I grew up in semi-rural North Eastern Pennsylvania (NEPA), on a tiny blip on the map called Browndale. I usually have to tell people I’m from Forest City, a slightly larger speck on the map known for being the starting spot of the Steamtown Marathon, having what the Forest City News thinks is the largest memorial to miners and an alleged birth place of Andy Warhol (although I’ve never seen any factual evidence to back this up). A reporter for the illustrious New York Times once visited the state liquor store in Forest City for an article about the privatization of such institutions and declared that life here is similar to life ensconced in a Russian gulag. This statement is somehow both hilariously inaccurate and flawlessly observant.
I love NEPA unapologetically. I don’t know that I could live there full-time, but it’ll always be home. That being said, it has all the hallmarks of a dying region. The economy sucks and the job market is in the shitter, but it’s been that way since my life began in the mid-80’s; nothing new to see here. What is upsetting is that many of the traditions and events that gave NEPA, well, it’s NEPAness are also falling to the wayside; this could be a sign of moving forward, but it also lends a blandness and generic feel to a region that despite its shortcomings, is anything but. Change though, as much as we don’t want to admit it, is most often a necessary evil.
I’m going to make a point soon, I swear.
One of my favorite parts about my home is the sheer amount of undisturbed nature. The kids I teach here in Lancaster always talk about how they live “in the country,” and I find myself correcting them, letting them know that where I grew up there actually are miles of undeveloped forest, that the nearest mall is a half hour’s drive away and that cell reception is a gift, not a given. But just as NEPA is changing now, it’s changed before. The nature and countryside that’s abundant and pristine has not always been that way. The two miles or so of uninterrupted forest that separates my parent’s backyard from the backyards of Forest City’s Railroad Street was once filled with activity. NEPA’s glory days, if that’s how you want to categorize them, started in the mid-1800’s with the discovery of anthracite coal and ended roughly 100 years later when the industry became all but obsolete.
The Lackawanna Valley, which I grew up at the very end of, used to be heavily industrialized, crisscrossed with train tracks and with a veritable web of underground tunnels and shafts which still loom underneath the surface of the land. When I think about it in that sense, the nature and landscape never have been pristine, familiarity just causes me to view them that way.
I went home this weekend hoping to get one more chance to cross country ski before everything started melting. NEPA Rail Trail has done a fantastic job of converting these former railways to trails where I could ski (or hike or bike in the summer) at any time without having a far drive (one trail network literally leads right up to my backyard). As I just pointed out, at this point I’m so used to the fact that I’m skiing on old railroad beds and that many of the “mountains” that dot the area are actually ash or coal pileups or that the forest is littered with abandoned breakers and shacks and old strip mines, that I barely give thought to the fact that this now rural area was once extremely built up and industrious and that hundreds of men were literally worked gulag-style in an area I associate with outdoor recreation.
The Rail-Trail association has put in a lot of work on the former Delaware & Hudson and Jefferson railway beds that I most frequently ski on in the past year or so. A number of the old railway bridges, which were previously not suitable to cross, have been fortified and made safe and they’ve even put some informational plaques up to inform visitors on the mining-centric history. I noticed said plaques on last Sunday’s afternoon ski and actually took the time to do a little reading.
While the above plaque gave information about a mine runoff, it was the previous plaque I’d stopped at (whose picture I did not take because I’m still terrible at taking pictures) right below what was the only remaining legs to a now defunct bridge that got me thinking. The bridge had once spanned the D&H line, the Jefferson line and the fledging Lackawanna River. Less than 100 years ago right where I ski and hike, there were three separate railway lines, one of them bisecting the other two on a bridge that spanned this entire valley, busy with trains and cars full of coal that heated much of the Northeast. It would have been loud, it would have been dirty and you certainly wouldn’t use adjective like “idyllic” and “picturesque,” terms I would use to describe this landscape today, to describe the mining machine.
It’s a fascinating study, if you think about it, on how rapidly an area could change. Northeastern PA was actually home to the very first gravity railway in the United States, which in 1830 made up the bulk of the actual railways in the country. The first steam locomotive made its first run there and the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company was the first million dollar corporation in the United States. The coal industry was a big deal and it was the influx of Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovakian and Slovenian immigrants that came to mine the coal, that gave NEPA the local color I was earlier mourning the loss of. I can’t find an exact number, but the miles of mines and railways that once existed here are easily in the high hundreds. Today, like I said, you almost forget what it once was, and as my cousin and I sat and read this plaque, we wondered what it must have looked like here less than 100 years ago; how different NEPA would have appeared from the very green and tranquil and somewhat Rockwellesque NEPA that defined our childhood and adolescence.
It’s funny how such an inconsequential event could get you thinking on such a large scale. It makes me wonder what NEPA will have in store in the upcoming years. Hopefully it’s good things. It’s also revitalized my interest in the history of my home, which is one thing about Pennsylvania that we may forget from time to time: there’s absolutely no shortage of history in the places we regularly live, work and enjoy life.
I’m definitely going to do some more research on this and have a renewed interest in visiting Scranton’s Anthracite Museum one of the next time’s I go home. I’m also interested in trying to track down some pictures from the mining in Forest City, Simpson and Carbondale and compare what the landscape I’m familiar with once looked like. It’s easy to go online and find pictures from Wilkes Barre or Nanticoke or areas that embrace historical tourism more like Jim Thorpe or Eckley’s Miners Village, but shots from my home turf are a little more obscure. If anyone reading has photos of this sort, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to take a look.
How about the rest of you out there? Does anyone else happen to live or work or like me, grown up in an area with a particularly interesting past? Is it still apparent? Do you think about it often or forget about it like me? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts and stories.