Lanscoal, 1960-1972


After the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company closed down its underground mines in 1954, two small companies leased mines and breakers and attempted to continue mining in the Panther Valley. They could not survive and in 1960 the Lanscoal Company began operating at the water level of the No. 9 mine in Lansford. It was a tiny operation, with some twenty miners, and for twelve years it survived as the only underground mining in a valley that had once given employment to more than 8,000. George Harvan, then working in the photographic department of Bethlehem Steel, set out to document this remaining vestige of an industry clearly in the last stages of decline.

"As I mentioned before, I kind of got the feeling then that I should continue photographing the miners, because eventually I knew they were going to be finished, deep mining in the valley would be finished. So, every opportunity I got -- vacation time -- if I took vacation time, I went in. Weekends, Saturdays, if they were in, I would go in. As I knew most of them personally, they were my age -- maybe a little older, a few years older -- but I knew them. My relationship with those miners was very close, so I could do anything. I could take any type of pictures. I could walk in on them anytime. They knew what I was doing. And that was a very great benefit to me, to get real pictures, not posed pictures -- but pictures of actual working conditions."

by George Harvan

During the past fifty years, I have been blessed for some reason with the opportunity to document on film the hard work and simple lifestyle of a rugged breed of men -- the coal miners of the Panther Valley. Their friendship and the trust placed in me by these miners has been reciprocated by my commitment to record as truthfully as possible the lives of the men who mined the coal.

They worked doggedly, in darkness blacker than night, guided only by the beam from a tiny lamp attached to their helmets. Conditions were never good, and in most cases bordered on the extreme. These fearless men labored in dangerous, dirty, and damp places where dust was thick enough to chew. In a sense, what they did to earn their meager living may have been viewed by some as degrading. If it appeared that way to the casual observer, it is not so with the miners. They knew the many skills that were required and the intestinal fortitude necessary to be among those who faced serious injury and death every day.

The miners eventually paid a high price with their health for the extraction of coal from the bowels of the earth. Even those fortunate enough to avoid the tragedies caused by cave-ins, explosions and lethal gases, knew that if they worked in the mines long enough there was no escape from the deadly anthrasilicosis, or "black lung," which robbed them of their breath.

There is one aspect of the miners' lives that has left an indelible image in my mind. It is that of men who left a home as warm as toast on a cold winter morning, slipping into long underwear and layers of threadbare, damp and grimy work clothing at the wash shanty. Just the thought of that daily ritual was enough for one to want to turn his back on the mines and head for the nearest door, never to return. Included in the assortment of old clothing worn in the coal pits were weatherbeaten wool overcoats, minus several buttons, called 'horse blankets." Also, faded jackets with elbows popped out of badly-worn sleeves and pants, dotted with patches, three or four sizes too large.

The wash shanty trademark was a strong, pungent odor produced by clothing worn on the job. The clothing never dried completely after exposure to the elements that made the coal mine such a frightening place: a combination of acid water, decaying timber, dynamite smoke and sulphur fumes which penetrated the clothing fibers and resulted in the stench of the wash shanty. To the miners it was a constant reminder of the dreadful place they were about to enter.

The Lanscoal Mine, Lansford, Pennsylvania (formerly known as Lehigh Coal & Navigation Coal Company No. 9 Mine) has been documented by the United Mine Workers of America as the oldest continuously operated anthracite deep mine in the world. Its closing on June 22, 1972 was an historic date in the annals of Panther Valley anthracite mining, and a sad day for me and the handful of veteran miners faced with the task.

Operations at the mine on that final day were to be brief and simple. A string of coal cars were to be loaded with anthracite at the chutes and brought outside, the last of the "black diamonds" from deep within the mine which had surrendered anthracite for more than 150 years. Fate intervened, however, and at mid-morning, Hurricane Agnes struck with a vengeance. Lanscoal refused to die graciously. It had long served an important purpose and seemed not about to give up without a struggle.

Heavy, relentless rain made it impossible for the miners to prevent water from quickly reaching dangerous depths in the gangways. As a result of the incessant rain, water and mud obliterated the tracks leading from the mine, changing the task completely around. In a short time, rails broke loose from the roadbed, causing the slowly moving loaded coal cars to derail after time. Getting the final "trip" of anthracite to the outside became the last major challenge for the Lanscoal miners. That challenge personified the continuous struggle of man over the unpredictable forces of nature.

As the day wore on, the miners were soaked to the bone, but continued to work in water that rose above their knees. Finally, the trip of coal cars, reduced to just two, pulled by an electric mine locomotive, reached their final destination -- daylight. A large sign on the rear car read: "Last Car of Coal Mined in the Panther Valley," vividly portraying the final chapter of the valley's fabled deep coal mining industry.

When the miners emerged from the mine, they huddled out of the weather into a nearby shed, and it was difficult to determine if their faces were wet with rain or with tears. The somberness of the occasion hung like a heavy blanket in the air, punctuated by the downpour. Mike Sabron, a miner from Summit Hill, sensed the lingering effects of the endeavor just completed. Realizing that this was the last day the men would work together as a team, Sabron said, "We shouldn't forget each other. Let's have a party once a year for old time's sake."

His words were the inspiration that led to the formation of "The Last of the Panther Valley Deep Coal Miners Club." For 23 years this organization of Lanscoal miners has reunited at a festive annual dinner meeting in Lansford each August, though now their number has been reduced by deaths to just six.

Reflecting on the era when "King Coal" ruled the U.S. energy domain, I recall how hard miners worked, yet they seldom complained. During their few leisure hours, they lived life - as they knew it - to the fullest. It didn't take much more than a "shot" and a cold beer to bring a smile to their faces.

I can still see the strength of a Lanscoal miner nicknamed "Tarzan" as he lifted a telephone pole onto his shoulder and carried it away. I also recall miners carrying huge chunks of coal with the ease that one handles a bag of groceries. I remember two men loading large rocks into a mine car by hand in dust so heavy it obscured their lamp light from only a few feet away. And, who could forget the sight of a miner and his buddy wrestling timber up a steeply-pitched chute?

The deep coal miners have become a part of Panther Valley's passing parade. They will not likely march this way again.