Mining History Month to celebrate cultural heritage of Luzerne, Lackawanna counties

By Matt Mattei - | January 14th, 2016 11:32 am

The mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania brought economic success that laid a foundation for the development of a region. It also brought unspeakable hardships to working class families that labored through its tenure. Both the progress and tragedy of the industry have left an indelible mark on the region, and King’s College and the Anthracite Heritage Foundation are making sure that mark is remembered.

The inaugural Mining History Month of Northeastern Pennsylvania started on Jan. 9 and will continue through Jan. 31, featuring 14 educational and commemorative events over the course of three weeks. Events in both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties will call upon scholars, historians and artists to celebrate a major part of the region’s cultural heritage.

Bob Wolensky is an author, professor and board member of the Anthracite Heritage Foundation. Expanding ceremonies is a product of continued support for the celebration, Wolensky, who teaches history at King’s, said.

“We began doing this in 1999, just commemorating the Knox disaster,” Wolensky said. “Then we started doing Mining History Week. We’d have three or four events, but that just got bigger and bigger … so this is the first year it’s Mining History Month.”

Wolensky said King’s and the AHF are the driving forces behind the tribute, but he credits several other local organizations for helping bring it to fruition.

“Now the Boy Scouts are involved and different historical societies are involved,” Wolensky said. “Wilkes is (also) involved.”

Local lawyer and historical author Charles Petrillo opened the lecture series on Jan. 14 in the Community Room of the Dan Flood Apartments.

“He kicks the whole thing off … with a fascinating talk on how they dredged the river,” Wolensky said. “Plymouth, Pittston, Wilkes-Barre dredged it for years, because it was full of coal. He has an incredible slide show with all these dredges on the river.”

The Greater Pittston Historical Society hosted a lecture called “The Butler Mine Tunnel from the Inside: Examining the Wyoming Valley’s Worst Toxic Disaster” Jan. 16 at the Pittston Memorial Library.

The library also hosted Craig Robertson.

“He’s the guy that put on the space suit … and went into the Butler Mine Tunnel in Pittston,” Wolensky said. “It was used as a dump for dioxin and many other contaminants by major corporations in New York, New Jersey and other parts of Pennsylvania.”

The toxic disaster was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because it led to the Federal Superfund, which now cleans up contaminated sites all over the country, Wolensky said.

Robertson, a West Pittston native and Harrisburg resident, was a consulting hydro-geologist to the Environmental Protection Agency during the investigation.

“Our involvement was to determine the connection between the highway auto facility where the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Resources had determined waste products had been put down a bore hole … and to locate the remaining material in the mines,” Robertson said.

Wolensky said the featured event is the Msgr. John J. Curran Lecture, given by Dallas artist Sue Hand at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 21 in Room 162 of the King’s on the Square Building. Hand’s artwork, 300 panels illustrating anthracite history, were bought by patron and King’s alumnus Jim Burke and dedicated to the college.

Hand said she created the pieces as a self-education project — a way to connect with the traces of regional history she saw growing up but didn’t know much about.

“I’m going to do a PowerPoint with some of the images and why I created them,” Hand said. “Some are politically incorrect, but I didn’t gloss over any of that, because it was real. I tried to tell it faithfully, and I just want to share some of the behind the scenes stories.”

The Knox Mine Disaster Remembrance Program, which will be held at 2 p.m. on Jan. 23 at the Anthracite Heritage Museum, is the premier event for Lackawanna County, Wolensky said.

“We’ve gone out of our way to bring these two counties together,” Wolensky said. “Every year we have programs in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Nanticoke. Next year, we’re going to get Hazleton involved, but right now with 14 different events, we’re doing pretty good.”

The biggest draw toward celebrating Mining History Month, Wolensky said, is to honor the social debt many area residents have for those who made sacrifices before them.

“As human beings we have a great gift that other animals don’t have,” Wolensky said. “We have a memory, and we’re also people who have a sense within us of something bigger than us. Whether you want to call it community … nation … religion, there’s something bigger than us, and in the valley, where the roots are so deep and there was so much tragedy … I think many of us want to commemorate it and have a sense of gratitude.”

For a full list of scheduled events visit

Coal dredger Flanders Keller with some of his machinery in Port Treverton in 1988. dredger Flanders Keller with some of his machinery in Port Treverton in 1988. Sunday Dispatch File Photo
Dallas artist, Sue Hand will deliver the Curran Lecture on Jan. 21, explaining her process of illustrating anthracite history in 300 painted panels. artist, Sue Hand will deliver the Curran Lecture on Jan. 21, explaining her process of illustrating anthracite history in 300 painted panels. Fred Adams File Photo | For Sunday Dispatch
Series of educational events to honor progress, tragedy of mining industry

By Matt Mattei

Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter@TLArts