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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.

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

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.

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