“Why We Need to Understand and Appreciate Anthracite History,”
by Robert P. Wolensky
Leaving anthracite history aside for the moment, let me ask: why do we need to study any history? The answer to this question is much more complicated than the old saw that learning history prevents us from repeating the mistakes of the past. Certainly we don’t want to repeat earlier blunders, but I would argue that historical understanding can help especially young and middle-aged people deal with two issues that seem to cause extensive social and psychological distress nowadays: finding meaning and purpose to life.
In my view, the contemporary age presents some major obstructions to meaningful and purposeful living. One problem is that too many of us do not know how to live in the present because, at virtually every moment, we are rushing toward the future. The pace of daily life has increased dramatically in recent decades.(1) We regularly check our watches because, “I have to be someplace.” And then, when I get to this future point, the process is repeated because, “I have to dash to someplace else.” We have somehow created a culture of anticipation, anxiety, and future orientation—a culture of “what’s next?” I am reminded of British Cardinal John Henry Newman’s assertion that death was not what he feared most; rather it was never having learned how to live. I believe he meant “how to live without anxiety, happily in the present.”
Another contemporary malady is that we often seek meaning and purpose in material consumption. The good life has become the “goods” life. Many of us suffer from affluenza, a cultural “disease” resulting from our fervent consumerist predilections.(2)
While things provide no more than a quick fix for what ails us, they actually reinforce anxieties about what to consume next or “am consuming the right goods?” They also distract us from family obligations and civic participation, and from cultivating our inner well-being. Are we more than what we wear, drive, eat, drink, or live in? I believe and hope so.
If I am correct in saying that we have great difficulty living in the present and are speedily moving to the future, how can we possibly pay any attention to the past—to the realm of history? Yet, I believe it is precisely in a study of the past where we can find the wherewithal to cultivate a meaningful and purposeful life in the present.
If I am correct in saying that we are much more concerned with consumption then how can we overcome the problems associated with affluenza? Again, I believe we can alleviate this ailment by finding deeper meanings, inner strengths, and a more fulfilling purpose by seeking knowledge about who we are, where we came from, and how our ancestors and neighbors confronted the problems of their times.
And this brings me to anthracite. For too long, anthracite has been a history to forget.
Thankfully, over the past 10-15 years more and more people from hard coal’s cities and towns have come to realize the region’s incredibly rich history. It is a story replete with examples of hard work, brave immigration, family solidarity, fearless unions, ethnic and religious solidarity (and intermarriage), economic advancement, community resilience, and educational attainment. It is our own unique version of the American chronicle.
Certainly there is the dark side too: accidents, strikes, deaths, losses, crimes, injustices, corruptions, environmental scars, alcohol and drug abuses, and calamities such as the Avondale and the Knox mine disasters. Yet these are also part of our history and I believe that we must accept these problems so as to build and learn from them. Our tribulations can and should become a source of personal and social strength. If our ancestors did what they did, triumphed over their difficult circumstances, then we can too. It won’t be easy, but our tasks can hardly be more difficult than theirs. And remember, they had us in mind. They wanted to make this community a more socially and economically just place not only for themselves but also for their descendents. We are the beneficiaries and we own a debt to those who have given us so much.
While we have made notable progress in studying and acknowledging our past, we still have a long way to go. Anthracite studies are rarely taught in local schools or colleges.
Although industrial tourism has been developed to some extent in Scranton, Eckley, Lansford, and Ashland, much more still needs to be done. When can we tour a coal breaker, a garment shop, a shoe factory, a silk mill, a strip mine, and a cigar factory? We are still throwing away many of the papers of our houses of worship, ethnic organizations, civic associations, coal companies and other businesses. The papers of one of the region’s major coal enterprises—the Glen Alden—are in dire need of preservation. The few remaining historical gems of the anthracite era, such as Concrete City, the Ashley Planes, the Huber Breaker, and the St. Nicholas Breaker need to be saved before the wrecking ball does its deed.
My point is that if we are going to cultivate our personal and social strengths by cultivating our heritage, then we have to preserve and educate about that heritage. This, it seems to me, will provide real food for hungry souls looking for meaning and purpose in an often superficial, materialistic, and hurried society. And, in the process, we may even learn how to avoid some of the mistakes of the past!
(Contained in the last chapter of Robert P. Wolensky, Nicole H. Wolensky, and Kenneth C. Wolensky, Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster, Harrisburg, PA: PHMC, 2005)
1. Research by Juliet B. Schor documents the overworked and overspent predicament in contemporary American life. See her books The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books, 1991); and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (New York: Basic Books, 1998).
2. The term “Affluenza” comes from the title of a documentary produced by KCTS/Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting that aired on PBS in September 1997. For more information see http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/ See also the sequel “Escape from Affluenza,” which also debuted on PBS, as well as the work by the Milwaukee-based organization called The Affluenza Project (http://www.affluenza.com/).