It’s not every town that gets to be the backdrop of a Sean Connery movie, and afterward gets turned into a museum.
I first became aware of Eckley Miners’ Village when I was looking up the locations of historical markers for my blog. Its importance could not be overstated, since so much of Pennsylvania’s history was built on the backs of coal miners. One pleasant Saturday in late September, I finally made my way there, letting my GPS guide me through hairpin turns up the mountains of Luzerne County into the somewhat remote village. Free guided tours were being provided as part of a statewide celebration of museums, so I thought it was the perfect time to go. Our guide was a lovely retired miner who knew just about everything about Eckley, and was happy to share.
Eckley was originally called Shingletown, because its residents made roof shingles from the wood of the nearby trees, and it sat on a tract of land known as the Tench Coxe Estate. When a large quantity of coal was discovered on the estate, a company of four rich men was established to lease the property and run a colliery. These men replaced Shingletown with a small “patch town” of houses in which the mine workers could live; these were painted red and black, which were the cheapest paint colors available. The settlement was dubbed Eckley, after the grandson of Tench Coxe, and he later became an engineer who was heavily involved with the town and the mine.
Eckley is the kind of town where someone can literally be "from the wrong side of the tracks." Railroad tracks split the town roughly in half along its main (and only) street. To the east of the tracks was the poorer end, which was chiefly occupied by Irish Catholic immigrants. The western end was comparatively wealthier, with single-family dwellings mostly inhabited by Welsh, German, and English Protestants. Eastern European immigrants, such as the Polish, lived in even poorer dwellings on the little back street, and were given the lowest-paying jobs because they didn't speak English. They also, unlike their neighbors, didn’t worship in any of the Eckley churches, and preferred to walk to other communities where they could worship in their native languages.
Our tour began on the east side, where the Irish had built a Catholic church and rectory. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was constructed in 1862, and remained a functioning church until the 1950s, when the shrinking congregation could no longer afford to maintain it. The rectory, which housed the priest, now serves as the village's gift shop. After the church closed, it was desanctified and all of its contents were removed except for the altar; this and the painting of the Virgin Mary on the ceiling are the only things in the church which are original to the building. Replacement statuary, pews, and other decorations were donated by a church in Berwick for museum purposes, and these date to the 1920s. These are the ones which can be viewed in the church scenes of the 1970 film The Molly Maguires. (I actually sat in the same pew as the character Jack Kehoe does in the movie, so I can truthfully say I have been in the same place as Sean Connery. Not at the same time, but the same place!)
We were then shown into one of the double-family homes. On one side, the interior of the home looks as it would have done when a relatively newer family was living there. The walls were whitewashed, furnishings were sparse, the windows had no curtains, and cooking was done on a wood stove. Eckley residents were treated a little better than those of many other patch towns owned by mining companies; instead of scrip, which was a mine-issued currency that miners could only use at the company store, Eckley's miners were paid in actual United States dollars. This meant that they had the opportunity to save their money and eventually move into a better house, or even buy land outside of Eckley altogether. Families looking to do this would supplement their income by selling garden vegetables or baked goods, taking in boarders, or selling services like laundry and tailoring.
On the other side of the house we saw how a family might have lived after they'd saved some money and improved their circumstances. The walls were painted blue, the windows had curtains and the artwork had frames, and the kitchen housed a coal stove. Our guide told us that a miner's wife frequently had two dreams: to own a coal stove, rather than wood, and to have her own real dishes. Some of the residents later built summer kitchens behind the houses, where they could cook and do laundry in the summer to reduce heat in the main house.
The railroad tracks in Eckley no longer lead to the real coal breaker, which was much bigger and didn't stand quite as close to town as the one there now. Instead, they preserved the prop breaker from The Molly Maguires. The company store in town is also a preserved prop, as is what the movie called the Emerald Saloon. Unlike the store and breaker, the town never had a saloon - patch towns were dry. This building is instead the Eckley social club, which was built as a gesture of appreciation for the miners who served in the World Wars of the early 20th century, and still serves as a social club today.
Past the breaker, one can experience the wealthier end of town, where the residents had an Episcopal and also a Presbyterian church. The Presbyterian church was moved to nearby Freeland in the 1930s, and the land it occupied is now a dedicated green space. St. James's Episcopal church was torn down and replaced by St. Paul's, brought from the town of White Haven; it was built on the same plan and was even served by the same rector. Our guide took us inside to see all the original English walnut woodwork and furnishings. He said that no one worships there anymore, but the church organ is played at Christmas, and sometimes the church is rented out for weddings.
After this the tour broke up and we were given the freedom to explore, but we were reminded of one very serious point, which to me was the most astonishing thing about the place. Eckley is a museum, but it is a living museum - people actually still live there. They rent their homes from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, and some of them work for the museum itself. The rule of thumb is that if a house has a mailbox out front, it's occupied and visitors should not try to go inside or look through the windows. Some residents could be seen mowing their lawns or sitting on their porches; they're apparently quite used to strangers walking through the village. The town has no streetlights or visible electric supply, but this is a clever trick by which things like cable boxes and fire hydrants are disguised so as not to affect the village's aesthetic. Inside the occupied houses are all the modern comforts anyone could need.
The main street of Eckley is roughly a mile long, and it's free to walk or drive through the village during the daylight hours all year long. However, visitors should be aware that this road is largely unpaved, and some of the buildings (like the Catholic church) are not wheelchair accessible. Also, the gift shop does sell things like candy bars and bottled water, but there is no place in Eckley to actually buy a meal, so bring a sandwich or make plans to eat before or after your visit. The Catholic church, the Episcopal church, and the double house are open to visitors when there is sufficient staff to monitor them, but only Thursdays through Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day (or on special occasions such as when I was there). As of this writing, plans are taking shape to turn one of the unoccupied homes into a facility where people can actually stay overnight and experience what it must have been like to live in such a house during the coal boom. The doctor’s office, on the wealthier side of town, is also being renovated into a historical research center.
The only public restrooms are inside the visitors center, which is where guided tours can be requested and where visitors can walk through a small museum. This is filled with relics from Eckley's bygone days, including a scale model of the town, information about Eckley Coxe and his wife Sophia, and many items which had been owned and used by the miners and their families. This museum is open Thursday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on several major holidays as noted on their website. Admission to the museum is $8 for visitors between the ages of 13 and 64, $7 for seniors aged 65 and up, $6 for children aged 3 to 12, and free for children aged 2 and under. Guided tours of the village are an additional $2 per person.
Eckley is the largest and best-preserved anthracite mining community in the United States. In light of the many plans they’re unfolding for the next few years, it’s going to be a fascinating time to explore and discover this hidden village in the mountains, so if you get the chance, definitely make the trip.
Eckley Miners' Village https://eckleyminersvillage.com
2 Eckley Main Street
Weatherly, PA 18255
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Laura Klotz is a published author and historian whose family has lived in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region for more than 300 years. Through her weekly blog, MarkerQuest, she explores the rich history of her native state and shares both the well-known and the lesser-known stories behind Pennsylvania’s historical marker program. Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com