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The open-rail, wet, rickety metal rail car jolted forward into the cold black of the mine. The loud metal on metal sound, hard lurch and sudden darkness are the first experience of a miner’s daily life. It’s jarring for visitors used to a far safer world.

Children worked the mine ten hours a day, six days a week, coaxing mules up and down a twenty percent grade tunnel, no wider than the mule, with only a feeble head lamp lighting their way. Mule tender was a good job boys graduated to if they survived being a breaker boy from age eight. Breaker boys sat in row after row on the steep sides of the breaker, picking out everything that wasn’t coal. Theoretically by the last row of boys, it was all coal. Breaker boys only managed to pick about 12% of the contaminants. For this, if they were lucky, only the tips of their fingers would be lost over time. The unlucky lost limbs and lives for a nickel a week.

Miners had it worse. Paid only by tonnage, all the work required to produce the tonnage, digging tunnels, shoring up roofs, setting blast holes, blasting, clearing rubble, digging air vents, was on the worker’s own time, dead work  in the most profound blackness. The miner’s lamp dimly lit a small circle of the nearly vertical man-sized tunnels paralleling the vein of coal. Miners were constantly wet from ground water seepage, made worse by rain. It was slippery, treacherous work. Death and human tragedy were twin ghosts haunting the miners and their families. Wives often learned their husband’s fate with the words, “Where would you like us to take the body?”

Read all you want about the mines. You’ll never understand. You’ll never feel it until you are standing underground in the No. 9 Coal Mine. Even with the safety items required to keep tourists from slipping to their death in the twenty-story deep water of the mine’s lower levels, being there is the only way to know and to feel some small part of a miner’s life. As a miner, out of what you earned from the tonnage, which may or may not have been fairly weighed, comes your housing, food, equipment, and supplies. That was never enough to support a family and the boys had to work as soon as their small fingers could pick debris from coal. If a miner lived to fifty, it was a good life.

One hour, less than a minute of it in complete darkness when the guide turned out the lights, was a blow to the guts. I’ve never been so grateful to see a leaden sky. Experience is power. Great Uncle Andrew had worked the mines and Pop the breakers. Both had black lung. Pop, working the breakers as a carpenter, fell down the coal chute. He survived, ever after to be cross eyed and limping. Now I understand; walking to my car in the gray drizzle, I knew I’d never forget how the mine felt.

Returning through the Poconos on Sunday, we had scheduled a tour of the Sophia Coxe House to break up the long drive from Corning, NY. Sophia Coxe, independently wealthy, married Eckley Coxe. Eckley was also wealthy, possessing with his brothers, the largest anthracite coal fields in Pennsylvania. The No. 9 mine stories might lead to you think ill of the Coxe’s. Don’t. Sophia was Quaker and set about to spend 90% of her personal wealth on others. She lived modestly on the remaining 10%. Eckley too was generous, endowing buildings for Lehigh University.

My cousins who lived in Freeland, PA growing up remembered Sophia Coxe. They went to Easter egg hunts at the Coxe house and took advantage of the sewing lessons in the school for girls Coxe founded. Those were small good works. Sophia endowed churches, built schools, a hospital, personally paid the health care and doctor visits of the miners. She and Eckley built Eckley Village to house the miners. Their housing allowed the dignity of a single family in each house. The houses were well built in contrast with the communal shacks other mine owners built. Mining houses and the company store were not for the Coxes.

After Eckley died at age 55, Sophia invited nurses and women of good character to spend their summers at the Coxe house for a respite from life. Lest you imagine such a woman as Sophia to be sainted and dull, don’t. Sophia was educated, an accomplished horsewoman, and was single until age 27. Other women in her family were Philadelphia socialites but Sophia preferred the country, riding, an indoor and an outdoor dog and a garden for food and flowers.

Ever mindful of others, the garden had a stone path so that blind women who visited could find their footing and enjoy the floral perfume. Locally, people who didn’t know more than that referred to the Coxe House as “the blind house.”

The horrors of mining on Friday and the redemption of kindness on Sunday, juxtaposed an ironic Christian iconography. Men caused men to suffer and a woman worked for redemption.

https://no9minemuseum.wixsite.com/museum

About The No. 9 Coal Mine:

The No. 9 Coal Mine was first opened in 1855 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. A large vein of Anthracite coal, known as the Mammoth Vein, was the main focus of mining operations in the Panther Valley. Early mining operations in the area were located in the town of Summit Hill. As the mines in Summit Hill encountered ever increasing levels of groundwater, other methods needed to be employed to reach the coal. The No. 9 Mine is driven at a much lower elevation than the mines in nearby Summit Hill. As the tunnel was being driven it allowed groundwater to naturally run out from the mine portal without the need of pumps. The tunnel was driven into the mountain far enough to reach the first vein of coal by the end of 1857. The following year the No. 9 Mine was contracted to produce 90,000 tons of Anthracite coal for the company. The No. 9 Mine operated from 1855 until June 22, 1972, making it the longest continuously operated deep Anthracite coal mine in the world.

https://sophiacoxefoundation.org/

Check the website for tour times. Booking in advance is highly recommended.

Guided tours of this historic home relate the history of Sophia and her husband, Eckley B. Coxe. Learn about the town of Drifton, Pa., the premier mining village that was built by Coxe Brothers & Co. — the largest independent producers of anthracite coal in the United States at the turn of the century. Join us for a house tour, and sneak a peak into the life of “the Angel of the Coal Fields.”

For the full weekend of adventure, visit  https://www.clarenovak.com/location/corning-museum-of-glass

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