Anthracite (figure 1) is the highest grade of coal. In Northeastern Pennsylvania’s case, organic matter from a Pennsylvanian (geological era) river delta, buried and compressed in the earth, metamorphosed to the point that the juicier hydrocarbons were squeezed out. So, it burns comparatively cleanly compared to the tarry bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Anthracite is a lightweight, slatey, graphitey rock with a flinty look.

Figure 1. Anthracite coal hand specimen. From Wilkes-Barre, PA. Photo: author.

Anthracite appears in beds around the world, but nowhere better than in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where there are extensive beds. The easily extracted material near the surface has long since been mined out in this area, which was ideally placed to supply New York. In fact the coal beds were so plentiful and so near the surface that the coal companies could afford to be slipshod in separating the coal from the shale and other rock it was mixed with: it was economically better, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to just keep digging than to carefully strip the coal from the waste rock.

But I did not come to write a paean to coal mining or coal as a fuel. Rather, I’m writing because I now live in Scranton, where coal was king. You cannot live in Scranton (or Wilkes-Barre, or a dozen other cities in Northeastern Pennsylvania and a hundred towns to boot) for more than maybe a week before you see that these places have been shaped historically, economically, and physically by coal. The scars on the land and the heaps of mining debris called culms are absolutely everywhere once you care to look and know what to look for.

In fact, coal is everywhere in the Valley of the Lackawanna river, because that waste coal the mines couldn’t be bothered to extract peppers the waste heaps. Today I visited Wilkes-Barre and was directed to a local construction site to find newly exposed material from a culm. There was no need to trespass on the site; I picked up Lord Anthrax (figure 1), a fist-sized specimen, and several of his minions (e.g., figure 2) from earth that had been bulldozed right up to the street.

Figure 2. Anthracite coal, small specimen. From Wilkes-Barre PA. Photo: author.

I’m immensely happy about this for some reason. Partly, I suppose, it’s for the historical interest of having a tangible piece of what put Scranton on the map. As with my piece of bluish slate of the type used for buildings, curbs, and sidewalk pavements, I feel like having a piece of anthracite is a part of the Scranton ‘kit.’

And I like it for more elegiac reasons, as a reminder of a way of life in Scranton now gone forever. It’s not that I want to bring coal back; it’s just that to my knowledge I had never even seen a piece of coal ‘in the flesh’ before today.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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  1. When I was a child in Hazleton, my home was up high on a hill (it’s the highest city in PA) and from my bedroom, I could see the culm dumps, mine strippings, and active coal shafts. Coal was delivered via a shoot to the basement of the house and the cellar was always dirty and the coal dust was always being swept from the floor. Today all that is gone, but we are all shaped by the memories. Fathers of friends were killed in the mines, kids were drowned in the strippings, and lung disease has killed many a neighbor. Marywood itself was built near a culm dump that actively burned until the late 1960s. It fascinates me to read that you never saw a piece of coal before. Welcome to NEPA!


    1. I grew up in L.A. and San Diego, which had gone over to natural gas before I was born. We had coal-powered electricity in Providence, and I remember the little nodules of ash that would come in through my dorm window screen and land on the white top of my desk. My house in Omaha had a coal bunker; its walls were still stained black. I took a geology class in college, so I suppose I must have handled a hand specimen there, but I don’t remember doing so. So I’ve been very conscious of coal, but just never came across any. Making up for lost time now!


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