Ghosts of Mine StreetMar 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Linda Kennedy
It was the ’60s, rock was involved, and the Brits were everywhere. But this wasn’t the British Invasion of the 1960s I was seeing. Before me were weathered and lichen-covered headstones marking the final resting place of English, Welsh, and Scottish families who had travelled over an ocean to Tioga County, settling in Fall Brook in the 1860s. Here were Robert and Annie Russell from Cumbernauld, Scotland; Robert Muir from Glasgow, Scotland; and Robert Hambley from Cornwall, England. Like me, they were not familiar with warm and humid summers (hopefully they enjoyed them more than I do), and, like me, they would have had a first sighting of a bear, raccoon, opossum, a rattlesnake, and experienced their first mosquito bite. But that is probably where our similarities end. Why had they come, and what kind of home did they make in Tioga County?
When I landed in Tioga County ten years ago as a newly hired geoscience professor at Mansfield University, I felt very much at home in these hills and valleys that reminded me of Scotland. The mining town of Fall Brook first came to my attention a few years ago after a student told me there were Scottish people buried in an abandoned cemetery in the equally abandoned town. So, I took a wee donner (stroll) to see the stones of my fellow countrymen and women, people who, over one hundred and fifty years ago, left Scotland, almost certainly from my hometown of Greenock, aboard sailing or steam ships on a three-week ocean crossing to an unknown land. What was this village? I had so many questions. Clearly, I needed to do some digging. As a professional archaeologist, I was up for that.
In the Same Vein
Fall Brook was a mining town, formed by the Fall Brook Coal Company. (Modern maps show it as one word, Fallbrook, but I’ll use the original spelling.) Like the nearby settlements of Morris Run, Antrim, Arnot, and Blossburg, it started small and grew—its population was 2,500 at its height. That’s only slightly smaller than Wellsboro today.
I didn’t know much about mining life, but I knew Scotland and northeast America were once joined. The coal fields of Pennsylvania and Scotland formed from organic sludge accumulated in large swamps that stretched across the tropical zone of the supercontinent Pangea millions of years ago. The fracture that eventually appeared and tore apart the supercontinent resulted in Scotland on one side and North America on the other, and these two areas of land, originally parts of a whole, drifted apart for the next 150 million years, the space between forming the Atlantic Ocean. I love to tell my students that not only are the Pennsylvania and Scottish coal fields the same geological formation, but that Appalachia and the Scottish Highland Mountains are also the same mountain range, again separated when Pangea broke apart. It connects me to my home country in some strange way—as if the coal seam were a Main Street stretching across the sea.
As I read more history, I stumbled on a familiar name and nearly fell out of my chair. Sir Charles Lyell, whom I’d first learned about in school, one of the grandfathers of the geology discipline, had actually left England to visit the Blossburg mines in 1841. Upon his return, he published a paper in which he describes the rock/coal/fossils seen in Tioga County and how these rocks were the same rocks he knew so well in the UK coal fields. Though the miners didn’t have much formal learning, they, like Lyell, would’ve recognized the rocks of Tioga County—the shale and sandstone. These rocks wouldn’t have been foreign to them. But what brought the miners here?
The British Are Coming
Next, I paid a visit to Joyce Tice, director of the History Center on Main Street, Mansfield. Myself, Joyce, and her dog crammed ourselves into a small office brimming—spilling over, actually—with local history materials she has tirelessly collected and curated. With her help, I unearthed the 1860, 1870, and 1880 census returns for Fall Brook. Holy crow! So many familiar names. As I read, it was like I was back in school hearing the teacher take attendance: Allen? Anderson? Blair? Cameron? Hunter? Murray? Patterson? Pollock? Russell? These Scottish miners were part of a larger body of British (English, Scottish, and Welsh) and Irish miners who, combined, made up 60 percent of the Fall Brook workforce in 1860, increasing to 71 percent ten years later, with a few Swedish, French, and German miners filling the ranks. But I still did not know why they came.
Turns out it was unions that brought them across the sea. The Civil War (1861-1865) created a labor shortage just as Fall Brook Coal Company was getting started (incorporated in 1859). Simultaneously the UK—England, Scotland, and Wales—was experiencing an economic downturn. To reduce the mining labor market and keep wages high, British mining unions paid ship passage for entire families to a variety of countries, including the U.S. The Scottish Miners Union promised ten shillings from the General Fund to any miner who emigrated in 1862, and, although not a fortune, the incentive seemed to work. Throughout the 1800s, Scottish people boarded ships in Greenock, most likely as third class (steerage) passengers, and emigrated to all corners of the world (some voluntary, some not so much).
