Houses of the Coal Region

coaldale blue house

Photo by Caleb Savage. To view more of Caleb’s work, including a series called “Hard Coal,” visit

by Patrick O’Neill

According to the story, years ago when FDR visited the Pennsylvania Coal Region, the devotion people had to their houses, humble as they were, impressed him. This was probably because of what homes represented to Coal Region people – family, security, a sense of togetherness and strength.

I think this legacy still exists, even though the area has fallen on hard times.

My own hometown once had 30,000 people living in it, several mines operating, and factories and mills employing hundreds of workers. Today, it has less than 5,000 people, the mines and factories are shut down, many of the businesses have closed, and what used to be a bustling downtown is comprised of “Dollar Stores,” cut-rate pharmacies, and boarded-up storefronts. Usually a depressed economy helps create a depressed attitude, but I’m convinced the love people have for their homes is still there.

Sometimes they are old family houses still owned by the families that built them, in various stages of repair or disrepair.

Some of the largest old homes are like faded dowagers, where if you look long and hard, you can see the beauty that was once there.

Some have fared worse, sitting silently as empty shells waiting for either fire or the wrecking ball to end their existence. These are usually the saddest houses. It is as if they’ve already died but have not been properly buried.

Some of them have gotten a new “lease on life” as apartments, stores, etc.

The smaller houses sometimes fare better. Being small, they are cheaper to buy and easier to maintain, but they too can fall prey to time and decay.

I recently passed a little house I always liked as a child. It was in very poor condition, and out of curiosity, I called the phone number of the owners listed on the front window. When I asked how much they were asking for the house, the sad, resigned voice of an older man replied, “We’ll accept any reasonable offer someone can give us.” It made me very sad to think that this elderly couple had perhaps lived in this house for decades – loving it, cleaning it, paying for its upkeep. Now they had to sell it for a fraction of what they put into it over the years, simply because they were too old, tired, and poor to keep it up any longer.

The author Karen White once said that houses are more than bricks and stone and mortar. They are pieces of history that we can see and touch. Whether it’s a small “half double” on a back street or a large old decaying Victorian in what was once the wealthy section of town, these houses represent generations of living, love, and arguments, struggles to raise children, parties, holidays, birthdays, christenings, wedding and funeral receptions. The list goes on.

Houses are more than just four walls. They are the visible symbol of the collections of memories of all the people who have lived in them, both good and bad.

As I see so many of these houses sitting empty waiting for the end to come, I wonder if the memories still linger on, in the wood and bricks and plaster, or even in the very ground on which they were built.


  1. Peter Lynch · ·

    Love this article. My great grandfather was a minor and lived in Plymouth and possibly another town as well. The beauty and texture of these places are fantastic and driving through some of them I definitely got the feeling that these were all most sacred places in someway .. never had a feeling like that driving through any other place


  2. Great article! I was raised in Plymouth and have seen the pride and care of the these small homes. The most important thing for this immigrant generation was to own there own home, humble as it may be. They raised their children, educationed them, and watched as they left the Valley for better jobs. As they have aged and died, the town has declined. Agnes killed so many small stores and businesses. The memories of Plymouth in the 50’s and 60’s are wonderful. It was a great place to grow up, vibrant and full of life.


  3. Catherine Moran Parker · ·

    I grew up on the heights of Wilkes-barre. We lived in an upstairs, (extremely poor and run down) apartment. I loved my family but many times I was ashamed of our poor cercomstances. I would give anything just to be back once more in that poor place with my family. I had a hard time graduating from high school because we were so poor and quit in my senior year and went to work but then I went back to school the next year, worked at night at Hesler’s laundry and graduated. The school on Market and Sherman St. And Amber Lane now stands in the place where I lived.


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