By Mike Shoup, Inquirer Travel Editor
August 14, 1994
Charles D. Kaier and his heirs are long in the grave, and their old German brewery at the north end of Main Street stands vacant, windows shattered and brick walls crumbling.
Pity. They made a brew so fine it once won international accolades. A few generations of anthracite coal miners practically grew up on it.
A few blocks away on the same street, the Kaier Grand Opera House - in its latter years the Victoria Theater - is boarded up and in an advanced state of decay. The Kaier Hotel is long gone, too.
The town, like so many other anthracite coal towns, is a shadow of its former self.
Folks now go to the Schuylkill Mall outside Frackville to shop. Most of the mining has stopped. Even many of the taprooms have disappeared - a sure sign of continued hard times in the hard coal region.
Clearly, Mahanoy City is not on the main tourist circuit. But today, we'll not only put it there, we'll also suggest an overnight stay at the Kaier Mansion Bed and Breakfast (not all things Kaier have disappeared), making the town an integral part of a weekend journey through Pennsylvania's anthracite region, from Pottsville northeast 60 miles to Scranton, with a few side trips in between.
We'll budget three days to do the circuit right, and include not just the beer baron's mansion but also a coal-mine tour and a visit to no fewer than three museums, one of them in a little village that's a museum of sorts itself. We'll throw in some steam-railroading history, and a stay in a classy old railroad station that's now a hotel. Travelers with more limited time can easily craft their own shorter tour from this excursion.
We'll even tell you how to pronounce the names of some of the towns, so as not to embarrass yourself with the locals if you get into a conversation while trying the native drink at one of those remaining taprooms (shot and a beer, about $1). While some of its good citizens may actually pronounce the ''H'' in Mahanoy City's name, most say it MOCK-anoy City, or MA-noy City. They wouldn't pronounce the ''H'' any more than they do the ''T'' in Scranton. Shenandoah is SHEN-do or SHENdor, but never, ever is it pronounced like the valley down in Virginia. And if you get to Lost Creek, say crik, not creek, and forget the T. It's Loscrik.
We know all this because your tour guide today is what the locals call a coal cracker, the son of a miner, who grew up not far from Mahanoy City and did his share of bootleg picking and cracking as a kid. Your guide still carries a certain affection for the hard-coal region - and for its people - no matter how run-down the old mining towns and villages may appear to outsiders.
Before our tour begins, a little background:
Anthracite burns longer and produces much more heat than bituminous coal. For years, anthracite was not only the main fuel for American industry and transportation, it also heated the nation's homes. And almost all of it was mined here, in a narrow band that stretches less than 100 miles through Northeast Pennsylvania - a relatively small spot on the Earth that still contains more hard coal than anywhere else in the world (19.6 billion tons remaining, about 9 billion tons mined).
Anthracite ''was responsible for the transformation of American manufacturing in the 1830s and 1840s,'' points out a history of the region titled The Kingdom of Coal, as well as for the development of America's canals and railroads, which took the product to market. The railroads, in fact, owned most of the mines.
King Coal reigned here for the better part of a century, from 1850 to 1950, attracting a flood tide of immigrant workers to difficult and often deadly labors (more than 12,000 miners were killed just in the years 1900 to 1920).
But anthracite contained the seeds of its own demise. Unlike bituminous veins, which are generally flat and subject to mechanized mining, hard-coal veins undulate deep beneath the earth. This coal is difficult and expensive to mine.
When oil and natural gas came along, Americans gradually found it cheaper and cleaner to use these fuels to cook and heat their homes. That, combined with the expense of the mining process and the development of technology to burn soft coal more efficiently, pretty much killed anthracite mining.
Today, about five million tons are mined annually, mostly by stripping veins where they are closest to the surface, and a lot of that is burned in home stoves from here to New England. At the peak in 1917, something like 100 million tons a year were mined.
But, enough: On with the tour.
Our first stop is either Jim Thorpe or Pottsville. Take your choice, but make reservations either way: Friday night at the Kaier Mansion, or at the Quality Inn or River Inn in Pottsville, if the mansion's full. For certain, reserve Saturday night at the Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton, the aforementioned railroad depot, where the marble and stained glass in the lobby will just knock your socks off.
At Jim Thorpe, once known as Mauch Chunk, you can tour the mansion of a 19th-century coal, railroad and lumber baron named Asa Packer, visit the restored train station, and walk around town, which has been quite gussied up in recent years and looks like an anthracite version of New Hope.
Your guide much prefers the more real streets of Pottsville, where the great author John O'Hara lived his early years, where the Pottsville Maroons professional football team once played, where some of the Molly Maguires were executed, and where Yuengling beer has been brewed for more than 150 years. O'Hara's boyhood home is a disappointment - nothing but a state historical marker outside a rowhouse at 606 Mahantongo St., where the author lived between the ages of 11 and 23. But O'Hara fans - in particular, readers of Appointment in Samarra - can walk up past the old coal baron mansions along Mahantongo Street and perhaps picture Julian English driving along ''Lantenango Street'' in ''Gibbsville,'' on his way to the club to get drunk and insult the city's upper crust.
