Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Category: Environmental Stewardship (Page 1 of 3)

Exploring African American Heritage in Pennsylvania’s DCNR Parks and Forests

Pennsylvania is rife in human history – if you’re in Pennsylvania, consider yourself surrounded with nearly 20,000 years of it! So, it should come as no great surprise that its 121-state park and over 2 million-acre forest system, administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are steeped in both natural and human history.

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Mine Sealing: A Little-Known Legacy of the New Deal

With Earth Day right around the corner, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share with you one of the little-known and fascinating historic contexts available from the PA SHPO: Mine Sealing in Southwestern Pennsylvania During the Great Depression.  This may sound like a very narrow and esoteric context (and not even remotely related to preservation) but the story it tells is a timeless one that helps us understand the history – and balancing act – between the environment and industrial progress in Pennsylvania.

What is Mine Sealing?

Mine sealing is the act of closing an abandoned mine shaft to prevent acid mine drainage – acidic water – from contaminating surrounding streams and waterways.  Any time you dig into the ground to mine coal you expose that coal to oxygen from the air and to water. These elements oxidize naturally occurring metal sulfides in the coal, creating water laced with sulfuric acid. When it drains from the mines, this acidic water can make its way into nearby waterways.  This phenomenon is referred to as Acid Mine Drainage or AMD.  Mine sealing began in earnest in the 1920s by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Typical Drift Mine Opening Prior to Sealing [Paul, James W. Report on the Sealing of Abandoned Coal Mines in Pennsylvania under Federal C.W.A. Project, State C.W.A. Project, and R.W.D. (S.E.R.B.). 1934. Typescript. C.W.A., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania].

This little-known Depression-era program came to light when a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) road project uncovered a sealed mine in East Huntingdon Township, Westmoreland County. The PA SHPO found the sealed mine eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C for the engineering significance of the mine seal. As part of the mitigation for the adverse effect to this historic resource, the mine seals context document was prepared. This context not only discusses the history of mine seals but also provides some guidance on evaluating mine seals for the National Register of Historic Places.

Pennsylvania’s Industrial Past

Pennsylvania has a fascinating industrial past.  From agriculture to the extractive industries to steel production, Pennsylvania’s fortunes have been built – and lost – through industrial initiative and progress.

One of the state’s most enduring industrial legacies is that of coal mining.  There are hundreds of essays and books about mining in Pennsylvania, which is divided into two regions: the anthracite coal region in northeastern PA and the bituminous coal region in southwestern PA.  The PA SHPO has several historic contexts about industry in general and few about coal and coke specifically:

  • 1989-H001-042 – A Legacy of Coal: The Coal Company Towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania
  • 1997-M001-042 – Anthracite-Related Resources of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1769-1945
  • 1993-M001-042 – Bituminous Coal and Coke Resources of Pennsylvania, 1740-1945

One area these historic context studies didn’t cover much was the aftermath of mining activities.  Enter the mine sealing context in 2013.

The Path to Mine Sealing

As coal mining took off in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, many citizens began to notice the effects of AMD. For example, in 1874, in the northeastern part of the state, J. Gardner Sanderson sued the Pennsylvania Coal Company for polluting a stream that ran through his property. The case was dismissed by judge W.H. Stanton who found that the company did not act maliciously and, although the complainant suffered damage, it was not of a type that would allow him to seek redress through the courts.

After winding its way through the courts for several years, the case ended with an 1887 Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Decision that stated that the property owner’s “…use and enjoyment of a stream of pure water…must ex necessitate give way to the interests of the community, in order to permit the development of the natural resources of the country and to make possible the prosecution of the lawful business of mining coal.” In other words, coal mining was in the interest of the community and outweighed the pollution of the homeowner’s stream.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, there were similar concerns, but with a slightly different focus. Concerned about AMD’s impact on the sport fishing community, in early 1875, state senator from Allegheny County, George Anderson, put forth a bill, “forbidding the pollution of streams, etc. by anything injurious to fish….” The bill did not pass the Senate, but the concept became part of state game laws passed later in 1875. A minor fine of $50 was imposed on those polluting the waters. A few months later in May 1876, the senate amended the law, making whoever reported the pollution responsible for the court costs.

A Two-Wall Concrete Trap at Risher Mine (Paul 1934).

It wasn’t until AMD began to affect another large Pennsylvania corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which needed clean water for the boilers of their steam engines, that things began to change. The PRR sued several coal companies and individual mining operators in Fayette County Court in 1921, but the judge found in favor of the mining operators. The PRR appealed the case to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, who reversed the lower court decision and ordered the mining operators to stop discharging acidic water into streams. The mining operators appealed this decision to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, leaving the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decision in place.

