Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fan House Graves

Like most people, I was born at a very young age. My formative years were spent in NEPA – North Eastern PA – Pennsylvania, that is. Coal was black gold and there were no movie stars. Well, except for that time Sean Connery came to Wilkes-Barre for the premier of his movie, “The Molly Maquires,” which was filmed in Eckley, PA. (Eckley is more or less a shanty town in Weatherly, about ten miles south of Wilkes-Barre.)

So coal was a way of life around these parts from the 1760s to the 1960s; my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked in the mines in NEPA. When I was growing up in this area, abandoned coal breakers were commonplace (the breaker was the main structure in a “colliery,” which consisted of a mine and its complex of surface buildings). As a kid, my friends and I played near a hulking, crumbling concrete bunker that everyone called “the fan house.” I had no idea why it was called that, never even wondered. But now, forty years later, I found out why. 

Headstone, Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery  (P. Kinsman)
Some weeks ago, I drove through Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery on a rainy summer morning on my way to visit my mom. A photographer friend of mine, Patricia Kinsman, had posted a fabulous gravestone photo on Flickr about a year ago (see image directly above) - a photo that that she made in this cemetery - so I wanted to visit the place. (Click here to see her entire Flickr photostream). I was intrigued by the low angle she used, which sort of makes the stone look miniature.) 

Patricia described the cemetery as overgrown on a hillside sloping down toward the river. The City Cemetery sits next to the much fancier (and better cared for) Hollenback Cemetery, both of which are on River Street, across from the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. Easy to find. Supposedly, people used to be buried in the Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery until their families had enough money to give them a proper burial at Hollenback Cemetery! (ref.)

Headstones with ruins of old building
As I drove the narrow road toward the back of the cemetery, it was obvious that some major brush-clearing had recently occurred. Trees had been cut and weeds had been whacked. The rain-rutted dirt road sloped treacherously down toward the river and looped back up the hill. I thought twice about driving my car down there, but the objection was sustained. Shadowing over this small section of the cemetery was the hulk of a large abandoned brick and concrete building. It was barely visible through the trees and you could see graffiti on the caved-in walls. The structure was not visible from the city street above. I took a few photos of the small stones around the building’s foundation and called it a day.

On my return to Philadelphia, I asked Patricia if she knew what the building was.  A fan house,” was her reply, “...a ventilation system for a coal mine. There are giant fans that pulled air out of the coal mine.  The mine is still there, but sealed off.” 

Toppled monument in Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery
So THAT’S what a fan house is! (The fans of which she speaks were actually thirty-five FEET in diameter, and at the time, the largest in the United States.) My mission was clear. On my next visit, I needed to explore the fan house. (I did this a couple months later, getting much more than I bargained for. Stay tuned and read about this hair-raising experience next week!)

Fan inside Dorrance fan house (c. 1980s) (ref)
Schematic diagram of "Baltimore-style" fan house fan (ref)
Patricia’s Dad originally showed her the fan house, knowing that she liked to photograph abandoned buildings. He found these drawings and photos of the original buildings on line. The idea is fascinating, the technology a mechanical marvel at the time. 

c.1980s photo of Hillman fan house, Wilkes-Barre, PA  (ref)
The mining complex, of which the fan house (properly named the “Hillman" Fan House) was part, was known as the Dorrance Colliery. A "colliery," again, was the name given to the mine and all its outbuildings, including the main building, the coal breaker. The breaker was located about a quarter-mile up the (Susquehanna) river.   

Dorrance Colliery coal breaker, Wilkes-Barre, PA, c. 1980 (ref)
Here’s an image of the Dorrance Colliery’s massive coal breaker. The mine itself consisted of ten tunnels, most of which actually went under the river! Needless to say, the mine shafts tunneled under the City Cemetery as well. The Dorrance mining operation ceased in 1935 when the Susquehanna river broke through one of the tunnels.

Dorrance was owned and operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Think about that. It was a tribute to railroad pioneer Asa Packer’s business acumen as owner of the Lehigh Valley Railroad to MINE his own fuel! And then haul it to regions in need of it! The colliery was in operation  from 1880 through 1959 (the year after I was born). Eventually abandoned, the structure was imploded in 1984. Today, the only remaining trace of the 550-acre Dorrance coal kingdom is the crumbling fan house, and the graves that lie in its ominous shadow. 

I find it interesting that the sign at the cemetery entrance indicates that it was established in 1871, and the fan house was (along with the rest of the colliery) was built around 1880. It appears that the Dorrance shafts tunneled under the cemetery which was already in existence. Convenient location, given all the mining-related deaths that occurred during the period the mine was in existence. 

As I mentioned earlier, I did return to explore the fan house, which you can read about next week. All I can say is that I failed to adequately prepare myself. I broke my own rules related to exploring abandoned buildings: 1) Never go alone; but if you must, 2) arm yourself.

1980s photo of fan house with headstone in foreground (ref)

References and Further Viewing:

Patricia Kinsman’s Flickr Photostream
Read about Sean Connery and the movie, The Molly Maquires 
Read about the actual Molly Maquires
Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior