Mahanoy City's Little Known Artistic Heritage
The four internationally known artists pictured below all visited Mahanoy City during the 1920s and 1930s to draw, sculpt and photograph scenes related to the anthracite coal industry and the miners who risked their lives to bring the " black diamonds" from deep within the earth to the surface.
Harry Sternberg was born on the lower East Side of Manhattan in 1904. Harry's earliest connection to anthracite coal came from the warmth of his mother's kitchen stove in the the Sternberg family's unheated flat- " there was no central heating, so you lived in the kitchen with the coal stove."
Sometime in the early years of the depression Harry visited Mahanoy City and other anthracite communities to paint coal mines and miners.
Interview With Harry Sternberg
"That blackness is inevitable. You go down in a coal mine, and if you’re alone, you cover the lamp, you’ve never seen blackness like it. Several hundred feet underground, and there’s no source of any reflection, of any kind: it’s black. It’s disconcerting, you know, the notion of getting caught in that kind of blackness. And there are rats—you hear them scuffling, and you see them occasionally. "
"There was one coal mine that had been flooded because it caught fire."
( Webmasters Note: There is a good chance that the colliery Sternberg is referring to is the North Mahanoy Colliery which experienced a fire in slope # 5 and was later flooded in 1930.)
"It was out of use. I wanted to get in and see the inside of this mine after what had happened. And this young buddy, whom I drank with all the time, went down with me. It took a lot of persuading and a lot of booze to get him to say he’d take me in. He didn’t like it. I was probably dumb enough not to realize the danger. But you wandered in there and you saw what black was. These headlamps were beauties: when you looked up, it lit what you looked at. When you looked down, it lit the pad.
And the coal miners, when they came up from a shift, they were black. It was black everywhere. The landscape was bleak because there were mountains of slag, which is the stuff they don’t use, they dump. The houses hadn’t been painted; they were company houses. And it was a depressed time. It was a depressed time."
"Guys were hungry, angry—angry at the church, incidentally. The Catholic Church dominated this area, too. And one of the miners, I well remember him saying, 'Never again to church for me. The preacher came in and wanted some money for the church, and I said, ‘I don’t have milk for my kids.' But they literally didn’t have money for the iceboxes, a cake of ice on the top. And they were very hospitable. It was a wonderful period. It’s like the Lower East Side. It was juicy and alive, noisy, dirty, but so alive. Everybody was fighting and arguing and pushing and yelling and talking at once. Nothing polite about it. But, oh boy, it was alive."
Oral history interview with Harry Sternberg, 1999 March 19-2000 January 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
" In a effort to ameliorate the grave problem of unemployment in the country, the Roosevelt administration initiated various work-relief programs for the unemployed all under the name of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA provided jobs not only for skilled and unskilled workers but also for artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and other workers on the creative arts....in Philadelphia, the Federal Arts project was employing artists to do, among other things, renderings of folk art objects that would culminate in the book An Index of American Design. As an unemployed artist, I qualified for a job at the agency and was put to work photographing Pennsylvania Dutch furniture and other expressions of folk art at a salary of ninety dollars a month.That was not precisely the kind of work I had hoped to do with my camera. I was interested in social conditions, and I thought the camera could be a means of communicating how I felt about the problems facing the country and that therefore I could perhaps influence the course of events. I thought I could portray ordinary working people in photographs with the same compassion and understanding that Van Gogh had shown for the peasants of Holland with pencil and paintbrush."
"At the time, the daily newspapers had been publishing articles about problems in the anthracite coal-ming region of Pennsylvania, where mines had been shut down during the Depression. The miners, left with no other source of income, were going into the mines illegally and extracting coal to sell wherever they could. This practice was called bootleg mining."
" The miners union was interested in helping me and arranged for me to live with a miner's family in the town of Pottsville, Schuylkill County, the center of the bootlegging activity. During my month's stay, I photographed activities not only around Pottsville but in Minersville, Shenandoah and Mahanoy City as well."
From: Photographic Memories by Jack Delano 1997 Smithsonian Institution Press
Library of Congress
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on reproduction.
To see large images of the three known Mahanoy City pictures go to the bottom of this page
Text above reads: Included in these two volumes are some photographs of Pennsylvania's Lower Anthracite Region. They were taken as part of legitimate and bootleg mining in the area. Most of my three weeks were spent in Schuylkill County, in and around the towns of Pottsville, Minersville, Shenandoah, and Mahanoy City. Volume One: