When I drive to the Hazleton area from my home in Maryland, a trip I have taken at least fifty times in the last five years, I pass through the “Twilight Zone”. The “Twilight Zone” is the name truckers have given to the fog-ridden climb up into the mountains on Route I-81, starting about 53 miles south of Hazleton. In the past I have seen ice, rain, fog, 18-wheelers and darkness combine ALL AT THE SAME TIME to produce lethal road conditions that have me white-knuckling my steering wheel for the forty minutes drive up or down the mountain. For me, this geological experience has become symbolic of the great differences I confront every time I come up to work in the Anthracite Region.
In the past we have talked about the generosity, kindness and historical awareness we have experienced in the people we have befriended and bonded with in the region. In the way they have shared their life experiences with us through the exchange of stories, food, and objects, we have come to see this difference as rooted in the history of the region; in hard work, ingenuity, poverty, immigration, community, family and industry. My appreciation for this has grown over my five years working in the region as we have built relationships with community members. For this post I want to talk about something I noticed immediately following my first driving through the “twilight zone”, the historical working landscapes of the region comprising of industrial ruins, culm banks and patch towns. First, though, a brief detour:
A few months ago we lost an old friend. The Huber Breaker in Ashley Pennsylvania was demolished at the end of March. I was luck enough to visit it on an early trip to the
region, and take a walk around the empty ruins. I have taken it upon myself to try to visit as many of these workplaces as I can when I am up here. To walk into these places where work was done, bodies were harmed, solidarities were won, lives lost, and wages were made is the closest I can come to experiencing this part of the daily lives in the region. In this, I speak not only for myself, a relative outsider to the region having grown up in suburban Maryland, but also for the younger generations growing up in the region that will inevitably fel distance from the work cultures that have defined the region for more than a century. The Huber Breaker Preservation Society recognized its value and worked for more than a decade to preserve the structure. Work on the breaker began in 1892 and served the Glen Alden and other collieries until 1976. I will
always remember the way it towered over the surrounding neighborhood, much the way church spires mark the highest point in tiny countryside towns throughout New England and Europe. The Huber Breaker Society is developing a park to commemorate the breaker and accepting donations at its website.
Seeing the Huber come down led me to remember that at one time Lattimer had as many as four standing breakers. Elder resident of the town, Maurice Delorenzo, recalls the day Breaker No. 2 was demolished with sticks of dynamite sometime in the 1960s. A huge bang and column of smoke, dust and debris. Walking out into the strippings a few weeks ago with Maurice, we found the spot where the breaker once stood, now a chasm hundreds of feet deep. On the slate face opposite where we stood, we could see geometric holes sunk into the stone, traces of the underground mining operations hand dug by the men in town. These too will be gone one day.
There are still many reminders of the area’s industrial past around us. Driving in any direction outside of town one comes upon slabs of poured concrete, rebar and corrugatted tin, now often coated in spray paint. Abandoned churches, warehouses, train depots and textile mills are also in abundance, speaking of all the other aspects of working and living that supported the region. But these too are being dismantled for scrap, as eyesores, as liabilites or as negative reminders of distant times.
These working landscapes are actually an essential component of our archaeological work. Not only do they provide us with the “texture” of the landscape. They help us contextualize the tiny ruins we pull out of the ground through excavation. This can help us draw connections between the intimate everyday lives we examine in doublehouse and shanty backyards to the broader social worlds of work, worship, transportation, industry and commerce that define the region.
Below are a few photos of abandoned places I have taken throughout the region. Visiting each of these places has helped me to understand the distinct character of local history in ways that are sometimes difficult to put into words: