Where did the Irish in eastern Pennsylvania go? A trip through Heckscherville.

After a day of research in the Schuylkill County Historical Society I decided to drive to Hecksherville, a town in Schuykill county where large numbers of Irish arrived in the nineteenth century to work the mines. The road leaving Pottsville rose and fell with the steep hills and as I drove past a large open strip mine I parked to take a look at a graveyard next to the road. Whatever church or town the graveyard served was long gone, destroyed by the road construction and any remnants eradicated by the nearby mining. The headstones were too worn to be of any use, only a few G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) totems stuck into various graves showed signs that anyone had been here recently. The G.A.R. was a fraternity in the nineteenth century which supported veterans through group meetings and shelters for older or infirm troops. Today they continue to commemorate soldiers who served in the US military by visit every veterans grave and leaving a bright marker indicating the war the veteran served in. This is in preparation for Memorial Day when the G.A.R. visit the graveyard, often accompanied by a member of the clergy who blesses the site, who give a rifle salute to those who served.

I left the graveyard, unlikely to last many more years, and walking back to the car I spotted a sign that informed me that all that land was owned by “Famous Reading Coal.” This group, I realized, were Reading Anthracite the successor company to the Pennsylvania & Reading Coal Company. Under the control of Franklin Gowen in the nineteenth century this company was the focal point for the Molly Maguire outrages and the executions of the alleged members of that organisation in the 1870s. Mulling over what happened I drove through the valley towards Hecksherville and it seemed to me that there was no trace of the Irish left in this hilly land.

Just as I noticed the sign that I was entering the Cass township there was a large hill in front of me with a giant cross planted on it and two flags on either side fluttering in the wind, the American flag on one and the Irish tricolour on the other. More than a little surprised I pulled in to take a photo into what was actually someone’s front yard. I snapped a couple of photos but the wind had died down and they didn’t come out so well. At the doorway a man appeared and I decided to chance an introduction rather than drive off like some sort of weirdo. “How’re things? If you wouldn’t mind telling me, do you know the story about the two flags on the hills? Is one of them the Irish one?.” You know, just in case there was a large contingent from Ivory Coast and I could tell them that they put up their flag backwards. Turns out this man’s name was Bill Beetle and he and his brother put the large cross on the hill and the flags. He also informed me that he was the only homeowner in the locality that owned the land his house was built on, everyone else was renting from the coal company. He said this with a large degree of distrust and suspicion of the coal company, and he told me about the large Irish contingent in the area. People had shamrocks painted on their houses, there was a little grotto to the Virgin Mary and one mailbox had tricolor green, white and orange painted on it.

Irish pride in Heckscherville persists from the nineteenth century to the present.

Irish pride persists in Heckscherville from the nineteenth century to the present.

 

I was now determined to get to the flags, and Bill kindly told me there was a route from the road that led up to the hilltop. I parked my car on the trail off the main road running through the town and headed up the stoney path.

The little work site and the embankment I clambered up to get to the path.

The little work site and the embankment I clambered up to get to the path.

Seeing a little worksite with some buildings and some signs warning PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING, I thought of Woody Guthrie’s line “And on the other side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me” from the song “This land is your land.” I decided to climb up the steep embankment to my right which led to another path, only nearly killing myself I took a second to admire the chunks of anthracite coal littering the ground.

Large pieces all over the place.

Large pieces all over the place.

I continued to venture up the path, trudging further and further up the hill. I started to think, this flag seems to be a lot higher up than I thought it was from the road, maybe my perspective was off. After a fifteen ascent I reached the top of the hill and saw the two flags across a steep valley far below me. Turns out I had managed to climb up one side of the valley and thanks to the trees surrounding the path I couldn’t see that I was going up the wrong way. I thought about climbing across the valley, but then remembered this was a mining region and it was likely that gulch between the large hill I was on and the further smaller hill might be steeper than the embankment I climbed a while earlier. I wisely decided to head back down by the entrance of the trail and start again. Good thing I did, turns out I would have fallen down a hundred foot steep drop…

A photo from the flag hill facing the other hill I had been on top of, a climb directly across would not have ended well.

A photo from the flag hill facing the other hill I had been on top of, a climb directly across would not have ended well.

