On an infinitesimally small scale, of course. Real miners famously suffered terrible dangers and discomforts during lives cut short by accident and disease. I risked nothing more than being bitten by a tick or slipping about a meter on some loose rock.
Still, yet, nevertheless, I plucked a piece of anthracite coal from where it was growing right out of the ground as living rock (figure 1).
Anthracite was legendarily first discovered as a combustible resource by travelers who noted that their wood-fed campfires had caught the black rock on fire. What this tells us is that once upon a time anthracite beds were here and there exposed on the earth’s surface. Here, in the Anthracite Valley of Pennsylvania, centuries of mining and use have left precious little of this fascinating material exposed on the surface.
There are tons of it left underground, but the miners of yore delved too deep, and set free a balrog in the form of water accumulation. Rock beds, especially ones broken by intense folding, are quite permeable to water, and mining tunnels just helped the water percolate down. There came a point when it was no longer economically feasible to pump the water out.
Why would any coal at all still be visible at the surface of the earth? The complicated answer starts with the fact that some coal seams are, or were, quite thin. My piece of living coal comes from a seam no more than a meter thick, and unless miners were going down to a rich bed dozens or even a hundred feet thick and passed by one or more of the lesser seams to do so, it was not particularly profitable to go after the small fry.
So, all of the anthracite I’ve seen exposed has been laid bare in more recent times by cuts for freeways, or to terrace the local mountains so as to build. No one burns anthracite anymore to heat their houses in these parts since we’ve all got natural gas these days. Coal needs specialized equipment to burn efficiently, and nobody has this stuff anymore. In any event, there is a lot of anthracite sitting for the taking in the many culms, or mining waste heaps, that pepper the valley. I’ve picked up waste pieces here in Scranton, in Wilkes-Barre, and Centralia from where it has been abandoned on the ground. Picking up coal is an enthusiast’s, or historically-minded person’s pastime these days; as a way of earning money, picking up coal is not worth the time and effort just to stoop over and grab it.
So anthracite enthusiasts are the only ones on the watch for coal, to have it as a living memento of the mining epoch, for all its goods and evils, here in the Anthracite Valley.
I was out last week looking for autumn foliage and cemeteries and a place to get unobstructed photographs of the valley’s sunrises and sunsets. This brought me to one of the terraces cut into the mountains that border the valley, and there I was astonished to see the folded bedding of the rock. In fact, all of the rock in this area has been folded and bent like taffy; and while it’s an exaggeration to say (as the miners liked to do) that the coal seams were all vertical and thus hard to mine (compared to the beds of lesser grades of coal in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and places like that), about half of the coal beds in the anthracite region are, or were, at a fairly steep angle. My bed, from which I got my specimen, was nearly vertical (figures 2, 3) and was issuing water that was percolating through the coal and rock.
The coal seams in figures 2 and 3 are really the same one; the coal has been lost because of terracing between them. The black and white images remove the distracting colors and allow us to focus on the bedding. But the seam I pulled my coal from is in figure 3, and to see what exposed anthracite looks like in the flesh I post figures 4 and 5 in color and in increasingly close-up views.
The other, ‘dry’ coal seam, which was not issuing water when I visited, is seen up closer in figure 6.
Coal is a fossil fuel, and these revenant coal seams are thus like fossils of fossils. It is an interesting crossover between my geological and historical interests to pull forth a piece of anthracite within the confines of the Anthracite Valley, and while the one fist-sized specimen is quite enough for my needs, I will certainly keep it as a memory of my time in Scranton.
Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens except figure 1, which was taken with an iPhone XS and edited Apple Photos.
Figure 2. 24 mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1/40 s.
Figure 3. 24 mm, f/8, ISO 400, 1/200 s.
Figure 4. 67 mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1/100 s.
Figure 5. 200 mm, f/8, ISO 400, 1/50 s.
Figure 6. 48 mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1/60 s.
Figures 2-6 cleaned up with DxO and edited with Luminar AI.