The Boom and Bust of Pennsylvania's Coal Towns

Decades after the mines shuttered, the towns show what remains when an industry responsible for building a region leaves it behind.

📅   Wed May 04, 2016 - Northeast Edition
Daniel Moore - PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE


Tipple of mine, Buckeye Coal Company, Nemacolin Mine, Nemacolin, Greene County, Pennsylvania.
Tipple of mine, Buckeye Coal Company, Nemacolin Mine, Nemacolin, Greene County, Pennsylvania.

PITTSBURGH (AP) One hundred years ago, scouts for Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., a titan of the American steel industry at the time, discovered a most ideal 400 acres of rolling farmland along the Monongahela River in Greene County.

Locked into a Gold Rush-esque competition for the coal seams underneath, the company raced to dig shafts and build a processing plant. Up high on the steep banks, it began carving narrow roads, strung power lines, installed a sanitary sewer system and began laying foundations for duplex houses.

Within five years, the Buckeye Mine was well on its way to supremacy, producing nearly a million tons of coal each year to produce coke, a material thrown into blast furnaces at steel mills. On top of it all, the company had established the village of Nemacolin, a model community for hundreds of miners with a school, churches, store, an amusement hall and baseball fields.

Nemacolin is among scores of company-built towns in southwestern Pennsylvania that dot the rail lines and rivers used to haul coal to steel mills and power plants. But today, decades after the mines shuttered, the towns show what remains when an industry responsible for building a region leaves it behind.

Since the Buckeye Mine shut down in the eighties, Nemacolin's elementary school burned down in a suspected arson. The store closed and the swimming pool was filled with dirt. Many of the duplex houses now sit vacant, roofs missing, tagged with graffiti and looted, verging on collapse. And the citizens' group left with the town's charter lacks funding and resources for large-scale change.

The economic, social and cultural void left after the miners moved away has been replaced with distrust, absentee landlords, drugs and crime.

Once homes for generations of coal miners, many villages are now considered areas to avoid — even by those who roamed the streets as children.

“This was a beautiful place to grow up,' said Paul Kurincak, a retired miner who grew up in a duplex on Bliss Avenue and now lives in neighboring Carmichaels. “Now, there's nothing here.'

Despite erosion and occasional spontaneous explosions, the Buckeye Mine waste dump about 1,000 ft. from Bliss Avenue still looms mountainous.

Obsessions Over Coal

The world around coal could not have looked more different in 1917, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube started digging into the “Klondike' coal formation — a chunk of the Pittsburgh Seam so named because the dash to development brought to mind the Alaskan Gold Rush.

After the Civil War and at the onset of the industrial revolution, southwestern Pennsylvania became the epicenter of American demand for iron and steel, said Elaine DeFrank, oral historian of the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette.

“We had the coal that made the coke that made the iron and steel that built the buildings and bridges across America,' said DeFrank, who grew up in Amend, a Fayette County company town. She has been guiding visitors through the Penn State coal museum, a collection of artifacts on the first floor of the campus library, since 1992.

“You could look out any distance and see the beehive coke ovens,' she said.

With no place for the rush of miners to stay, companies bought up land from farmers to build towns. Called coal “camps' or “patches' — after the German word “pacht,' which means “to rent' — they were named after the companies, or the corresponding mines or the farmers who sold the land.

Towns sprung up virtually overnight with names like Shoaf, Smock, Reduction, Shamrock, Crucible, Hope. Steel baron Henry Clay Frick alone had 72 holdings throughout Fayette County, DeFrank said, and there are countless more. The folk-song aphorism “I owe my soul to the company store' rang true, she said, as miners in many villages could only shop at the store and used company-issued currency called “scrip,' which came out of their paychecks.

At its peak production in 1946, Buckeye Mine employed nearly 1,300 workers and dug more than 2 million tons of coal out of the ground.

After the Coal Rush

Once the Second World War ended, however, life in Nemacolin began to change.

Progress crept in. The growth of automobiles in the 1950s and 1960s lessened the workers' dependence on the company, which sold off housing and transferred municipal responsibilities to the miners. A charter was created for a group of citizens, officially the Board of Nemacolin Inc., to oversee the town's water, sewage and lighting utilities. The township agreed to provide police and road maintenance.

On a sunny day in the early 1960s, a 12-year-old boy named Richard Trumka turned to his grandfather, Attilio Bertugli, and asked, “What can I do to help the miners?' Buckeye Mine was going through a prolonged downturn, and workers were digging half the annual coal tonnage they had dug in the forties.

“Look around you,' his grandfather responded. “Who are the people that can help the most?'

