Northeastern Pennsylvania

Scranton is located in Northeastern Pennsylvania, to the west of New York City and North of Philadelphia. This part of Pennsylvania contained 90% of the world's supply of a type of coal called "anthracite". Anthracite is a hard coal, very black, appears glass-like when fractured, and burns hotter than any other kind of coal.

Scranton is located in the Appallachian Mountains in a river valley between the Pocono Mountains and a plateu region of rolling hills called the Endless Mountains. The Lackawanna River, a relatively small tributary of the Susquehanna River, runs through the valley. Most of the terrain is hilly, the soil strewn with slate. Any place flat enough to farm is usually surrounded by low rock walls, built of slate picked out of the field. The hills and mountains are wooded, with a mixed forest of conifer and deciduous hardwoods.

The climate has dramatic seasonal changes, from the wet and snowy winters typical of the Northeastern United States, to hot and humid summers. Fall is very beautiful, with the foliage in the surrounding mountains turning a variety of colors, and many clear, crisp sunny days.

Iron, Coal and Railroads

Around 1800, Ebenezer Slocum began operating a "bloomery" (a small smelting furnace) in an area called Slocum Hollow. The bloomery ceased operations just a few years later. While anthracite was abundant in the mountains surrounding Slocum Hollow, unfortunately for Slocum, it would be another thirty years before anyone figured out a way to use anthracite to make iron.

In 1836, ironworker David Thomas of the Ynyscedwyn Iron Company in South Wales had decided to use the new blast furnace technique to smelt iron ore using anthracite. The technique worked well, and news of Thomas' success traveled across the Atlantic to Pennsylvania, where it met with considerable interest due to plentiful supplies of iron ore and anthracite. Thomas was soon induced to move to Pennsylvania and began producing iron in the southern part of the Lehigh Valley.

In 1840, George and Selden Scranton, came to Northeastern Pennsylvania from Oxford, New Jersey where they had worked in an iron foundry, and with some partners bought a chunk of land in what is now downtown Scranton for $8,000, and began to smelt iron. The Scrantons and their partners took advantage of a blast furnace technique using anthracite. By 1847 their blast furnace was producing T-rails for the railroads. The Lackawanna Iron & Coal Company built four massive stone blast furnaces between 1848 and 1857. The furnaces were the second largest iron producer in the United States by 1880 and produced iron rails until 1902. The remains of the great blast furnances are now in a park-like setting located in downtown Scranton within walking distance of the Steamtown National Historic Site, a steam railroad museum.

The Electric City

On November 30, 1886, the first electric-powered street car system in the United States commenced operations in Scranton, its initial run between downtown Scranton and the Green Ridge neighborhood. Electric trolley service subsequently extended all over the valley, and included the “Laurel Line” a line that went from Scranton to Wilkes-Barre and stopped at Rocky Glenn Amusement Park. The “Laurel Line” was restored in 2001 and now connects the Scranton tourist attractions such as Steamtown and the ironworks museum. In the late nineteenth century, the system of electric streetcars gave Scranton the nickname, “the Electric City”.

The Diocese of Scranton

While most of rural Pennsylvania was settled by farmers from Germany, Scranton was a mining city, and populated by Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants. What these diverse groups had in common was the Roman Catholic faith. Social and educational institutions were built on this common foundation. The Diocese of Scranton is a major Catholic center. Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York was Bishop of the diocese for nine months during 1983-1984. From this Catholic legacy, Scranton has excellent parochial schools, and Marywood University and the University of Scranton.


Scranton's most prosperous era was from around 1880 to 1920. By the end of that period, iron production had moved elsewhere. Large quantities of iron ore from the Midwest and Canada could be moved around the Great Lakes, so steel production moved west to Buffalo, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania.

For awhile, Scranton continued to boom. There is no other place in North America with such extensive veins of high-quality anthracite coal. At its peak during World War I, coal output was at 100 million tons a year: Scranton was "the Anthracite capital of the world". In the 1930 census it had 140,000 residents.

The Great Depression of the 1930's, however, hit Scranton hard. The city never recovered. Petroleum replaced coal as the predominant heating and transportation fuel. The City managed in some ways to make the transition to a 20th century economy: warehousing and trucking replaced railroad industry. Where the city had once been a railroad hub, it was now near the intersection of several major interstate highways. For the most part, however, its glory days were over, and the City has steadily declined. By the 1990 census, the population of Scranton had dwindled to 81,805.

By the 1970's, Scranton was a sorry place indeed. Coal mining had effectively ended: it was simply too dangerous and expensive to remove the remaining coal reserves. The legacy of the coal industry, however, was all around and through and even under the city. Vast rusting and greying collieries and coal breakers --where the coal had been crushed and sorted-- disintegrated all over the hills. Huge dumps of coal mine waste called "culm" littered the landscape and burned incessantly. The smoke from the impossible-to-extinguish culm dump fires gave Scranton some of the worst air quality in the country. Entire city blocks could be swallowed into the earth suddenly when abandoned and uncharted mines underneath subsided, after decades of unsafe practices and "robbing the pillars".

Scranton playwright, Jason Miller, set his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, That Championship Season, in Scranton. (It was subsequently adapted for film in 1982 and re-made in 1999). Miller depicts the despair of people trapped in a dead-end town, and their narrow-minded bigotry. The film, The Deerhunter, is also reminiscent of Scranton in the 1970s.

The people of Scranton (at least, the few who haven't fled) have labored hard to clean up the worst messes left behind by industry. The culm dumps no longer burn, forests have returned to the scarred hillsides. The old brokendown train station has been renovated into a tourist attraction run by the National Park Service, Steamtown National Historic Site.

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