John R. Lindermuth,
Digging Dusky Diamonds:
A History of the Pennsylvania Coal Region

(Sunbury Press, 2013)

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania is geologically blessed with deposits of two types of coal: anthracite (hard coal) in the eastern counties of Northumberland, Schuylkill, Columbia, Luzerne and Lackawanna, and bituminous (soft coal) in most of the counties west of the Allegheny Mountain ridgeline. To clarify: this book is a history of the people and culture of the eastern Pennsylvania coal region. And it further centers on Northumberland County and the city of Shamokin, the home of the author. He's a retired journalist, editor, historian and genealogist. Who would be better qualified to sort through the old records and newspapers and explain to us what was what, way back when?

Lindermuth begins with the discovery of coal at Shamokin in 1790. Then, focusing mostly on the 1800s, he tells of the development of the industry in the region. He covers the generalities of everyday life at the time, as well as the specifics of the lives of the miners, including the labor issues they faced. Though some coal is still mined in the area today, the author explains how far its production fell during the 1900s, especially after the Depression. The decades after the Civil War to the turn of the last century are the ones especially spotlighted here.

Along the way, we learn some interesting tidbits. We consider the mules that did a lot of the work, right beside the miners. Some never saw the light of day. We are reminded of the underground fires that have taken place over the years. Some still burn today. And we even learn about the "bootlegging" that individuals did during the Depression and afterward. Many people collected seemingly abandoned coal, just to survive. We gain selected insights into these past lives.

The result is a terrific piece of local history. Lindermuth obviously combed through archival copies of newspapers to get the best stories for us. Even viewed from a cultural or literary point of view, their excerpts are interesting. These were the days when journalists could be suitably outraged by indignities and could offer judgments in the daily sheets. They could also delight in revealing terrible details of all sorts of tragedies, including mine accidents and deaths. Lindermuth also uses archival photographs well, though the old maps and bird's-eye views of towns are not quite large enough to help readers who want to pinpoint specifics. They serve to tantalize, however.

I chose to read this book because my narrow lines of Welsh ancestors (with surnames of Bevan and Mason) were coal miners in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County. Two of them were said to have died in coal-mining accidents. Each time here that the author recounts a spectacular tragedy, I waited for a familiar name to pop up. It never did. Which means that I have to do more digging on my own. At least this kind of work won't get my hands as dirty as my ancestors' jobs did to theirs.

Three additions would have made this book even more helpful. (1) A basic outline map of these coal counties, with locations of towns and cities. I know that maps can be problematic in the publishing process, but some of us native Pennsylvanians are not as familiar with this area as the author. (2) A glossary of coal-mining terms (anthracite, bituminous, colliery, break, culm, damp, Molly Maguires, etc.). The author defines most of them as needed in the text, but a separate list for reference would have been nice. (3) A table outlining all mines, locations and dates of operation. Perhaps the last item has never been compiled. But it sure would prove useful to the historians and genealogists among us.

Nevertheless, Digging Dusky Diamonds makes for worthwhile reading for any resident of this area, and for anyone whose ancestors played a part in the mining process. Like me. John Lindermuth gives us glimpses into these individual and important lives. It helps if you already know a little bit about the subject and the area beforehand. And this book is really only a beginning. Yet it may prompt readers like me to get out the ancestral charts again and to revisit those names and times, and to see if any progress can be made to follow these hard-working coal-mining ancestors.

Once upon a time, I did some family tree research for a client. When I began to give her background information and started to tell her the whys and wherefores of her ancestors' movements, she quipped, "I'm only interested in the genealogy, not the history." I was shocked into speechlessness. The two are intertwined. Inseparable. One explains the other, and vice versa. To get the full story, you need both. What John Lindermuth has given us here are the whys and wherefores. Thanks, John!

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

8 February 2014

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