BURIED TREASURE


| January/February 1999



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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.