad tracks within the complex and connected to standard-gauge railroads.

After the 1850s, the breaker became the central, dominant structure on the surface at an anthracite colliery. Originally applied to the crushers or rollers used to break coal into small sizes, the term came to mean the entire structure of conveyors, shakers, picking tables, washers, elevators, and separators that broke, washed, sized, cleaned, and loaded the coal for shipment. When they began to assume their monumental proportions in the late nineteenth century, breakers were wood framed, sheathed with planks, and pierced with numerous windows to provide light for the picking process. They loomed many stories above the ground. The interiors were often painted white to amplify the little illumination provided by soot-blackened windows and lanterns (and only much later by electric lights). By the second decade of the twentieth century, the character of anthracite breakers began to change when steel, concrete, and industrial sash replaced the boxy wooden volumes of the earlier breakers. Visually dynamic by virtue of their central tower and sharply angled chutes, they formed the characteristic architectural expression of the coal industry. Today, only two of these “industrial cathedrals” survive: the Huber Breaker in Ashley ( LU39; Luzerne County) and the St. Nicholas Central Breaker (1931) outside of Shenandoah (Schuylkill County).

New materials and the muckrakers of the new journalism that featured stories of the horrors of mining life also played a role in constructing more humane living conditions for workers. One example was “Concrete City,” a garden village constructed in Nanticoke, Luzerne County, for a select group of mine employees at the Truesdale Colliery in 1911. Milton Dana Merrill's design consisted of twenty modular cast-concrete houses arranged around a commons. Despite the charm of their casement windows and vegetable gardens, the houses proved to be damp and cold boxes. When the company refused to provide the sewage system required by the township, the village was abandoned in 1924, but the ruins remain. A more successful example because it better fit contemporary norms was Weston Place, in Shenandoah, constructed by the Locust Mountain Coal Company in 1915. Designed by Wilkes-Barre architect George Welsh, it provided a stucco “model” company village. Welsh's industrial housing schemes in Bethlehem and Williamsport were widely published.

The sudden flood of coal wealth brought the opportunity to spend money on architecture. Here, too, geography shaped culture. Just as two separate transportation systems, canal and rail, carried the region's coal to Philadelphia or New York, so they carried back architectural ideas. Wilkes-Barre's elite typically commissioned their houses and churches from Philadelphia architects, such as John McArthur Jr., Edwin Forrest Durang, Charles M. Burns, John Fraser, or Wilson Eyre Jr. Scrantonians tended to favor New York City, employing such figures as Richard M. Upjohn, Little and O’Connor, and Raymond Hood. Lavish amounts of wealth were in play; a capable and savvy architect could use the anthracite region as the launching pad for a national career. Bruce Price practiced in Wilkes-Barre from 1873 to 1876 before moving to New York City to become one of the nation's most successful architects, while Willis G. Hale practiced in Wilkes-Barre during these same years and then went on to become a major figure in Philadelphia. Since the collapse of the coal industry in the twentieth century, however, only one local architect—Peter Bohlin—has gone on to win a national reputation, and he has done so while remaining centered in Wilkes-Barre although with other offices around the state.

The final influence on the architecture of the coal region is the contribution of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who surged into the coal districts, first from Wales, Ireland, and Germany and then from Poland, Italy, and elsewhere in southeastern Europe, each bringing their distinct cultural and religious traditions. Generally isolated in homogenous ethnic enclaves, they surrounded their frame houses—often constructed by the mining companies—with a dense mantle of institutional buildings, including places of worship, schools, convents, rectories, fraternal meeting halls, and hospitals. Most of the structures date from the first quarter of the twentieth century, the zenith of the anthracite industry. After the labor peace established in the wake of the dramatic 1902 strike by coal miners, the region experienced continued prosperity until the end of World War I. But subsequent labor unrest and increasing competition from oil and gas gradually brought distress to the industry. By the 1950s, most of the major coal mining operations had come to a halt, and the region, almost entirely reliant on a single industry, entered a long period of recession, high unemployment, and outward migration that has only recently begun to end.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.