Coal Culture in Pennsylvania
By Nathan Salamacha
Coal was seen as a valuable resource in the 19th and 20th centuries. It allowed for the factories to keep working, trains to keep moving, and people to keep warm. But above all it fueled the American dream. Many of our generation see Pennsylvania as a predominantly urbanized state. The lifestyle of a 19th century coal worker is hard for many to imagine. Their lives revolved around the excavation of a material vital to their daily lives, anthracite coal. The miners of the 19th century witnessed as Pennsylvania transitioned from an area economically dependent on farming, to one ran by coal and expanding industry. The rapid expansion of the coal industry drew in thousands of immigrants to the coal fields and profits for mine operators. It allowed many immigrant families to find a source of income to escape the poverty stricken lives they once lived.
Take for instance The Coeldey family who descended from two Irish couples who emigrated from Ireland because of the potato famine. The one father worked in the coal mines and was able to support his 12 children until they were working age (about 8) so that they could also work in the mines (MacGaffey, 69). These mines allowed for communities of immigrants to spring up and thrive such as Butte, Montana. The town had over 90,000 immigrants present in the 1870s. These people were from all over the world including Ireland, Austria, China, Italy, and Mexico. The mine's signs had to be written in sixteen languages just so that the workers could all understand the message (irishamerica.com). As you can see in the map similar cites were founded in central PA and Southwestern PA.
One repressed community that thrived in the coal mining country was the Jewish community. At first they were just peddlers but eventually formed a wealthy merchant class that thrived (MacGaffey, 70). One such remnant of this is the historically affluent Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. The cultural importance of coal and the mining communities it created had a long lasting impact on the landscape of America. Cities popped up across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and across the Midwest. Coal mining created diverse cities where there was wilderness 30 years earlier shaped the mountainous landscapes of America. It also allowed large industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh to thrive. One such person from Pittsburgh was my grandmother, Mary Salamacha. She described a time when the street lights would be lit at noon because of all the soot in the air. She said that it was horrible looking back on it but it meant that "Dad was at work" and "he would bring back the bacon." That was one cultural impact of coal. It was seen as the way to make a living through the mill workers of Pittsburgh. Coal had a large effect on the cultural identity of Americans across the nation, not just in the mining town that appeared from nothing.