Social media is a game-changer for artists and writers. It enables us to share our work globally and to, essentially, be our own marketing teams. Most importantly, it connects us with the world in ways that were previously unattainable.
Our documentary project on Ashley’s Breaker is fast developing into a case study on the powerful impact that social media can have on our craft. Without it, our research and exploration would be lost among the billions of sites on the web.
While there are likely dozens of ways each of us has used social media to share information about the breaker project, the most compelling example started from an unexpected Twitter connection.
When I’m in Ashley – or anywhere that’s outside of my normal routine – I tend to tweet about what I’m doing. I’m a journalist at heart, and Twitter is the perfect platform to engage in some micro reporting. It’s become an important part of my storytelling arsenal, and I tweet as much for myself as for anyone who may (or may not) be reading my posts.
On a recent trip for the breaker project, I tweeted that we had “just interviewed a 94-year-old former miner in West #Pittston.” One of my colleagues – Jill, an economist in the Philadelphia area with whom I had only recently connected via Twitter – re-tweeted me, then tweeted again to say she grew up near #Pittston.
It gets better.
After I sent her our project’s link, she tweeted me back to say that her uncle’s father served as a barber in the town of Ashley for more than 60 years AND he lives right across the street from the Huber Breaker.
So she called her uncle, who connected her with his father, who agreed to sit down for an interview with us the following day.
John Kish turned out to be among our most interesting interviews to date. Although he wasn’t a miner himself, he cut the hair of hundreds of mine employees through the years, bringing a unique perspective to our exploration of the coal culture.
An artist as well, Kish was inspired to create a pencil wood sculpture of the breaker – which we’re trying to track down for this project. (Side note: leads are welcome!)
Despite the fact that I work with Jill at my day job (at a community college in the Philadelphia suburbs), we would have never had this conversation face to face. That’s the power of social media.
On one of our recent trips to Ashley, we had the opportunity to interview 94-year-old former miner Bill Hastie, who shared with us his knowledge of the Ashley Planes (among many, many other topics for later discussion).
Built in 1837 and used through 1948 — making them the longest-lived inclined planes in history — the Ashley Planes were comprised of three separate inclined railroad systems that transported coal between Ashley and Solomon’s Gap. With only 2.5 miles of track, the system provided a shortcut for transporting tons of coal up the mountain — an otherwise 12.5-mile journey by traditional rail.
While we had previously read about the Planes in our research of the Huber Breaker, we didn’t realize, until our conversation with Mr. Hastie and his daughter Megan, that remnants still exist.
But before we could explore the Planes, we had to find them — a surprising challenge.
While a Google search resulted in lots of hits for Ashley Planes, none provided a clear location or directions. So we hit the road. A few miles away in Sugar Notch, we asked a group of teenagers (who were doing what teenagers do) for some help. The result? Lots of blank (bloodshot) stares and directions to “keep driving straight” and it will be “right there.”
So we found our way back to Ashley and asked some nice residents — one who happened to be the town’s former postmaster – to point us in the right direction. To our surprise, they didn’t know either.
Yet, we were determined to solve what was becoming the mystery of the Ashley Planes. Another Google search led us to a RailRoad.net discussion board and insight into finding and navigating the area. A short drive and 10-minute hike later, we arrived at a stunning waterfall and pond that locals were using as a swimming hole.
We kept hiking up the rocky incline and found some remnants of the Planes – some wires, concrete slabs and a large pipe (now repurposed as a diving board) that we later learned fed water from the reservoir system to the Breaker during its operation. We also learned that locals know this area as “The Sandy” (not to be confused with its counterparts, “The Millie” and “The Rocky”), which may explain our struggle to get directions (not to mention the fact that some swimmers we met had no idea the area was one time used to transport coal).
Now realizing that we only explored a small portion of the Planes, we’ll soon be heading back to hike the remainder. In the meantime, check out Annie Bohlin’s comprehensive history of the Ashley Planes, courtesy of the Mountain Top Historical Society.
Blue Coal – Initially, I thought the term was coined to describe the bluish iridescent sheen reflected by holding anthracite coal in certain light. I remember doing this as a kid, adding it to my rock collection, and thinking, “ooh, shiny.” However, my recent indoctrination into Pennsylvania’s coal culture has taught me an important lesson in history and … marketing???
That’s right, marketing. Blue Coal is a trademarked brand, not an adjective as I had originally thought. In 1939, the Glen Alden Coal Company actually painted their coal blue as a marketing ploy to distinguish its coal from that of its competitors. But the company took it one step further by actually promoting its product as being superior, longer burning, and even more “healthful” than other coal. No wonder the PR “spin” profession was so poorly regarded in that era!
My research on Blue Coal led me to a 2008 NEPA Crossroads discussion board where members were discussing the various ways companies marked their coal in the 1940s. One contributor suggested that the practice of painting coal was abandoned when the EPA banned the use of lead-based house paint circa 1978.
Yikes! Does that mean Blue Coal’s “famous blue tint” was a leaded health hazard? My research came up empty until I found this gem tucked away on page 20 of a 1991 report on the Huber Coal Breaker by the Historic American Engineering Record:
Described as a ‘harmless tint’ used for consumers’ protection in the company’s promotional film produced in the 1940s, no evidence seems to exist regarding the chemical composition of the coloring.
In other words, we don’t know. And those who do know sure aren’t talking. However, the Glen Alden sales division wasn’t concerned with the chemistry behind the campaign when it encouraged customers to “take the guesswork out of fuel buying” by purchasing “America’s Finest Anthracite” with the “famous blue tint.
Blue Coal advertisements live on today in podcasts of RKO Studio’s “The Shadow,” featuring Orson Welles. Check out a partial clip at the top of this post.
I think this may be a record (at least for me) to develop a project and get it online. In late May, a web surfing session about something totally unrelated (photographing rivers) led me to Pennsylvania’s Coal Country viewing images of a monstrous structure, the Huber Breaker. The problem was I was viewing other people’s images. I needed a set of my own.
Several emails and text messages later, a small crew (more about us later) well suited for documenting the breaker decided to go get started. The goal: exploration, learning and contributing to its preservation using our expertise as story tellers.
So as we are cracking the champagne bottle just in time for Independence Day, stay tuned as the project evolves. Look for interviews, blog posts, video clips, eventually a short documentary series.