The Black Rock That Built America: A Tribute to the Anthracite Coal Miners, By Gerald L McKerns C.C., Xlibris, 2007, 134pp. (Available at http://www.geraldmckerns.com/)
This compact history of the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania comes with a lot of local anecdotes and personal insights one would not find in an academic history. That in itself makes it an interesting addition to the history and lore of the hard coal country.
McKerns was born in St. Nicholas, a company “town” just outside Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County. McKerns refers to St. Nicholas as a “patch,” which are small clusters of homes in between towns. Before bypasses, rerouted highways and Interstates, you went through a lot of patches driving from Point A to Point B. McKerns tells us some of what happened in the towns and patches and that is a welcome addition to any Coal Cracker’s history. (That’s what the C.C. stands for in McKern’s byline.)
For example, I did not know about that the religious differences in Mahanoy City were manifested in the membership of its two fire companies—one Irish Catholic and one Welsh Protestant. Summoned by an alarm that was a pretext for a fight, members of the companies met in downtown Mahanoy City. Shooting and death followed. Being of Welsh descent and as a former member of the historically Protestant fire company in Tamaqua, I understand—but don’t endorse—the division and am glad that today cooperation among coal region fire companies and diversity of membership is first and foremost.
The book is filled with many tidbits, some of which McKerns remembers from his youth, stories told, as he says, by “old timers who shared with me their tears and tales of days gone by.” McKerns tells of the day he witnessed the unsuccessful rescue of a miner while the miner’s son watched. The next day McKerns was asked to serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass and at the mass as he looked down the aisle at the grieving family walking in he recognized the miner’s son. “Just the other day,” he writes, “I watched men remove dirt that covered a miner who was in a hole in the ground and today men will put that miner in a hole in the ground and cover him with dirt.”
McKerns devotes one chapter to the Sheppton mine cave-in of 1963, which as a reporter for the Tamaqua newspaper I vividly remember. For coal region history buffs, that chapter alone is worth the price of the book. The book includes many old photographs and drawings, some of which, such as the cover, were done by the author.
McKerns ends on the optimistic note that coal will be king again. I’m skeptical myself, but having grown up at a time when coal mines were being shuttered and thousands of men were losing their jobs, I understand McKerns’ hope for a comeback.
One thing that would have made this book much better is an index. Still, I will place it on my bookshelf with my other coal region books and pass it on to my children at the appropriate time, which I hope is a long way off.