Local Art: Anthracite Heritage Museum

Hello everyone!

If you are from Scranton and have been going to school here most of your life then more likely than not you’ve probably gone on the Anthracite Coal Mine Tour when you were in grade school…(I know I did!) And if you’re not from here or you just haven’t been I would highly recommend you go on a tour and visit the museum.

While I’ve been on the tour before, I surprisingly had never been to the museum. So, this past weekend I visited the museum with my family and had a fantastic time. I love visiting museums, and honestly, I could just get lost looking at art, artifacts, and things of the past, especially here when it connects to local history. The museum was amazing and had so much to look at. I was really surprised by all the art and artifacts they had, and all the amazing stories it all told.

The museum highlights Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history in anthracite coal mining, the highs, and lows of the industry, as well as the immigrant culture that grew with it. While I expected to see many different artifacts and objects related to this time and the growth of coal mining, I was actually surprised by the amount of art and how important art was during this time.

Art, usually photography as well as painting, was vital during this time to document the growth, major points, and impact of the coal industry as it boomed in NEPA. It also allowed people to document and remember loved ones and what home meant to them. Photographers were employed by the different coal companies and were necessary for a variety of functions. Their photographs captured the coal industry in both an artistic way as well as an educational means. By capturing certain areas of the mines, they could share this imagery and educate the region on coal mining, and in turn promote the industry and use of coal. For us today, these photographs represent our heritage, preserving the history and remembering those whose lives were impacted by the then growing coal industry.

One artist that stood out to me was Frances Benjamin Johnston, a female photographer who captured the anthracite coal region in the 1890s. Of course I was drawn to her because she was a woman artist and helped promote and encourage other women artists, but I was also interested in the fact that she highlighted in her photographs the hardships of miners. Below is one of her photos where she shows some breaker boys at work. Keep in mind these boys were very young, anywhere from 6 to about 12 years old, working a hard and dangerous job of separating coal from slate.

Breaker Boys in Kohinor Mine, Shenandoah, PA, 1891, Frances Benjamin Johnston
Breaker Boys in Kohinor Mine, Shenandoah, PA, 1891, Frances Benjamin Johnston

Another photographer from this time, whose career flourished as coal mining boomed, was Watson Bunnell. He documented different mining companies, but he also captured accidents that occurred on site. These images were then used in safety manuals to educate other miners. His photo below is not that of an accident but a much more happy image that caught my eye. It is of a miner who is smiling with two mules. The smile is what caught my eye because while this time definitely had its lows with deaths and accidents of all varieties, for most this was their life’s work. The smile represents the pride, hard work, and excitement for many who came here to start a life and grow a family.

Coal Miner with Mules, c. 1920, Watson Bunnell
Coal Miner with Mules, c. 1920, Watson Bunnell

Finally, there were many other artists who captured this local heritage through photographs, paintings, and even other art pieces made from coal. Together, the art represents, remembers, and educates others about such a big part of our local history, as well as the impact it had on the area, people, and the many families who grew up here.

(Top left) Harry E. Colliery, by John T. Kelly, 1962—(Bottom left) Stereoview ca. 1873, Avondale Breaker, by Elias W. Beckwith— (Right) Male Colliery Worker Portrait, ca. 1960, Lillian Meskey

Again if you haven’t been I would highly recommend you visit the museum and take a tour down into the mine. It’s very interesting and fun to do, and you will really step into the past and get a feel for this area’s history.

Have a great week!

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