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History & Culture

Polish Miners in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania

Sister M. Accursia, Bern., O.S.F.

 

One of the most beautiful spots in the country is Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania, which lies entirely within Luzerne County, the heart of the anthracite region. Shaped like an oval, sixteen miles long from northeast to southwest and three miles wide, it is cut longitudinally by the winding Susquehanna River which meanders through hills and dales to lose itself in the gap between the mountains. On either side of the river wooded ridges rise one above the other in sublime elevation. Scattered along both banks of the river, at the bases of the hills, nestle towns and hamlets. Standing guard over these are the blackened breakers with their inevitable "culm banks" (black coal waste) --sentinels of an industry that dominates this northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.1

 

The stream of Polish immigration began to trickle into this section at the close of the war between the States and increased in 1876; then the immigration artery expanded to encompass the hundreds of 1881, followed by the ebb tide until 1900 when once more it swelled to include the largest influx of Polish immigrants. Wyoming Valley became the mecca that lured the Poles to settle here who, like the Klidzio brothers, sought respite from oppressions in their native land, or (and these were in the majority) who came here in quest of bread to earn a living. The history of the first Polish settlement at Nanticoke is the history of the "Polonia," because the conditions and hardships under which the various Polish colonies of Luzerne County were established are identical with those of the Nanticoke group.

 

The oldest Polish Colony in Luzerne County dates from the year 1868. Nearly all old Polish settlers agree that Louis Hajdukiewicz was the first permanent Polish resident of this area. Coming from Schuylkill County, where the Poles settled six years earlier, he arrived at Hazleton and then set out for Nanticoke twenty miles away.2 Hajdukiewicz found here traces of Poles who sojourned in Wyoming Valley at one time or another. Among these was a John Szumowski and Joseph Stachowiak, soldiers from this region, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Prior to 1868 a Boniewicz family resided in Nanticoke. The fact that by 1872 not one member of the family could speak the Polish language indicates the length of time they had lived here.3 It is noteworthy that despite the loss of the language the family name was not mutilated.

 

According to reports of old settlers, John Szumowski, honored as a Civil War veteran by the Poles of the Valley, came to this region before the Polish Insurrection of 1863. At the age of thirty he enlisted as a volunteer in the famous 58th New York Infantry Battalion, in 1861. He was discharged October 1, 1865 with the rank of sergeant.4 His whereabouts after the discharge are unknown, but by 1870 we find him with the Nanticoke Poles. For three decades Szumowski was a colorful person in the little colony. His ever ready wit and sense of humor made him a welcome figure wherever Poles assembled. He endeared himself to his compatriots to such an extent, that when he died in 1902 at the Home for Invalids in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Thomas Butkiewicz and Joseph Twardowski brought the old veteran's body to Nanticoke for interment in the Polish parish cemetery of Holy Trinity. And every year on Decoration Day a pilgrimage is made to his grave - a tribute to his service in the Union Army.

 

Among the local volunteers of the Pennsylvania regiments is the name of Joseph T. Stachowiak, a private in the 52nd Infantry Battalion. He enlisted in Wilkes-Barre, October 9, 1861 and was discharged as unfit for active duty, August 11, 1862.5 Old settlers do not remember exactly when Stachowiak settled in Nanticoke; they claim it must have been somewhere about 1869.

 

The opening of the Susquehanna Coal Company, first colliery operating in Nanticoke, coincided with the arrival of five Polish families in 1869.6 The company's records for that year show three seemingly Polish names; Daniel Boniewicz, Edward and Joseph Ronsa (Rzasa). It is difficult to ascertain authentic and complete statistics of Polish mine workers from 1870 to 1890, because the names were garbled dreadfully. Louis Hajdukiewicz was listed as Louis Douglass, John Sosnowski as John Poland,7 Julian Pezynski as Julian Pease and Adalbert Wegrzynowicz became George Wintergreen, to quote a few; others were recorded by their Christian names with the pseudonym Friday or Monday attached to them. The surname depended on the day the workers with the unpronounceable names began work. The next year brought new workers in the persons of Joseph Krutski and John Retalik; the third year the number was increased by Andrew Kroski, John Karczewski, Joseph Graczewski, Paul Zachaniasz, John Tutaj, Joseph Dryer, Wilhelm Friday, John Framinski, and John Janus. By 1872 there were over one hundred Poles in Nanticoke.8

 

