“No other American industry inflicted more heedless destruction on men and the environment than anthracite mining.”John Bodner (1983)
I’ve written before about “our culm” and how I’ve picked pieces of anthracite coal from the flank of this heap of mining waste. I’ve also said a few words about anthracite mining in this, the ‘Anthracite Valley’, also known as the Wyoming Valley. Yesterday I climbed up onto a part of our culm that is farther north to see the lay of the land there. This visit proved interesting.
“Our culm” lies between Boulevard and Olyphant Avenues and between E. Parker Street and Interstate 81, a roughly triangular patch of land. Here’s the Google terrain map (figure 2).
The Lackawanna River can be seen running from top to lower left side of the map; the cluster of green playing fields marks Marywood University, where I tend to exploit an elevation without electrical wires to photograph sunsets. Our house is near the L of two closely spaced streets above and to the left of Marywood. Boulevard Avenue is the fat white street that runs upward from left to right passing right above the 800′ mark on the map, which is about where I took my photos. Olyphant is the diagonal street below the 800′ mound; Interstate 81 is the roughly Z-shaped double road that runs out of the bottom-right corner of the map. E. Parker Street is the bendy one that runs past the bottom of the culm and then over the Lackawanna.
The culm is bedded and, I think, it has served as a consolidation site for coal waste carted in from elsewhere. For while mining production waste tends to be made up of dark-grey to black slates and shales (with high, but not coal-level carbon content giving it the color) and bits and pieces of anthracite that were tossed in the sloppy culling process at the breakers, our culm has, at least in a top bed, a vast stretch of burned waste coal and culm material, which is a ceramicky red color (figure 3).
It turns out that quite apart from celebrated wastelands like Centralia, Pennsylvania, where unmined anthracite has caught fire and burns slowly underground like a cigarette, culms routinely caught fire from internal heat or other causes, like burning trash atop them. Natives of anthracite country speak of sulphurous fumes and smoke emerging from culms and polluting the neighborhood air.
These were combatted and many extinguished decades ago, but this ‘red dog’ as they call it, had to be pulled apart and restacked. That’s what I think we have in our culm. Its top layer is a mix of loose red dog (figure 3) and vast, clinkery conglomerations of fused, burned waste (figure 4).
They burn a lot of cleaned up culm material nowadays on the theory that recycling the culm waste into electrical generation will release no more carbon than letting this stuff naturally burn underground. A government report on a proposal to recycle the giant mound at Swoyersville that was once associated with the now-destroyed Harry E. breaker estimates that of the 4 million tons of culm, 2.8 million tons—well over half—is burnable. Figure 4 is also interesting in how it reveals large pieces of fused red dog mixed with fist-to-golf ball-sized pieces of both burned and unburned material; evidence of the secondary mixing of materials in consolidation. There was a time when red dog was used as a paving material for country roads.
When we heat our houses with natural gas, we do not have to deal with any byproduct. But burn a log in your fireplace and you’ll have a mound of ash. This was true of coal, as well, and locals speak of the guys who came around like the trash men to pick up the ‘ash’ (really, red dog) from people’s houses to cart it to a dump. This kind of material appears to me to have made it into our culm, too. I think you can tell it because the fused lumps tend to be more-or-less uniformly sized, which is the secret to burning coal efficiently (figure 5).
A local informant states that the lower Marywood playing fields sit where such a dump had existed. This waste has been removed, and I suppose it ended up in the already waste-filled culm land I was walking over.
Culm, though it may have large pieces of fused red dog in it, is not immune to the forces of erosion (figure 6), aided by the three-wheeler and motorbike folks who pass time in warm weather riding the mounds (figures 7, 8).
If you look back at the map of the culm, you’ll see that it’s bifurcated by a wide access road (figure 9). The southeastern side is predominantly shale and slate from mine production, and there is a tendency for this rock to split and break along more or less flat bedding lines. It is accordingly quite reflective and a stunning sight, reminding me as I captured the image of when the sun reflects on the ocean.
In figure 9 you’re looking south and east toward Marywood; one of the giant lights of Interstate 81 can be seen at the top left.
You’ll have noticed that the culm is not devoid of life. In fact, culms are reclaimed, if somewhat slowly, by nature.
The anthracite region is the most disturbed rural landscape in Pennsylvania. Diverse hardwood forests filled with wildlife have been replaced with a lunar-like landscape, absent of vegetation and only unstable, acidic, black shale that undulates through the terrain. The scarred landscape is dotted with mine waste, torn earth, and culm banks, all a reminder of the prowess of the region’s industrial past. The mined areas will remain scarred for decades and acid mine drainage will continue as mine reclamation slowly progresses. Vegetation colonizes the region at a very slow pace, first with lichens, then wiry clumps of grass, goldenrod and briar bushes, then with birch and locust trees.Shackel, Paul A. 2017. “Anthracite Heritage: Landscape, Memory and the Environment.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 7. https://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/anthracite-heritage-landscape-memory-and-the-environment/.
Lichens, wiry clumps of grass, goldenrod, briars, birch and locust. By yesterday, the goldenrod had had its day, and there is no locust on the culm that I saw. But the stages of reclamation were otherwise apparent, including accumulation of decaying leaves slowly creating soil (figures 10-14; see also figures 3-4 for birch rooting in the red dog).
Parts of our culm are well along the route to reclamation by nature and there is beauty in it if you look; I hope to have shown you some of it here (esp. figures 15-18). But it’s seasonal: the culms re-emerge in their lunar starkness from the landscape when the trees lose their leaves.
Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor Z 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens.
Figure 1. 34.5 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/250 s.
Figure 3. 115 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/200 s.
Figure 4. 61 mm, f/11, ISO 4000, 1/125 s.
Figure 5. 34. mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/640 s.
Figure 6. 24 mm, f/11, ISO 400, 1/100 s.
Figure 7. 200 mm, f/8, ISO 640, 1/80 s.
Figure 8. 24 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/320 s.
Figure 9. 46 mm, f/11, ISO 400, 1/800 s.
Figure 10. 101 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/200 s.
Figure 11. 43 mm, f/13, ISO 200, 1/160 s.
Figure 12. 55 mm, f/8, ISO 1250, 1/500 s.
Figure 13. 24 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/200 s.
Figure 14. 200 mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1/160 s.
Figure 15. 63 mm, f/11, ISO 1250, 1/400 s.
Figure 16. 24 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/500 s.
Figure 17. 101 mm, f/11, ISO 640, 1/250 s.
Figure 18. 47 mm, f/13, ISO 200, 1/320 s.
All photos by the author cleaned up with DxO and edited in Luminar AI except figure 7, which was edited with Apple Photos.