Author/photographer explores NEPA’s anthracite legacy with new photo book
WILKES-BARRE — Broken windows and a staircase strewn with rubble.
Grime-covered conveyor systems that hadn’t moved for decades.
An abandoned, graffiti-covered highway, buckled by an underground fire.
Author Lorena Beniquez, of Williamsport, was drawn to photograph those subjects as she collected material for her new book, “Lost Coal Country of Northeastern Pennsylvania,” which Arcadia Publishing has included in its Images of Modern America series.
“A lot of people will take it purely as a history book,” Beniquez said.
But for her, the project was a way to explore a legacy.
The author, who grew up in Exeter and West Wyoming and graduated from Dallas High School before studying mass communications at Mansfield University, knows her great-grandfather Stefano Pantano was a coal miner and also ran a speakeasy. But she doesn’t know much more than that.
“I’m so embarrassed that I don’t know” what town he lived in, she admitted.
Beniquez believes the lives of miners and their families were filled with so much hardship that many of them wanted to avoid talking about it. So they might not have shared with their descendants the tales of back-breaking, dangerous labor. Or the breaker boys who separated sharp pieces of coal and slate by hand instead of going to school. And the widows who were evicted from coal-company housing the day their husbands died.
“If you let your mind sink deeper into what they literally went through,” she said, “when you’re sitting in your nice, gas-heated house with your laptop, you can’t help but think how fortunate you are.”
Beniquez, who is 50, was intrigued by the Huber Breaker that once dominated the landscape in the borough of Ashley. She visited it again and again to shoot photos, long before she had a digital camera.
“The Huber was my first muse,” she said. “It really resonated with me. I was 19 or 20 when I first went there. I kept going back, and most of the stuff I shot there was on actual film.”
When she learned it had been torn down, she said, “I was heart-broken.”
The Huber had been Pennsylvania’s second-to-last breaker still standing. In her book, she devotes the first chapter to Pennsylvania’s last standing breaker, located midway between Mahanoy City and Shenandoah in the former village of St. Nicholas, Schuylkill County.
That breaker, too, is “winnowing away as demolition continues,” she wrote.
Beniquez also explored the site of the Knox Mine disaster, when billions of gallons of Susquehanna River water rushed into a mine near Pittston on Jan. 22, 1959, and Eckley Miners Village, near Hazleton, where cabins and a museum offer testimony as to how miners lived in the late 1800s.
She reports that visitors to Centralia, in Columbia County, find it is not as easy as it once was to spot wafts of smoke seeping from an underground mine fire that has been burning for decades, shot photos of the now abandoned “Concrete City” the DL&W railroad built near Nanticoke for miners and railroad workers in 1911 and visited Scranton’s Lackawanna Coal Mine and Steamtown National Historic Site.
It’s important to remember the past, she said, to commemorate the miners and honor them for what they endured.
“It makes me sad to think all these men who came from other countries to discover a new land spent so much time under that land, without the time to enjoy the resources where they moved to, or even the daylight.”
Beniquez’s photographs will be on display in the art gallery at King’s College, with an artist reception 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 6.
She also will appear at a book signing 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 9 at Barnes & Noble at the Arena Hub in Wilkes-Barre Township.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.