When the coal operators found out that the Poles made excellent workers because of their strength, perseverance, and diligence, they sent agents to New York in order to direct the immigrants to the anthracite fields. The newcomers were promised jobs and homes immediately upon arriving in Wilkes-Barre and nearby localities.9 The prospective miners were often shipped in box cars to their future destinations.10 How disillusioned they must have been! The work was hard. The Polish laborer was driven without mercy and given the most dangerous places to work in. To obtain a job was quite a task. Irish and Welsh miners resented the intrusion of the new foreign labor into the mining industry. Once the alien became a laborer he was prevented, even by foul means, from becoming a miner whereby he could better his working and living status. There was a separate scale of wages for both miners and laborers set in 1869 but it was flagrantly violated. Miners hired and fired their laborers; they paid the helpers' whatever pleased them. Sometimes the miner spent the monthly wages in drink without bothering to pay his Polish helper. The injustice of the arrangement stung the Poles to the quick, and they sought redress in action. The Irish and Welsh miners learned to respect the heavy fists of the Poles and treated them more humanely after several encounters.

 

Another source of resentment to the Poles were the criticisms hurled against them for their lack of interest in beautifying their surroundings. The Poles were guilty of shabbiness and over-crowded homes, but there was a reason for it. The early Polish settlers received the worst habitation facilities because the earlier inhabitants, rising economically and socially, moved into better residential quarters or into privately owned homes, forcing the incoming Poles to take the old company houses. In every mining village, referred to as "patch," these buildings were conspicuous on account of their drabness. They stood in two rows - unpainted and dilapidated - with a pump either halfway between the row of houses or at the head of the street. Water had to be pumped by hand, bucket after bucket, and carried into the homes since running water was unavailable. The dreary appearance of the houses was compensated by the cheap rent, $3.50 a month, and the large yards. Nearly every Polish family raised vegetables and poultry, many kept a cow. These provided food for the family especially in times of strikes and satisfied the Poles' yearning for land to farm. That is why "Duck Pond," "Cabbage Hill," and "Potato Patch," to quote a few examples, became synonymous with the names of "Pollacks." With the years the Poles improved living conditions by building their own homes or getting the company houses painted and fixed. Today, according to estimates based on Taxpayers' Records, 70% of the heads of Polish families own property while others rent private homes. Still a small percentage live in company houses though some of them lack modern conveniences such as bathrooms and in some places electricity. At present the rents for homes are $6.50 for unpainted houses and $9.50 a month for painted houses of five rooms.

 

The deeply rooted faith of the Polish pioneers led them to overcome insurmountable obstacles in the practice of religious duties. The faithful rode in wagons, went by boat down the Susquehanna River, or walked to St. Nicholas Church (German), Wilkes-Barre, a distance of ten miles. As soon as the little band's population increased, the Poles of Nanticoke organized a parish of their own. Twenty families and as many single men decided to get annually a Polish missionary from Chicago until a pastor would be installed in the newly founded parish of St. Stanislaus B. M. Rev. Szulak, S.J., of Chicago celebrated Mass in 1872, in the home of Francis Miklasz, the first home built by a Pole.11

 

The actual building of St. Stanislaus Church began in 1875.12 The little church was built of rough boards, 50 feet long, and had a seating capacity of fifty. The chinks in the walls forced the congregation to push to the center when it rained or snowed. The structure resembled a barn more than an edifice, and it became the butt for jokes among the non-Polish inhabitants of Nanticoke. Catcalls and stones were showered upon worshippers hastening to Mass. This form of annoyance came to a stop, owing to a little unintentional strategy.

 

One day the usual crowd gathered to enact the obnoxious performance. To the consternation of the hooting spectators, a singular sight met their gaze. The male population of St. Stanislaus parish, resplendent in the uniforms of the "Gwardia Pulaskiego Rycerzy Polskich," marched down the street, with drawn swords. The martial bearing and the stern visages of the men struck terror into the hearts of the tormentors. Panic stricken they fled. The populace believed that the Poles, goaded beyond endurance by the persecutions, retaliated with armed resistance. Organization of church societies and patriotic manifestations put a stop to the petty annoyances. Hereafter, the Poles were rarely molested in the pursuance of religious freedom and peaceful assembly.13

 