At first, Richard said, “Politicians?' His grandfather gave him a playful slap across the head.

“Think a little harder,' his grandfather said.

So Richard tried again: “Lawyers?'

After getting his law degree and rising through the ranks at the United Mine Workers union, and now the president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka recently recalled the conversation with a hint of nostalgia.

As one of the village's most revered former residents, Trumka said he watched as Nemacolin's luster faded, ever so slowly, after the mine closed in 1987. He took increasingly frequent trips back to the village as his parents became older. Each time, he noticed the manicured lawns and up-kept houses showed more signs of wear and neglect. Longtime residents moved to find work elsewhere, and the duplexes became rental properties.

“When the mine shuts down, it's like the heartbeat slows down until it comes to a stop,' Trumka said. “The town starts to atrophy. The vibrance of the town starts to fade.'

Trumka's father died in 1999, followed by his mother in 2010. His childhood home sits abandoned on Bliss Avenue.

The Last Refuge

Today, almost none of the 900 or so people living in Nemacolin mines coal for a living.

Aside from the post office, there is no business based in the village. Instead, residents work elsewhere — as a cashier at the Circle K down the road in Carmichaels, or as a medical receptionist an hour away in Connellsville, or a health inspector in Morgantown. Many are retired or close to retiring. About 19 percent are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.

The duplexes were picked up — several at a time — by landlords in tax sales. Home prices fell. Tenants from all over flocked to Nemacolin for dirt-cheap rent. In the early 1990s, the school burned down by arsonists who were never caught, forcing students to attend elementary school in Carmichaels.

“The towns deteriorated,' said DeFrank. “The people that moved in didn't take care of them.'

From the rectory of the Our Lady of Consolation church, Rev. John Bauer has watched people in the town quit coming to mass since he arrived in 1999. He fears what will happen to the building when revenue brought in from donations eventually won't be enough to cover maintenance costs.

For now, the congregation remains full due to graying parishioners who moved away and feel compelled to come back for services, he said.

“This was the center of the universe at one time, this little town,' Bauer said. “That's why a lot of the folks still come here to Mass. It was the mother church of everything. And at one time, the older folks all lived as kids up in Nemacolin — now, it's sex, drugs and rock and roll.'

He described the church as a last refuge of stability and protection in the village. Amid spurts of vandalism and crime carried out in the village over his 17-year residency, no one has laid a finger on the church, he said.

“It is amazing. Nothing has ever touched here,' he said. “I think that's pretty cool. I like to say we have a little spiritual canopy over the place.'

Easy Answers

When the sun goes down, silence typically blankets Nemacolin, a village along the Monongahela River. But on one Saturday evening in January, music drifted from the fire hall's banquet space.

Complimentary wine and beer were offered to guests. A server orbited the room with a tray of appetizers. Guests mingled — a county commissioner, a county judge, Waynesburg business owners, a couple of college students. Also in the mix were a recently laid-off coal miner, an out-of-work oilfield worker, an underemployed auto repairman.

Jonathan Graham and his wife Amanda Laucher teach a coding class inside the former United Mine Workers of America union hall in Nemacolin on Feb. 6, 2016.

Where coal miners in the past would congregate, Jonathan Graham and Amanda Laucher were hoping to convince residents that computer programming — not digging more coal — can help save this town that has crumbled since the Buckeye Mine closed in the 1980s.

The “Mined Minds' tech consultancy, started last fall, is a first promising effort to breathe life into Nemacolin.

Laucher and Graham had a series of rhetorical riffs: Why is Silicon Valley the only place coders can make a living? Why do local businesses have to call developers in other time zones when they need affordable software development? Why are Greene County workers relegated to the whims of the extraction industry?

And: Why can't we teach classes here for free that cost thousands of dollars for people in cities?

The easy answers may not be optimistic.

The learning curve for coding is steep, both in terms of mastering the craft and gaining full-time work. Former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg told an energy conference in 2014 that it's naive to think coal miners could ever learn to code.

Operating behind everything in Greene County, there's the monolithic economy. Coal may have faded from its peak, but mining companies still hold much of the stake they claimed during the time of company towns. Miners account for about a quarter of the county's employed residents, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Of the top 10 biggest employers in 2015, the only private employers not connected to coal were Essent Healthcare, a Nashville, Tenn.-based health care company that operates the Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg, and Wal-Mart, which operates one store in Waynesburg.

At the end of 2015, miners earned the highest pay of any sector: an average annual wage of $99,478, compared with the county average across all industries of $57,298.

Troubles at Home

But layoffs in coal and natural gas had begun hitting home. Laucher's brother, Marvin Laucher, began working severely reduced hours at Consol Energy's Enlow Fork Mine and had seen his friends laid off without notice.

