The following article is reprinted with permission from Pennsylvania Farmer. The article first appeared there in the March 22, 1952 edition.
Life on the Mississippi may have been more glamorous, but the North Branch of the Susquehanna which flows through the rich anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania has a richness of its own. On its placid bosom ply a weird assortment of river craft which sweep its bottom with huge vacuum cleaners for the precious mine waste of the great anthracite breakers. For a distance of 80 miles, from a point below Shickshinny in Luzerne County to a point opposite the State Capitol in Harrisburg, powerful dredges scour the river bed for its treasure of 'black diamonds.'
The 'take' from the river is variously estimated at from one to two million tons of coal annually, but the once-profitable business is slowly dying of starvation since the State, in 1946, passed its clear streams act. The collieries now are required to build huge desilting basins to cleanse all mine waste from the polluted mine water before releasing it into the creeks and tributaries of the river. Before the passage of this act, river men operated their rigs from early spring until December. Now they are fortunate if they can operate from the middle of April until the first of July.
Twenty years ago each colliery in the anthracite region was dwarfed by its accompanying pile of mine waste. For generations this culm was believed to be worthless, but with modern improvements in boiler design these former scrap piles took on a new economic significance. Today, the culm banks have disappeared. The streams which formerly ran black with mine refuse are now running clear.
Where Does It Come From?
The question of where the million-odd tons of coal which the dredges remove annually come from is a puzzling one. Of two common theories, the most plausible is that the huge deposits of coal now being dredged from the river have lain in seams and pockets in the river bed for scores of years and represent the accumulated mine waste from a century of mining operations. Spring ice floes sweep the bed of the river and transport the valuable mine waste downstream. The other theory holds that there are rich veins of virgin anthracite running through the river's bed which are eroded by the spring freshets. Either or both theories may be true, but the fact remains that thousands of tons of coal are still being removed from the river.
Most of the coal tipples along the Susquehanna are owned by entrepreneurs who employ five or six men to operate the various pieces of equipment. The enterprising 'gamblers,' not unlike their Mississippi counterparts, risk their fortunes and sometimes their lives on the vagaries of the river. A typical plant such as the one shown in the accompanying photographs costs in the neighborhood of $45,000.
Equipment usually includes a gasoline-powered dredge, a powerful tug or pusher, several large barges for handling the coal, a drag-line conveyor for transporting the coal from the open barges to the cleaning table, several powerful pumps, huge bins for storing the coal after it has been graded and storage space for thousands of tons of processed coal. The drag-lines and pumps are powered by electricity. Maintenance and repair of the equipment is a full-scale job in itself.
Suck Up Coal
Operations for most of the river plants are similar. The dredges are equipped with a six or eight-inch suction pump. A long metal tube which resembles the business end of a tank-type floor cleaner is lowered over the side of the dredge where it sucks the muck from the river bottom. The pilot of the dredging machine is wise in the ways of the river. He locates coal pockets by thrusting a slender wooden pole into the river bed and so uncanny is his skill that he can determine with accuracy both the depth and the quality of the coal in the pocket. The powerful pump sucks up the coal and passes it through a revolving screen where the combustible material is separated from stones and foreign objects such as bottles and cans. If the coal pocket is extensive, the dredge will 'dig' ten tons of coal in an hour. The screened coal is deposited on a flat-topped barge moored alongside the 'digger. ' These barges are made of virgin white pine and are approximately 12 feet wide by 40 feet in length.
Two types of dredges are used in river operations. One type is pushed to the site of a rich coal deposit by the tug and anchored at three points with drag lines. By means of a winch, the dredge is moved forward and either to right or left while engaged in sweeping the mud from the river bottom. The dredge shown in the photograph is self-propelled and can sweep a wide area at the will of the pilot. This type of craft is superior when the coal deposits are sparse or the pockets widely scattered.
When the barge is loaded with 20 to 24 tons of river coal, a tug picks up the loaded flat and pushes it upstream or downstream to the cleaning plant. In the photograph is shown a 300-foot drag line which raises the coal on the barges to a height of 40 feet above the level of the river. The coal, containing a large percentage of gravel, flows by gravity from the tipple to an oscillating table where the mine waste, being lighter in weight than the gravel, is floated off with the assistance of a continuous stream of water supplied by a three-inch pump. The table in the photograph was designed for placer mining and was purchased on the West Coast. A wood flume carries the sand and gravel back to the river bank where a large sand spit soon inches its way out into the channel.
Coal Is Graded
The coal, now almost free from impurities, is graded into sizes commonly called barley, buckwheat, and stove and is stored in overhead bins by auxiliary drag lines. Aside from small quantities of slate and ash, the smaller sizes of river coal are equivalent to fresh-mined anthracite. The finer sizes are used by industries or public institutions in the surrounding area. Some fine coal is shipped out by rail, while large quantities of furnace coal are used by local residents.
Some idea of the demise of the river industry since measures were taken to eliminate mine waste from the streams may be gained from one operator's statement. In 1947 he took 15,000 tons of coal from the river. Today he will be fortunate if he can dredge 6,000 tons during the present two and one-half month season.
While the Susquehanna is normally calm and unruffled, river men must always contend with their two great antagonists: low water and high water. Sudden storms lash the river into a frenzy, sending three-foot waves reeling against the anchored dredges. Spring floods crest at 30 feet and hurl ice, trees, and other debris into the screening plant workings. When the river is low, jagged rocks submerged a few inches below the surface often rip the bottoms out of barges and tugs. In winter the boats are drawn out of the river on steel rails with windlasses for major repairs. The reconditioned craft are launched early in the spring.
In all, it is an arduous life, but the river men love it. Today they survey the future dimly and long for the old days when anthracite flowed from the collieries in a seemingly endless stream.
Our thanks to Brent Musser Jr., 192 East Black Creek Road, East Earl, Pennsylvania 1 7519, for providing us with the issue of Pennsylvania Farmer in which this article originally appeared.