Last updated: February 16. 2013 9:32PM - 752 Views

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Tall and lanky, Zack Petroski shepherds visitors through the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour with a determined stride and a booming voice.

Trying to keep a dozen or so Tuesday morning visitors together in the dank labyrinth 250 feet beneath McDade Park, tour guide Petroski effortlessly alternated between perfunctory safety warnings and a wealth of historical detail, from the evolution of helmet lamps to wage rates in 1900.

"They might have saved for a year, or two to three years, just to get themselves over here," Petroski said of European immigrants who came to work in the mines of Northeast Pennsylvania. To modern eyes the work seems impossibly grim, he explains, acknowledging his hearers' sober silence after he has recited a litany of occupational hazards.

"But this was still better than what they had back in Europe," he adds.

The industry that put Northeast Pennsylvania on the world stage in the 19th century survives only in the region's southern reaches, and is all but dead in Lackawanna County. Yet its proud and painful history continues to drive heritage tourism, attracting visitors and researchers from around the world.

It is the preservation of stories – together with artifacts ranging from the former mine to a motley assortment of equipment to documents and photos – which spawned the creation of the historical complex on a hillside overlooking the Lackawanna Valley. Just above the county-run mine is the state-run Anthracite Heritage Museum, home to revolving exhibits on the region's industrial history as well as a comprehensive reference library on all things Anthracite. The facility opened in 1975.

Tom Supey Jr., foreman and superintendent, said the tour opened on an experimental basis in 1984 and then officially in 1985. Tony Donofrio, assistant foreman for the mine tour, said the attraction, which is open from April 1 to Nov. 30, draws about 40,000 visitors each year. Chester Kulesa, site administrator for the adjacent state-run Anthracite Heritage Museum, said that property draws about 15,000 visitors each year. Both facilities are popular with school groups – especially in the spring, although a back-to-school increase in student visitors is not uncommon in the fall.

According to Kulesa, the sources of visitors vary by season. His museum, which is open year-round, draws as many as 60 percent of its visitors from outside the area between April and November, with the balance tipping toward local patrons during the winter months. Overall, he said, about 35 percent of visitors come from neighboring states, 18 to 20 percent come from elsewhere in the nation and up to 4 percent come from international destinations.

Those visitors contribute to one of the region's most important economic engines: tourism. Tracy Barone, executive director of the Lackawanna County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism generates $500 million for the local economy each year, employing 5,000 people in Lackawanna County alone. And heritage tourism accounts for between $2 million and $4 million, "if not more."

Natalie Gelb is executive director of Lackawanna Heritage Valley, a National and State Heritage Area which encompasses the watershed of the Lackawanna River in Lackawanna, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Luzerne counties. Her agency, which works with entities throughout the region on cultural heritage and conservation projects, often gets rave review from visitors impressed with the region's historic properties, including the Steamtown National Historic Site, Electric City Trolley Museum and the coal-related attractions.

"We've had feedback from people as far away as South Africa saying it was the best coal mine tour anywhere," Gelb said. "We have the authentic history here. That coal mine tour just blows people away."

Among the most poignant international visitors for staff are the Welsh. As Curator Richard Stanislaus explained, their forbears were recruited to this region in the 1820s based on their experience toiling in the mines of their homeland. Not for nothing was the 81st North American Festival of Wales, held in Scranton from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, with the distinctive Welsh flag, with its snarling red lion, displayed beside the Stars and Stripes in the museum lobby to welcome visitors.

The Welsh were the first, but hardly the last group to seek economic opportunity in the area's collieries. As the 19th century wore on, the British Isles contributed miners from England, Scotland and Ireland, Stanislaus added, followed by immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

And as Petroski tells his tour groups, those immigrants were willing to brave the myriad perils of mining in exchange for a steady income that often wasn't available at home.

"There was no one safe place," Petroski said of life in the mines. "It was just a question of what hazard you want to deal with."

It's only beneath a glaring August sun that Petroski's brisk, confident demeanor seems slightly at odds with his obvious youth, as the brown-haired 21-year-old lifts his helmet to wipe sweat from his brow after ascending from the 50-degree mine tunnels to an 80-degree morning. Then again, history reminds us that many mining families buried men – and boys – much younger than that.

