'Posthistory' depicts coal region history after King Coal was dethroned

Jan. 28—POTTSVILLE — The history of anthracite coal in the southern fields usually goes something like this: Necho Allen discovers coal in 1790, igniting an economic engine that burns brightly for 150 years or so.

The black diamonds Allen's campfire lighted while he slept atop Broad Mountain fueled the Industrial Revolution and remained a vital energy force through World War I and World War II.

In his new book, "Telling Of The Anthracite: A Pennsylvania Posthistory," Philip Mosley picks up the story of hard coal, as he puts it, "After King Coal had been dethroned."

In a work of regional history, Mosley focuses on how coal has been remembered since 1960, the date after which he contends the fate of the coal industry turned decidedly grim.

Mosley introduced his recently published book, a 250-page paperback, to a crowd of about 30 people Friday evening at the Majestic Theater.

A retired professor of English and comparative literature at the Penn State Scranton campus, Mosley said his book is the first to tell the story of anthracite in the postindustrial era — thus, the term "posthistory" in the title.

Two events — the Knox Mine disaster in 1959 and the Centralia mine fire in 1962 — symbolically mark the end of King Coal in the region, Mosley argues.

"The '60s and '70s were dark times in the anthracite region," Mosley said during his 90-minute talk and book signing at the Majestic. "America didn't want to, or couldn't, express its feeling about anthracite."

Beginning in the 1980s, however, Mosley finds a resurgence of interest in the history of coal through books, plays, music, art and photography.

"There was a cultural renaissance in the '80s and '90s," he said. "It was a new age for anthracite history."

Prominent in the resurgence was "Anthracite Fields," an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble based on the coal region at the turn of the 20th century. Its composer, Julia Wolfe, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music for the work in 2015.

"A Coal Region Opera: A Pick, A Candle and A Kiss," composed by Pottsville native Paul W. Miller, premiered in 1997. It toured Europe, featuring soprano Cora Gamelin-Osenbach, who lives in Schuylkill County.

Mosley includes two paintings by Bob McCormick, an Ashland artist, in the book. McCormick, who attended the book signing, said they were based on historical events in the coal region.

He cites "The Miners Story," narrated by three-time Academy Award nominee Jack Palance, as a stalwart of coal mining history. Palance opens the documentary saying he's been around the world, but he's still a coal cracker at heart.

"These towns, and all these people, are in my blood," confides Palance, who was born in Lattimer Mines, Luzerne County.

Even the eerie fascination with the Centralia mine fire, Mosley said, sparked interest in the history of coal.

"Dark tourism draws people to eerie, abandoned and strange places," he said. "Centralia certainly fits the bill."

Mosley is troubled by the disappearance of the physical remnants of the coal industry in recent times.

The imposing St. Nicholas breaker near Mahanoy City, perhaps the most visible symbol of the coal industry in Schuylkill County, has been demolished. There's a photo of it on the cover of Mosley's book.

"It looks beautiful in the snow," he said, "but it's an image of loss, disappearance and abandonment."

Perhaps the only remaining breaker is the one at Eckley Mining Village, which was a prop for the movie "The Molly Maguires" in 1970.

Even the unsightly black culm banks, though an environmental plus, have largely disappeared into energy producing cogens across the region.

Still, even though there is relatively little mining going on compared to when King Coal reigned, Mosley sees places like the No. 9 Mine and Museum in Lansford and Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland as signs that interest in the history of coal endures.

Internet sites on coal mining history are flourishing, posting photos taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Photography is the primary art of coal region history," Mosley insisted. "It is absolutely indispensable to the dissemination of the history of the region."

One of the most vivid insights in the era of coal, Mosley said, is the sculpture "The Day of the Rope" in a miners memorial park in Mahanoy City.

Showing a hooded Molly Maguire about to be hanged, Mosley said, it depicts a dark moment in anthracite history.

Concluding his remarks, Mosley posed a question — Is there a future for anthracite history?

Clearly, he's worried.

"A gap is opening with each generation," he said. "Regional and anthracite history should be taught in our schools and colleges."

Mosley will hold a book signing at 2 p.m. March 12 on Charter Day at Eckley Miners' Village in Foster Twp., Luzerne County.

"Telling Of The Anthracite; A Pennsylvania Posthistory" is published by Sunbury Press. It can be ordered at orders@sunburypress.com.

Contact the writer: rdevlin@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6007