Replacing the earlier barn-like structure, the parishioners erected a new church in 1877 and enlarged it in 1886.14 St. Stanislaus became the mother church to all the Poles dispersed throughout Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties. The steady progress of the Polish settlements necessitated the establishment of new churches to accommodate the ever increasing numbers. The following Polish parishes were organized during the great immigration period beginning from 1880 up to the outbreak of the First World War: St. Adalbert, Glen Lyon, 1880; St. Joseph, Hudson, 1882; Maternity B. V. M., Wilkes-Barre, and Nativity B. V. M., Plymouth, 1885; St. Stanislaus B. M., Hazleton, 1892; Our Lady of the Rosary, Duryea and Holy Trinity, Nanticoke, 1894; St. Peter and Paul, Plains and St. John the Baptist, E. Plymouth, 1898; St. Hedwig, Kingston, St. Mary, Nanticoke, and Holy Family, Sugar Notch, 1901; Sacred Heart, Dupont, 1903; St. John the Baptist, Exeter, 1904; Transfiguration, West Hazleton and St. Mary, Mocanaqua, 1906; St. Joseph, Pittston and St. Stanislaus Kostka, Wilkes-Barre, 1908; St. Peter and Paul. Avoca, 1909; St. Michael Archangel, Glen Lyon and Our Lady of Czestochowa, Swoyerville, 1910; and St. Joseph, Wyoming, 1914. Later, four more were added to the list of Polish parishes.15

 

The Poles of Luzerne County today support 27 parishes, 18 parochial schools, one high school, one orphanage, and one hospital.16 The parish was the hub around which the life of the Pole revolved. It satisfied his spiritual needs and at the same time fostered patriotic and church societies which played an important part in the life of the early Polish pioneer. United with his own, he faced the process of adjusting himself to the American way of living and gained the respect of his fellow-citizens. This was especially true of the late nineteenth century, when the Poles were attacked by other nationalities and only a close-knit front helped them to overcome discrimination and prejudice. Besides the protection afforded by these organizations, Polish societies kept alive the religious and cultural traditions of the homeland.

 

Fraternal and benevolent associations of national scope made little headway, at first, in the anthracite region. The Polish peasant's distrust of outside organizations, even Polish ones, had to be broken down before he consented to part with his hard-earned dollar to invest it in an insurance policy. Then, too, the idea obsessed him that his children might wish to hasten his death in order to obtain the insurance benefits. Once the false impressions were swept away, benevolent associations began to make conquests among the Polish miners.

 

Strongly entrenched in the anthracite field are: the Polish Union of W. S. of America, with headquarters in Wilkes-Barre, having 134 local groups with 6,870 adults and 3,460 juveniles; the Polish National Alliance of America drawing approximately 10,000 older members and 1,500 youth; the Polish Roman Catholic Union to which belong 4,000 members; the Polish Women's Alliance enrolling 7,000 local women and girls; and the Polish Alliance of America. at Plymouth enlisting 2,000 people.17

The Polish press kept the anthracite Pole informed about the intellectual and social aspects of Polish-American life, molded his opinion concerning important economic and political trends, and speeded up the naturalization of the immigrants. One weekly, Górnik, is published in Luzerne County. The Poles read Polish dailies and weeklies published in Chicago, Buffalo, Stevens Point, and New York.

 

The nostalgic reminiscences of the old pioneers revert to the good old days, forty, fifty years back when social gatherings among them were rites followed religiously. On Sundays and holidays the entire Polish neighborhood or individual families with the boarders gathered in a nearby grove or on the lawn. Large tables set under the trees groaned beneath the weight of food which was washed down by draughts of beer from the keg. After the "przekaska," the men played cards or exhibited feats of endurance and strength in wrestling matches, while the youth danced folk dances to the tune of the accordion or violin. The children disported themselves under the supervision of the gossiping mothers. When twilight fell, the men, tranquilly puffing on their pipes and smoking cigarettes, began their political sessions, a veritable town hall meeting on the village green. Political issues were threshed out, kings were made and unmade, grievances against bosses, wages, discriminations were denounced vigorously. With the toning down of exuberant activity, the talk turned to the home they left behind - the home in Poland. And the next day the shrill blast of the breaker's whistle called the men to their dreary and dangerous work. Old Americans recall the colorful Polish weddings, when the newlyweds were greeted at the threshold with bread and salt; the joyous abandon to festivity until the rafters shook with the stamping of feet, the strains of music, and the clink of coin thrown upon the plates before the bride. The entertainment usually lasted several days.

 

Mining patches did not provide the diversions found in large metropolitan areas; therefore, visiting became the sole form of entertainment. The Pole, gregarious by nature, took every opportunity to congregate with his own kind. Every event evoked a celebration: christenings, weddings, name day of the master and mistress of the household; Christmas and Easter were occasions for mirth, feasting, and dancing. Those times are of the irrevocable past; Poles gather now but the spontaneity and freedom of expression in simple entertainment have passed with the times.

 

At the peak of anthracite production, thirty years back, 90% of the Polish workers were engaged in mining and processing coal. Now, according to surveys made of Polish workers by the author, only 50% of the Poles are connected with the mining industry. Others are absorbed by the small local plants, wholesale and retail business, professions, trades, farming, and independent enterprises.