So after cutting across a much smaller trail I didn’t spot the first time I walked upwards and onwards again. Thankfully it was a gorgeous sunny day so only the heat and the inappropriate boots were bothering me. At the top of the hill I could see across the valley, which was basically a strip mine cut out of the earth. It was impressive and strangely unsettling to see the terrain so radically transformed by the mine work. Most of my unease stemmed from concerns about pollution and I wondered what environmental precautions they took working the area.

Mining shapes the terrain and the society.

Mining reshaping the terrain…

 

The Irishman and the flags

At the foot of the mound where the flags and cross were planted.

I finally managed to reach the flags which were atop a small mound to the front of the hill. So having gotten this far I decided to go all the way and hop up the rocks next to the flags. Bill had said something about a geocache site being up here, but I had no idea what a geocache was and so nodded and said very good when he told me. Climbing to the top I was delighted to find a small metal container painted like the tricolor.

The Cross was situated between the two flags and looked very imposing from the roads leading into the town.

The Cross situated between the two flags. It looked very imposing from the roads leading into the town.

Turns out geocaching was a sort of global treasure hunt, where people can the co-ordinates online for these remote sites and each site has a box where people can take whatever is inside the box and leave something. Inside the container was a little notepad within a ziplock bag, a green t-shirt saying “Feck me I’m Irish,” and a few other odds and ends. Other geocache adventurers had notes in the booklet so I did likewise and enjoyed the view for a while thinking to myself, enjoying the sun and the cool breeze. I had been wondering where the Irish in the anthracite mining region had gone to. Turns out some of them stayed. And some of them are still there to this day, flying the flags of their dual Irish-American identity. Literally.

 

The funding for this research trip was generously provided by the Eoin O’Mahony Bursary and the Royal Irish Academy.

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Holding onto fond memories of coal

As I walked from the Albright memorial library towards the centre of Scranton I saw flashing police lights illuminate the dusk. Earlier town seemed busy with some sort of event that went completely by me as I focused on trawling through old newspapers on microfilm at the public library. Walking by the squad cars I over heard people talking about a woman being knocked down and passed the scene of the accident. One high heeled shoe in front of a car taped off by the police and its twin fifteen feet further on had me fearing the worst. I continued my walk into town passing the police and people standing nearby. A man a few feet ahead of me loudly spoke while facing away from me. He spoke again, this time partly turning to me “…people don’t take care, you have to take care all the time, mind yourself.” I continued to walk, a little confused and unsure if I was supposed to reply. We continued to walk the same way and I piped up “I don’t know how there aren’t more accidents, there are so many two double lanes and so many cars on the road.” He waited for me to walk up agreeing and I asked if the woman survived. He nodded and told me she was stable. We continued to walk and talk and I could now see his sharp facial features hidden under a baseball cap. I would have guessed he was in his mid-forties as he told me that when he was twelve he worked in a kitchen ten miles north of Scranton, in a old coal mining town. One day he was working and there was a terrible accident involving two pedestrians by the kitchen, he came out and saw everything “it was a terrible thing to see for someone so young, arms, hands, all over the place, so I was really glad to hear she was ok, the memories of that…” and he slowly trailed off.

He extended a hand which I shook “Scott.” Noticing my accent he asked me what I thought of Scranton. I replied it seemed like a lovely spot that I hadn’t a chance to see much of yet. I asked him what it was like growing up in the coal region. He spoke about his relatives and about coal. He had a grandfather who owned some mines or held mining leases (I wasn’t sure but he mentioned Lance coal company) and had squirreled away enough money to buy an oil truck when the coal came to an end so the family survived some of the worst downturns in the local economy fairly well. He also mentioned the warmth of coal, how there was a far better quality of heat from coal rather than any other fuel, its only draw back was feeding the fire during a cold night. His fondness bordered on pride, and there is a lot of local pride in coal and the history of coal mining in the anthracite lands. It reminded me of the sort of occupational pride particularly evident in Britain, the sort that led Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger to write the lines “Coal dust flows in the veins where the blood should run.” At the foot of the Civil War monument we went our separate ways after another cheery handshake. An unexpected and brief chat, but despite its brevity it stayed with me.

 

This research trip was made possible thanks to the Eoin O’Mahony Bursary supported by the Royal Irish Academy.

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