New book addresses coal region’s decline
Binghamton University History Professor Thomas Dublin and colleague Walter Licht, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, offer a sweeping history of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region during the 20th century in their new book, The Face of Decline.
The authors examine how businesses, residents and governments responded to dwindling demand for anthracite coal, especially after World War II. By 2000, fewer than 1,000 miners were employed in the region’s coalfields, which had provided work for 181,000 people at the industry’s height before World War I.
The book’s varied sources – including oral histories, census data, corporate records and photographs – allowed the authors to incorporate many perspectives. The 277-page volume from Cornell University Press ties in social, political, business, economic and labor history.
“They all come together because we are telling the history of a region over a 100-year period, and you don’t want to flatten that history unnecessarily,” Dublin said.
Since some of the material touches on recent history, Dublin interviewed former miners about their experiences. He said these conversations complemented the data and gave it a human context.
“I found it wonderful to be able to interview people who had lived through the history,” he said. Focusing on fairly recent events does present some challenges. “People are invested in defending the programs they were involved in and the efforts they have made,” said Dublin, who expects some of his sources will not be happy with the book.
Even so, residents of the region are a main audience for the book, he said. Another is students and scholars eager to understand deindustrialization as a part of American history.
The Face of Decline also has much to offer politicians and business leaders in areas facing similar economic shifts.
It’s probably too late for the anthracite region to realize a true revitalization, Dublin said, but what happened there may help others create a different model for business and the public sector.
“The efforts have to begin at the time the deindustrialization begins,” Dublin said.
“Someone, probably the government, must take responsibility for planning what happens next in a systematic way.”
That means retraining workers and reclaiming land, he said. One need look no further than the United Kingdom for a model of what government could do in such a situation. “The mining regions and former miners have fared so much better in England,” Dublin said.
He sees parallels in U.S. steel and auto manufacturing. “We have the same issues in these other industries,” he said, “And the question is, ‘What can communities do? What can the state do?’”
Too often, he said, state governments compete with each other as they try to lure businesses within their borders. That leads to an enormous cost per job, which can be wasteful. A better approach might focus on general investment in infrastructure and human capital.
Just as thinking about deindustrialization doesn’t come naturally to governments, it’s hardly a favorite topic of historians. The anthracite region’s heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries is well documented, but before this book there was little available about coal’s decline. “It made sense to address the second half of the history,” Dublin said.