Mining Your Roots: A trip to coal country helps our writer connect with her great-grandfather

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger and Ignatz Kalina

I remember very little about my great-grandfather, Ignatz Kalina.

I have but one picture of him—a fading black-and-white photo of the two of us, sitting together on a couch, in his living room in Taylor, Pa. I seem to recall that day when I, young and squirmy, was forced to sit for a photo when I had so much to explore in those new-to-me surroundings.

With the ongoing Ukrainian/Russian conflict, I’ve been thinking more about him and my great-grandmother, Paulina, who left the region for the United States in 1907 while they both were in their 20s.

My mother remembers just a few visits before my parents divorced and recounts how Paulina welcomed me enthusiastically, scooping me from her arms when I was an infant and scurrying to a back room to quietly sing to me in her native language. I, sadly, have no photos, nor recollection of Paulina, who passed a decade before Ignatz. With my father gone, I have relied on the internet to gain a little more insight into their lives.

Ignatz worked for the Moffat Coal Co., which I was able to confirm when I discovered his name on a list of mining accidents. He was struck in the jaw when a bar slipped while he was working as a trackman’s helper. Evidently, he advanced in his profession to become a full-fledged miner, certified to work with explosives only later in life. “Pop” lived to be 86 years old. The man who toileted in the damp, dark recesses of the earth for many years, was, by accounts, hale and hearty and managed to escape the perils of black lung—a condition that struck down so many of those who worked in his profession.

When I unearthed his address in Taylor and learned I could tour the coal mine where he worked, I decided that a road trip was in order. My husband agreed to do the driving, and off we went to scout out the house where my granddad, Ignatz’s son, grew up.

During road trips, I usually have my head buried in a book or in dozens of periodicals that I drag along. I mention this because, when I finally, up, about two blocks from the house, my eyes fell upon a street name: Myron Thomas Court. I pointed this out to my husband, explaining that Myron Thomas was my dad’s first and middle name. It’s almost as if he was aware of the pilgrimage and was giving me a little nudge. A few minutes later, we were parked in the front of a cozy-looking, well-kept house where my grandfather was raised and where my great-grandmother toileted in the kitchen, making the delicious sausage that was a carefully kept secret.

In His Footsteps

After seeing the house, I was ready to learn more at the mine where my great-grandfather toiled, so we headed off to the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in nearby McDade Park. I can’t help but admit it was a bit of a thrill to walk the same path that Ignatz walked so many years ago.

When we arrived, the staff provided us with a hair net and a hard hat before inviting us to watch a short film about coal mining. Then, we browsed the small gift shop while pending the call for the tour to start.

When it was our turn, we joined about 25 others and piled into a bright yellow car to make our descent into the mine. I had a few butterflies as we moved slowly down, 300 feet into the abyss, thinking that it was unnatural for living humans to be comfortable beneath the earth. When we arrived at the bottom and were permitted to exit the car, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Our guide led us through the cramped, wet 1860s-era mine and described various duties performed by the workers. We learned that, in 1902, the certified rate paid for laborers was 18 cents an hour and breaker boys (those who separated the coal from impurities) earned 13 cents—the same as mule drivers. Engineers made $78 a month and nippers, who were in charge of opening and closing the heavy wooden doors that sealed the mines when miners would pass through with coal carts, were paid the least at 11 cents an hour, likely due to their young age.

We also learned that mine employees always had to be on guard, especially for electrocution hazards. Our guide relayed a story about a mule whose ear touched a wire and was struck dead on the spot, landing on the damp ground with a sickening thud. Eventually, makeshift mule hats were employed to keep this from happening.

As we made our way through the mine, we peered into the boss’ office, a small space hacked out of a mine wall and looking rather rustic. I can imagine “Pop” Kalina peering in and waving a friendly hello here and there.

At the end of the tour, guests were given “mining certificates,” earned by doing little but observing how these men contributed to the fabric and success of America through their grit, hard work and determination.

I left feeling a debt of gratitude to those who came before—for their intestinal fortitude, their pride and their work ethic. I’m very proud to count my great-grandfather among that group of fine men.

The Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour is located at 1 Bald Mountain Rd., McDade Park, Scranton, and is open from April 1 through Nov. 30. For more information, visit www.visitnepa.org/listing/lackawanna-coal-mine-tour/196.

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