Addressing AMD

With this decision, the mining industry had to find a way of addressing AMD. The preferred method, advanced by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and others in the 1920s, was sealing the abandoned mines.  Mine sealing could be as simple as caving in the mine entrance or as complex as creating an air or water lock to prevent the acidic water from leaving the mine. With so many abandoned mines to seal, the issue became how to pay for a large-scale mine-sealing program.

Types of Mine Seals Constructed in Armstrong and Westmoreland Counties (Paul 1934).

With the coming of the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal federal relief programs, funding became available. In Pennsylvania, and several other coal-mining states, the mine sealing program, first under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and then under the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), sealed thousands of abandoned mines as public works projects.  Working together, state and federal officials and mining engineers developed a methodology of water testing and public health risks to identify which mines needed to be sealed.  At the program’s height, mine engineers had six different basic designs for mine seals that could be adapted for each sealing situation.  One study highlighted in the historic context states that in Pennsylvania alone, work crews in the 1930s sealed 30,000 openings at 317 mines in 22 counties.

A Mine Seal Today, East Huntingdon Township, Westmoreland County (Photo courtesy of AECOM).

Mine Sealing’s Legacy

Unfortunately, the mine sealing activities under the state and federal program did not provide a permanent solution to AMD, meaning that mines continue to be sealed and re-sealed today.  In Pennsylvania, the  Department of Mine Safety oversees these activities.  The mine seal discovered in Westmoreland County is unlikely to be the last and, as more are discovered, the mine sealing historic context is a great place to get a better understanding of the role these seemingly innocuous places in our natural environment.

Mill-Rae: A Monument of Women’s History Hidden in Plain Sight

High on a hill overlooking the Somerton neighborhood of Philadelphia stands Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a beautiful Shingle style house that overlooks ten acres of gardens, groves of trees, a pond, and a sensitively-designed modern retreat facility.  It’s a lovely place nestled amongst a quiet residential neighborhood.  But beneath the bucolic setting is a significant story about the struggle for equality, ties to important figures and events in the women’s suffrage movement, and an organization’s commitment to preserving and promoting those legacies.  In January I spoke with Cranaleith staff about how they’re using those stories to raise the profile of the organization and attract new audiences to the facility and its mission. Continue reading

Disaster Planning for Historic Properties in a World Heritage City

by Emily Paulus Everett, AECOM Technical Services

On November 6, 2015, the City of Philadelphia became the first United States city to join the Organization of World Heritage Cities – a prestigious designation that recognizes, among other things, its vast and significant collection of well-preserved historic resources. That same week, representatives from the PA SHPO, US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, and AECOM Technical Services, Inc. gathered in Center City, Philadelphia to kick off Phase 1 of a two-phase effort to protect those historic resources before, during, and in the aftermath of, future flooding events.  As part of the PA SHPO’s Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative, Philadelphia County joins Monroe, Bedford, and Cameron as one of four pilot counties to take into account the impact of future flooding events on historic properties.   Continue reading

Getting High-Tech to Identify Monroe County’s Flood-Prone Historic Places

by Vanessa Zeoli, AECOM Technical Services

A potentially trendsetting countywide survey has just been completed in the floodplains of Monroe County, in the heart of the Pocono Mountains region of northeastern Pennsylvania, identifying all flood-prone historic properties there and laying the groundwork for the development of strategies to better protect the county’s historic built environment from future flood damage. Continue reading

2016’s First SHPO Shout-Out

The internet tells me that 45% of all Americans make News Year’s resolutions. The top ones – which I think we’ve all made at one time or another – are to be happier, healthier, and more organized. A psychologist friend tells me that one of the ways to be happier and healthier is to manage your stress. Well, duh, right? This same friend also tells me one way to do that is to all seek out good news to balance all of the bad news in our world. I’m sure you’re all thinking, “well, that’s great, Shelby, but why are you talking about this in a SHPO Shout-Out post?” I’m talking about it because the SHPO Shout-Out is all about good news! A well-known TV talk show doctor even says sharing good news boosts your mood. I’m no doctor or expert on these matters, but it seems like taking just a few minutes to read this post and think about all the wonderful things happening in our communities can help reduce your stress level and – like icing on a cake – if you share it with others you might just be happier, too!

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Preservation Partnerships: Working Together To Save Historic Resources From Natural Disasters

We all know that partnerships, collaboration, and teamwork are critical in the effort to identify, preserve, and celebrate Pennsylvania’s historic resources.  One such partnership in Philadelphia will help protect the city’s historic places and spaces from the devastating damage caused by natural disasters. Continue reading

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