Image courtesy of Owen Vaughn The “Wall of Honor” at King’s on the Square is a memorial to local coal miners. The memorial, donated by King’s alum and former board member James Burke, serves a reminder of both King’s College’s and Wilkes-Barre’s history.
Image courtesy of Owen Vaughn
The “Wall of Honor” at King’s on the Square is a memorial to local coal miners. The memorial, donated by King’s alum and former board member James Burke, serves a reminder of both King’s College’s and Wilkes-Barre’s history.

One of the first things I did when I went home for summer vacation of my freshman year was go to my grandparents’ house to check in with them after being away for so many months. They live in a tiny house in New Jersey in the center of an Irish neighborhood, two old timers enjoying their retirement. They were delighted to see me and were full of questions about my first year of college. I told them all about it, about my classes, the friends I had made, and the small slice of Pennsylvania that has become my second home. At the topic of northeast Pennsylvania, my grandpa perked up.

“You know that’s the area our family all comes from, right? We went straight from Ireland to NEPA.”

“You tell me this now?” I ask in disbelief, “After hearing about ‘King’s College in Wilkes-Barre for over a year?”

He shrugged. He is a quiet man and rarely speaks, unless the topic of conversation is something he takes great interest in. He rose from the table and went to a shelf in his dining room. He took down a small, black statue of a coal miner that I had seen many times before, but had never thought to ask about.

The statue itself was made of anthracite coal and was intricately carved. The miner leaned easily on his pick, standing beside his freshly filled bucket of coal, taking a break after his hard work. My grandfather placed it down on the table and retook his seat. He leaned back, crossed his legs, scratched his head and looked at me with his heavy-lidded eyes. I had seen these cues before and could tell that there was a story coming.

“In 1860, my great-great-grandpa came over from Ireland and settled down in Pennsylvania. He, his brothers and his five sons were all coal miners. That’s a tough profession to take up. It was very dangerous, what with the black lung and cave-ins. In 1898, my great-grandpa moved the family to New Jersey and became a factory worker. I’ve worked in that factory, and the place was a dungeon, but everyone always said it was better than the mines.”

On my drive home I kept going over my grandpa’s story in my mind. It was a surprise that hit me close to home, because I had been attending King’s College, a school founded in 1946 with the mission to educate the children of miners.

The college is very proud of its origins and has multiple memorials throughout its campus showing its respect for the miners, including the altar in the college chapel, which is the largest structure in the world made from a single piece of coal, and the paintings in the “Kings on the Square” building, which depict miners, coal yards, and individuals influential in the region’s mining history.

Image courtesy of Owen Vaughn The altar in King’s College’s chapel is made of a single piece of coal. It is the largest such structure in the world.
Image courtesy of Owen Vaughn
The altar in King’s College’s chapel is made of a single piece of coal. It is the largest such structure in the world.

The most recent display of appreciation for the coal miners of the past was the construction of a “Wall of Honor.” Working in tandem with The Anthracite Heritage Foundation, the “Wall of Honor” will display collected names of individual miners, exhibited at the request of their descendants. The memorial was a gift from James Burke, a Wilkes-Barre native, member of the first King’s College’s graduating class in 1950 and former chair of the College’s Board of Directors.

My grandfather’s story, along with King’s College’s multiple tributes, inspired me to investigate the history of the miners, and discover what it was like to make a living digging coal.

I reached out to Doctor Thomas Mackaman, a history professor at King’s College. As a labor historian, he is an expert on the coal mining history of the region.

He explained to me that at first, mining was considered to be a craft, practiced by fewer workers who made a decent wage. The miners took great pride in their work, as it took great courage and skill to preform effectively. It wasn’t until the earlier years of the twentieth century that mining became a more industrialized business, focusing on the quantity of workers and coal produced rather than the quality. The number of miners would grow exponentially, with thousands of workers toiling away at each mine.

I had reasoned that mining was dangerous work, but Dr. Mackaman explained to me how incredibly hazardous a coalmine really was.

Cave-ins and other accidents were a constant threat to the safety of the miners and gave their job a dangerous reputation. It is estimated that 35,000 men and boys have perished in local mines over the years, and countless more have suffered from black lung, a horrible disease, which is the long term effect of inhaling coal dust.

Miners usually began their work as boys, between the ages of eight and twelve, by sorting the rocks and coal from the contents sent up from the mines. This work had a brutal effect on the boys’ hands, as sorting through the jagged rocks and coal would cut them to ribbons. These “breaker boys” would eventually begin working underground when they grew old enough. There was an old saying that a miner was “once a man, twice a boy,” because the old men would be brought back up to sort coal with the boys when the work became too difficult for them to perform.

Dr. Mackaman asserted that one of the most admirable traits of the miners was that they did not face these hard conditions lying down. The United Mine Workers of America was one of the most influential unions in history, and helped to pave the way for other industries to follow suit.

Along with creating their union and a stable life for their families, the Pennsylvania collieries produced more coal than any other region in the country, and supplied the United States with the fuel it needed to grow from a fledgling nation into a world power. It was Pennsylvania coal that fueled the fires of the Industrial Revolution and rocketed the United States towards her place at the forefront of global industry and technology.

Image from Library of Congress Breaker Boys at the Woodward Coal Mines in Kingston, Pa.
Image from Library of Congress
Breaker Boys at the Woodward Coal Mines in Kingston, Pa.

It was also Pennsylvania coal that supplied the Union Army during the Civil War. Without it, the outcome could have been drastically different, resulting in a divided nation.

“It is important to remember,” says Dr. Mackaman, “that behind all of these historical phenomena were these men who got into their carts and went down into the dark.”

I later called my grandfather to tell him about my conversation with Dr. Mackaman. My grandfather told me that not only were the mines dangerous, but our ancestors had experienced it first hand, as my great-great -grandfather’s brother was badly injured in a mining accident.

Hearing about how terrible the mines were gave me a much deeper respect and appreciation for the miners of the past and what it must have been like to go down there every day, knowing that you faced horrible injuries or death, just to make a living.

Now, whenever I walk through King’s on the Square, I look at the paintings with a new meaning. I am proud to know that my family and my school share their foundations in Pennsylvania coalmining. They are certainly deserving of the memorial that has been built in their honor.

I encourage anyone who has a miner in their family history to submit their name for the Wall of Honor, in order to ensure that their struggle is not forgotten.

Anyone wishing to have a family member’s name put on the Wall of Honor can submit names via the Anthracite Heritage Foundation’s website, http://ahfdn.org/.

Names can also be submitted via mail to the Anthracite Heritage Foundation’s address at 69 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre PA 18701, Suite 709.