Into the mines and hot on the trail of the Molly Maguires
The top is down and we’re riding through patch towns along the world’s largest anthracite coal ridge. Once thriving mining towns with plank houses and plain churches, most had a company store to which you’d owe your paycheck if not your soul.
On a sunny day the tough beauty of these hardscrabble towns belie the fact that at one time more men and boys worked underground than above it. They didn’t know from sunshine; we soak up every ray in the ragtop.
We pull up short in Ashland, along Route 61, amazed by the Mothers Memorial high on the ridge. She’s the world’s only 3-D replica of Whistler’s Mother and she’s been scowling down at the town since the Ashland Boys Association sat her up there during the Great Depression. The bronze matriarch sits on a granite pedestal etched with a goose-bump maxim of foot high letters: “A mother is the holiest thing alive.”
Across the street, in an old row house, we meet Jim Klock, who keeps the ghosts alive in the local historical society. He shows us sepia snapshots of Mother’s dedication day. He even has the sculptor’s original plaster-cast model of Mother herself. Jim’s a living walking tour of proud old Ashland. “I oughta know it,” he says. “Been here all my life and I’ll die here, too. My plot’s already bought and paid for.”
Mother’s park is surrounded by gorgeous WPA stonework. We sit at her feet munching crunchy little cheeseburgers with a potent homemade hot sauce from Danny’s Boulevard Drive In, a throwback shake shack up 61.
Just off the main drag, past Kitty and Dotty’s Flowers and a grand firehouse, we find the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine. Down the mine it’s 54 degrees year round, so we grab jackets from a collection of thrift store rejects. Zip up and hop aboard a clacking coal train and trundle through a timber shaft 300 feet below the surface of the earth.
Not that long ago the Pioneer was crawling with miners. Now folks come from all over for guided tours, and some leave their mark. We find cave-painting graffiti from a 1969 visit by Mercury 7 Commander Scott Carpenter: “Astronaut Was Here.”
Our guide hails from a long line of miners. “John Patrick Reese is my name,” he boasts. “I use the ‘Patrick’ so you know I’m Irish.” He shows us how to plant dynamite and how to load a cart with 16 tons of “black diamonds” and how to detect methane gas about to blow us all to kingdom come. And just to prove a point, he shuts off all the lights - even the light on his miner’s cap. It’s darker than dark. Some kid confuses our leg for his father’s and gives us a frightened pinch.
The lights are back and we spot an inspector’s report on the shaft wall that young Mr. Reese has signed tongue-in-cheek. “Inspected by Jack Kehoe,” it reads, with today’s date. “Blackjack Kehoe,” points a fellow tourist. “We saw him in that movie, The Molly Maguires.”
“Aw, that’s Hollywood,” scoffs John Patrick. “You want the real story, go to the Hibernian House and meet Jack’s great grandson.”
So we’re off to Girardville, where Joe Wayne still tends his great-grandfather’s Hibernian House tavern. “Black Jack” Kehoe was called the ringleader of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish miners fighting robber-baron owners. Corrupt Pinkerton detectives infiltrated the Mollies, and Jack Kehoe and 9 others were railroaded to a public hanging on a day locals still call “The Day of the Rope.”
“My great-grandfather was framed, and unjustly executed over in Pottsville,” Joe rails. “This is the door from his cell, and this cement anchor was shackled to his ankles.” The imposing iron door looms over the smaller man where Joe has installed these strange heirlooms behind the ancient Hibernian bar.
“I went before the pardon board 100 years after the execution. Won the only posthumous pardon of its kind in history. The board said I shoulda been a lawyer. Which is what my mother told me every day till they laid her in her grave.”
Joe takes us upstairs, past glorious murals of Jack Kehoe and fellow miners at work. The paintings glow like headlamps in the narrow stairway. He shows us cozy rooms for rent, which miners used to share in 8-hour shifts. In the old days, while one man’s at work, a second enjoys the tavern while the third roommate saws logs upstairs. When the colliery whistle blows, each man rotates to the next 8-hour position. Work, tavern, bed. “I can still see my grandmother washing bed linens every shift,” Joe sighs.
His Irish eyes smiling wide, Joe waves as we head out of town, looking for Rt 209 to Pottsville. As we approach the county seat, the enormous courthouse and ancient jail peer over the valley like medieval majestics. The scene of injustice committed 130 years ago, rectified long after by a hard won pardon.
We meet an off-duty jailer who offers confirmation. “Yup, this is where Black Jack was hung. It wasn’t right, but that’s what happened.” He tells us to follow the Molly Maguires’ trail and make sure we stop at Tony’s Lunch for a “screamer.” It’s Girardville’s favorite burger, with the hot sauce cooked right into it, just down the street from the Hibernian House. Now he tells us.
“It’s called Tony’s Lunch, but he doesn’t open till 8:30 at night,” he shrugs. “May seem weird, but we coal crackers don’t do anything easy.”
So maybe we’ll backtrack for a screamer tonight, but now there’s a Coney Island lunch grilling old-school tube steaks right down the hill. All this talk of hard time and coal mining works up an appetite, so we grab some Coneys for the ragtop. As we drill deeper into coal country we’ll look for you along the bends and back roads.
When you hit the road, here's where to stop. For a complete map and photos of all this, check out www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.
The Mothers Memorial
Put up in 1938 to honor Pennsylvania’s long-suffering coalmine mothers. Said to be the only 3-D replica of Whistler’s Mother in the world. One look at her sourpuss you know why. And check out the Historical Society across the street. Visit online at www.ashlandpahistory.org or by phone at 570.875.2632. Ask for Jim Klock.
Danny’s Boulevard Drive-In
This is the way cheeseburgers and fries and milkshakes used to be. Take home a jar or two of Danny’s homemade hot sauce. Dig their online jukebox at dannysdrivein.com. Order at the window or enjoy the counter at 630 S. Hoffman Blvd (Rt. 61) in Ashland. 570.875.0711.
The Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine
A steam train takes you through the woods and then down 300 feet in a real anthracite mine. Doesn’t sound like much till you consider it’s like 30 stories below ground. Right off the main drag in downtown Ashland. The website’s great: www.pioneertunnel.com. And they answer when you call at 570.875.3850.
Jack Kehoe’s Hibernian House
138 years ago, this was Black Jack Kehoe’s tavern. They called him “King of the Molly Maguires.” It’s still full of cold ale and conspiracy theories. Rent a room and revel in coal country lore all night.
Definitely not your chain motel. Rocking chairs, antique lamps, doilies on the divans and a very weird statue outside. What is it about coal country that makes the mothers and grannies look so unforgiving? (What is it about calf’s liver and mac/cheese in Granny’s restaurant?) Rt. 61 in Frackville, right off I-81. Call 570.874.0408 or check in online: www.grannys-pa.com. Strange but true.
Schuylkill County Courthouse and County Jail
This is where it all went down. Worth it just to read the historical markers. And check out downtown Pottsville, where they still brew Yuengling Beer.
Eckley Miners Village
Preserved in its pure patch-town essence, this old village was the location for The Molly Maguires movie starring Sean Connery. Now a state museum, some old miner families still live here. Walk through a miner’s plank house, order a sack of flour at the company store, and check out a real coal breaker. Off the beaten path in Weatherly, PA and online at www.eckleyminers.org. A must see.
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