The Yuengling Brewery tour is a must - the touristic reason for coming to Pottsville. Yuengling has been sitting on the side of the mountain and turning out barrels of beer since 1829, and is now run by Dick Yuengling, the fifth generation of this German brewing family. The red-brick brewery buildings, both old and newer, are just up the street from O'Hara's house. There are weekday tours twice daily; no weekend ones, which is why we're here on a Friday.
After the tour, head to what looks like a stone fortress dominating the top of the nearby hill. That's the Schuylkill County Courthouse, with adjacent prison. If the jail looks old, it is. There are no tours, but a bronze historical plaque at the jail door succinctly tells one of the most celebrated stories in American coal mining history - the tale of the Molly Maguires.
Depending on what you read or whom you talk to, these 19th-century immigrant Irishmen were murdering vigilantes or heroes of the American labor movement. But one thing is certain: Six of them were hanged inside this very prison on June 21, 1877, called Black Thursday because four others were hanged at the same time in the Carbon County seat, Mauch Chunk.
It's a fascinating tale of murder and betrayal, of early labor organization and
discrimination against Irish Catholics - so fascinating that Hollywood made a movie of it
in the 1960s, filmed at nearby Eckley, which we'll also visit today. While the exact
truths seem forever lost, historians Donald L. Miller and Richard E. Sharpless summed the
story up best in The Kingdom of Coal, the only accurate and unbiased history of anthracite
mining that exists to this day:
''Whatever the truth about the Mollies as an organization, there is no question but that the brutality of life and work in Pennsylvania's anthracite country contributed to the violence for which all who hanged were responsible.''
Lunch time:There are plenty of opportunities in Pottsville, but hop into the car, and head up Route 61 through Frackville, to the town of Shenandoah. If you have a cooler, or if you're up for a picnic, stop at Kowalonek's Market, on the left as you enter town, and buy a few pounds of Polish kielbasa. You might even pick some pierogis out of the freezer; the difficult choice is between those made by the ladies of St. John the Baptist Polish National Church in Hazleton, and the ones manufactured by Mrs. T's, a local company taking the once lowly pierogi to national marketing fame.
Now head west on Route 54 toward Ashland, passing through the villages of William Penn, Lost Creek and Girardville. This drive is hardly beautiful; it never has been. The most famous coal vein in anthracite mining history, the Mammoth, runs through here, and as many as 50 collieries once operated in less than 40 miles of its run between the east side of Mahanoy City and the west side of Ashland.
The isolated clutches of houses you see on hillsides are the remains of ''patches'' - little company towns that grew up beside the collieries. Coal was both deep mined and stripped from the surface here, and mountains were moved, literally.
The streams have been polluted for more than a century with acid-mine water drainage. The landscape is forever scarred; even the ubiquitous white birch trees in full leaf don't completely cover the devastation. It's perhaps the one area of the anthracite region that most closely resembles the past.
Ashland's big attraction is Pioneer Tunnel, an old coal mine that was reopened by the community in 1962 as one of the region's first ''tourist attractions.'' It's a fun tour for both kids and adults, who ride a little train into a tunnel in the side of the mountain, intersecting old gangways that lead to where the coal of the Mammoth vein was once mined. A guide explains the miners' difficult working conditions and how coal was dug out and brought to the surface.
The tour, and the small, adjacent Museum of Anthracite Mining, provide good background for the rest of the trip. Although the museum's presentation is pedestrian, the history of anthracite mining is there for those with the time to read.
Beside Pioneer Tunnel, there's also a short ''lokie ride'' (a lokie is a small, narrow-gauge steam locomotive once heavily used in the anthracite region to move coal) around the mountain, to a point where it's possible to see, to the north, barren portions of the mountainside where the infamous Centralia mine fire has been burning for well over 30 years. The fire, started in an exposed coal seam by burning trash, inched its way into the old coal workings beneath the town, which is today virtually deserted.
Now head back to Mahanoy City, and check into the Kaier Mansion at 729 E. Centre St. Ideally, you have been able to reserve the master bedroom, or the other room with its own bath. If not, you'll be in one of three rooms with shared bath, but these are well-appointed, period-furnished rooms nevertheless. (The rate is $65 a night, double occupancy, with bath; $55 double without.)
This renovated mansion, built in the 1860s, is small by the standards of Philadelphia's Main Line, but ostentatious by 19th-century standards in Mahanoy City, with such touches as marble fireplaces, chestnut wainscoting, fabric wallpaper, stenciling, inlaid hardwood floors, servants' quarters and a carriage house.
You can have dinner locally at Horan's or Alfredo's, although your guide recommends the Coal Street Cafe in Shenandoah, or Cinco's on Lloyd Street in the same town, where the food is equally good but the wait can sometimes be long.
How good, you ask, visualizing perhaps a glob of mashed potatoes, some frozen peas and a breaded veal cutlet of dubious origin with some red sauce on top? Better than that, I can virtually assure you.