I’ve spent many hours at Greenock harbor, and I know the cobblestones, the grand central clock, and the large black moorings that are largely unused these days. I have seen old photographs showing tall ships stacked three deep next to the harbor wall, cargo ready for loading, and the blur of many hardworking people (some of my ancestors among them). It is now a quiet, restful place offering a magnificent view across the Firth of Clyde to the highlands beyond. As their ship departed Greenock, those long-ago crew members and passengers would have passed the Cumbrae Islands, Arran Island, and, weather permitting, viewed the ancient mountains of Argyll before heading out onto open ocean for three weeks. A very different travel experience from my own, comprised of a six-hour flight and one awful chicken dinner.
Fall Brook Borough, incorporated in 1864, was a boom town that had, at its zenith, two schools, three churches, a variety of friendly societies, and a rather fancy hotel. There were eight named roads: Water Street, Mill Street, Main Street, Fallow Street, Second Street, Dublin Street, Canton Road, and Catawissa Road. Fall Brook’s Main Street is now known as Welch Mountain Road. Miners and their families resided in two-story wooden homes, each with a stone-lined basement used for storage, and heated with pot-bellied stoves. Antrim amateur historian Mike Krystoff describes how miners would build a rectangular wood structure in their homes, about five feet tall, known as a cubby. The cubby stood in front of the chimney, and the pot-bellied stove’s flue ran through the cubby into the chimney. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), miners often could not afford to purchase coal but instead scavenged hemlock to burn. The flue from the woodstove extended through the second floor, helping to heat the house, especially if a second stove was added upstairs.
These homes, each a hub of joy, sadness, illness, fatigue, birth, death, and possibly homesickness, have now sunk into the soil. All of Tioga County’s coal towns suffered when the coal played out and coal companies left. As Mike notes, “That’s the sad fact of a one-industry town.” Fall Brook completely disappeared—the borough no longer exists, the buildings are gone, the railway is gone, the chutes are gone, and the miners moved on.
Telling the Ground Truth
Most of the land that belonged to the Fall Brook Coal Company is now state forest land. And as public land, it is perfect for me and Mansfield colleague Lee Stocks to use as an outdoor classroom for our students who need to learn and develop their mapping skills. In 2019, Pennsylvania completed a high detail elevation mapping project of Tioga County that shows undulations on the land surface in very high detail. Lee and I were waiting for these maps to be released to the public when covid struck and all instruction went online. When the maps were finally released in 2021, we were back to in-person classes. We jumped at the chance to take students to Fall Brook where we could compare what they saw on the maps with what they could see on the actual ground. This is called ground truthing. Any feature on the map that was straight, square, rectangular, or perfectly circular meant something. Mother Nature typically does not create landscapes with such geometry, but humanity does. And there it was! Two rows of equally spaced rectangles running along either side of Fallow Street.
That fall, we drove a van of students up Welch Mountain Road. The land was overgrown with brush and killer briars, all taller than my wee five feet. But I dove in, using my arms to sweep apart the vegetation, moving as if swimming in an upright position. In just a few minutes I found it—the collapsed rock of a stone-lined basement. The students looked at me, looked at the rocks, looked back at me.
“It’s just a pile of rocks, Kennedy.”
I look at the student who said this, then at the others. I can’t understand why they’re not excited. As I turn back to the rocks, I see the man of the house emerge. He walks past me, and I smell his wool jacket, then hear the crunch of hobnailed boots as he steps onto Fallow Street, turns left and walks down the hill to Main Street. I hear his familiar Scottish brogue as he calls to his neighbor emerging from an identical home on the other side of Fallow Street. The hobnailed crunch grows in volume as more and more men emerge. I know them, these men are my dad, grandad, and uncles, men who worked in the shipyards back home. Men who worked in a restricted man-world, only glimpsed by wee lassies like myself when the great big blue wooden gates opened at 5 p.m. and hundreds of men spilled out onto our Main Street, which we Scots call High Street. A sea of grey and blue boiler suits crunching the cobblestones with their hobnailed boots, laughing, joking, and telling each other stories that they will never repeat to their wives, daughters, or mothers.
The school-age children are next to emerge. They pass me, laughing and squealing, and they also turn left and walk in the direction of Main Street toward the schoolhouses. I know these children. Like my own two sons, they were born here in America. They are Americans. All they know is this valley, and, to them, Scotland is the foreign country, a strange place a long way across a large ocean.
