I have always had a fascination with the way things work. Since I was a kid, I would constantly take things apart, re-assemble them and try to make them better. Machinery and I just get along real well. Recently on an urban exploration “vacation” with 3 of my friends, a location came up that really got me excited. It was an old coal breaker in Pennsylvania called “St. Nicholas Coal Breaker”. How cool is that right? Still full of old machinery, workman’s boots, control panels, wooden dies for giant machine castings, this really was an industrial playground and I was super excited.
We gained instructions on entry to this place from a friend. And we followed those instructions to the letter. We got there, parked in a special location, grabbed our camera backpacks and headed in. No sweat right? Well, wrong. Lots of sweat actually. On this day it was 98°F and not a cloud in the sky. The ground there was all old slag from the mine. Black, sandy and extremely hot. Kind of like squishy black top that doesn’t stick to your feet. So we walk about a half mile down what looks like a black dirt road and in the distance we can see the breaker. It is a huge Goliath of a building and even though it’s over 500 yards away it towers over everything. 10 stories of steel and concrete. A few numbers to wrap your head around while we turn around and try find another way in as the cliffs and piles of slag we encounter block our way.
Per Wiki: The Old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, located just outside of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, was constructed in 1930 and began operating in 1932. Half of the village of Suffolk was relocated in order to create room for Reading Anthracite’s Old St. Nicholas Breaker, the largest coal breaker in the world. 20 miles (32 km) of railroad track were laid, 3,800 tons of steel and more than 10,000 cubic yards (7,600 m) of concrete were used. A mile and a half of conveyor lines, 25 miles (40 km) of conduit, 26,241 square feet (2,437.9 m) of rubber belting, 118 miles (190 km) of wire and cable and 20 miles (32 km) of pipe were installed. When the breaker was constructed it was divided into two sides. Each side could be operated independently, producing 12,500 tons of coal a day. Once the raw coal enters the production process within the breaker it took just 12 minutes to pass through the entire breaker. For 31 years, the Old St. Nicholas Breaker prepared all sizes of famous Reading Anthracite for the markets of the world.
Okay, are you still with me? Awesome, lets take a look at this behemoth.
After going all the way back to the car we ended up parking just up the road an entering right through the front door. Not always the greatest of ideas but on this day, it was. Upon entering the St. Nicholas coal breaker we were greeted a generous blast of cool air which after our trek in the heat was nearly euphoric. Even this paled in comparison to the vision that lay before us. Masses of machinery were rising out of the muck and mud of the ground floor. It certainly looks as though water regularly floods this ground floor level. Hardened mud with animal as well as human tracks everywhere.
With the ground floor looking just a mess we headed up the stairway and to the second floor. There we found not only more massive machinery but one of the most photographed areas of the breaker, the employees locker room.
Completely unreal. Every time that I visit a place like this I always have this creepy feeling that someone or something just zapped the people away. They were there in one instance and the next they were vapor. A very intense sense of the human element.
Back down the short steps from the employee area was a pitch black room with a huge amount of electrical switching units. We could only guess that it was the main power grid but it was too dark to venture into, this time. Besides, there was so much more to explore. In fact, right around the corner was another small control room so I zipped in and decided to try some shots.
After some light painting fun we headed across the hall and into the work offices. The floor was littered with old documents dating all the way back to the 1930’s. I was really amazing that all this stuff was still here. I couldn’t help thinking about how loud this place was when the breaker was operational and how tough it must have been to work there let alone in an office environment.
Around the corner from offices was one of the St. Nicholas coal breaker funnels. Man, these things are huge. Giant pieces of anthracite were fed into the top floor of the breaker and went through a series of these funnels where the pieces got broken down into usable sizes. Then the coal exited the bottom of the breaker and was loaded onto rail cars from there. Just about every level has these giant funnels on them.
Time to explore the next level up. Little did we know that the wonders would just keep coming. Upon arrival at the next level we were greeted with a holding tank of sorts, a large swooping steam pipe and a grand view of the breakers conveyor.
After gazing at the conveyor for a bit and marveling at its construction we turned around and go the surprise of the entire exploration. A nearly complete workshop with most everything still set up!
Then there was this machine…looks like something you would find in a knitting factory, not a coal breaker. Would love to know what it did.
