Mahanoy was settled in 1859 and was a major center of anthracite coal production. From Wikipedia: “The Old St. Nicholas Breaker, located just outside of Mahanoy City, 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 of railroad track were laid, 3,800 tons of steel and more than 10,000 cubic yards of concrete were used. A mile and a half of conveyor lines, 25 miles of conduit, 26,241 square feet of rubber belting, 118 miles of wire and cable and 20 miles 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.”
Fellow photographers, Will, Andy, Dave, and I set out to capture this massive structure on the 4th of July, 2010. From our base camp located in Elmira NY we drove 3 hours into the coal mining town of Mahanoy PA. The town was little more than one long main street lined with row houses. Each house had a ‘coal door’ located on the front where, at one time, coal was dumped down a chute into a basement bin then shoveled into the furnace to burn off the cold of the long winters.
We passed through town and easily located the monstrosity just outside the city limits. We parked and lugged our equipment and an ample supply of water out into the coal fields and down towards the ominous ten story structure. It was 96 degrees, and the coal blacked earth below our feet radiated the heat of the sun back towards us at an unbearable temperature.
The path we were on narrowed and suddenly came to an end. A small abandoned structure sat on the edge of a steep cliff. We were less than 50 yards from the coal breaker but due to the cliff in front of us and the heaping walls of coal and rocks on either side of the path, we were unable to go any further. We begrudgingly turned around and walked the half mile back to the car mumbling under our breath. We chose to walk back down the road we drove in on and just enter the building through the front. We would be wide open for anyone to see us, but we had no other choice. We were all drenched in sweat as we approached the building.
As we entered the first floor the temperature dropped and cool breeze breathed new life into us. The ground floor we entered on was just that… Bare earth, cracked, parched mud. Old machines and rows of windows lined either side of the massive ground floor we were on.
We manned our walkie talkies and flashlights and split up to explore the leviathan that awaited us. Will and I headed up a rusty staircase comprised of metal grating surrounded by decaying chunks of concrete. We carefully poked our heads into a few rooms on the lower levels before deciding to head straight up to the top and start from there.
We wound our way up six or seven floors on the stairwell, cut across a few rooms and made our way up more stairs to the tenth floor, all the while wondering how stable the staircases were. We gazed in awe at the remnants of the old machines on each floor. Massive gear wheels lay prone in the dust. Thousands of pounds of old dormant metal weighed heavily on each floor. Each ton of steel seemed to bide its time, awaiting the epic moment when its weight would collapse the exhausted floor beneath it, and come crashing down in a cascade of twisted metal and debris.
We finally made our way to the summit. The view from the top was breath-taking. We stared in awe out of the broken and shattered tenth story windows and witnessed a sprawling countryside comprised of mountains of carved, plundered land. Through broken shards of glass and rusted metal we could make out the silhouettes of old cranes, machinery, and abandoned coal buildings that dotted the overgrown landscape. Trees and underbrush had grown up over the mountains of coal and torn lands surrounding the breaker. The lush green landscape hid years of excavation and abuse.
We felt warm wind through the broken windows, and I took in the overwhelming scale of this structure with its thousands of tons of abandoned and derelict machinery.
A labyrinth of grated catwalks presented themselves, their integrity in question. We tested their strength, gingerly putting weight onto them and walking on the seemly more solid I-beams below them. Gaping holes in the grating dotted the passageways at every turn. We tried our best not to look down.
While exploring the accessible parts of the top floor, we located the primary conveyor belt that at one point carried the raw coal out of the mines far below, and into the top of the coal breaker for initial processing. The dark and broken shaft, seemed to go down into infinity. We peered out of broken windows to get a better view of the conveyor shaft and the incredible distance it traveled up from the subterranean mines below.
While on the tenth floor, I explored a very dark room with lockers and old breaker switches that at one time housed the primary electrical systems that ran the coal breakers.
We then began our slow decent back down the stairs stopping off at each floor along the way to explore and discover what decaying treasures it had in store for us.
In the center of one of the upper floors, we came across one of two central control units. These seven foot rectangular obelisks appeared to control many functions of the breaker. Old valves, dials, and gauges covered the face of the ominous structure which was conspicuously set apart in an open area, away from the other machines.
We continued our decent, level by level, amazed by new sights on each floor. The second floor contained many rooms of interest, and was filled with objects and items that gave a human element to the coal breaker. We found the old changing room where the miners would suit up for the work day. Rows of benches lined the room which still contained many old work boots from years past.
Another room on the second level was the old offices. Filing cabinets, flat files, books, ledgers dating back to the 60’s, and other remnants of the breaker’s day to day operations littered the rooms. Each faded piece of paper told a bit of the story of the massive undertaking it had to have been running an operation such as this.
After shooting the second floor we headed down to ground level and met back up with Andy and Dave. As if to satisfy our curiosity about how polluted such a place might be, we discovered a room near the center of the structure where beads of liquid mercury dotted the filthy floor. Some, the size of silver dollars, glimmered brightly in the afternoon sun that drifted in through the shattered windows. We speculated that the breaker had used Mercury Vapor Bulbs which were used for their bright white light. When the bulbs were broken the vaporized mercury condensed and collected on the floor.
In the same room as the mercury an old work bench with a circular saw caught my eye as the sun bent its rays around the rusted teeth of the ancient saw blade.
At this point we had been shooting for about three hours, so we agreed to pack up and head back to Mahanoy for a late lunch. We ate at a local pizza joint which appeared to be the only place open on a Sunday that was also a national holiday. After grubbing up and re-hydrating, we headed back to shoot some more of the building in the late afternoon and evening light.
We once again ventured through the building, shooting the endless number of scenes that lurked around every tetanus laden corner. After another few hours of sweat drenched exploring we exited back outside and took some exterior shots.
It was early evening and we were completely wiped out and exhausted from our shoot. We packed up our coal dust blackened equipment, and bid farewell to the hulking beast that is the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker.
-Written by Walter Arnold Photography. Photos by Walter Arnold Photography unless otherwise noted.
Thanks to the fellow photographers who joined me on this trip: