Excess coal doesn’t just pile up on culm banks; it also accumulates at the bottom of the riverbeds. For a full century, enclaves in downstream towns – some as far south as Maryland – harvested the coal that had washed away from the mines. Called coal dredgers, they operated boats and barges that reclaimed millions of tons from the river and creek beds. Working in small crews with numerous hand-built barges and boats, operated with paddle-wheels and ropes, they had no specific boundaries on what was “theirs.” The dredgers operated more like bootleggers than like coal companies. The dredging “industry” didn’t leave us scars to remember it by, certainly not the way the mines did, but there’s nevertheless a rich history here worth excavating.
In 2012, jack-of-all-trades Van Wagner led a community effort to bring the forgotten practice back to life by building a replica coal dredger on the Susquehanna. Dubbed “The Billy Marks,” dozens of people in Danville worked on the replica under the guidance of veteran dredgers from the 1950’s.
The entire process, along with the history and science of dredging, was made into a half-hour documentary. We seriously recommend you give it a watch.
We caught up with Van to ask him more details about dredging and his 2012 project.
Anthracite Unite: Can you explain what coal dredging was, in a nutshell?
Van Wagner: Coal dredging was something unique to the Susquehanna (and a little bit on the Delaware). It involved people digging anthracite coal out of the river starting in the late 1800s. It was coal that had spilled upstream. In the beginning coal companies laughed at these river rats; but by the early 1900’s, they were pulling up millions of tons of coal per year.
AU: How did you first learn about it?
VW: I grew up near the river in Danville, PA. My dad took me out on the river often. In my childhood there was still a dredge that ran most years. It was owned by Mr. Sudol. I can still remember it’s engine running and the giant paddle-wheel going around and around. It was something to see!
AU: Tell us more about this replica digger and what motivated you to build it.
VW: I love trying to bring history sights and sounds to life. My sons, Calvin and Luke, were part of the decision to make a replica that actually ran. I am so glad they got to be involved. That is how history is kept alive. We have to get the younger generation hands-on time.
AU: It clearly took a lot of people to bring this thing to life. How did you organize the project?
VW: Danville is a great town. This town makes me feel so supported in all of my efforts. Local people were excited about this project because many people remembered the coal diggers or at least heard stories about them.
AU: For those who haven’t watched the documentary yet, tell us why it was named The Billy Marks.
VW: Billy Marks was a young boy who drowned in the Susquehanna River in the 1950’s. I grew up hearing about him and wanted to honor his memory by naming our boat after him.
AU: Do you still have the coal digger? Do you take it for river rides? Do you figure that when you retire, you’ll operate it like the Millersburg Ferry?
VW: I’ll never retire. 🙂
As for the boat, she was BIG! Each year I had to hire a tow truck to pull her up on the bank away from the ice. After four seasons on the river I decided to disassemble the boat.
AU: On a technical note: the coal dredgers you interviewed used what is essentially a large vacuum hose to pull up the coal and water before it was sorted on-board. Dredging began in the late 19th century, though: Do you have an idea how they pulled it up before motors were affordable and available?
VW: Good question. Some of the earliest digging was done by hand. Men would stand chest deep in the river and use a heavy duty pitchfork/shovel hybrid to fill flat boats with coal. I’ve even seen some that used scoops on a conveyor belt to dig up river bottom. Pumps were in use by the early 1900s.
AU: In your song “Hard Coal Navy,” you sing: “Perhaps it’s for the best for the health of the stream, but I must admit I miss that old paddle-wheel fleet.” It seems that dredging had to stop for the health of the river. What were the negative effects of dredging?
VW: Dredging season took place during the exact time when many fish were spawning. A lot of fish eggs and habitat would have been ruined. I teach environmental science at Lewisburg High School. I wanted to touch on the contradicting feelings I have on the subject. On one hand, I want to celebrate that legacy, on the other hand I realize it is better for the bass, walleye, and musky to not have the river bottom industrially dredged.
AU: The video opens with you explaining how coal builds up in certain parts of the riverbed, and you show us a river island when the water level is low. That’s a lot of coal! Do you think someone could make a living today by dredging?
VW: No. I don’t think there is enough coal to sustain an industry in the river. Keep in mind that the source of the coal was sloppy mining and coal storage upstream. There is far less coal mining upstream now and therefore way less coal washing into the river. There are pockets here and there as you saw in the video but that’s it. Plus, I don’t want to see us do this to the river again. Let’s let her rest. She’s provided enough.
AU: What kind of projects are you up to currently?
VW: My sons and I have been working to refurbish the entrance to an iron ore mine here in Montour County. Our local iron ore mines ran from the 1830’s-1890. Our local high school mascot is the Danville “Ironmen.” We want to give folks a feel for what these mine entrances would have looked like.
AU: Do you have suggestions for how more of us can make history come alive?
VW: If you know of local history that you feel needs to be preserved, get to work! Sit down with a video camera and talk to that neighbor of yours who has amazing stories before it’s too late! You don’t need to build major projects to play an active role in preserving our history. Just participating in a conversation with someone who has a story to tell is important.
Van Wagner is a former coal miner from Danville, PA. He worked in the mines of Schuylkill County and now teaches high school in Lewisburg, PA. He has released 21 albums of songs he has written about the Anthracite Coal Region. For more, see www.VanWagnerMusic.com.
Other Conversations with Van Wagner: