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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Pennsylvania Coal Breakers, June 2013


This was the second part of our trip to PA; we started at Scranton Lace, then spent the rest of the weekend climbing around coal breakers. If your knowledge of coal production is as limited (read: non-existent) as mine, I suggest reading this Wikipedia article, which (bonus!) happens to include several historic photos of the very breakers we visited.

The whole structure is essentially one gigantic machine for breaking down, washing and sorting coal – large chunks are carried up to the top floor via a conveyor belt and dropped in an enormous hopper. The coal then makes its way down through the building like balls in some kind of infernal pachinko machine. At each floor, the coal is washed, broken, and sifted down into smaller and cleaner pieces.

A few observations:

These buildings are HUGE. I mean so massive that the dimensions seem somehow wrong or absurd. At least one member of our group couldn’t make it to the top floor because of vertigo. Every level within is a confusing wall-to-wall jumble of Escher-esque catwalks, ladders, and stairwells, and every flat surface is burdened with Transformers-scale machinery. It is often difficult to tell where, exactly, you are. In every direction, the building seems to stretch into infinity, every distinguishing color muted by a layer of coal dust. I felt like a character in Rendezvous with Rama, exploring the hulking remains of a long-dead civilization, surrounded by technology whose purpose I could not fathom.

Even though the machinery is now inactive, you only have to walk through one of these things to guess how dirty, loud, and dangerous it must have been. Just read the section in that Wikipedia article on the “breaker boys”:

Breaker boys were forced to work without gloves so that they could handle the slick coal better. The slate, however, was sharp, and boys would leave work with their fingers cut and bleeding. Many breaker boys lost fingers to the rapidly moving conveyor belts, while others, moving about the plant, had their feet, hands, arms, and legs amputated when they moved among the machinery and accidentally slipped under the belts or into the gears. Many died when they fell into the gears of the machinery, their bodies only retrieved at the end of the working day. Others were caught in the rush of coal, and crushed to death or smothered. The “dry” coal kicked up so much dust that the breaker boys sometimes wore lamps on their heads to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common.

Did I mention that these “breaker boys” were usually between 8 and 12 years old? Good Lord. I’ll stop complaining about my desk job now.

There is also no way to overstate the male-ness of these structures. Displaying zero interest in aesthetics, ergonomics, personal safety, or the environment, these are brutalist monoliths that tower over the landscape, block out the sun, and spit black poison into the earth and sky. Every inch and every architectural choice proclaims their construction by Men with a capital M. Why use two bolts to secure a handrail when you can use 10 bolts, 7 rivets and a lap-welded cast-iron bracket? That workbench of yours a little wobbly? Better braze a couple of I-beams between there and the wall to firm that sucker up. Need quicker access to a room on the floor above you? Stop being a pussy, and make a fucking hole in the ceiling with a motherfucking cutting torch.

In closing, I want to give a shout-out to La Casita De Familia, a Mexican restaurant in Shenandoah, PA. Asked my phone where to eat in the area, the phone recommended this place, and it was delicious. Admittedly not very appealing from the street, but brightly-painted and clean inside, they happily rustled up some vegetarian options for Jim, gave me a succulent pork taco with a hint of pineapple, and even made an excellent frozen margarita. The beer was ice-cold, the waitress was friendly, and they deserve extra points for even allowing us in, two sweat-and-coal-dust-begrimed gringos.

It was a long drive home, so Jim popped in a live moe. CD. We listened to that one song – you know, the one with the lengthy guitar solo?

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  1. Unions – the folks who gave us the weekend and safety regulations!

    Sounds like it would make a powerful museum…

  2. Thanks for letting me tag along. A very apt description of the inside of the breaker, like an industrialized version of Dante’s Inferno.

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