Day 1: June 22, 2005
Ol' King Coal



I'll start things off by telling you what I did not do. I did not ride the Williamsport trolleys. Nearly a year ago, on my first visit to Williamsport, I rode the Hiawatha river boat and learned that it was one of the stops for trolleys that provide a land-based view of the town's history. I tried to purchase a ticket as soon as the boat docked but found out that I had already missed the last run of the day. Two subsequent visits were during the winter when the trolleys do not run at all. It was around 4:00 when I left the customer site yesterday and I thought I might catch a trolley tour. Nope, the last departure was at 2:15. Maybe today before leaving town. Nope, it's Wednesday. The trolleys run only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. So I treated myself to a drive/walk along what I knew to be part of the trolley route - Millionaire's Row.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Williamsport was the lumber capitol of the world, the town was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. Many of these wealthy residents built their homes along Fourth Street is a section east of downtown and that section has the well deserved name of Millionaire's Row. Geographically, Millionaire's Row starts at Elmira Street with the A. D. Hermance house. Pillars are being erected whose purpose seems to be providing an "entrance" to the Row. The 1855 Hermance house is just a year newer than the Herdic house next to it. Peter Herdic is one of the biggest of the era's lumber barons and his home is now the Peter Herdic House Restaurant - one of Williamsport's more upscale dining establishments. The third picture shows that mansions really do stand in rows here. There are other exceptions like the Herdic House but many of these huge homes have become "student housing" and no longer get the attention their owners once gave them.

I crossed over the Susquehanna River and left Williamsport on US-15. Some thirty miles later, I picked up PA-61 and re-crossed  the river into the town of Sunbury. I stopped because the Northumberland County court house caught my eye and then enjoyed walking around the park like area that forms the center of a long traffic oval. I started to drive out of town but just had to stop at the aptly named Squeeze-In. The restaurant/hotdog stand is no more than eight feet wide and offers seating for five. Shawn Sterling, whose family has owned an operated the place since 1945, told me that about 270 pounds of hotdogs will be sold here in a typical week. There is a fireman's convention in Sunbury this week and the Sterlings are expecting to move 400 pounds of tube-steak. Needless to say, most of that will be take-out.

I spotted Palmer's Diner at the east edge of Shamokin and pulled in for lunch. The diner has been here since 1947 although the original burned in 1981 and was rebuilt from the ground up. It as always been a Palmer family operation and two generations of the family can be seen at work in the second picture. This is not a manufactured diner, even the original was built on site, but it is setup just like a diner is supposed to be. A few stools (10), a few booths, and the grill out front where customers can watch the cook and vice versa. As I took some pictures of the outside, this fellow arrived and asked "How about one with me in it?" "Sure thing", I responded and realized he was serious when he paused at the door. Good picture, eh?

This is one of the trip's preplanned destinations. In 1962 a fire was accidentally started in a seam of coal underneath the town of Centralia. Over forty years later, the fire still burns and probably will until the last few residents leave and the fire can be attacked by extensive excavation. About 400 residents have accepted the government buyout but ten or so are still holding on. I quickly realized that looking at an underground fire is a lot like watching submarine races. Here there are abandoned streets running by lots where the houses have already been leveled. Centralia's Municipal Building still stands and there are even emergency vehicles parked inside but there is no one to drive them. The well cared for park like setting is across the street from some of the few remaining houses. Freshly mowed grass surrounds the veterans memorial with new flags waving. The stone behind the bench marks a time capsule with eleven years yet to go.

While exploring around Centralia, I found this display in nearby Aristes. The sign reads "IN MEMORY TO THE CENTRALIA COAL MINERS". I don't know if this refers to the fire that emptied the town or to some other tragedy.

This is the long, narrow, and sloping town of Ashland, PA. At the bottom, where PA-61 turns, stands a unique monument to motherhood. This bronze representation of Whistlers Mother was erected by the Ashland Boys Association in 1938.

Also in Ashland is the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train. The steam train is a 1927 model that runs on something in good supply around here. The engine and the cars (minus the padded benches, etc.) were used in the actual mining operations. The train makes a couple of stops one of which overlooks the town of Ashland. Here the guide points out Centralia a couple of miles away and tells us that, if it were raining, we would see steam rising from the underground fire. There is also a reconstruction of a bootleg coal operation and a view of a real strip mine site. During the depression, out of work miners would manually dig tunnels into the earth to scratch out coal which they hoped to sell for around $3 a ton. The activity was definitely illegal and confrontations definitely occurred. The last pictures shows where a hill once stood. Big steam shovels stripped the earth covering from the top of a vein of coal and then dug at the vein itself.

After the steam powered ride, I boarded an electric powered train for a ride over a quarter of a mile into Mahonoy Mountain. Our guide, Rick, explains just how anthracite is mined. My idea of coal mining was "pick & shovel" digging but anthracite coal is too hard to do that on any significant scale. Anthracite is mined "bottom up" by tunneling horizontally through the veins and working upward with drills and explosives. The underground darkness (It was black as coal!) was too much for my feeble flash but that didn't stop me. The second picture is attempting to show an upward pointing shaft. A typical days work for a pair of miners would be to extend the shaft another six feet. To accomplish that, they would first put braces in the space they had opened the day before. Next they would extend the wooden ladder that got them there. Now they started drilling with long hand powered bits. Once the holes were deep enough, it was time to place the dynamite, light the fuse, and scramble down that ladder to a safe spot. Wood for braces and ladder had to be carried as much as 400 feet up that same ladder by those same two miners. About 300 pounds of lumber make up a day's supply. The fourth picture shows a shaft where a modern metal ladder has replaced the old wooden one. This is our emergency escape route should the main tunnel become blocked.

I knew of this rather unnerving statue from but I didn't realize that it marked a real motel. I booked a room and enjoyed dinner here and will likely have breakfast here, too. Guest rooms and dining areas are indeed decorated in a homey style that fits the name "Granny's Motel & Restaurant" and, glimpsed from a passing car, the bonneted statue might even look like a friendly granny. But up close, the wide-eyed figure looks more lost than loving and whatever is holding the headless doll is hardly childlike. However, the rooms are comfortable, the food is tasty, and the beer is cold.

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