Exploring Pennsylvania's rich coal-mining heritage

Don't try to see all three of northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal museums in one day.

It can be done, if you start very early and stick to a tight schedule.


All three places are administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which calls them the Anthracite Museum complex.

I wanted to focus on the three museums because they are worth seeing but often overlooked, especially by people visiting more popular public coal-mine tours next to two of them.


My first stop was the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pa. From there, I went to Eckley Miner's Village near Freeland in Luzerne County. My last stop was the Museum of Anthracite Mining in Ashland, in Schuylkill County.

The Anthracite Heritage Museum provides an overview of European immigrants who brought varied cultures with them when they settled in the region. Coal mining and the industries it spurred are just part of that museum's story.

Eckley, an indoor/outdoor museum that looks like a well-maintained ghost town, primarily focuses on what everyday life was like in one company-owned community called a patch town.

If you really want to learn about coal mining, head for the mining museum in Ashland.

All three museums combine words, photographs, art and personal and mining artifacts to tell their stories. Visitors will see some duplication, especially photos, but not so much that the museums become redundant.

I did not go through Ashland's Pioneer Tunnel or Scranton's Lackawanna coal mines. But I've been in the mines on previous (( visits and do recommend seeing them.

Although not operated by the state, the mine tours nicely complement the museums. The advantage of touring a coal mine is you experience something, rather than just looking at something. That's probably why the mines get many more visitors than the museums.

The tours are not as dark, dirty, noisy or dangerous as active coal mines. Dan Perry, site administrator at the Scranton museum, said the mines are valuable teaching tools, giving visitors "a taste of what mining is all about, to the greatest degree safety will allow."


Time constraints also forced me to skip a video program at Eckley and the Scranton Iron Furnaces. That four-acre historic site is part of the state's anthracite complex, because its four blast furnaces reflect a major industrial use of anthracite coal. Signs point the way from one museum to the next, and staffers at each provide directions.

Ashland's museum can be seen in less than an hour. It takes about two hours to see Scranton's. You'll need more than two hours at Eckley, especially if you walk to the far end of the village, where the owner's house still stands.

A surprising number of exhibits at Scranton and Eckley focus on the roles of women and children, including child labor. Girls as young as 12 worked in mills, while boys as young as 7 worked at or in coal mines.

A considerable chunk of Scranton's museum is filled with machinery from local silk and lace manufacturing mills, which employed thousands of women and children.

The roles played by the Lehigh Canal and Lehigh Valley Railroad in transporting coal also are part of the museums' stories.

Scranton's museum gets the most visitors, probably because it's next to the highly promoted Lackawanna Coal Mine.


Ashland has the smallest and least-visited museum. It's more remote, notes Vance Packard, director of the commission's division of industrial sites and museums. If it didn't have a coal mine nearby, he says, "I don't think people would go there." Yet Mr. Packard calls Ashland's "a nicely executed pocket museum." He says it's his personal favorite, with a clear and uncluttered presentation.

Despite Ashland's mining theme, the Scranton museum has much more heavy mining equipment on display both inside and outdoors.

Unfortunately, Ashland's museum is on a one-way road just beyond Pioneer Coal Mine. Attendance might be higher if visitors stopped at the museum first. Doing that also would give them a better understanding of what they see in the mine.

Ninety-acre Eckley is the largest of the three properties. But Scranton has the largest museum under one roof. Old mining photos are on display in its changing exhibits gallery.

While Eckley is historically unusual, the small museum in its modern visitors center is at least as interesting as the mostly lifeless and empty patch town.

Going through Eckley with a guide is much more informative than walking around on your own. Visitors can enter two churches and the first floor of one house.


Besides the fact that so few buildings contain exhibits, a major drawback at Eckley is the village isn't physically linked to the coal mining that created it. A deteriorating breaker behind the main street is an old movie prop.

Visitors often ask if Eckley has a mine they can go through, says museum educator Keith Parrish. "We tell them we don't have one. They still go away delighted, despite the fact that we did not meet their expectations."

"We don't need to show a mine here because two already are in the state," says museum spokesman Dave Dubick. "More people relate to this than to mining."

"Eckley basically talks about life above ground in the coal region," says Mr. Packard.

Visitors may never realize that the ground beneath Eckley is laced with coal mines. The place is surrounded by a desolate strip-mine landscape. "Active strip mining still is going on between here and Route 940," says Mr. Dubick.

In 1870, 1,500 people lived in Eckley. Today only about 14 live here, in houses rented from the state. To put more life back into the patch town, more houses are being renovated and will be rented.


Mr. Packard predicts Eckley will increase in popularity because people are becoming more interested in "the social history of the common man."

"Eckley is a jewel in the rough," says Mr. Dubick. A doctor's office should open next spring. The mine owner's house also will open after being restored. Other workers' homes may open, to show how different ethnic groups lived in the community. "We'd also like to redo the breaker," says Mr. Dubick.

Some wooden homes, standing since 1854, are painted red, but most are bare brown. Mr. Dubick says the entire village eventually may be painted.

Film buffs might wish Eckley had more exhibits about the filming of "The Molly Maguires." Much of that 1970 film, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, was made in Eckley. Three structures were built for the film: the fake breaker, the company store (now a gift shop) and the mule barn.

Mr. Parrish says some people still are drawn to Eckley because of "The Molly Maguires," but Mr. Dubick adds: "By now, a lot of people who come here never heard of the movie." (The movie is sold in Eckley's gift shop.)

Outside Ashland's museum is a circular coal screen used in that film. "A miner will tell you there never was anything like that in a breaker," says Dorothy Hornung, president of the museum's associates group.


In all three museums, it would be interesting to learn more about mine owners, the environmental impact of mining and coal mining today.

Chester Kulesa, curator of the anthracite museum complex, says they have the potential to expand into such areas.

"The fascinating part of working in a museum," he says, "is we're never to the point where we're all done."