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.
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.
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.