Boys like Frank Zonbloski.

A transcription of state records on the Anthracite Heritage Museum website gives a clipped, factual account of how Zonbloski met his demise in October 1907, aged just 16. A "door boy" whose job was to open and close ventilation doors for passing coal cars in Scranton's Marvine Colliery, Zonbloski perished not in an explosion or collapse or fall, but in being "burned by clothing catching fire from his lamp."

Like many local people – including many connected with the two mine attractions – Kulesa and Stanislaus acknowledge coal is in their blood. Asked about their mining ancestors during a tour of the museum, their contrasting stories also reflect the diversity of local opinion about the Anthracite era.

Kulesa said his grandfather, whose family came to the area from Poland around 1906, sometimes spoke about his work as a miner in Taylor.

"He had very powerful hands," Kulesa said, recalling how the men of the family used to gather in the basement to chat – fittingly around the bin used to store household heating coal. "The thing I got from it was how hard the work was."

For Stanislaus, whose grandfathers both worked in the mines, their comparative silence spoke volumes. One grandfather worked in a mine in Wilkes-Barre; the other retired from mining due to injuries.

"There's not much more to say about it," he said quietly.

Supey is a third-generation miner, whose father, Tom Supey Sr., had a family mining operation in the Wyoming Valley and worked with family members and colleagues to restore the former Continental colliery for use as a mine tour by Lackawanna County. Donofrio is another third-generation miner.

Petroski is a bit of an anomaly among tour and museum employees in that he admits he was not really from a mining family. He came to this work through a deep interest in local history, intense personal study and volunteer work, and being involved with the Anthracite Living History Group and the Huber Breaker Preservation Society. Petroski, who also worked to earn state certification as a miner, said he eventually hopes to earn his foreman's papers, "just to have them."

His favorite visitors are those with family mining stories to share. The most prized visitors of all for him are former miners, though they are admittedly growing few and far between. The mine used for the tour, known as the Continental colliery during its working life, closed in November 1966, reportedly the last in the Lackawanna Valley. Surviving miners from the area are not just advanced in age, Petroski added, but often reticent.

"Most of them never want to come back," he said. "It's the relatives who come."

"People died doing this," he added.

The tale told by both facilities is not just about how generations of men lived and died, but likewise the industry that fueled a nation's economic ascendancy.

The peak year for coal mining in the region was 1917, Stanislaus said, when nearly 100 million tons of Anthracite was produced and the industry employed more than 170,000 people in the region.

"But it was short lived," he added.

The industry spent the next half-century in near terminal decline. The Knox Mine Disaster of 1959, in which the Susquehanna River broke through and flooded the River Slope Mine in Jenkins Twp., was effectively the death knell for mining in the Wyoming Valley and lower Lackawanna Valley. But it was just "one of the many nails in the coffin of that industry," Petroski said, reiterating that the Continental mine – now the tour – survived until 1966.

What killed it?

"Market conditions," Donofrio commented matter-of-factly as he sat atop the winch machinery waiting for the day's last tour to surface. "The bottom fell out of the coal business."

Changing economic trends, including the move away from coal toward oil-based fuels for transportation and heating, squeezed the industry hard over many decades. So, too, did restrictions on immigration due to wars and a shifting political landscape.

As museum and tour officials also point out, these changes also took place against a background of continuing safety improvements and increasing government regulation. The popular image of the soot-stained "breaker boy," while very real in the 19th century, became all but a relic by World War I with the expansion of child labor laws. As well, many immigrants and succeeding generations began to aspire to education and other career opportunities.

"Children of the first immigrants were economic providers for the family," Kulesa said.

"But many families wanted a better life for their children," Stanislaus added.

If you go

The Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour box office opens at 10 a.m. You must arrive no later than 2:45 p.m. to be scheduled for the final tour of the day. Call 963-6463 or visit www.lackawannacounty.org/attractions_coal.asp

The Anthracite Heritage Museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays from December through March, and on certain holidays. Call 963.4804 or visit www.anthracitemuseum.org.

Both facilities are located in McDade Park, Bald Mountain Road, Scranton.

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