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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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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