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)|
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|
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|
|Fan inside Dorrance fan house (c. 1980s) (ref)|
|Schematic diagram of "Baltimore-style" fan house fan (ref)|
|c.1980s photo of Hillman fan house, Wilkes-Barre, PA (ref)|
|Dorrance Colliery coal breaker, Wilkes-Barre, PA, c. 1980 (ref)|
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)|
Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior