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Remembering Coal Miners at the No. 9 Mine's Annual Labor Day Picnic in Pennsylvania



By Ron Devlin

September 6, 2022 -  When Steve Mau was growing up, he tagged along with his grandfather, a hard coal miner, as he made the rounds to local taverns.

It was there, listening to miners talk of working in the underground shafts, that Mau's love of mines and miners was nurtured.

He, too, would follow his grandfather into the underground mines, working for a time in a mine at Silver Creek, near New Philadelphia.

"It's hard work, but it's satisfying," said Mau, 57, of Summit Hill. "It's something that's definitely in your bloodstream."

Mau's ode to mining came Sunday at the annual old-fashioned Labor Day picnic at the No. 9 Coal Mine & Museum in Lansford.

He came dressed in 19th century mining garb, complete with gum boots and a helmet bearing an authentic oil lamp that provided the light by which miners worked.

Zachary Petroski, president of the nonprofit that operates the mine and museum, said miners often gathered at picnics in the summer and on Labor Day.

One of the big ones, he said, was the annual Independent Miners Picnic, organized by the late David A. Lucas in Hegins.

The idea of the No. 9 picnic is to keep the tradition going and honor the contributions miners made to coal region culture, Petroski said.

This year's picnic featured ethnic food made with recipes immigrant miners brought from Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine around the turn of the 20th century.

The menu included halupki, haluski and pierogi, staples in the households of immigrant miners and their descendants.

Jim Stone, who grew up in Lansford as a descendant of miners, now lives in Berks County.

He would go on to become a mining engineer at the Bethlehem Mines stripping near Lansford, and is now a student of mining history.

"The British, Welsh and Irish came first," he said. "By the late 1800s, they needed legions of workers and there was a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe."

Their cultural influence, he said, is evidenced by the steeples and domes atop churches in towns from Lansford to Shamokin.

A Mining Legacy

The Lehigh Navigation Coal Co. opened its No. 9 in 1855. It was one of 14 mines along the border of Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

Miners reached the Mammoth Vein inside No. 9 in 1857, mining Old Company Lehigh coal. The following year, 90,000 tons of coal were extracted from the mine.

The mine yielded coal for 117 years, closing on June 22, 1972. It lay abandoned until the nonprofit Panther Creek Valley Foundation took control in 1992.

Restoration work on the mine began in 1995 and was completed in 2002, when it was opened to the public for tours.

"Visitors ride by rail 1,600 feet into the mountain before embarking on a guided walking tour that allows them to examine the 700-foot-deep mine shaft," Petroski said. "There's also a miners hospital cut into solid rock inside the mine."

The mine is currently owned by BET Lehigh Real Estate, a Philadelphia company with ties to the Toll Brothers firm. It's on long-term lease to the foundation.

Petroski, 31, who once worked in an underground mine, said that there are only six remaining underground mines in the southern Schuylkill region.

A Miner's Story

Wearing old time mining garb, Robbie Flowers, 62, of Plains, talked about his grandfather, Joseph Soble, a Polish immigrant who worked for 45 years in a mine near Wilkes-Barre.

Soble's is a familiar story in the coal regions.

Leaving Poland around the start of World War I, Flowers' grandfather came to Wilkes-Barre and went to work as a miner.

One day, a large chunk of coal landed on Soble's foot, nearly severing it. The foot was saved, but it was months before he returned to work.

When he retired in 1959, Soble had worked underground for 45 years. Five years later, when he was 72, Soble died of complications to black lung disease in 1964.

Giving a guided tour of the No. 9 museum, which boasts a large collection of mining implements and memorabilia, Flowers and Mau talked of the hardships miners faced while working 1,400 feet inside nearby No. 8 mine.

Black damp and methane gas would cause asphyxiation if undetected. Until the modern Davies lamp, miners relied on oil and carbide lamps, themselves prone to causing explosions.

Echoing across the picnic grounds, the Shoreliners' polka tune "U-Nee Man," aka "Union Man," provided a backdrop for talking about the struggle to establish labor unions in the coal regions.

The chorus goes: "Hey, hey, domo, domo, let's go home," an allusion to going on strike.

John Siney's Workingman's Benevolent Association, founded in Saint Clair in 1868, and the Molly Maguires in the 1870s eventually led to the formation of the United Mine Workers, Flowers said. It was a godsend that would lift coal miners out of what amounted to indenture to get a share of the American dream.

"My grandfather paid his dues to the United Mine Workers union until the day he died," Flowers said.