Our destination Saturday morning is Eckley Miners' Village, nine miles east of Hazleton and about a half-hour's drive from Mahanoy City via Interstate 81 and state Routes 924, 309 and 940. Eckley is a 19th-century mining ''patch'' preserved by the state, with an adjacent museum. Both are run by the state Historical and Museum Commission, as are the other anthracite museums.
Stop in at the museum first; although the story it tells is similar to that of the Ashland museum, the presentation is more human and interesting, employing better use of artifacts and photographs.
The real museum, however, is outside. For a quick lesson in social stratification, pick up a walking tour brochure as you exit the museum and follow it down the main street of this old ''patch town.'' You'll pass the wooden Church of the Immaculate Conception and its rectory, which served a few generations of Irish Catholic immigrants in Eckley, then the plank and clapboard miners' and laborers' homes, a few still occupied by people who lease them from the state for a small monthly rental.
There's an old breaker midway along the walk, similar to hundreds of others that once stood near most collieries, ready to crush lumps of coal into marketable sizes. But this one's not real; it's a movie prop, built for the 1968 filming of The Molly Maguires.
The town's hotel and the company store are long gone. But the mine owner's house still stands, a Gothic revival dwelling whose size and style leave little doubt as to who was in charge here.
Eckley was once part of a huge coal tract but was split off and deeded to the state for a museum in 1971. Strip mining continues around the village, however, lending a certain moonscape effect here and there, and again illustrating the devastating effect that even limited mining continues to have on the environment.
Now it's on to Scranton, once known as the capital of the anthracite region and still its center of political clout. One of the nation's most powerful congressmen, Joseph M. McDade, comes from Scranton, as do Gov. Casey, and another recent governor, Bill Scranton. (McDade, currently awaiting trial on bribery and corruption charges, is the congressman who pushed through Congress the funding for Steamtown, the National Park Service steam-railroad site in Scranton.)
Anybody who can't divine Scranton's past economic strength and railroading history in the imposing, five-story limestone facade of the Lackawanna Station Hotel almost certainly will once he or she crosses the threshold into the old waiting room. Here, in what is now the lobby and dining area of the hotel, are terrazzo floors, Siena marble walls, and a beautiful, barrel-vaulted, stained- glass ceiling. At the top of the marble walls, faience (glazed earthenware) panels depict scenes along the route of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which opened the station in 1908.
The station was shut and abandoned for some years before being converted to a hotel in 1983; it opened first as a Hilton, then was a Royce. In neither case was the operation successful. It's gone through another face-lift, however, and on a recent visit seemed better run than ever - basically a first-class hotel (note that your guide did not say deluxe), with a unique, world-class lobby.
Scranton has, in a much more compact setting, the same basic tourist attractions we've just seen, plus Steamtown, which includes steam locomotives and rail cars, a restored roundhouse and turntable, and a visitors center that tells the railroading story. (Note that your guide has not used the word historic.) It's been roundly criticized in the Congress and in the national press as a waste of National Park Service money, and there is some truth to the charges. A visitors center and exhibit buildings open next year.
Across town, the Anthracite Heritage Museum in McDade Park highlights the immigrant experience: The toil and sacrifice and values of the many immigrant ethnic groups that contributed to the hard coal region's unique character, and still do. Beside the museum is the Lackawanna Coal Mine, where guided tours into the side of the mountain tell much the same story related at Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland.
In fact, those inclined to park themselves in Scranton for a weekend can get much the same story they might find by traveling through Pottsville, Mahanoy City, Shenandoah, Lost Creek and Ashland.
It's not the same, though. Driving that stretch of Route 54 between Mahanoy City and Ashland is as close as you'll get today to life as it once was in hard-coal country. Living history, your guide might say.
It's a small corner of another era, low in income but high in pride, where hope springs eternal that one day a new and compelling need for anthracite will arise and the region will, as a few old coal crackers still predict, ''come back again.''
Directions from Philadelphia -
Getting there: From Center City, it's about a two-hour drive to Pottsville. Take the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route to the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Take the extension to the Allentown/Interstate 78 (Route 22) exit, and take I-78 west to Route 61. Take Route 61 north to Pottsville. From there, buy a good Pennsylvania map if you don't already have one.
Staying there: The southern anthracite region isn't exactly overflowing with accommodations. If the Kaier Mansion in Mahanoy City is full ($55-$65 a night double; phone 717-773-3040), try the Quality Hotel in downtown Pottsville ($81 double; 717-622-4600), or the River Inn just south of town on Route 61 ($39-$49 double; 717-385-2407). In Scranton, try the Lackawanna Station Hotel, ($99 double; 717-342-8300). Those are weekend, high-season rates; ask about special packages when you call.
The museums: The three facilities run by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission are the Museum of Anthracite Mining at Ashland, 717-875-4708; Eckley Miners' Village, near Hazleton, 717-636-2070, and the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, in Scranton, 717-963-4804.
More information: Contact the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, 800-765-7282 or 717-622-7700, or the Northeast Territory Visitors Bureau, which covers both Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, phone 800-245-7711, or 717-457-1320.