Lehighton Times-News

May 13, 1972


It is dark; it is damp; it is massive; it is frightening, in an awe-inspiring way. It is everything you could have imagined about it-everything that has gone into making an impression is true: it is everything your childhood fantasies say it is, it is everything Emile Zola's novels describe it as: big and cruel and uncaring and a harsh master that exerts its price for every little chip of insides you take from it. It is nature's underbelly, and it isn't pretty, because it is her mannish side: gargantuan, rough, hard, sweating all the time, breathing heavily and unevenly, water regularly dripping from it, sagging in places, ruptured in others, scarred from its formative childhood-and somehow magnificent. It is a giant, sometimes benevolent and sometimes cold.

And it is dying.

The hollow whistling wheeze that issues from its tunneling mouth after the generators and the lokie and the rough-voiced men have ceased their daily babbling and laughing and singing and sneezing is its death breath; the wind rustling the hardy white birch around it makes the death rattle catch in its long, sinuous throat. With the impending death of the giant, an era has come crawling to an end. Panther Valley, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., is dead as a mining region.

Within days the word will come trickling down. A small knot of grimy old men will gather in their crude welfare room, amid their recharging helmet lights, heavy coats that look as though they stand in corners by themselves, and an old coal-burning heater that purrs and hisses forth its hard-coal warmth like a would-be perpetual flame on the dangerous edge of extinction. They will mutter among themselves, they will wipe some of the fine, almost greasy coal dirt away from their faces, their eyes will squint a little, they will be embarrassed to be with each other as they have never been embarrassed to be with each other for nearly 35 years in some cases. They will exchange sorrowful, knowing looks; someone will crack a Slavic joke to ease some of the rock-heavy tension, another will mumble a stark word; then they will smile at each other, pat each other awkwardly on the back, laugh a little. "It's over," they will say.

"Of course I hate it." they will admit candidly. "The work is hard, it's dirty, it isn't fit for human beings. I'd never allow my son to be a miner. Never." Yet they will feel emotions well up inside-emotions that are strange to them, strange and frightening, because they are not weak men. They are men who bear nicknames like Bear and Tarzan, and who, among any fraternity of men, can hold their own. They are men with rugged lines drawn into their faces: lines that can crack into smiles and song, lines that can frown while pondering a question, lines that reflect decades of seeing only a few hour of the tail end of the sun every day. They do not like their work, but they do not shun it; they do any job in the mine with a smile, because it is one more day of doing what they know how to do and they do it well. The mines were scheduled to close forever a year ago. They were on borrowed time and they know it; their jobs have taken on the cancer of change: today's world-at least in this region-has no more room for them and their job classifications.

They are a mere handful of men, not quite ten, who are the remains of a mining force between 600 and 800 who had serviced the Lanscoal Mine in days when it was a hole in the earth that belched up great cars full of helmeted men and greater trains of coal cars around the clock. Let us use the art of analogy. Let us take an ocean liner of great breath and length, with a crew of 600 men. By a stroke of the sword of analogy, we will cut that crew down to ten. The ship sits in harbor or flounders on the high seas, inoperable, useless. Let us take a crew of 600 miners, reduce it to ten. The mine still belches forth some 30 carloads of high-grade coal each day. We were there to see it as it was pulled out by the electric lokie. Rough, battered, tired cars that went clunk, clunk, clunk over warn tracks as we stood in a little alcove somewhere between Lansford and Summit Hill, a mountain between us and the air.

We had voluntarily allowed ourselves to be swallowed by the giant in order to see what coal mining is about before coal mining is no more in the Panther Valley. None of us will ever forget the experience.

Imagine a giant sleeping with his mouth open. His mouth is about ten feet high, 18 feet wide, and he has a head cold. As you walk over his rough, moist tongue, he drips on you and you feel a tepid breath that is uniquely his, a slightly musky odor that you will smell nowhere else in the world. Some kind of exotic mixture of blasting powder smoke, wet coal, wet rock, arcing electric ozone smoke, fresh air being wafted through the tunnel by air falling of its own weight down escape shafts. Some kind of unforgettable bad breath. It is not entirely uncomfortable-it is merely strange, a perverted perfume you cannot put a name to.

Deeper into the giant's throat, his other passages open before you, making you mindful of his weight, his massiveness, his power to lure men into him day in and day out, summer and winter, when the dripping water forms huge icicles that must be blasted out of the throat over weekends to keep the way clear for men the following week. It is a giant that may be on the verge of death, but that can still place a spark of hesitation into mankind. Once into his depths, the question of whether mankind has a right to be putting footprints on the surface of the Moon becomes irrelevant-the more pressing question is, "Should mankind be digging into the bowels of his own Earth?" The single-mindedness and the constant humor that seem common to the men are their own answer to the question of whether or not they have a right to be there. "We don't know anything else to do like we do mining." they would answer.

The grim look of the miners reflects the ever-present dangers: gas deposits, rock-falls, faulty blasts, broken timbering, a slight shifting of the Earth that could dislodge the mountain onto the tiny passage through it. Wiping a grimy hand across a blackened face, they push some packing up into holes that are drilled eight feet into the face of a coal vein, holes that hold dynamite, the 40% dynamite mixture that is used on the coal. Before us there are wires coming out of the coal: number one, number three, and sever holes; there are 23 sticks of dynamite in those holes. We back off into the shaft, where a chute is built of wooden sides and a sheet metal bottom. We back off some 20 yards down the shaft, around a protective bend. The connection is made, there are three deep-throated thuds that the exploding dynamite makes, popping our ears; a moment passes, and then we hear the rush of coal filling the chute, rushing down in a melee of dust and gas from the explosion that chokes you, that sometimes gives the miners headaches, that swirls up dust that almost obscures the rush of coal down the chute, rushing past us a foot away, rushing down to meet a blockage at the end where it will begin to back up. Cars will be pulled up under the chute, and the coal will be allowed to fall after the blockage is removed. There are four carloads that came down with the blast. The giant has disgorged another little portion of its insides o its persistent tormentors.

By this time next week the giant will have gone into its perpetual sleep. The escape shafts will be blasted shut, the entrance to its mouth will be boarded up, the handful of men who cleaned the coal from its bowels will be out fishing or sitting in a strange sun rocking their remaining years away on rocking chairs that creak.

The giant that had fed and clothed and killed and educated and warmed and chilled and maimed the Panther Valley for more than a century is dead. In this rare instance, perhaps a master as rough on men as the giant is preferable to no master at all.