Published October 01. 2021 12:56PM
For the past five years, Mitch Troutman has held a history of coal dust in his hands. The 35-year-old Pittsburgh resident has recently written a book titled “The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an industry: 1925-1942.”
“During the Great Depression, the coal companies shut down the mines,” he said. “There was no other place to work so some of their unemployed workers began to dig the mines illegally.”
Troutman, a Northeastern Pennsylvania historian and educator, spent hours upon hours doing research into miner bootlegging and he discovered that the “secret” history spanned the counties of Northumberland, Schuylkill, Carbon, Columbia and Upper Dauphin.
He learned that without the advanced tools that the mining companies utilized for digging, the bootleggers had to creatively improvise.
“They used primitive methods like hand drills” said Troutman. “Handmade hoists carried the coal up from the mines. Some used parked cars with a wheel removed so as to use the spinning axle to lift up the coal from the mines.”
Once a few of the bootleggers passed along the idea of their operations to other unemployed miners, the illegal business grew to a peak of 14,000 individuals. They sold the coal anywhere they could. They trucked it to Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. They set up roadside stands and even went door to door to peddle bags of coal to residents who had to heat homes.
“They did what they had to do to pay for their groceries and survive the Depression,” Troutman said.
Of course, as the business became known to the public, the mining companies hired men to find the bootleggers and bring them to justice. Arrests were made, but sympathetic judges sent them home with a small fine. Eventually, the police looked the other way because they understood the plight of the times caused household breadwinners to do whatever they could to make a buck and besides, they were performing a necessary service to the communities.
Bootlegged coal became available everywhere. “One could stop at a stand in Mahanoy City and buy fresh eggs and right next to the eggs were bags of bootleg coal for sale,” Troutman said.
Troutman has pored through thousands of articles that are referenced in his book. He tells much of his story through the personal stories of the bootleggers.
One particular anecdote chronicles the big coal companies’ efforts to drive the bootleggers out of business. He tells of the time the matter moved to the state capitol in Harrisburg.
“Ten thousand people showed up to show a force of support for the bootleggers,” he said. “So many arrived that the Capitol building couldn’t hold everyone so some were turned away from the hearings.”
Troutman describes how some men arrived, not dressed formally to face the governor, but wearing their work clothes, uncleaned and covered with coal soot from the mines.
The book reveals how the mines, with all their potential for dangerous and deadly accidents to the workers, have now become centers of recreational activities. Troutman remarked how a sense of history can be lost through the progress of time.
“Anthracite Adventures in Coal Township is an ATV off road riding trail now. Other old mines are picnic recreational areas and swimming holes. I don’t think that people having fun in these areas have much interest in what went on there in the 1930s.”
“The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners who Seized an Industry: 1925-1942 is currently available for pre-order from BootlegCoal.com. The book will be available in April.