Having fumbled around the machine shop and managing not to chop off a finger or three we decided to head up a few floors…off to level 5. On level 5 we found the most un-believable stuff. Casting molds for a lot of the machinery found in the breaker. Giant gears that must have weighed a couple tons…and a big surprise at the end…
Here is one of the molds. This thing was huge and carved completely out of wood.
It is really amazing that this ancient building can hold all of this weight without collapsing in on itself. At the end of this level we discovered, “The Brain”. A seven-foot tall “computer” control tower!
The heat had really gotten to us by this point and we all ready to head out. So we made our way down and back to the car and headed into Mahanoy City for some pizza. After getting some food and drink in us and catching our second wind we all agreed to hit it again. So we piled in and headed back. As we were driving, out of the corner of my eye I THINK I see what looks like a man hanging from a gallows. So I dive into the nearest parking lot, everybody has the fear of death in their eyes at this point, and I yell DUDE! There is a guy hanging from a rope over there behind that wall. We get out of the car and head over to investigate. Sure enough, it is a statue of a guy, with a hood over his head, hanging from a gallows.
Yep, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Hidden behind a cinder block wall, camouflaged from the streets view is a 7ft tall statue of a hanging man. Right in the middle of town! This was pretty much the most puzzling thing I had ever seen. Then I read the plaque on the wall. In the mid 1800’s this area was a thriving center for coal mining. Working in the mines was a dangerous and dirty job, and there was nothing worse than being a coal miner. Their employers extremely harsh at the time. A lot of the miners were Irish immigrants and as conditions worsened the need for a union arose. A band of men (said to be relatives of the Irish workers) gathered together to “manage” the way that their brethren where being treated. These men were known as the “Molly Maguires”. Some of the protests held by theses men were hostile and violent acts ensued. Later on, through investigations by the federal government, ten men were detained and found guilty of being a “Maguire” member. They were all hanged for being vigilantes.
That statue was created by artist Zenos Fruakis and he was very inspired by the Irish heritage of Pennsylvania and its coal history. The statue stands in Molly Maguire Historic Park in Mahanoy City and is made of black granite/
It is a marker more for the miners than anyone. To me, it is still very strange and shocking to see.
We hop back in the car and head back to the breaker. This time it’s easy in and we spend most of the time on the ground floor. As we make our way back we see a massive amount of machinery down here. Some of it looks as though you could just flick a switch and just fire it right back up. We flicked a lot of switches, but nothing moved. 🙁
Just about whooped for the day we make two more discoveries while on the ground floor. One is very cool, and one is very dangerous. Just around the next wall is another machine shop! This time with a really cool radial arm saw and hand-made tools all over the place.
Just a few steps away from the tools I started to notice this sparkly shimmery look to the floor. At first I though that it was just eh anthracite chips. Then I realized what it was, it was MERCURY!! And it was everywhere in large quantities.
It was at this point we all decided it was time to head out.
On the way out we took a few more outside shots.
It was only after I was home and going through the photos that I had a eureka moment. I had deduced that the mercury had come from the mercury lights that were used throughout the complex. Kids and vandals had broken many of the lights and the mercury vapor had re-established itself in the basement through weather and run-off. A very hazardous byproduct of a bygone era. Glad I wasn’t running around in my bare feet that day. 😉
Many thanks to my exploration and photography partners that day:
Walter Arnold ~ TheDigitalMirage.com
Will Arnold ~ WillArnoldPhotography.com
and Dave Sargeant
The above exploration took place in 2010, just one year later I visited St. Nicholas coal breaker again. This time I would take my girlfriend and we would meet up with some new online friends and fellow explorers/photographers Amy and Tim McGovern.
This time we would take that road, and believe it or not, climb down the CLIFF! This time around was a redemption trip for me. There were several shots from the previous visit that I was not happy with. So instead of a long drawn out story, this time I will just let the photos do the talking.
Since my first visit in 2009 I have returned to St. Nicholas coal breaker several times. Even made friends with some of the neighbors and security there. They are great people and love their old coal breaker even more than I do. They have a life-long tie with family members that worked there, even the sounds and noise that would emanate from the breaker at all hours of the day. Though it is silent today, measures have been taken to keep vandals and scrappers out of the old breaker and let it serve as a monument to all those who worked and toiled there. It is one of my favorite places to film and explore and I cannot wait to go back soon. Live long old Saint Nicholas coal breaker.
To see even more cool photos from my most recent visit, check HERE.