And finally, the woman of the house emerges, a small child on her hip and on the other a basket holding clean, wet nappies that need to be hung out. I know this woman. She is both my grandmothers. Women raised before electric appliances. Women with strong hands made rough by hours of scrubbing and hand washing. When she has finished cleaning up everyone else’s mess, she will tidy herself and her small child as best she can, and then take her turn to walk to Main Street. She will walk to the company store, as it houses the post office, and there will post a letter to her own mother back home, telling her only the good news and sparing her the bad. She will walk to the market and stop to talk with every other woman she meets, turning what could be a ten-minute walk into a two-hour walk. These women are threads, and as they come together, talk around each other, and then go on their way, they weave the social fabric that binds the community of Fall Brook. The woman is sure to be home in time to cook and have the tea (supper) on the table by shift’s end. The crunching returns and grows louder as the men leave their man-world and walk back home from Main Street. They are tired and covered in coal dust, but they laugh, joke, and tell each other stories they will never tell at the tea table.
So don’t tell me it’s just a pile of rocks. People were born here, people lived here, and some died here, all in the small, wooden homes just above these rock-lined basements.
Shirley Welch and her husband, Richard, live on Welch Mountain Road. Generations of Welches have farmed land on the other side of the ridge from Fall Brook, and the story of selling potatoes to the residents of Fall Brook has been passed down in the family. They were not the only farming family to interact with the miners. During a visit to Fall Brook in 1864, company owner John Magee discovered that miners from Morris Run, a competing company, were living in Fall Brook homes and some Fall Brook miners were living in Morris Run. Magee did not take kindly to this and demanded that the Morris Run miners vacate. They refused and were supported by Fall Brook miners and their relatively new union. The Tioga County sheriff assembled a posse of 200 to 300 yeomen—local farm boys—and attempted to force eviction. The miners banded together and trounced the local farm boys. Magee appealed to the Pennsylvania governor who subsequently sent the Bucktails, a local volunteer regiment of Civil War soldiers. The miners, knowing that they had met their match this time, backed down, and watched their Morris Run neighbors carted off with all their worldly possessions. Their new union was dissolved.
Annette Thompson, one of the directors at the Coal Festival Museum, helped me excavate through a ton of information the late Keith Lindie had collected. Keith was an avid local historian, and he’d saved every scrap of information he came across regarding Blossburg and Fall Brook. As Annette and I were leaving the museum’s storage facility, I turned to face the door and hit the motherload. Hanging there on the wall next to the door was a framed, utterly beautiful, hand-drafted map of Fall Brook Borough. Red, blue, and black ink on yellowed canvas. I was glued to the spot.
I begged Annette to allow me to open the frame to see if there was any information on the back of the map that might provide insight into who made it and why. Annette trusted me with it over my Christmas break, but, unfortunately, there was no additional information. I scanned the map, making a digital copy for myself and the Coal Festival Museum. Did I already say it was a beautiful map? It was also the most detailed I’d seen, illustrating the location of barns, carpenter shops, tin shops, blacksmith shops, sawmill, residences, schools, churches, and the drifts—the openings to the mines. The streets were named. The buildings were numbered and now I knew the addresses, even though they no longer exist. The world that the Fall Brook miners lived and worked in was more alive to me. This was the best gift ever. Santa’s got nothing on Mr. Lindie!
The British Are Going
If they were to suddenly reappear today, these Fall Brook residents would not recognize the valley, my Fall Brook valley. Their valley was treeless, every tree a valuable resource, cut to build a town and a mine complex. It might seem quiet to them, as their valley was noisy with the rush of coal tumbling down three-story high chutes into waiting empty carriages of whistling Fall Brook Company steam engines. Their valley was filled with smoke from pot-bellied stoves, the steam powered sawmill, and drift engines used to haul coal to the surface. My valley has grown a new generation of trees, and invited beaver back to build dams.
It has been 164 years since the Fall Brook valley was initially surveyed for coal. Between 1858 and 1900, mining here resulted in the clearing of a forest, establishment of a small town, a wash of British and Irish mining families, and finally abandonment. Most Fall Brook residents moved on to other local mine towns, others moved farther west, and some may have returned to their native countries. But some lived out their last days in the valley and remain there still. When I revisit the cemetery now, I am much more keenly aware of Fall Brook’s former residents. How many times did they walk behind a horse-drawn cart along this very path to bury a friend, neighbor, spouse, or child? I walk alongside them now, following their footsteps into that small cemetery and, when I do, I speak to those I know came from Scotland but who never left—I speak to them quietly in their native tongue and hope it provides some comfort so far from home. Because these are my people, my people in Tioga County.