By Callie Fishburn ’18
Walking down the main gravel road of Eckley Coal Miner’s Village, you feel as if you’ve been transported to the 1800s. Located in Northeastern Pennsylvania, about 2.5 hours north of Frederick, the village of Eckley is lined with houses that have been carefully maintained to accurately reflect their appearance 200 years ago, cars are forbidden to park on the main road, and all utilities and power lines have been covered up or buried underground. And the village is not merely a replica; it was a lively, working coal mining until the mid-1900s, and in fact a handful of people still live there today.
I was lucky enough to visit this unique piece of history as a volunteer with the University of Maryland’s Archaeology and Historic Preservation project. By the time I arrived, excavations were already underway in the backyard of house number 114. Three units were open and a mule shoe, a child’s marble, and a china doll’s face were among the more interesting finds that had already been unearthed. I was told that the marble and doll’s face were finds unique to this year; the town was organized according to socioeconomic status, and they had previously dug near poorer homes. The past inhabitants of these homes would never have been able to afford any toys for their children. Furthermore, these children wouldn’t have had any time to play; the boys would be at work in the mines as breaker boys, and the girls would work in the textile factories of nearby towns.
Not surprisingly, our most common find was anthracite, a type of coal typical of the region. I quickly learned that coal dominated these people’s lives in every respect. It was the husband’s livelihood, a coveted source of household fuel, and a leading cause of death among the men and boys of the town. We were constantly finding coal, enough so that it wasn’t significant enough to keep. We were also digging up copious amounts of glass, ceramic and nails. But what we weren’t finding proved to be just as telling as what we were finding. The lead professor on the project, Dr. Paul Shackel, often remarked how unusual it was that we weren’t finding any animal bones. We were digging near the summer kitchen, so animal bones were expected, but strangely absent. According to Dr. Shackel, it was indicative of the limited diets of coal mining families. Meat was a rarity, a luxury most families couldn’t afford. Just one of the many things that coal mining families had to live without.
As a member of the UMD project, I got to tour the town and the coal mining museum. Along with the artifacts we had discovered, I was beginning to get a glimpse of the daily lives of coal miners and their families, lives of constant, often dangerous hard work that brought very little reward. Lives that were often cut short due to accident, illness or poor health.
The lives of the residents of Eckley mirrored those of other historic coal miners in company-owned mining towns in other parts of the country. Coal mining and the culture of coal mining towns are important aspects of American history that are often overlooked and forgotten. Coal was once one of our country’s most valued economic resources, and the legacy of coal lives on in many towns throughout the U.S. that are still struggling to overcome the loss of this once booming industry.