 

Many Polish miners are "contract miners." They are paid a fixed rate for mine car, mine ton, or yardage of coal mined. If they run against rock which must be blasted before a vein of coal is struck, they are placed on "consideration basis," a fixed daily or hourly rate of wages, until conditions clear up. "Company miners" are paid daily or hourly, even though no coal has been loaded that day; they are paid for blasting rock or coal, driving headings through caved grounds, standing and removing props, and whatever work is assigned them.18

 

Wages of mine workers fluctuated through the decades. The Polish miners of the late nineteenth century earned an average of $40 a month. Payment was based on a sliding wage scale. The wage scale of 1875 stated: "When coal sells at $5 a ton at tidewater, contract miners will receive 87 cents per mine car; miners $12.60 a week, laborers $10.80. If the price of coal increases or decreases 3 % a ton, workers will receive an advance or reduction of 1% for every increase or decrease."19 The sliding scale of wages, abolished in 1912, was superseded by the "anthracite wage agreement."

 

Substantial increases may be seen in the table of comparative wages given below. Computed on the basis of 8 hours, the table is a relative one because the mine worker's earnings are not stable. Overproduction, glutted markets, slack seasons, strikes, holidays, days off for obvious reasons, loss of hours, all interfere seriously with the total annual wage.

 

Daily earnings during same years :20

 

1916

1918 1924

1931

Contract miner

3.664

6.736 9.072

9.000

Contract laborer

3.160

5.112 6.472

6.048

Consideration miner 

3.272

5.088 6.888

6.744

Consideration laborer

2.80

4.204 6.12

5.96

Company miner

2.648

4.648 6.056

5.976

Company laborer

2.208

4.208 5.488

5.440

Total Inside Labor

2.20

4.16 5.344

5.32

Total Outside Labor

1.832

3.392 4.72

4.744

At present a laborer in the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. employed in a training section earns $52.24 weekly. When qualified as a laborer for a Licensed Contract Miner, he will receive more. After two years, he may become a certified miner with the highest wage and also a vacation allowance of $75.

 

Mining exacted a heavy toll of the lives of Polish mine workers. In 1880 there were three fatal accidents and as many non-fatal accidents involving Poles of Luzerne County.21 The number mounted steadily because more Polish immigrants arrived to work in the mines. Among the 83 men killed in the same county in 1892, 30 of them were Polish, comprising 36.15% of the quota. Of the 180 non-fatal accidents for that year, 47 or 26.11% occurred among Poles.22

 

The sum total of fatal accidents for the anthracite fields from 1900 to 1920 was 12,032. Again the 3,177 Poles exceeded the percentage of every other nationality. It is interesting to note that of the 12,032 men killed within the 20 year period 5,656 were miners.23 According to mine regulations, only miners are allowed to blast and to inspect the chamber for safety measures.

 

More men are killed inside the mines by fall of coal, rock, and roof than from any other causes such as: explosions of gas, floods, fires, falling from shaft, struck by mine cars. Collapse of roof called a squeeze is the greatest cause of anxiety. The sectional foreman's usual greeting is "How's your roof this morning? Let's see you test it?" The miner taps the roof with a steel bar and places his hand upon the roof to detect vibration; if it is present, the miner is instructed to stand props or pry loose the overhanging piece of coal. Visible signs of a squeeze are particles of coal forced out of the pillar by the strain and the buckling and crushing of timber. Miners know these signs and get out in a hurry. Those are trapped who work in remote rooms and cannot be warned in time to evacuate the place. Old miners foretell a squeeze by the exodus of rats from the workings.

 

Polish immigrant workers associating with older employees acquired characteristics peculiar to the psychology of miners. "Coal miners are more independent, individualistic, and jealous of their rights than any other labor group."24 Since the men work in "chambers" singly or in twos, close supervision by the sectional foreman is impossible; therefore, the worker is thrown upon his own initiative, resourcefulness, and responsibility. The very method of illumination - the light from the lamp on the miner's cap - accentuates the individual rather than the group. The darkness, coupled with the always present physical danger, makes each man his own safety inspector, and develops individualism to the point of contempt for authority. Constantly exposed to mining hazards, the miner becomes casual, at times reckless, but displays outstanding courage in mine disasters.

 

Miners are quick to raise their voice in complaint or condemnation; and they harbor the memory of injuries long after the abuses have been righted. Operators must deal tactfully in settling real or fancied grievances. From the viewpoint of operating officials, miners have the weakness of indulging in strikes called out by the leaders of the most powerful union in the United States. Polish miners are especially obedient and loyal to their union leaders, sometimes even against their better judgment. Yet, the average Polish miner is not a radical always threatening to strike. He is a religious man - brushing daily against death draws him closer to God. He is patriotic: according to diocesan records, miners of Polish extraction have given more sons to the United States armed forces than any other racial group of Wyoming Valley. He is a family man: Polish miners have the largest families. Although the Polish mine workers are quick tempered, argumentative, proud, and hard drinking, they are also intelligent, courageous, alert, industrious, and dependable. They are like the coal they mine - hard and highly volatile.

