'St. Nick' remains, while Glen Burn, Locust Summit and now Huber fall
Dark, noisy and full of life are a few of the terms used to describe an anthracite coal breaker. Often built near the mouth of the main gangway of a mine, they processed different sizes of coal retrieved by miners deep inside the Earth. These structural kings of anthracite coal were considered just as important as the mines themselves.
As mines started to shut down in the latter part of the 1920s and early '30s, so did the once much-needed breakers. They became the victims of an arsonist's match, a wrecking ball or, in some cases, a stick of dynamite lit by a demolition team. One by one, breakers disappeared from the landscape, leaving behind little more than concrete foundations.
Prior to 1960, larger companies built several large-scale breakers to process the coal of various mining operations to compensate for the loss of smaller breakers. Newer technology and the continuing decline in demand for anthracite coal, however, eventually led to a series of closures of even these massive breakers.
They stood dormant for decades, photographed, vandalized and marveled over, dotting the black landscape. But now, just one remains.
Perhaps the most recognizable of all anthracite breakers was the Glen Burn Breaker located along Route 61 at the Cameron Bridge just north of Shamokin in Coal Township. A few outbuildings and random pieces of I-beams are all that remain since the breaker was razed in 1986.
The mammoth man-made mountain of waste culm that sits behind the ruins of the Glen Burn Colliery (previously known as the Cameron Colliery) is a reminder of the amount of material that came through the breaker and its predecessors, the first of which was built in 1857, the last in 1939.
The Stevens Coal Co. built the all-steal breaker on the opposite side of Shamokin Creek from where the main gangway of the mine was located. The breaker was capable of processing 500 tons of coal an hour, including pea and nut coal, although it was unable to process smaller sizes, including buckwheat, barley and rice, which by the 1980s was growing in demand. It was a contract dispute, though, that eventually led to the breaker's demise.
Operations ceased at midnight May 31, 1984, when 120 members of the United Mine Workers went on strike against Kerris and Helfrick Inc., owners of the colliery since June 17, 1966. The strike ended March 13, 1986, when Edward Helfrick, co-owner of K&H, announced the company would be liquidated.
Demolition of the breaker began in July 1986 after Helfrick said the Department of Environmental Protection wanted it dismantled.
A boy's memories
As a boy in the 1960s, Tim Farrell grew up living in the shadow of the breaker at 65 E. Dewart St., known as the "superintendent's home," while his father, Michael III, was the superintendent of the operation.
The Farrells have a long history of working in the mines. Among them was Michael I, Tim's great-grandfather, who was fatally injured in the Henry Clay around 1876; and Michael II, Tim's grandfather, who was a mine foreman at the Hickory Swamp and Hickory Ridge collieries, both located near Lower Sagon in eastern Coal Township.
Farrell said his father did not like to "bring his work home," although at times it did follow him. Farrell recalled occasions when miners who needed to get mine plans approved by his father would show up while the family was having breakfast.
"With me it was more of a father-son thing. He would always be there to take me places," Farrell said. "The only times I really didn't see him for a few days was when there was an accident."
Decline of anthracite
In 1967, Michael moved his family to Pottsville to take a position as general manager of Reading Anthracite. Farrell believes a declining market for anthracite may have been a reason for his father taking a new job.
"He saw the decline of the whole thing. I remember him pointing at the coal bank and saying, 'That's where the future of this industry is,' " Tim said.
A foreshadowing, perhaps, was when his father put electric heat in their new home in Pottsville.
The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Luzerne County, recently met the same fate as the Glen Burn. Demolition of the 134-foot-tall building and outbuildings started earlier this year and is almost complete. More than 7,000 tons of coal per day was crushed, washed and sized for delivery to residential and commercial customers between 1939 and 1976.
Paselo Logistics, Philadelphia, bought the breaker and surrounding 26 acres of land for $1.3 million at a bankruptcy of Al Roman, owner of No. 1 Contacting Co., last year. Paselo took possession Oct. 11, and soon after began razing the buildings and selling the metal for scrap.
The sight of demolition was heart-breaking to members of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, which for more than two decades fought unsuccessfully to save the breaker. Their goal was to convert it into an auditorium, restaurants and an artifact-laden museum, upon other things.
The society did salvage several artifacts, including two mine cars once used deep underground at the colliery. They will be displayed at Miners' Memorial Park, located on 3.1 acres of land near where the breaker stood.
Another iconic breaker razed was the Locust Summit Central Breaker in Mount Carmel Township, just west of the small village of Merriam.
In the late 1920s, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company began a series of improvements that included the centralization of its breakers. All of these operations were combined into two large processing plants, the Locust Summit and the St. Nicholas Breaker, off Route 54 west of Mahanoy City.
The Locust Summit was built in 1929 at a cost of $4 million. A unique feature included a rotary dump in which a train car would be locked in placed, then turned upside down to off-load unprocessed coal. In its prime, the breaker was capable of producing 12,000 tons of coal per day.
A declining coal market and eventual bankruptcy of the railroad that served the breaker were two factors that played in to the breaker closing on Jan. 7, 1955. The closure affected several hundred men. In the fall of 2002, after decades of deterioration, the breaker was demolished. Lost was a vintage Reading Railroad hopper car still locked in the structure.
Last breaker standing
The last large-scale breaker built prior to 1960 that is still standing in the anthracite coal region is the St. Nicholas Breaker. The "St. Nick" took its name from its predecessor, which shipped its first coal on Christmas Day. The breaker opened March 11, 1931, and closed in 1963.
It was built with 3,800 tons of steel and 10,000 cubic yards of concrete. It processed an average of 12,500 tons of anthracite per day, according to "Mahanoy Area Revisited," a 2013 book in the Images of America series by Mahanoy Area Historical Society.
Last fall, Reading Anthracite Co., owner, completed a partial demolition of the breaker in order to retrieve a vein of coal underneath a potion of the property. Where the front loading area and the railroad loading area was now sits an open pit.
"It's been an eyesore for years. At one time, they were talking about turning it into a museum, but nothing happened with that," James Stevens, chairman of the Mahanoy Township supervisors, recently told The Republican-Herald.
For the time being, it appears the rest of the breaker will remain standing. Once known as the largest in the world, it now holds a much different title: the last breaker standing.
(Staff writers Paul Golias and Stephen J. Pytak contributed to this story.)