Plus, there was the persistent decline of her hometown.

Since the mine shut down in 1986, residents left to find work elsewhere, leaving their duplexes abandoned or selling them cheaply to a landlord. With a revolving door of tenants came a fair amount of suspicion among neighbors. “No Trespassing' signs mark the edges of property lines. Dogs bark ferociously at cars that creep along the vertiginous, serpentine streets.

“It has a reputation that it's not a place you want to be,' said Marcia Sonneborn, community development administrator of Cumberland Township. “I hear that all the time.'

Last year, county officials identified Nemacolin and West Waynesburg as two “pockets of need' in a study led by John Fox, then-director of the Greene County Drug and Alcohol Program. The county planned to help Nemacolin start a structured neighborhood watch, rehabilitate the park and ballfields, and put up signs establishing official drug-free zones — which carry the risk of heavier fines for offenses.

But Nemacolin Neighbors United, as the endeavor was called, fell apart after a few meetings. Residents feared retaliation from their neighbors for calling the police, even anonymously.

Angie Visnesky, who was elected board president of Nemacolin Inc. in January 2014, said the village is aware of the challenges facing its residents and its reputation in the area. But her hands are largely tied, she said, due to the limits of the board's charter left by the company, coupled with the lack of outside money and the lack of galvanized community support.

“I can provide good trash service,' said Visnesky. “But I can't do anything about bringing in jobs and education.'

Building Jobs

Given the distress at home, Laucher and Graham went forward with Mined Minds while keeping their consulting jobs. They made a Facebook page and fliers and held information sessions. From August to December, 10 people completed the first phase of the program. This spring, 12 students have signed up to attend sessions.

Laucher and Graham have a long-term vision: continue to recruit students, gather up clients and sell local businesses on the notion of having computer help close to home. In other words, turn a spatter of freelance work into a full-time load for everyone who graduates the classes. Mined Mines is building jobs with salaries that they expect to reach six figures if developers gain experience, they said.

“Sometimes I question why I'm doing this,' laughed Graham, who recalled a particularly tiring drive to the village to teach. “But then I see all the people we're helping. ... I want the opportunity to come back and help other people do what I do.'

Though word of the coding classes has spread, regional workforce officials remain, at a high level, focused on miners' transferable skills for manufacturing jobs. Officials pointed to a U.S. Department of Commerce designation last year spotlighting the Pittsburgh area's some 1,600 manufacturing companies that employ about 63,000 people.

Money is already on the way. In January, the state labor department announced $2 million in reemployment assistance for 1,100 laid-off coal workers in southwestern Pennsylvania to either find reemployment in coal or train for a different career path.

“We have dollars to help them,' said Ami Gatts, president of the Washington Greene County Job Training Agency Inc. “These miners have so many of those skills that can fit into those positions. I feel like we have a lot of potential.'

Marketing the Town's History

Officials said there have been talks of marketing Nemacolin's little-known history and natural beauty as a destination.

They could extend the Greene River Trail, a crushed-stone recreational path that currently ends in Crucible, about 9 miles downstream. A cheaper alternative would be to apply the village for the National Register of Historic Places, which already recognizes at least five patches from Fayette and Washington counties.

Evaluating the town's eligibility for the National Park Service's register has been a major task for Bill Callahan, a regional community preservation coordinator based in Pittsburgh with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.

In addition to unlocking tax credits and matching grants to rehabilitate certain structures, Callahan said, a designation carries with it “promotional opportunities and is an unparalleled method to raise public awareness about our shared history.'

Callahan said patches are a critical slice of the agency's preservation work.

“There's little doubt they have historic significance,' he said.

Visnesky said that given the pressing tasks facing the board, including renovations of the park and playground, it could be years before the village can assemble an application.

“When you're one person, it's a heck of a lot of time,' she said. “So it's kind of comes down to what takes precedence.'

House by House

The resurrection of company-built coal towns may ultimately depend on people like William and Paula Cagle. Three years ago, the married couple moved from Florida and into the coal patch to be closer to their daughter who was attending school at Westmoreland County Community College, and to get away from the heat, hurricanes and mosquitoes.

They bought a house on Wood Street for $7,500 that had been vacant for 20 years, from the children of one of the first miners who had moved into the house in 1919, Cagle said. With help from a new township grant program that helps low-income homeowners fix up their homes, the Cagles are remodeling the interior.

Perched high on a hill, they lauded the view looking east toward the Laurel Highlands.

“We fell in love,' Paula Cagle said. “It's so beautiful.'