 

Wyoming Valley is the homeland of 150,000 Americans in whose veins flows the blood of the Polish race. They have assimilated themselves with their communities and as community leaders participate in functions pertinent to their respective communities. Besides supplying the bulk of the laboring force for local industries,25 Poles are engaged in various professions and trades :26

 

540 businessmen 1 register of deeds
25 medical doctors 1 commissioner
30 dentists 1 representative
60 nurses 1 banker
400 school teachers 1 judge
26 lawyers 1 brewery owner
1 district attorney  

There are numerous councilmen, school directors, bank workers, and court clerks. The oldest Polish colony of Nanticoke is justly proud of her three native sons who were elected judges of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Hon. John Aponick, Hon. Frank Piekarski, and Hon. Felix Piekarski.

 

What about the Polish mine workers? Have they advanced? Yes, as surveys personally conducted by the author clearly indicate. Polish miners are on grievance committees, conciliation boards, board of examiners of men aspiring to become certified miners, heads of local unions, firebosses, and sectional foremen. They have not as yet attained the positions of high officials in the mining industry. But they have risen far above the level on which they began - which is the truest index of their achievement.

 

The position of Polish American miners today is certainly a far cry from that held by the little band of Poles who settled in Nanticoke seventy-six years ago, and whose assets were a burning love of freedom; an indomitable will, and a sustaining hope in American democracy.

 

1 Oscar Jewell Harvey, A History of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County - Early Wyoming Valley History, (Wilkes-Barre: 1900). Vol. 1, 43.
2 "Ludwik Hajdukiewicz przez wszystkich uwazany za pierwszego osadnika polskiego." Rekord Niedzielny, (August 24, 1924)
3 Najpierwsi przybysze polscy w Nanticoke." Ibid.
4 Mieczyslaw Haiman. Historia Udzialu Polak6w w Amerykanskiej Wojnie Domowej (Chicago: 1928). 241.
5 Ibid., 254.

,
6 "Pierwszy naplyw polskich osadników," Rekord Niedzielny, (Aug. 24, 1924)
7 "Pierwsze nazwiska polskie w ksiegach Susquehanna Coal kompanii," Ibid. 
8
Ibid
9 "Krótka historja parafji Najsw. Marji Panny w Wilkes-Barre," Pamietnik Zlotego Jubileuszu, 1935., 13.
10 "Polacy przyjezdzali 'box karami'." Rekord Niedzielny, (Aug. 24, 1924)

11 "Pierwsza Reduta w Powiecie Luzerne," Rekord Niedzielny, (Aug. 24, 1924)
12 St. Stanislaus Parish Records.
13 "Polacy Poczynaja sie Organizowac," Rekord Niedzielny, (Aug. 24, 1924),
14
Parish records of St. Stanislaus Church.
15 "Wykaz Statystyczny Polskich Parafii w Dyecezji Scrantonskiej." Praca (Thursday, October 23, 1924). 11.
16 Compiled from
The Catholic Directory for 1945. Passim.
17 All the STATISTICS quoted have been obtained from the General Secretaries or from the Regional Directors of the Organizations in question.
18 Hudson Coal Co. The Story of Anthracite. (New York: 1932). 123-131.

19 Evans, Chris. History of United Mine Workers of America from 1860 to 1890. (Indianapolis. Ind.: n.d.). 36, 499.
20 Anthracite Hourly Earnings, United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. In: Request of Anthracite Operators for a Modification of the Wage Scale, (Washington: 1932). 22.
21 Reports of the Inspectors of Mines of the Anthracite Coal Regions of Pennsylvania for the Year 1880 (Harrisburg: 1881). 86 - 135.
22 Reports of the Inspectors of Mines for the Year 1892. (Harrisburg: 1893). 73 - 163.
23 Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania, Part 1, Anthracite 1919- 1920, (Harrisburg: 1921). 50 - 51.
24 Samuel S. Wyer, Fundamentals of Our Coal Problem, (Columbus: 1931). 10.
25 Appraisement List of  1943 and The Pennsylvania Ninth Industrial Directory. Passim.
26 Compiled from Directories and
The Pennsylvania State Manual, 1938. Passim

 

This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. III. No. 1-2, January-June 1946, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.

 

  
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