The Wyoming Valley just concluded its annual observance of Anthracite Mining Heritage Month in January, but in Pittston, that celebration of history continues throughout the year as Pittston honors its past through several works of art depicting the area’s mining heritage.
But it wasn’t always that way.
By 1975, 16 years after the Knox Mine Disaster, the impact of the anthracite industry on the history of Greater Pittston was fading from memory and that was OK because its legacy was dismissed as greed, corruption, exploitation, economic depression and environmental carnage wrought by the coal barons.
But in 1975, with the United State Bicentennial looming, the men and women of the Pittston Bicentennial Committee wanted to remind us King Coal’s legacy was also about the values of the individual miners — hard work, loyalty, family and faith. With a bicentennial license plate sale and a wide variety of events, including a Colonial themed ball, the committee raised $9,000 and commissioned an Anthracite Coal Miner’s Memorial. Designed and sculpted by John Marino of Dupont Monument Company, the 10-foot high, Vermont granite statue of a miner on a black granite base resembling anthracite coal, was unveiled on the triangle at Kennedy Boulevard, North Main Street and the Fort Jenkins Bridge — now the Dale Kridlo Bridge — on June 3, 1979. The inscription says the sculpture “in commemoration of the American Bicentennial is dedicated to the coal miner of Greater Pittston for appreciation of his unselfish labor beneath the earth for the promise of a better future for generations to come. We owe him much.”
The ceremony was bittersweet for the committee members Maria Capolarella, attorney Joe Augello, Gerald Mullarkey, Thomas Sewatsky, Louis Marino, George DeGerolomo, Francis Lenza and John Derosa, because Bicentennial Committee Co-chairman Angelo Marcino, who sold $600 worth of raffle tickets to fund the parade, had died in December. A Pittston Area American Literature teacher, he was 35 years old.
Last month, Capolarella — now Capolarella-Montante — talked about the miner’s memorial at “Greater Pittston’s Public Monuments, Markers, and Murals,” an Anthracite Heritage Month event at the Pittston Memorial Library. Mayor Mike Lombardo also was on the bill for the program, which was hosted by the Greater Pittston Historical Society. Lombardo talked about the Knox Mine Disaster mural. The mural, on the side of the Boden Building facing Spring Alley, was created by a quirky Florida abstract artist who goes by Frank’s Ugly Art and is often overlooked among the city’s array of public art.
“For our fourth mural,” Lombardo said, “we wanted to do something a little out there.” Enter Frank’s Ugly Art. Lombardo met Frank through David Koral, owner of the historic Canning House building in Kingston.
Lombardo convinced Frank, who has worked with whale mural artist Robert Wyland, to come to Pittston.
“We worked out a deal. While the mural’s theme is the Knox, we didn’t want it to be real obvious. We wanted something more artistic to make the disaster digestible in another way,” Lombardo explained.
Mission accomplished. Inspired by Picasso’s anti-war mural “Guernica.” Frank’s abstract on six colorful linked panels incorporates a canary, an artsy-looking Betsy Ross knitting a flag and the illusion of movement with flowing water and a roller coaster rail line symbolizing the ups and downs of the coal industry. On one panel a hand protrudes holding two quarters, a dime and three pennies, depicting the 63 cents miners were paid per filled car and giving the mural its name: “63¢.” The names of the men entombed in the Knox are painted on coal cars.
“It’s amazing, that for how colorful and out there it is, older residents got it,” Lombardo said. “The ones I talked to said we should do more.”
Lombardo said the artist embraced the values of the miners such as long hours of hard honest work and pride in a job well done.
“I wanted to work hard and long hours,” the artist told Lombardo.
The Knox mural is a contrast to the conservative, straight-forward approach taken by artist Dwight Kirkland on the Heritage Mural depicting the city’s mining, railroading and the garment industry heritage.
“All I said was I want you to reflect on the idea that we need to stand on the strong shoulders of the men and women of our past,” Lombardo said. “When I saw the drawing, I was blown away. It was perfect. He said he wanted it to look like an old sepia tone photo found in a drawer.”
Though it’s just an idea right now, Lombardo envisions a massive sculpture at the Knox site shaped like swirls of water, which would show a miner’s helmet when seen from across the river.
While considering mining art in the city, let’s not forget about the sculpture on the wall of the post office lobby, which pre-dates them all. Commissioned in 1938 through a New Deal program, the three-part sculpture — Native American / Mine Elevator / Campbell’s Ledge — was created by Marion Walton, an American sculptor and teacher born in New Rochelle, New York. The middle section of the sculpture depicts miners in an elevator, or cage, about to descend into a mine for a long day of hard, honest work.