Anthracite, or ‘hard coal’, was king in Scranton. In fact, the 50-mile-long valley in which the city lies bears ‘the Anthracite Valley’ as one of its names.

Figure 1. Culm near the author’s house. Scranton, PA. Photo: author.

The miners extracted the anthracite, and their children risked their fingers plucking bits of unburnable shale from the broken coal. Paradoxically, coal is not now, nor has it ever been a particularly valuable commodity. Even 1880s plutocrats could make the elementary calculation that bulk production was where the money was, and that ‘HR costs’ had to be kept down. Thus were born the legendary horror stories of working conditions in the collieries.

There was so damn much coal that both bulk and purity requirements could be easily met, and HR costs reduced by having a very high tolerance for tossing out babies with bathwater during the sorting process. The result is that there are waste heaps called culms all around anthracite country that teem with coal. Coal country poets fittingly use culms as metaphors for the wastage of human life and potential in the mines.

Figure 2. Culm near the author’s house. Detail: shale and coal. Scranton, PA. Photo: author.

Just today I visited a culm about two blocks from our house. The 30-foot mound (figure 1) is old enough that it supports some growth on it. You can see the dark gray shale of the slope, and if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see a great deal of anthracite in the rubble.

A detailed view (figure 2) reveals a seam of anthracite running from the lower right-hand corner up diagonally to the upper left. I dug most of these pieces out to bring home. Anthracite is beautiful, by the way, and you can occasionally see 300-million-year-old leaf veins in fresh surfaces.

It’s astonishing, if you know the history and poverty of coal country, that there’s any coal at all, even in a culm. The women-folk and males too young even for the breakers contributed to their household economy by—and this is the term for it—’picking coal’ that had been discarded for selling or burning at home (figure 3, published in 1913).

Figure 3. ‘Coal for the picking—culm dumps, and the poor who pick them. Anthracite mines, Pa.’ Public domain. Library of Congress.

I am old and comfortable, and I couldn’t burn coal if I tried. Yet I felt at least a small kinship with those people of the past as I picked anthracite from our culm today in Scranton, Pennsylvania, twenty meters from the Lackawanna River.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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  1. Not unsurprising, there was a burning culm heap (dump) on Marywood’s campus until the mid-nineteenth century. It was located in the vicinity of the now “pit parking lot.” At night one could see the red flickering coals and everyone knew enough to keep a good distance from the pile. I don’t remember when or how it “disappeared” from the property but I will never forget that it once held a prominent and respected place on campus.

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